In May 2016, undefeated super-middleweight Callum Smith entered the ring in front of a sold out home crowd at Goodison Park. His opponent that night was the unknown Cesar Hernan Reynoso, who had never fought outside of his native Argentina in his five years as a professional.
Perhaps Reynoso could have been spared his airfare from Buenos Aires as the hard punching Smith dropped the Argentinian three times on route to a sixth round stoppage. Despite being out of his depth, Reynoso produced a spirited performance, taking Smith’s best shots, landing some of his own and overall making his opponent work for the victory.
Fighters like Reynoso serve a valuable purpose in boxing. For promoters eager to develop a prospect into a genuine world class fighter they need opponents who will be competitive, take the prospect a few rounds but who ultimately lose.
It sounds unfair, almost as if boxing lacks integrity but in reality this is the business end of the sport. Boxing needs losers like a plant needs water.
These so-called, ‘professional losers,’ are known as ‘Journeymen.’ Perhaps a fairer definition of their title is that they are fighters who have ability but are not outstanding. At least not on paper.
“People don’t understand what a Journeyman is,” explains Lewis, ‘Poochi,’ Van Poetsch, a former soldier and retired ring veteran. “Nine times out of ten, a Journeyman is there to put a win on his opponent’s record.”
The 26 year old Van Poetsch should know, in a professional career spanning four years he amassed a record of 4-46-1 (0 KOs). In that time he served as the ‘opponent,’ for six fighters making their professional debuts and he lost to these novices on each occasion.
During his career he fought a host of domestic names including; Sam Eggington, Lee Markham and Curtis Woodhouse. He lost each of those encounters but he believes the role of a Journeyman is vital in the development of fighters.
“A Journeyman’s job is to separate the men from the boys, the less talented fighters from the better ones. If you feel your opponent is on a level par with you then you have to push them, otherwise they are going to end up being a Journeyman as well.”
Journeymen have elevated losing to an art form. It requires skill to lose a fight every month and still be able to turn a profit. In 2015, Van Poetsch fought sixteen times, winning only once but there are valid reasons why Journeymen shouldn’t bite off more than they can chew.
“If you are a Journeyman who wants to fight every fight then it’s going to be a short career for you,” explains Van Poetsch, “I’ve been stopped nine times, but I’ve only been stopped properly about three or four times. On all the other occasions it’s been the result of a cut. If you get injured then you get suspended for a month, so that’s a month with no pay.”
It doesn’t pay to take risks in the ring but that doesn’t stop some Journeymen from wanting to take the fight to their opponent.
“I wouldn’t call myself a Journeyman,” says Harry Matthews, “I would class myself as a ‘danger-man,’ because I always turn up to fight and try to win.”
“I’ve not got the best record,” Matthews admits, “but I’ve never passed up a challenge. I’ve always stepped up to the plate and I’ve fought quite a few top lads.”
Part-time personal trainer Matthews 28, holds a professional record of 14-21-2 (2KOs) and has fought Nick Blackwell, Lee Markham, Tom Doran and Chris Eubank Jr. It becomes apparent from speaking with both Van Poetsch and Matthews that neither men started their career with the intention of becoming a Journeyman.
At one point in his professional career Harry Matthews was 9-0 (2 KOs) but a loss to fellow journeyman Ciaran Healy in Belfast on the undercard of Paul McCloskey’s defence of his European title against Giuseppe Lauri in 2010 shifted the dynamic of his career.
“I don’t know what happened me,” explains Matthews, “Maybe the occasion got to me, I was 21 years old at the time and I don’t think I took boxing as seriously as I should have. If I was in that position now I would handle it a bit better because I am more mature. It was probably all due to a lack of experience.”
Van Poetsch offers a different perspective on why he became a journeyman, “when I was scheduled to fight on a show I would have to sell a certain allocation of tickets by a certain deadline. If you don’t sell your tickets then they either pull you off the show or you are made box for free. I just decided I didn’t want the stress of having to sell tickets. I am from a small town in Gloucestershire so it’s hard. I decided it was much easier to be on the road to turn up, get paid and do what I do.”
The issue of ticket selling is a real pressure in the life of a Journeyman as Matthews confirms, “It’s a hard sport to make money in. When you are selling tickets you can’t have your top line until you’ve sold your purse, your opponent’s share and your promoters cut.”
“I couldn’t live on boxing without my work as a personal trainer or my sponsor,” he adds, “If I’ve made a loss on tickets I’ve been able to make it back with sponsorship. I wonder sometimes would I be better off on the road just fighting for the money.”
Seeking fortune on the road isn’t always the answer either as Van Poetsch discovered, “There is a standard price for a four round fight, its £1000 but you pay 25% of that to your manager or trainer. Basically, you are left with £750 for twelve minutes work.”
“Sure everyone says, ‘Yeah I’d go to Doncaster and get banged out for that kind of money,’ but what they do see is all the hard work behind the scenes, like the training and making weight.”
“Usually I would get a call on short notice, but if I said I wanted more money because I’ve cancelled plans, the promoter would say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ Next thing you would see someone else getting the fight. It doesn’t matter how much you think you are worth, someone will always box for the fee the promoter is offering.”
Life as a road warrior isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, fighting up and coming fighters in their own backyard can be daunting, nobody expects the out of town fighter to do anything other than lose so when there are close contests the Journeyman can end up feeling more than a little disgruntled.
“I had a couple of fights on the road, won one and then got a few dodgy decisions,” explains Van Poetsch, “I’d be in a 50/50 fight and I’d quite clearly have taken three rounds but the judges would score it 10-10, or I would get one round. In the end, you wonder to yourself, what’s the point of turning up and trying to win?”
Boxing is subjective. In a close run contest a judge perhaps might be swayed by the crowd, they are only human and with that in mind Journeymen must win convincingly when fighting on the road.
The British Board of Control (BBofC) who regulate boxing in the UK insist that the standard judging and refereeing in the jurisdiction is of the highest quality. However you don’t need to be a world class judge to tell who would be expected to win a fight. “You just have to look at any boxing programme in the country and you can pick the winner yourself,” explains Matthews.
A fighter couldn’t do the job of a Journeyman without feeling a little sore about losing. It’s probably what keeps them motivated to come back every week and take on the challenge laid down by promoters and matchmakers.
Perhaps nobody outside of the boxers themselves will ever appreciate what it’s like to be a Journeyman. It can be a solitary existence at the best of times, training for fights they aren’t expected to win. It was the Journeyman lifestyle that eventually led Van Poetsch to hang up his gloves.
“I had started to fall out of love with boxing,” he admits, “I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, the travelling, making weight and waiting around for hours not knowing if you were going to be on a show. My favourite part of it all was the final bell.”
Journeymen don’t always get the opportunities they deserve for the service they provide boxing. However in March 2015, Lewis Van Poetsch fought Harry Matthews for the British Masters Bronze super-middleweight title.
“The fight with Harry Matthews was my first 8 round fight,” Van Poetsch recalls, “I knew Harry had been in with Eubank Jr and I thought I had better take care of myself.”
“My dream has always been to win a title,” explains Matthews, “It was a good night when I fought Van Poetsch. I had to sell enough tickets to cover my purse, his purse and sanction the fight. It turned out to be a nice little earner.”
“I knew Poochi was tough,’ admits Matthews, “he had fought a lot of good fighters on the road. I dropped him in the seventh with a body shot and then he came out in the last round and he gave me a fight.”
“I won the first few rounds but he won the fight on his work rate,” exclaims Van Poetsch, “I haven’t seen Harry since, but if we met again I’d probably have a beer with him.”
For Matthews the victory against Van Poetsch was a special moment in his career, “It was very emotional that night,” Matthews admits, “After all the setbacks, all the losses, feeling like I had never gone as far I should have in boxing, that was the night I wanted to go out and hold the belt up after winning. It may have been a British Masters title, but to me it meant the world.”
After the Matthews loss, Van Poetsch was back in action the following month. He would embark on a twenty eight fight losing streak, before he was scheduled to fight Andy Holmes in Hull in September 2016.
“My licence was due to expire in October, so I decided to take on Holmes as my retirement fight,” explains Van Poetsch, “The first round he came out swinging and I could see he wasn’t fit enough to maintain that pace.”
“As the fight progressed I started unloading punches and I began to catch him. I started enjoying it. It finished a draw which is as good as a win to a journeyman. At the end, I got a standing ovation from the crowd and I got a bit emotional because I knew I’d never box again.”
Van Poetsch has no regrets about retiring from boxing. He may not have had the glittering career that all fighters aspire to have but he gave his all as a loyal servant to boxing. He admits, “I wasn’t a diva. I just turned up and did what was expected of me. I was courteous and shook everyone’s hand. I wished everyone the best of luck and I prided myself in being a sportsman and a nice guy.” Van Poetsch is now training to be a barber.
For Matthews the wheels keep turning on his career. Since he beat Van Poetsch he has fought twice, winning one and losing the other. He remains determined to take something from boxing, “I’ve dedicated half my life to the sport. I’m not willing to quit until I at least get a house out of boxing.”
For fighters considered professional ‘losers,’ the desire and will to win is still strong in Journeymen. “You sometimes see these fighters who come out of nowhere and get a world title shot,” Matthews says, “Look at Mickey Ward, he had his own fair share of losses but he persevered and eventually won a version of the world title.”
“I’ve made a name for myself fighting big names,” says Matthews, “but I still have the drive to do better. I believe one day I’ll knock out someone who’s really good and it’ll all turn around for me.”
Harry Matthews will fight the undefeated Marcus Morrison on the undercard of Anthony Joshua’s defence of his IBF heavyweight title against Eric Molina on 10th December 2016.