Interview by Paul Zanon
British Vintage Boxing caught up with the endearing, yet burly figure of Charlie Duffield, ahead of his light heavyweight title fight on 20 July 2019 against Dan Azeez. The 31-year-old east London favourite explained his route into the square ring. "From the age of seven I’d done karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo and boxing, but I didn’t start boxing properly until I was about 10 because I was just a little bugger really. My dad said to me, ‘Why don’t you give boxing a go for the discipline?’ I did. And it worked."
Duffield continued. "As an amateur, I don’t know exactly how many fights I had, but it was somewhere between 70 and 80. I got to the National NABC [National Ambition Boxing Championships] finals twice, I won the schoolboys when I was 16 [at 51kgs] and got to the national ABA senior finals."
Over the next decade it was a stop-start affair for Duffield. "There’s not one main reason why. Maybe hanging around with the wrong group of lads, being out all the time. Everyone was shocked because I was highly ranked in the country. Something in me was telling me I’d had enough. All the dieting and stuff, being too young, who knows.
I gave it up for a few years, grew up from being a lad and turned into a man. I went back at 21 [in 2010, fighting at 81kg], had a few months training and went into the ABAs, got to the national final and got pipped at the post [by Lawrence Osueke]. I then picked up a few injuries. I tore my rotator cuff when I was about 22 and that put me out for 14 months. I had physio, that got better and then I went back for a little bit. Then when I was nearly 28, I was training with Jamie Williams and he said, ‘Why don’t you turn pro? Give it a crack.’ Back then, I’d started training again to get fit, but I’d also got the buzz back. I thought, ‘Why not,’ and it sort of went from there. Also, when I met my wife, she was the one who really gave me the kick up the backside to say, ‘Look. You can do something here. I know how much you love the sport. When you get older, you’ll regret not doing this. You’ll wonder how far you could have gone."
However, the southpaw slugger’s battles weren’t just confined to the ring. His biggest fight lay outside of it. "I’d always been earning good money, even from a young age. When I was in school, at about the age of 13 I used to work down the market after school for a few hours. Then Thursday, Friday, Saturday I used to work all day. Back then, for three days, I was taking home about £140 and was always saving my money.
At about 16 or 17 I started gambling. It started off as a little bit on the roulette machine. I was watching one of my mates play who was a bit older than me and he would place bets, nothing big, just for fun and I thought, ‘I’ll have a go.’ I was quite big and looked over 18, so I never got asked for ID. I started playing on the machines here and there and it got out of hand pretty quickly. Before I knew it, I’d burned all of my wages. Back then I was a carpenter and used to work all over the place in Bristol, Wales, you name it and was earning good money. But I blew all of it and then started getting into debt. I couldn’t get control over it. I’d get out of a hole and then get back into one and eventually I broke down."
“I used to hide it from my wife and lied to her a lot of the time. When I finally opened up and told her, it broke my heart. It felt like I was a beaten man. I didn’t know how to explain what was going on and why I was doing it. I told her I was going clean, but I wasn’t. Behind closed doors I used to suffer in silence, not tell anyone and hold it all inside. It was hard. I won’t lie, it was really hard.”
The Canning Town resident made his professional debut 10 days shy of his 28th birthday on 17 October 2015 against Iain Jackson, stopping him in the third round at London’s boxing mecca, the York Hall. “That was incredible. Having your hand raised in front of everyone, the buzz, the crowds. It’s overwhelming. I sold a lot of tickets for that fight and when I won, the roof came off the York Hall. I can’t describe how good that felt."
Three months later on 30 January 2016, Duffield stopped Richard Harrison at The Copper Box, on a stacked undercard featuring the likes of John Ryder and George Groves. Duffield explained the extent to which the size of the event affected him. “When I’m fighting I don’t really get that nervous. Yeah, you get a few butterflies walking out to the ring and there were maybe a few more than the other fights because it was such a big arena. I was thinking that I needed to impress that bit more and be perfect with my technique, but I’m usually just hyped up and raring to go. It’s the buzz. Being in that ring is just – I just can’t explain the buzz to be honest.”
After a three round destruction of Merdijidin Yuseinov, Duffield suffered his first loss on 10 June 2016, against Vladimir Idranyi. The fight he could bounce back from, but it was other factors that made it a year from hell. “I was still suffering in silence with my gambling, but I was also helping my brother Dean with his addictions to drink and drugs and was trying to help him with his mental health and find him the best support. But I was battling with myself, which nobody knew and that was tough. I didn’t know where my head was. My brother Dean was down the hospital and I was down there about three in the morning because he’d tried to overdose with a load of tablets. I was thinking, ‘It’s a cry for help,’ the problem was, nobody knew how bad his situation was.”
Duffield continued. “My brother passed away in December 2016. I was in Romford at the time and I got a call from my mum. I could hear by the sound of her voice it was serious. ‘Dean’s rung me.’ Basically, as a goodbye message to my mum, he’s said, ‘I love you to bits, I’m sorry,’ and then put the phone down. My mum said she could tell by the tone of his voice that something was different. He’d done this before to her a few times, but this time was different.
"I was with my brother Frankie and we jumped in the car and shot off to Silvertown, where Dean lived. My mum then called and said, ‘He’s been rushed to the hospital. The police broke in his door because it was locked. He’s hung himself.’ We shot off in a panic to the hospital. My mum turned up, my dad and other members of the family. He was on a life support machine and that broke my heart. It destroyed me. I knew that wasn’t him breathing. I could tell it was the machines and knew the moment they turned them off it wasn’t going to go the way everyone was hoping it might. We sat there and the doctors said that if he did pull through, he might be seriously brain damaged. I said to my mum, ‘Dean wouldn’t want this. That’s not the life he’d want. I know for a fact he wouldn’t because I wouldn’t want this either if I was in his position. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, but let’s turn the machine off and see if he pulls through."
"It was hard. Really hard. We all sat down and agreed to turn the machine off, hoping that he’d prove us wrong and pull through, but after the machine was turned off he was gone within minutes. I had to get out of the room. I just wasn’t strong enough to watch what I was watching, but in a way, I knew it was for the better."
Duffield explained the ramifications of the loss. "It affected my mental health massively. I was suffering so badly for quite a while after. I got back to gambling, which just made things 10 times worse. I was gambling more than ever, getting into debt after debt after debt and telling lies, making out I wasn’t. I used to make out that I was strong to my wife and my brother to keep them strong, but every night I used to cry myself to sleep thinking, ‘Where’s my brother?’ I just couldn’t understand why things like this happened."
Duffield continued candidly. “I had suicidal thoughts. A couple of times in fact. One of the times, which breaks my heart to think about it now, was when my little baby was just born. She was only young and I’d messed up big time, done loads of money and stuff like that. I thought, ‘That’s your final straw. If you’re gone, you’re just not hurting people around you anymore.’
“Thankfully, I stopped the gambling, which helped to turn a massive corner. Looking back, I was thinking in a selfish way. I couldn’t put my mum through that again. She was still broken from the first time.”
Duffield sent out a heartfelt message to anybody looking to overcome the demons of mental health. "As a big, strong boxer you don’t want to stand there looking like a weak person. Instead you want to look like the macho man and impress. That’s why I was probably telling so many lies and hiding stuff from my family, friends, my wife, because I wanted to be that macho man. The reality was, deep down, I was a weak, weak person. I couldn’t control it. Eventually it broke me down."
"Speak to people. Speak to your loved ones, speak to your family, your friends, everyone, even a stranger. I’ve had people message me saying, ‘I’ve read your story, thank you very much for talking about it. It’s helped me very much,’ and I’ve said, ‘Listen. I don’t know you, but if you ever need someone to speak to, here’s my number. Just call me.’ Even just a five or 10-minute conversation can help. That can keep them strong and can mean the world to someone."
Duffield regrouped his career and turned a corner in 2017, under the tutelage of Mark Tibbs. "As far as the boxing goes, truth be known, even though I won my first three fights, I didn’t train for them in the same way I did after the loss. The way I train with Mark, I’ve taken it to a different level. I feel like I’m a professional now. Back then it was almost like a hobby and I just wanted to enjoy myself. Now, this is my career. This is what I want to do."
And what does Tibbs bring to the table? "What doesn’t he bring to the table! Mark is unbelievable. I’ve said it millions of times in different interviews. He’s an inspiration to me. What he doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing. He’s the one that can push me to the highest levels and especially with his dad [Jimmy] being in the corner, it’s unbelievable. It’s such a blessing I have them."
As part of the Tibbs camp, Duffield has sparred cruiserweight Richard Riakporhe and heavyweight Dillian Whyte. “You couldn’t ask for better sparring. With their experience, you learn so much. Richard is rangy, very strong and Dillian is a big, strong man. Me being in the ring with these sort of boxers, both champions, gives me the extra drive to want to be a champion and push on with my career."
Almost a year on from his first and only loss, Duffield was back to his winning ways, stopping Matty Parr in the first round at the Brentwood Centre on 2 June 2017. "After what had happened in 2016, it felt great to win, but it also felt real. Deep down I know that if I had been in the right frame of mind, I wouldn’t have lost [against Idranyi]. As much as I hold my hands up and say I lost and the better man won on the night, the fight felt fake to me. When I stopped Matty Parr, it felt like I was back to my old ways again and confident to push on and face new challenges."
Duffield added a further three victories to his record in 2018, bringing his tally to 7-1, with six stoppages. He fights on the Dillian Whyte-Oscar Rivas undercard at the O2, locking horns with unbeaten fellow Londoner, Azeez, for the vacant light heavyweight Southern Area title. Duffield explained how he’s been training like never before for the showdown. "Camp has gone really well. Mark’s pushing me through my pain barriers, which has to be done, because it’s a title fight opportunity which I’ve got to take with both hands. I know Dan Azeez well. He’s a cracking fighter and a lovely lad, but this is just business at the end of the day. Dan is a tough fighter and so am I. Although I’m training for 10 rounds, I can’t see it going the distance and I know we’re both training hard for a war. It’s going to be a good night definitely."
From boxing to modelling. So how did Duffield become one of the faces of British Vintage Boxing? (He laughs). “Ha! Not sure about modelling, mate. I think they just decided to pick the big, strong, ugly one and said, ‘He’ll do.’ I’ve got a PR geezer, Jordan [Jordan James Foster of Portobello PR] who does wonders for me. Absolutely lovely guy. He gets me different interviews, sponsorships and stuff like that. He messaged Zen [Zenaide Martinoli, Managing Director, British Vintage Boxing] about meeting up. Me and Zen really clicked and it went from there.
"I’d heard of the brand before, but never really paid it much attention until I started wearing some of their clothes. It’s like the old-school look. Every time I wear the gear it always reminds me of the guys like Henry Cooper. When I first started, I said to Zen about how baggy the clothes were, because that’s how they used to wear it back in the day, as opposed to now where it’s all figure hugging. Zen then adapted it to have more of a slim fit vibe and now it all fits perfectly.
"When you’re training you need quality gear and let me tell you, this is quality. You wash it a hundred times and it doesn’t fade or shrink. You get some of these tracksuits that fade after a few washes. Not these."
Duffield signed off with a taste of what to expect in 2019 and beyond. "There’s a lot left in the tank. Like I’ve always said to people, when you see me fighting for titles, that’s when you’ll see me at my best. It usually takes me a few rounds to start warming into a fight, then I get stronger and stronger as the rounds go on. You’ll see the best of me in 10 round fights – these four rounders are no good for me! You’ll see on 20 July."
Paul Zanon, has had nine books published, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and has contributed to a number of boxing publications, including, Boxing Monthly, The Ring, Daily Sport, Boxing News, Boxing Social, amongst other publications.