James Tennyson can prove he has come of age in title rumble

James Tennyson takes on Ryan Walsh for the British featherweight title on Saturday night
Picture by Hugh Russell
Andy Watters

A TEARAWAY. Seven-years-old and full of beans, James Tennyson had a fiery temper to match his red locks.

His trainer Tony Dunlop pipes up: “Ginger hair, white skin, Poleglass… a recipe for mayhem”, before he walks off with a chuckle, sending the heavy bags at the Kronk Gym swinging in his wake.

We’re there to discuss Tennyson’s first big break - Saturday night’s British Featherweight title rumble with Ryan Walsh. Tennyson has trained for 12 weeks but, as a kid, he needed no notice for a scrap. Back then, his exasperated mum did what mothers the world over do: she took him to the local boxing club and told him to put his fighting to good use.

Anyone who’d like to see boxing banned should take Tennyson’s story on board: “I was a bad-tempered child basically,” he says.

“My mum couldn’t really keep control of me. I was in fights at school, everything… I was just hard to control. So it was ‘round to the boxing club you go’ and that was Poleglass ABC at the time. It sorted me out, it nipped the temper in the bud and tired me out.

“When I was a wee kid, the training just sapped the energy out of me and, by the time I came home from training, it was bed-time. That was the temper done.”

The boy trained with a purpose and slept like a baby at night. Boxing came naturally: punching, slipping, moving… Bam, bam, bam: “I was told from day one by Charlie Brown at Poleglass. He said to me he knew when I came into the gym that I’d be a cracker,” he said.

“I’m proving him right - so far, so good.”

Fifteen years on, Tennyson is all grown up and has stripped his moniker back from ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ to a more chilling ‘Assassin’. He sits on the ring apron at the neat Kronk Gym at the 174 Trust in the New Lodge.

On Saturday night, he faces Walsh for the British title at London’s Copper Box Arena. Walsh is the belt holder, has a 20-1-1 record and is seven years his senior. Tennyson says Walsh is going down and Dunlop, who could make a living playing boxing cornermen in the movies if he wasn’t a real life cornerman, doesn’t doubt it for a second.

“The first time I saw James, he was 11-years-of-age and he was boxing a kid out of our gym called Matthew McWilliams and Matthew was good,” he recalled.

“James beat him clearly. They were fighting again a couple of months later, so I took Matthew aside and trained him individually to beat this kid Tennyson and away they went for the second fight. But Tennyson won clearly again and I realised he was something special - I rate his talent as world class. He is just naturally a very good fighter.”

Dunlop knows what he’s talking about - he has worked with Guillermo Rigondeaux, so he has seen world class at first hand. He compares Tennyson to the famous American featherweight champion Joseph ‘Sandy’ Sadler, who crammed 162 fights and 103 knockouts into his 12-year career between 1944 and 1956.

“James is a 5’9” featherweight, which is very, very tall and he’s a come-forward fighter,” he said.

“Sadler was knocked out in his second pro fight and went on to become the greatest featherweight of all time. I always saw James with that style and he’s a puncher too, so he’s a great TV fighter - he’s one of the most exciting fighters in Europe.”

High praise indeed and Tennyson will have earned a considerable chunk of it if he can see off Walsh on Saturday night. He has form on his side because, since suffering an unexpected loss to Pavel Senkovs, he has come roaring back with seven inside-the-distance wins in eight fights, including five stoppage wins last year.

His opponent tonight respects that: “I give him props for that,” he says. Walsh may not be a knockout artist, but he is durable and smart and went 12 rounds with current IBF world champion Lee Selby. At 29, he’s at the peak of his powers and has been training with twin brother Liam (British super-featherweight champ) in Tenerife to prepare for the second defence of his treasured title.

“We get away from any distractions [in Tenerife] - me and my brother don’t drink, smoke or do drugs, so that’s no problem, but it’s the everyday life distractions,” said the affable Walsh as he returned to his home in Cromer, Norfolk after training in Norwich this week. You can get away from it over there and we live a good five miles away from the main resort, so we get a bit of seclusion and live the life.”

Tennyson and Walsh have a common opponent in Ian Bailey (who also mixed it with Carl Frampton and Lee Selby during his 13-18-1 career) and both did six rounds with the obstinate Slough journeyman.

Bailey is one of only two opponents who have heard the final bell against Tennyson and, while he is due all respect, Tony Dunlop doesn’t expect Walsh to hear it on Saturday night.

“Ryan Walsh has a good record and then he was a little bit inactive, but he has came through that and been patient,” he said.

“He went 12 rounds with Lee Selby and, since that, he became British champion, so he has a lot of experience. He certainly is a good fighter but, as far as British champions are concerned, he’d be an average British champion in this day and age, which is okay. But he’s nothing really special.

“So for James Tennyson to be fighting for a British title at the age of 22… I think it’s just the right time and it’s a very good fight for James at this stage. It’s a very good learning fight against a guy that’s got plenty of experience.

“I think James, with his talent, his stamina and his boxing ability - the whole package - I think this has come at the right time and James will end up the British featherweight champion.”

Since his comeback from losing, Tennyson has dealt with everything that has come his way emphatically. He has been a class above everyone he’s faced in the small hall Belfast shows where he cut his teeth.

But he’s in the big leagues now and so much depends on how he handles the occasion on Saturday night. He’ll need to be patient too because Walsh is an awkward, experienced customer who can switch between orthodox and southpaw and, while he isn’t a devastating hitter, he can bang with both hands, particularly his right.

If Tennyson can settle and come to terms with the occasion, he has a considerable reach advantage and should have the tools to see Walsh off late on. Then we’ll know the tearaway has come of age.


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