Some fighters are best remembered for their losses in the ring. Former heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry is one such name that springs to mind. At his peak in the 60s and 70s he is remembered more for his losses to Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton than for any of his fifty-three wins. Quarry always fought to win but he was acutely aware of his own shortcomings. He found a way to express his feelings on the matter through his interest in poetry when he said, “I fought with heart / but needed much more / a bridesmaid but never a bride.” Fighters who fall short of winning world titles seem destined to become mere footnotes in boxing history, or at least it seemed that way for Sheffield’s Clinton Woods.
In 2002, Woods was the mandatory challenger for Roy Jones Jr’s WBC light-heavyweight crown. Roy Jones Jr was considered a boxing demi-god. Already a triple-weight world champion, he possessed a level of skill, speed and artistry that made good fighters look inept. In his previous fight he knocked out Australian Glenn Kelly with a right hander he didn’t see coming because Jones Jr threw it from behind his back.
Jones Jr was the absolute best in the business and he wanted to prove it against Clinton Woods. For two rounds Woods made it a fight forcing Jones to the ropes and causing a slight swelling over his right eye, but ultimately the champion’s class prevailed and he stopped a bloody, beaten but defiant Woods in the sixth round.
From that point, Clinton Woods could have returned home and faded in obscurity content in the knowledge that he had produced a valiant effort against the greatest boxer on the planet. He could have told his children that he would have been world champion had circumstances been different. Boxing is full of ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda,’ stories, but let’s be clear Clinton Woods is not one of them.
It took the Sheffield fighter four attempts to become a world champion. With every set back he suffered he dusted himself down and rebuilt his career. He is one of the true success stories in British boxing; one which is characterised by hard work, sacrifice and perseverance especially in the face of certain failure.
Speaking on the phone from his home it only takes a few minutes to understand that Clinton Woods is a modest, softly spoken, Yorkshireman. The 44 year old former pro professes to not being a boxing fan himself but he can wax lyrical on the virtues of some of his favourite fighters, Sugar Ray Leonard and ‘Marvelous,’ Marvin Hagler. He almost seems nostalgic for that era when fighters built their reputation on hard work, skill and facing adversity in the ring. Things Woods took pride in doing all throughout his career.
As a schoolboy amateur Woods won 60 of his 70 bouts for Hillsborough ABC but when he became a father at 15 he left school to start work and his boxing fell by the wayside. He earned a living as a plasterer and worked on building sites with his older brothers. Too tired to go to the gym in the evenings he preferred to go drinking with his brothers which often resulted in bar brawls and brushes with the authorities.
Woods describes how six years after he quit the amateur game he found his way back into boxing, “I was getting fat and getting into trouble so I decided to sort myself out and get fit,” he exclaims, “Someone told me there was a boxing gym nearby so I went down there with nothing in my mind other than to box again to get fit.”
The gym that Woods found himself in happened to belong to local scrap dealer-cum-boxing promoter Dennis Hobson. He was impressed with Woods and offered him a professional contract in November 1994. “I went along with it,” admits Woods, “but I never thought it would happen.”
Within three years Woods was undefeated in 18 contests and had won the Central Area super-middleweight title. He was considered a decent pro, effective with a good chin but no world-beater. In December 1997, with 10 days’ notice he beat Mark Baker in a gruelling 12 rounder for the vacant Commonwealth super-middleweight title on the undercard of the Vinny Pazienza v Herol Graham fight at Wembley Arena.
The difficult nature of the win over Baker may have been influenced by Woods approach to boxing at that time. “I was still playing at boxing, still boozing,” he admits, “I was a big underdog for that fight but after every fight I won I thought that’s as far as I can go, if I lose the next one I’ll pack it in. That was the way I was all through my career.”
As chance would have it Woods did lose his next fight against future two time world title challenger; David Starie. The Suffolk fighter gave Woods all he could handle but there were more pronounced reasons for his first professional loss, “At that time I had no one doing my weights and I was taking protein supplements that I didn’t fully understand,” he said.
“I was training down in London and a guy suggested I take Creatine. I didn’t understand at the time that Creatine makes your muscles hold onto water. I was miles over the weight a few days before the fight.”
“I think making weight weakened me too much. Every time Starie hit me in the stomach he winded me. I felt I let people down with the result but I wasn’t bovvered or upset. I was a grafter and I could go back to work on site. I wasn’t bovvered.”
Woods repeats the statement ‘I wasn’t bovvered,’ several times during the course of the interview. At times he is at risk of sounding like a character from The Catherine Tate Show, but in reality it reflects the cool, calm and collected approach he adopted throughout his professional career.
For ‘Clint the Mint,’ his calmness under pressure combined with the ability to largely fly under the media radar served him well in comparison to other more high profile Sheffield fighters during the 90s. “Everyone talked about the Ingle fighters; Ryan Rhodes, Junior Witter, Johnny Nelson and Naseem Hamed but they weren’t talking about me. All the pressure was on them, not me. I wasn’t afraid of losing, after all I wasn’t meant to win nowt.”
After his first reverse in the professional ranks Woods made the decision to move up to the light heavyweight division and within a year of the defeat to Starie, Woods earned himself a shot at British, Commonwealth and European light-heavyweight champion Crawford Ashley.
Ashley was a bigger puncher than Woods and had fought a better calibre of opponent including; Johnny Nelson, Carl Thompson, Michael Nunn, Dennis Andries and Virgil Hill. In almost the first exchange he bloodied Woods’ nose, “He bust my nose and its needed three operations since,” admits Woods.
Things may have not looked favourable for the Sheffiled man but uncharacteristically for Woods he employed aggressive tactics taking the fight to Ashley and halting proceedings in the eighth round. “I knew Ashley weren’t a better boxer than me, so I thought I would take him through a few rounds and tire him out.” The gamble paid off but it was perhaps it was the first glimpse that Clinton Woods was more than just a decent pro with a good chin.
He followed the victory over Ashley with ten consecutive victories seven inside the distance perhaps suggesting that Woods was finally punching his weight. It was then that the offer to fight Roy Jones Jr was put on the table.
“I wasn’t good enough to beat Jones Jr,” admits Woods, “At least not at that time. A few years later it would have been a better fight. I’m not saying I would beat him, but I feel that at his best and me at my best it’s a twelve round fight. It was after the Jones Jr fight that I came home and knew what I needed to do.”
Woods rebounded and notched up three more stoppage victories before facing ‘The Road Warrior,’ Glen Johnson for the vacant IBF light heavyweight world title in November 2003. The pair battled to a split draw, “It was a draw but I believe I knocked Johnson down in the last round,” explains Woods. The rematch in Sheffield three months later saw Johnson walk away with a unanimous decision and the world title.
“After the second Johnson fight I changed a few things,” explains Woods, “I was training really well for that fight but I was coming home from the gym feeling absolutely knackered. I went to see a doctor who discovered I had an iron deficiency. After that I started taking B12 injections and I brought a guy in to do my diet and supplements. I was a different fighter. It was easier.”
It marked a significant change in the career of the Sheffield fighter. He stopped Australian Jason DeLisle in the last round of a scheduled 12 round eliminator for the IBF title relinquished by Johnson when he elected to fight Antonio Tarver.
In March 2005, Woods was rewarded with a shot at the vacant IBF title against the dangerous Rico Hoye. The American was 18-0 (14 KOs) and was being tipped as a future world champion. “The guy was tipped to win everything,” Woods said, “He would have been a superstar if he had been with a big promoter.”
“That fight I had one of the best training camps in my career,” explains Woods, “I believe I would have beaten anyone that night.”
Woods fought out of his skin that night in Sheffield. He caught Hoye on the inside with short hooks and set up even more stinging shots with his jab which ultimately led to the fight being stopped in the fifth round which saw Woods finally being crowned world champion.
“I felt like I proved everyone wrong,” explains Woods when asked what it meant to finally win a world title. “Nobody thought I would win a proper world title and I liked how we did it, we did it on our own. I started in a small gym in Sheffield, we had two bags and when it rained we trained in puddles so to come from that to win a world title it was like the cat finally getting the cream.”
Despite fulfilling his career ambition Woods didn’t receive the recognition for winning the world title at his fourth attempt. “The day after I won the world title England won the Ashes,” Woods said, “The papers just focused on the Ashes but there was a cartoon in one of the papers and it was entitled, ‘Cinderella Man.’”
“I believe that’s the way I’ve been all my career, people call me the Cinderella man of boxing but I wasn’t bovvered, I fought the best, all the top names and I was never really hurt.”
In comprehending Woods’ achievements as a fighter it is impossible not to be struck by his determination and mental strength which helped him remain in perhaps at best an unforgiving sport. “I’ve always enjoyed the hard training,” he explains, “I just had the desire to be a world champion and be the best. A lot of it is down to Dennis Hobson. He always had belief in me from day one and I thank him for that.”
During this brief moment of reflection the Sheffield fighter’s thoughts turn to his former trainer Neil Port and he becomes noticeably upset. “Neil was like a brother to me. He was one of the reasons why I carried on. He would always say that I was going to be world champion. It’s very sad to talk about it.” Neil Port was stabbed to death some time before the Hoye fight and never saw Woods win the world title.
Woods would go on to make four successful defences of his world title, with victories over Julio Cesar Gonzalez (twice) Jason DeLisle and the rubber match with his old foe Glen Johnson. He lost his title to Antonio Tarver in 2008 in a fight that effectively signalled the end of his career.
“I knew I was going to lose,” explains Woods. “I hurt my back doing some weights but I’d lose my title if I pulled out. I had a terrible training camp in America, the sparring partners were supposed to be 6ft tall like Tarver but they were small and they were only amateurs. All the way through I was bickering with my trainer. We had a few disagreements and I should have pulled out.”
Woods lost a twelve round decision to Tarver. “I was embarrassed,” he admits, “After the fight I just wanted to get into the changing room, get showered and go to my hotel. It was shocking, I just wanted to apologise to everyone.”
A fiercely proud man, Woods returned to the ring with a points victory over Elvir Muiriqi which set up another tilt at the vacant IBF light heavyweight world title this time against Tavoris Cloud. When Woods lost by unanimous decision he concedes that he felt relieved, “I just didn’t want to go out in boxing like I did against Tarver but after the Cloud fight I was just relieved to be able to retire.”
A loyal servant to British boxing Woods has been able to lead a quiet life in his native Yorkshire. “I hadn’t earned enough money from boxing not to do anything. I had to do something so I did some landscape gardening, then I did some plastering. I’ve always been a grafter.”
Woods couldn’t completely escape boxing opening Clinton Woods Boxing Fitness Gym where he now runs boxercise classes. “My life is brilliant,” exclaims Woods, “I’ve got a great wife, I’ve got great kids and I’m able to look out of my kitchen window every day at trees and green fields. I still hang around with the same friends from school, it’s a nice life.”
When asked his views about Roy Jones Jr and his decision to continue a career in boxing well-beyond his prime Woods is earnest in his answer, “People give boxers a hard time. If he wants to fight, let him fight. Jones Jr must be desperate to keep on fighting but if he loves fighting then why not? It’s his own choice.”
“I get the odd message from Jones Jr asking for a rematch,” Woods said, “we could phone him now and make the fight but there’s no point.”
The lure of the boxing ring does not have the same hold on Clinton Woods that it has on some of his former foes. Why should it? The man has nothing more to prove.
Woods is an honest, no nonsense character. He probably doesn’t believe in fairy tales but he has accomplished some extraordinary achievements, more than some fighters could even dream about. He has also achieved something that few world champions ever see within their own lifetime, a genuinely happy retirement. Perhaps that is the real fairy tale ending for boxing’s ‘Cinderella man.’
Clinton Woods Autobiography written with Mark Turley is on sale later this year.