John McCallum

On October 17th at York Hall, London, Scotsman John McCallum will step into the ring with Londoner Leon McKenzie in a final eliminator for the British super middleweight title as part of the Goodwin Promotions show ‘We Never Stop’.  The build up has been heated already with a showdown head to head (which can be seen here ) resulting in the cameras being cut and…..well, the rest is only known between the men in that room. 
 
McCallum (7-0-0) has subsequently come in for criticism on social media for the personal comments made during the filmed event – specifically his comments about the well documented issues McKenzie has had with depression.  In this day and age of course we are used to barbed comments between fighters to up the hype, but does McCallum feel he went too far?
 
“That head to head was part of the build up to the fight” he tells me in his soft Scottish accent.  “It was filmed back in May and at the time I wasn’t too familiar with Leon Mckenzie in boxing circles, so we did some research and found out he had a book about his depression and his life but we never knew that it was tied to his family and that his sister passed away from these issues.  I laid the depression a bit thick – if I had of known the family circumstances I would never have mentioned it.  But as for Leon being depressed, I haven’t got any regrets for him – his family suffering from it though and it being so dramatic, I do sincerely apologise for that.  I apologise if it has caused any pain for the rest of the family.  As for the rest of the head to head – I didn’t really like the guy and he didn’t like me.”
 
Lack of research may have been his let-down for the build-up, but there is very little risk of this being a factor on fight night.  McCallum is a knowledgeable fellow, able to reel off opponents of both himself and McKenzie, already clearly building a comparison in his mind to mark out how much higher he believes his own standard to be.  “I’ve had 7 fights and won them all so far.  I’ve never had to get out of first gear, none of my opposition have got me excited.  I knew I would have to have a few learning fights before I got in to the big fights and I feel that I’m ready for a decent challenge.  I feel that I’ve boxed and sparred far tougher guys than Leon Mckenzie, I just believe the hype and fame that he brings with him will be a good victory for me.”
 
It is a bullish approach.  When I spoke with McKenzie once the fight was announced (read our piece here ) he believed that McCallum was underestimating him and lacking in respect for what he has achieved, almost believing him to be a footballer who is playing at being a boxer.  McKenzie was happy to embrace that, and wished for McCallum to keep up that thought process.  Is that the case though for the man from Edinburgh? 
 
“Leon doesn’t give me the respect I deserve.  I respect that he was a mediocre, decent enough footballer (McKenzie had an 18 year professional football career taking in 9 clubs and playing in the Premier League) .  I respect that his dad (Clinton McKenzie) was a good fighter.  I respect that his uncle (Duke McKenzie) was a great fighter – I’m not taking that away from them.  But what Leon needs to understand is that he never won three world titles, his uncle did.  Leon never won the European title, his dad did.  Leon never beat my uncle, his dad did.  Leon is in this fight himself and I don’t think he gives me the respect as someone that has been in a boxing gym since being a five year old.”
 
What McKenzie does bring with him into the fight is a high profile.  Years of marauding the football pitch have helped him build a solid support in the boxing ring.  He didn’t, though, turn professional until the age of 35.  He has tried his hand in the world of music since retiring from the football field, as well as the aforementioned book.  So does McCallum feel that his focus as a master of one trade is an advantage?
 
“Boxing has been my first and only sport.  I’ve never been in football, I’ve never been in music, I’ve never written books.  I’ve never had the media attention and sponsorship that he has – I’ve worked for this myself.  I’ve worked a full time job and funded myself to go to Los Angeles and spar, I funded myself to go out to Canada to spar and train with world champions.  I don’t think Leon gives me the respect.”
 
It would be fair to say that McCallum has got the more traditional route behind him.  Having had 147 fights as an amateur, and still only aged 27, McCallum used his time out in Los Angeles to train at the renowned Wild Card Gym run by Freddie Roach.  While there he sparred the likes of former WBO middleweight champion Peter Quillin which will provide invaluable experience if the fight in October goes in to the trenches. “It’s definitely given me the belief that I belong at a higher level than just domestic.  I know I can hold me own with world class opposition, so there won’t be an obstacle Leon can give me that I can’t overcome” says McCallum.
 
The two are, on paper, evenly matched.  Both have had seven fights – McCallum has won all seven on points, McKenzie has won 6 (2 KOs) and has one draw.  However McCallum is convinced that his level of opposition faced to date is of a greater quality than the former footballer McKenzie.  “Simone Lucas (8-26-4) was in the top ten and I boxed him all night.  Iain Jackson (5-29-2) had just upset someone before I beat him.  Max Maxwell (19-47-3) – his record speaks for itself as Amir Khan’s sparring partner and he knocked out Brian Rose.  Leon has never boxed anyone with a pulse, they’ve been from Poland or Slovakia.  I respect everyone who steps into a boxing ring – sparring, fighting, white collar match, all of them – but as far as ability, I see him as a weak boxer in the division.  There are guys like Callum Smith and Rocky Fielding and I don’t believe Leon Mckenzie is anywhere near those levels.  He is a good stepping stone for me as a benchmark for future fights.”
 
McCallum, despite only being seven fights in to his career, has already boxed as low as light middleweight (153lbs), up to middleweight (160lbs) and is now settling on being a super middleweight (167lbs).  Standing at 6 foot 2 it certainly gives him room to bulk up and utilise his size – how big a difference will settling at the higher weight limit make to McCallum?  “Leon keeps banging on that I don’t have power, but I drained myself to make ten stone eleven and eleven stone.  I’m six foot two in height, I was wrongly advised to box at that weight and I still scraped through and won every round as a professional.  Super middleweight is where I’m comfortable, I’m fully fledged at the weight.  If Leon thinks I won’t have power and he can walk through me he’s really mistaken.”
  
John McCallum
The winner of this fight in October is in line to face the British title holder at super middleweight.  Vacated by Paul Smith, the title will be fought over by Callum Smith (17-0-0) and Rocky Fielding (21-0-0) in November up in Liverpool.  Both fighters are highly touted and undefeated with eyes on potentially bigger prizes at world level for the winner.  How would McCallum fancy a fight against the winner?  “People look at it like it’s far fetched to say I would want to fight Rocky Fielding or Callum Smith while I’m at the start of my career and they’re looking at world titles, but to be honest records mean nothing to me.  I’ve had heaps more amateur fights than those guys so I’d love to fight the winner of Smith vs Fielding.  I believe Callum Smith will win the fight – if Callum before he goes for a world title fight wanted a quick defence then I’d happily be his opponent after I beat Leon.”

Confidence is brimming in this young Scot.  There is no err in his voice, not even a glimmer of self doubt that he will overcome McKenzie.  All conversations in the future tense end with him winning the fight – no ifs or buts, when.  It is something we expect in fighters, to be able to build an image of 100% certainty in an outcome before a fight, but with McCallum there are those (McKenzie included) that have seen his confidence as arrogance.  Given that the fight will take place in Mckenzie’s back yard in front of what will undoubtedly be a hostile environment for the man travelling from North of the border, how is he finding the role of villain between the two? 

“There’s always going to be a good guy and a bad guy in a fight.  Leon seems to be a decent guy from what I’ve seen and read, he seems like an athlete that is helping people and I respect that, I really do – anyone that goes out of there way to help people and is able to pass on their experiences.  But me and Leon are going to fight and our main objective is to make money and be successful and sell tickets to help the promotion – so there has to be a good guy and there has to be a bad guy.  I’m never going to be the good guy because I’m not from London and I’m not the English fighter so I’m automatically the bad guy.  To be honest that doesn’t bother me – my idols in boxing, and people might not like it, are Sugar Ray Robinson, Arturo Gatti, Floyd Mayweather, young fighters like Adrien Broner – so I don’t mind playing the bad guy.  They all sell tickets, they’re all interesting – love me or hate me people will pay to watch me doing what I love doing.  I think the atmosphere will fire me up.  I’m bringing down a few hundred Scots anyway who will be pretty loud so I’m sure there will be good support on both sides.  I want to thank all of Leon’s supporters for coming out to the fight and watching the fight – I know they’re backing Leon but they’re coming out to support the sport that I love.”

It’s an eclectic mix of fighters that McCallum has chosen to follow the route of.  Undoubtedly he has a point – the likes of Mayweather and Broner in the modern era have sold tickets as much to their fans as to those wishing to see them lose.  But with McCallum being based away from the London venue where the fight will take place, does he feel that it is perhaps difficult and daunting to build a fight from afar?  It was only recently that the manager of Gary Cornish, Tommy Gilmour, openly criticised the TV coverage for his fighter – citing that their involvement wasn’t required as the focus was primarily on the London based opponent Anthony Joshua.  Perhaps on a different scale of opponent, but is McCallum feeling the same?

“Leon gets all the Sky Sports interviews – where’s my Sky Sports interview?  It is hard trying to sell tickets – my last fight got cancelled when 60 or 70 people had booked flights and hotels and couldn’t get their money back with the airline.  I had to pay out my own pocket so that was a few thousand pounds down the drain. Sometimes because we’re up in Scotland we’re forgotten about and just ‘the opponent’ – but I’m far from an opponent, I’m unbeaten.”

This fight between the two promises to be a great affair.  England vs Scotland.  Age vs youth.  Amateur schooled vs newcomer.   The two have already shown there is a natural spite to come out in the ring – you suspect with two head strong competitors the build up although veering on the overly-personal will have little impact come October 17th.  The winner will find themselves moving in to range of the British title, the loser will have some rebuilding to undertake.  Whichever way it end it promises to be a lively one.

John wanted to give special thanks to his trainers Tommy Quinn, Jack Graham and Bryan Fernie as well as his sponsors TOD Combat (strength and conditioning), Diane’s Pool Hall in Edinburgh, Spasm Therapies (Physio), Caledonian Combat and BS Printers.