BOXING - Highly-rated Hitchin welterweight hope Tom Ansell aiming to 'touch the sky' after choosing the sweet science ahead of rugby
PUBLISHED: 19:05 28 February 2018 | UPDATED: 20:54 28 February 2018
Danny Loo Photography 2018
Sportswriter Layth Yousif spent time with Hitchin welterweight Tom Ansell for this in-depth feature on the highly-rated rugby scrum half turned boxer. Read on for Layth's revealing long-form article.
“Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart”
Sugar Ray Robinson
“I enjoyed being in a team but there is nothing like depending on yourself in a ring against another fighter. One on one.”
So says former Letchworth rugby player turned Hitchin boxer Tom Ansell.
He is speaking in nerve centre of his profession, the headquarters of the sweet science: the gym.
Outside, white snow flutters with a dusting already on the ground. It is mid-morning on a late midwinter’s day.
The ground is crisp and the air still, but inside the lively Elite Fitness gym near to the cold, steel tracks leading to the town’s railway station, serious work is performed.
The smell of perspiration as inspiration in the form of sweat is always prevalent in a good gym. And this ever-expanding gym – with brand new strength and conditioning room and equipment - in Hitchin is no different.
There is also hope in the air and a boxer with a story to tell.
Imagine you are an athletic, fresh-faced 18-year-old who enjoys the physicality of the ultimate team sport, rugby.
You enjoy being part of the team, you enjoy the camaraderie, the affirmation of victory with bruised and battered team-mates, the sharing of hard-fought wins, and the consolation of defeat distributed among a tight-knit unit.
Yet you pine for something more.
For an individual sport. Not because you aren’t a team man – far from it, but more because of a primeval urge to better yourself against another man.
Ansell, who played for Letchworth Rugby Club, captained Herts U23s and ‘Sevens’ and was captain of the University of Bedfordshire team - where he studied sport, exercise, science and coaching – visited Elite to get fit for his rugby pre-season a few years back.
It was a moment to change his life. “Graham [Tirrell, now his promoter] got me sparring and I immediately felt the ‘buzz’.”
But it wasn’t as simple as that as the former Purwell Primary School and Highfield School pupil found.
In our reality TV age, it was suggested to Ansell that, as the legendary Frank Warren had a reality boxing show called Total Combat, why not enter it?
Ansell duly took part and won his first contest which was aired on BT Sport and BoxNation. He explains: “It was a different concept where you have one six minute round where you have to knock down your opponent - but while the clock ticks down the money ticks down.”
Unfortunately during his victory, his cracked some ribs, which, due to the demands of scheduling, meant he would miss the next fight and his chance of progressing in reality TV.
Yet, missing the adrenaline-fuelled prospect of another ring adventure hurt Ansell more than his busted bones which forced the cancellation of his scheduled TV return.
It was then he realised boxing was for him.
“It was interesting to get a grip of how TV shows set up but the main thing was that I discovered I enjoyed the boxing”, he recalls.
“What I found what that I enjoyed the challenge of boxing training every day. “Whether it was padwork, conditioning or sparring. The coach can’t do it for you.
“They can instruct you and guide you. But it’s only you in the ring. There is no-one else.
“It was then I realised I got more of a buzz from boxing than rugby. Rugby is a great team sport with great team socials”.
“But” – Ansell smiles at this point – “I’ve got to depend on myself in boxing. Of course my trainers and coaches help but the rest of the responsibility is all on me.
“And I like that.
“It might be freezing or cold or wet when I have to do my morning runs, but it’s down to me and no-one else to get out and go for a run when I have to do roadwork.
“If I don’t I’m cheating myself. It’s hard sometimes but I never miss a session and I thrive on the responsibility of knowing that.
“I also know that my opponent is doing it and I have to better my opponent.”
Ansell, 25, carried on playing rugby while boxing for a while but when he turned pro he had to decide which sport he was going to commit to. And boxing won.
He explains: “After you play a game of rugby you’re aching for three or four days afterwards.
“So when I was doing both sports I found I was only having one day off before going back into intense training sessions and my body was under such stress.
“They are both hard sports but boxing is tougher – through training as well as fighting.”
The 5ft 9in orthodox opted to turn pro with professional boxing promoter Steve Goodwin and has benefitted from help in all aspects of his new trade.
His daily schedule is a gruelling one.
He conducts his strength and conditioning with Scott Macey and his business Fight364 in deepest Essex.
Macey prepares fighters thoroughly by going through the whole training programme before a fight.
So he understands how Ansell feels, his good days and bad days, precisely what he should he lifting to gain maximum impact and also where in his body the Hitchin welterweight is going to be aching, in order to gain the most from targeted rest and recuperation.
Ansell does two hours strength and conditioning before a two hour boxing session – which varies from the ring, on the bag, pads and sparring.
No mean feat when some of the bags weight 20 to 30 kilos with mammoth bags weighing up anything up to 80 to 100kgs.
Ansell also runs eight kilometres most days day to make a total of approximately 30ks a week in a bid to increase stamina levels. The runs do not have to be at a continuous pace, he often does ‘lampost sprints’ – even when the Beast from the East hits.
But his regime isn’t just about fitness. It’s about a healthy body through nutrition and effective refuelling habits.
Ansell continues: “I’ve got a guy called Paul O’Neil who does a thing called DNA Fit. He takes a swab of my DNA and analyses it to find what I’ll react well off.
“He produces a 200 page report telling me what vitamins and minerals to take.
“I eat fresh yoghurt. Flaxseed nuts. Lunch would be chicken breast and spinach with nuts and seeds. Nuts for a snack and then chicken again for dinner.”
No carbs? “Not really. I’d say I’d have them about twice a week. They are important but not as important to me in the diet I use.”
With such dedication it is not surprising he has won the two fights in his fledging career so far.
With a steely look in his eye despite his engaging nature and big smile he says: “My main attribute is definitely mental strength along with fitness and endurance. I can up the tempo and lower the tempo whenever I want in a fight. I can also go-toe-to-toe with anyone.
“I’ve also shocked a lot of people with my power. The last guy underestimated my power when I stopped him. He was so big and underestimated me.
“When I caught him with a right hand he didn’t know where he was. I knocked him down twice and the referee stepped in.
“My footwork is good too, again through my rugby days when you’re always using ladder drills. It’s similar to boxing although you always have to keep your left foot forward all the time.”
Ansell was referring to his previous opponent Aleksandar Chukaleyski who was duly dispatched through a technical knockout at 02’s Indigo arena back in October. Prior to that he beat Liam Wright on points at the York Hall
Ansell continues: “I can take a punch too – my rugby days have certainly helped me with that aspect.”
In Norman Mailer’s seminal boxing book The Fight, about the world title showdown between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman at Kinshasa in Zaire in 1974, known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, Ali compares what it is like to be hit to the juddering and reverberations of a big stick when it is whacked onto a solid object.
I mention to passage to Ansell. He replies: “I’ve been caught a couple of times in sparring but I’ve never really been fully caught in the ring during a fight yet. It’s more of a shock rather than the power. It’s the shock of your head moving back. I didn’t feel dizzy – but a body shot is like taking a plug out of you.
“I’ve never been knocked down from a good body shot yet but I’ve had to grit my teeth.”
Having interviewed Premier League footballers and international cricketers the most gifted mention time slowing down when they’re in the ‘zone’. Is it the same for boxers I ask?
Ansell pauses and thinks before explaining: “I wouldn’t say time slows down. I’ve always fought at my own pace because I’ve controlled both fights. It’s always been at my tempo. If anything time speeds up.
“For my last fight I was nervous. Very nervous beforehand. My opponent [Chukaleyski] was a lot bigger than me. He was about 6ft 1in.
“But as soon as my music comes on and I hear everyone shouting for me the nerves just went and I ‘zoned in’.
“It’s strange as I see the ring and hear the music as I walk towards the ring [Kanye West’s Touch the Sky and Power are his choices] I’m zoned in.
“But despite there being such noise the only person I hear is my coach. He’s shouting instructions to me but all I can hear through the noise is just my coach talking normally to me. And then I’m just waiting for the bell.”
The route is well-defined for Ansell.
Win the Southern area, the English, the British, the European belts – then the World.
Sounds simple when you say it quickly.
Was it really more than half a century ago when the legendary American boxing writer, AJ Leibling – who was also on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, wrote: “Nowadays pros who make a living from boxing are about as common as Yetis, and amateurs can’t get enough fights to learn the rudiments of the craft.”
But Ansell is also a realist when I ask him how long he thinks it will take him to progress in this sport.
“It depends. Some fighters have more fights than others, some have fewer before you get the opportunity. It is luck of the draw but it’s also about how many tickets you can sell. Boxing is a business.
“In two or three years time I want to be southern area champion. At the moment I look at it as I’m on an apprenticeship. I’m learning with each fight.
“And when I win a major title that’s when my apprenticeship will be over. And that’s when I’ll start defending titles.”
Ansell, as befits a degree-educated sportsman, is a keen student.
I mention York Hall and the smile immediately returns, mixed with awe and respect.
“It was one of the biggest buzzes of my life walking out to fight at York Hall in my first fight [against Luke Wright]. I was lucky enough to sell a lot of tickets and have many people supporting me in such a historic and legendary venue. It was brilliant.
“If you ever feel low when you’re trying to make a weight then the thought of walking out in front of your friends and family at such a great place pulls you up immediately. It gives you an extra 20 per cent.
“I’m looking forward to this fight simply because of the superb atmosphere at the York Hall.”
Will his rugby pals be supporting him in Bethnal Green?
“All my former rugby team-mates have been very supportive. They all come to my fights – they see it as a ‘social’.
“And they’ll be at York Hall for my fight. They are playing in the day and I think it’s the Six Nations too [Eddie Jones’ England play in Paris against France in the afternoon] – so I’ve sorted it out that I’ll fight later so they can come and watch”, the former scrum half adds with a ready smile. “I’ll be looking for a win double in the rugby first.”
Ansell is quick to praise his family including his brother who has helped him with PT sessions. His promoter Graham does all his padwork at Elite.
He adds: “They love it. My dad loves it. My partner Danielle has been brilliant too. She helps me with nutrition. I always thought fats were bad for me. But my diet is about 60 per cent fat.”
I interrupt to tell him that as a journalist always in search of his next bacon sandwich he shouldn’t have mentioned the fact to me. He frowns at the thought of bacon finding its way into his fitness regime, and modestly carries on, keen to share the limelight with his family, friends, sponsors and gym.
“I have to say a big thank you to all my sponsors. I’d also say if you’re involved in boxing get down to Elite Fitness.
“It’s just people who love boxing and want to take you further. They also run promotions at Hitchin Town Hall which are brilliant with around 300 to 500 people watching.”
What message would he give to anyone thinking of watching him?
“I don’t think there are any other pros in Hitchin. It would be brilliant to get the town behind me and when I win a belt it’d be brilliant to bring it back here.
“I’m still a massive rugby fan. A massive Saracens fan and a massive England fan.
“Maybe when I retire from boxing at a much later date I’ll go and have a few games of rugby again. I still miss the team bonding aspects more than anything.
“But”, as his smile drops, his eyes narrow imperceptibly and his face becomes serious. “Boxing is my sport now. And I intend to do the best I can.”
That winning smile returns promptly: “But rugby definitely toughens you up when you have 20st guys running at you.”
One final question. Will his mum be making the trip to York Hall?
“She was watching my last fight through her hands.
“I don’t think she’ll be able to go through it again - but everyone else will be at York Hall.”
Wherever his mum will be following the fight from on the night she can be proud of her son with the big heart.
And his big hopes in the tough world of professional boxing.
A shorter version of this feature will appear on the back page of the Comet newspaper from Thursday.
Tom Ansell would like to thank all his sponsors for all their help and support.
Hermit Of Redcoats Pub, Nick Ansell personal training, Top Guard UK, Redlift Hire, B.D Electrical Contractor LTD, Truth Barbers, Macron Hertfordshire Store, Food 1 Consultancy, Complete Physio and Fitness.
Ticket details for his fight against Radoslav Mitev at York Hall on Saturday, March 10 can be purchased through visiting https://iboxingtickets.com/products/tom-ansell-tickets.
Or you can contact Tom directly through social media by following him on Instagram @tomansell9, Twitter @TomAnsell9 and by searching Tom Ansell on Facebook.