EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: JOSH SANDLAND – TRUE NORTHERN GRIT

It’s a sleepy little town, Halifax. I’d spent a few weeks there for work and had been amazed at being able to walk from one side to the next in roughly thirty minutes. 

In the Winter, it seemed desolate. The frost on the cobbled streets was visible thanks to a lack of hurried footsteps. In the Summer, a quaint but friendly place seemingly left behind by its neighbouring larger cities. Compared to the hustle and bustle of East London, Halifax was a library. Hard-working with its head down.

It was on a busy Saturday night when I’d first encountered Josh Sandland. It was a DoveBox promotions show in the mecca of British boxing and as York Hall stood at attention to welcome Dominic Akinlade, its brow was strained in disbelief at Sandland. Standing only five-feet-ten-inches, he was far from athletic on appearances alone. Akinlade had mocked him in the build-up, set to face Nathan Gorman himself for the English heavyweight title after this tune-up.

“I think I’ve wrecked his career haven’t I? With what we done. It’s sad, because I must admit it was a really, really good fight. Entertaining, I thought. But I only had four weeks to train for that fight. It was a very good win and it banged me straight into the top-ten.”

Pinned below the ropes that Sandland, now aged just twenty-five, had trapped his opponent on, I was stunned at his unexpected, athletic performance. He entered the ring having only one professional fight previously, a good win against Jone ‘TK’ Volau (4-0, 1KO). An unknown quantity, there purely to make up the numbers. His shot selection was terrific as he pressured Akinlade for the full six rounds. Drilling in uppercuts and defending well under-fire, it was passion and desire that split them. Still, we sat ringside and thought, ‘what if…’.

“I thought it was an absolute honour to get in the ring with him, even though he slagged me off to hell. You know, Dominic Akinlade was sponsored by Adidas or something and what an opportunity that would be! I think it’s a short window in Halifax and it always has been.”

Sandland has been struggling to balance boxing with the demanding regime that accompanies life as a self-employed tradesman. He also has a new love in his life, his son Lenny. He gets up before sunrise, running. Then a full day of work as a tiler drains him before finishing off with a training session in Chris Aston’s gym in Huddersfield. Although Lenny and his dedicated partner come first, twenty-four hours just isn’t enough time in Sandland’s day. 

I was intrigued at his start in boxing. Heavy-set but extremely fit, it made sense that rugby was in the North Yorkshireman’s genetics. After a series of ups-and-downs, he stumbled off a plane from the other side of the World and into a new life that demanded every ounce of his enthusiasm.

“I signed a two-year professional contract at Huddersfield (Rugby Club). I did really well in me’ first year, got all the awards you could get. I thought I was gonna be pushing for a full-time contract and a coach came in who didn’t really like me. Stuff was said and it escalated from there, they ended up setting me up and sacking me!”

“I ended up going to Australia for a year when I was nineteen. I just sold everything and went to Australia on me’ own. I played put there for a team called Gold Coast Titans Reserves. I had a few little games for them, to see if I were any good. But, same scenario. They were supposed to promise to get me a job, meant to look after me and they never did. About a year into me being there, me’ Mum got breast cancer so I’ve come home.”

The first of many obstacles, Sandland returned home feeling more lost than when he had been amidst his adventure overseas. Rugby had chewed him up and spat him out, the politics of the sport wearing him down and breaking his spirit. He remembered his old amateur boxing coach as he took a breath of the cold, British air. Maybe boxing was where he belonged? Mick Helliwell had an enormous influence on Josh’s career both before and after Australia. Even now, he speaks of Helliwell as family.

Martial arts of any kind have a reputation as cliquey. Walking into a club for the first time is daunting. Existing members ignoring new entrants for weeks at a time, sometimes as a test of mettle. Coaches giving little-to-no instruction, unless you have proven yourself. After experiencing it myself in various Judo clubs, I fully understood Sandland’s struggle.

“Obviously we went to a lot of gyms at first. Don’t think it was easy. I’ve wasted about two years of my life, a year in amateurs rocking around clubs, everyone saying I weren’t big enough, I’d never do ought. Heavyweights will kill me. When your face doesn’t fit and stuff just doesn’t work out… you know? Then, we’d heard some bad stuff about a bloke in a gym in Huddersfield, the gym I’m in now, Chris Aston’s gym. But what a fella! I can’t knock him at all. He’s stuck by me, got me fights and he’s seen something hasn’t he?”

Chris Ashton, known for training Tyrone Nurse in Huddersfield, had seen something. The talent posessed by Sandland isn’t evident. You have to scrape the surface and dig a little deeper. He knows that himself though, mentioning his physique before I had the chance to politely bring it up. In his first two fights, he challenged undefeated heavyweights with a combined record of; 12-0, 5KOs. Unheard of, for a man determined to avoid Journeyman status.

An amateur, a career spanning eleven fights with some success in regional competition had been his only taste of boxing in front of an audience. The rush he felt, ‘nothing better’, he told me. I asked Josh why, or how perhaps, he ended up facing such stiff competition in his opening two bouts?

“I’ll be honest with you, my girlfriend had a miscarriage. What we did, I took her away to Tenerife, I didn’t train and we were in a bit of a bad place. I came back and he (Chris) said, ‘I’ve got you a fight.’ I asked who is it against? He said, ‘TK Volau’. He told me that this fight, we needed to take. I went up there against all odds and I beat him. I knew I’d won.”

“You have to bear in mind, I ain’t full-time and never have been. I’ve just had a little baby with me’ Missus and everything’s going really well.”

I was delighted to hear that little Lenny had arrived, with Josh determined to become a role model for his young son.

On October 14th, this year, Sandland travelled to London to face Tom Little. Once again up against it, he felt confident on the road despite Little’s reputation as a fast-starter and a popular fight figure down South. 

Disbelief. The only word I could use to describe the Social Media reaction from respected boxing fans or journalists when Tom Little stopped Josh Sandland in the fourth round. People kicked off, claiming the referee’s decision to step in had been pre-meditated and they demanded a rematch. I wasn’t there, I can’t pass my own personal opinion. However, the loss to Tom Little truly hurt the Halifax man.

“That Tom Little fight really upset me because I worked really hard for that. Imagine a heavyweight with three fights only being in line for a British title eliminator? It’s never been done and I think they’ve robbed me of that. It’s just… it’s not fair. I went down with just my coaches and they were absolutely disgusted. He had no power, give him the first two rounds but the game plan went exactly to plan. He’ll come out hard and fast, then I was taking over the fight and what? They stop it. You start to wonder is it corrupt?”

I pondered a rematch, was it something Sandland would hunt in the near future?

“I don’t think he’ll fight me again. I’d fight him for free. He’s already said he won’t give me anymore money, but if I were in the sport for money, I’d be a journeyman. That Tom Little fight. The Doctor said, ‘I’m not even gonna examine you – I feel sick’. My old amateur coach Mick Helliwell, the fitness man, he were nearly crying. It was sickening for him.”

Moving into the New Year, it was apparent that Sandland has asiprations of fighting full-time. He opened up on issues regarding ticket-selling and sponsorship. Sponsors had spoken to him, but had never committed to anything financial which meant his long days working had continued. His physique, development and fanbase would all have benefited from financial backing, but for now, the routine remained.

Currently ranked 13th in the UK, with two big wins and a contentious defeat, the future is bright. Halifax, although not a hub for British boxing, had a heavyweight with serious ability. The longevity of his career was something of a question mark, though his love for the sport was undeniable.

“I won’t ever give up because I love the sport but it’s frustrating. I can’t give up, it’s got a hold of me. I’m not in it for a joke. People make comments, which I’ve seen – as you do, ‘friggin’ hell look at the state of him!’ or ‘get him on a diet and he might be alright!’. Look at the old boxers! They were never ripped like they are today, they’re like bodybuilders aren’t they? You can take the mickey out of anybody – but if you haven’t got heart, you won’t win. You can get a bloke at 9st who can punch through a wall. It’s all bravado, so you get scared as soon as you look at em’. But it don’t bother me, it never has.”

The grit and determination of Josh Sandland was inspiring. Overcoming obstacles at home and abroad. Dedicating his life to two sports and having that dedication thrown back in his face. He personified the tough, salt-of-the-Earth nature of a Yorkshire upbringing. Taking those difficult moments in his stride but never feeling sorry for himself, he marches forward.

A shot at the English or British title is his dream, but Sandland craves respect and appreciation from his peers. He is putting in the work, to provide for his family and to be remembered for his graft.

“Anybody can fight a foreigner who’s coming to lose. People recognise something more. Like, ‘He never backed down from anyone, Christ almighty!’. I’d like to have a belt, by the back end of 2018 either an English or a British or at least the chance to go for it, you know? If I got a good opportunity, I’m up for anything. It’s for the love of the sport. I’m trying to be remembered for a long time.”

Written by Craig Scott

@craigscott209

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