Former English light-heavyweight champion Peter Haymer didn’t quite fulfil his potential inside a prize ring but the work he’s done since should be an inspiration to all, writes Melanie Lloyd
THEY say that still waters run deep, and interviewing former English light-heavyweight champion, Peter Haymer, is tantamount to being hit by one refreshing wave of revelation after another. For example, although he looks fighting fit, he readily admits that, since the first lockdown, he’s probably “done about 100 press-ups” and he doesn’t think he’s “run more than 20 yards for the bus”. Although he does enjoy walking his British bulldog, who is named Private Poppy because she was born on Remembrance Day.
At the age of 42, with his blue eyes set above the high cheekbones, his 6ft 2in stature immaculately dressed, Haymer could easily be mistaken for an actor or a model. But there is no vanity in the quietly spoken Londoner. In some ways, there is still something of the little boy about him. Therefore, when he candidly discloses the fact that his ring-name was inspired by the brutal 1970s film, Scum, it delivers quite a shock to the senses. However, it is rare to encounter a boxer without a playful but occasionally dark sense of humour. Fighters have to have that. Otherwise, they couldn’t do what they do – and Haymer undoubtedly did his fair share.
He won the national junior and senior ABAs for St Pancras ABC. As a pro, he won the English title from Steve “Spartacus” Smith in November 2004. “Me and Spartacus met as amateurs in the quarter-finals, and I think I beat him by one point,” Haymer recalls. “He was a very big puncher and he definitely wanted revenge. I was a clever boxer. I had a good chin, so I just kept it long. We had a very good fight. It went the full distance, but I won that title, and afterwards we went to a bar down in Camden and we had a great little celebration that night.”
After the victory over Spartacus, Haymer went on to challenge for the Commonwealth and British belts against Ovill McKenzie and Tony Oakey respectively, both of whom he had beaten previously, but it was never Haymer’s night when the big titles were on the line. “I boxed Ovill McKenzie the first time a couple of fights previous to the English title fight, and he was a very tough, big-punching guy. I believe I was the first man ever to put Ovill down. I gave him a shot, but, as he fell, he sort of caught me by the legs. After the count, he got a bit of a telling off and that wound the clock down a little bit. I like to think I might have been able to get a few more shots in before the end of the fight, but it went the distance and I won it on points.
“When we boxed for the Commonwealth title in 2006, the fight got postponed a couple of times and I never took a break from training. By the time it got to the fight, I’d trained too much and I’d overboiled, so everything went wrong. He put me down three times in the second round before the fight was stopped. I just had no balance. Marcus McDonnell had refereed a few fights of mine, and he came up to me and said, ‘Pete, is everything all right?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m good, I’m good,’ because I didn’t realise what was happening. Then Ovill caught me with a shot and he came in a little bit with his head accidentally, which cut my eye, and I think that was the excuse that Marcus McDonnell needed to stop the fight. I was devastated. I think even Ovill was shocked that he beat me because, whenever we’d sparred prior to that fight, there were never any signs of him ever being able to do that. But I really don’t want to take nothing off Ovill because he was never, ever given any free rides. He worked his arse off for everything he got, and I’m glad he became Commonwealth champion that night because he’s good stuff and I give him all the respect in the world.”
But it was Tony Oakey who Haymer respects the most, naming the Portsmouth man as the best he ever shared a ring with. Haymer had been aware of Oakey’s silky skills since they were amateurs and boxed carefully during their 2005 10-rounder for Peter’s English title. Haymer got the decision back then – a verdict the pair still playfully dispute to this day. Three years later, though, things were different.
“When I boxed Tony for the British title in 2008, he ended up stopping me in the ninth,” Haymer explains. “It was so boiling hot in York Hall that night. While me and Tony fought like hell, there were people sitting at ringside with shorts and vests on and they were finding it hard just to lift their pints of beer up! I gave Tony so much respect in the first fight, so the second time I decided to just go in there and take it to him. I was marking him up and he was taking some big punches, but Tony was an absolute machine. It got to the point where I was hitting this guy who just wasn’t moving. In the end, I couldn’t hold my arms up. He clipped me as I was on my toes sort of trying to pivot away. I went down and I was so exhausted that I couldn’t even get my bum off the floor. But I could have hit Tony all day long with bricks, and he weren’t being denied. So I’ve got nothing but respect for Tony. The man is a great, great fighter, and I was delighted to share the ring with him on both occasions.”
Haymer retired in 2010 with a record of 18 wins, six losses and two draws, joining the ranks of the multitude of boxers who could have done so much better with the right people behind them, but there is no trace of bitterness in his voice as he explains, “Originally, I signed with Sports Network, and my coach was my old amateur trainer, Chris Hall. I’ve known Chris since I was 15. He helped me towards the ABA title and came over with me into the pros. After the first year, I left Sports Network and Chris took over as my manager. I was a pretty decent ticket-seller, and we used the smaller hall promoters just to get some fights.
“My last fight was a points win against Danny Couzens at Newmarket in 2010. They were telling me I was in line for another shot at the British title, and then everything just went quiet. The guys that could have done something with me were always in the opposite corner, so my career became stagnant. In the end, no opportunities came and I’d not long had my daughter. So I was giving up all this time, no money was coming in and I had a little girl at home that I wasn’t seeing. I’d finished on a win. I had a good run. So I decided to call it a day and become a father properly.
“A lot of the boxers are fighting for their livelihood. All they’ve got is boxing, whereas I wasn’t that bothered about money. I did want titles. I wanted to be successful in the boxing game, but it wasn’t do or die for me. I had a really strong support system. My wife, Katie, was a massive person to keep me on the straight and narrow, and she still is. My parents and my sister were great. I had my granddad, my nan and my close friends, so I always had people who mollycoddled me. I loved boxing, but I didn’t need it, although I do think I was blessed in the sense that boxing helped me become a better person.”
While Haymer and Hall never quite set the boxing world on fire, their friendship has continued to burn bright. Hall is Haymer’s employer at the Footsteps Trust, a facility for 12- to 16-year-old boys who have been permanently excluded from mainstream education in Tottenham, the stamping ground for several of the most dangerous gangs in London. Hall founded Footsteps in 2010 and, to put it bluntly, the young men who find themselves there are drinking at the Last Chance Saloon. The key objective of Footsteps is to steer their pupils towards further education or employment, but the routine is underpinned by various different sports and Haymer’s “office” is the boxing gym.
“We want to give the young people a deflection from just education, which is what they tend to struggle with, so we put some sports around it to let out their aggression and we try and mentor them into finding a better way. I’m lucky enough to have a good rapport with people in general. I’m quite a good listener, and I’ve got a fair bit of life experience myself.
“I grew up on an estate. I boxed, and I had a lot of respect from the kids in the area because I could handle myself, be it on the street or in the ring. With the young people nowadays, there’s no fisticuffs. There’s no one-on-one. It’s literally a free-for-all. Knives are being used every day. There’s not a fight that happens where two people throw punches at each other. It’s six or seven guys with knives on to one or two.”
And these days, six or seven guys – even regardless of the knives – are more imposing than they used to be. “I don’t know what it is but people are definitely getting bigger,” Haymer explains. “The cohort we’ve got at Footsteps at the moment are average size. But we’ve had some absolute monsters, you know, 13 or 14 years old and 6ft 6in tall. There are times when I have to break up physical fights, but usually, because of the relationship I’ve got with our young people, as soon as they see it’s me that’s getting between them, it doesn’t tend to escalate too far. They’re just children at the end of the day. They need some nurturing and a bit of guidance. A lot of them have come from broken families and areas where it’s very, very rough, so it’s not surprising that they lose their way a little bit. I’ve got a lot of empathy and compassion for these kids. To see what some of them have been through is very sad.”
The majority of the pupils at Footsteps are involved in gangs and it’s not unusual for an enemy outfit to appear, mobhanded with bad intentions. “There’s been times where I’ve had to go to the door and send some guys away who’ve come to the school to interact with another guy who’s in a rival gang. I’ve been doing this job for so long that I’ve learnt how to defuse a situation. I talk to these lads respectfully and let them know, ‘The police will be here. Get yourself away. Don’t do nothing stupid.’ Nine times out of 10, they don’t really want to be doing what they’re doing. They feel like they’re in a predicament, I’m sure. I’ve seen some sights. I’ve seen some bad stuff happen, but I never really feel in danger because I treat people how I want to be treated and, thank God, I’ve never had no one turn on me. They always realise I’ve got their best interests at heart.
“The one thing we’re short of at Footsteps is money. Funding is tough, because we’re a charity-run organisation and I know Chris would be very open to anyone that’s able to help out in that way. He’s a proud guy, so he’s not out there begging for stuff. But obviously, if we could get a sponsor or a little something to help with stuff, that would be amazing.”
Haymer still takes an interest in the current boxing scene, and he’s a regular at the London Ex Boxers’ Association, together with fellow St Pancras star, former British bantamweight champion, Martin Power. “Me and Martin go back to when he was seven years old and I was 10, and our friendship goes so deep that he was best man at my wedding and his wife was my wife’s bridesmaid. We’re going on the LEBA committee now, which we are very happy about because it’s so important that we keep it going. The best people in the world are boxers and it’s like the saying that LEBA puts out there, “it’s nice to belong”.