Thinking about my junior career, I started to wonder what had happened to my past opponents. A few I know are still in the game and doing exceptionally well. Then I remembered Craig Bithell, this was my hardest fight as a junior and the first time I’d gone a full five rounds. The atmosphere was electric and something you wouldn’t expect from two 16 year olds. All the emotions are flooding back to me now as I type this.
I’d won an area title at the time and stopped my opponent in the second round (it was scheduled for five). I was eager to fight again so Steve was on the case. He had his own local show coming up and was looking to get me matched on that.
An opponent was found by the name of Craig Bithell from Wigan, the bout had been sanctioned for an English school boy title. He’d had a bit more experience than me and had also fought in Thailand too. Steve didn’t tell me at the time and I’m glad he didn’t really, but he’d had a few phone calls from other instructors saying “are you sure about Damien fighting Craig” and other comments similar to this. If he’d have told me this I would of well and truly crapped myself I think.
Craig had brought a coach load of supporters and they were very loud. Our fight was second from the end, and as the night proceeded there was constant chants of “Bithell’s gonna kill ya!” over and over from his suppoters, and it was really starting to get on my tits.
When Bithell’s name was called I was still in the changing room; Steve giving me a confidence boosting pep talk that I still get today 15 years on. It was my turn to head to the ring. The MC called my name and there was an almighty cheer from the home support, along with “Bithell’s gonna kill ya” from his.
Now back then when I entered the ring, I used to do a bow showing my gratitude to the supporters coming to watch, then head over to my opponent and pay my respects there. As I headed over, Craig was leaning with his back against the ropes with a kind of “what the *beep* are you coming over here for” look. I remember thinking, “oh crap, what am I letting myself in for?” I actually think this today before every fight.
Craig made no attempt to greet me and I have no idea what possessed me to do it but I pushed him and just turned my back and headed back to my corner. This was not the only thing I did out of character during this fight. I don’t know what came over me but I grabbed my crotch as a lewd gesture to his supporters. Swiftly realising I was neither Italian nor Michael Jackson; I got a telling off from Steve as the crowd was already at boiling point. I always try to be polite to everyone otherwise my mother would give me a stern telling off! But when people try it I will bite back.
Now started the mind games. We began the Ram Muay, mines only short and sweet so I was finished first, then to wind him up I decided to stand right in Craig’s face while he was still in the middle of his. Whatever direction he turned I strolled over and just stared at him. The end of his Ram Muay was actually funny; he came over and pretended to urinate in my corner! I later found that in a previous fight he’d done this same Ram Muay and had a point deducted for doing so. This wouldn’t happen now but this was on Tony Moore’s show and Tony is very strict on Thai culture and respect.
The fight started, now at this time I wasn’t overly flexible, well to my knowledge that is. Craig was backing me up in to the corner and out of no where I left kicked him in the face. I actually remember thinking “how the hell did I do that?” Now the fight really came to life.
It became a very aggressive fight. I actually remember Craig swearing at me at one stage as he came at me with some solid punches and I gladly responded by shouting “c’mon then!” how juvenile but appropriate at the time.
End of round three and I headed back to my corner. I could barely breathe properly and was almost wheezing. All I was thinking was “this fight should be over now”, if it were a three rounder I’d be finished.
Round four continued the same as the other rounds, both of us going at it like crazy trying to claim this English title. I came back to the corner well and truly cream crackered. I sat on the stool and I have no idea what my facial expression was like but Steve shouted, “what’s the matter?” “I’m tired” I have no idea how I managed to say these words as I could barely breathe. “Well if you’re tired then he’s tired, look at him he’s knackered!”
I got off the stool the only thought in my head was “one more round and I’m finished”. The crowd had to be told to move away from the ring, as they were literally on the apron. Everything that we prepared in the gym going into this fight really came out in the last round, I really went for it. The final bell went and both of us looked so relieved to hear it.
The first thing I remember doing was actually apologising for my behaviour during the Ram Muay. I headed back to my corner so exhausted, I just slumped myself over the top rope while everyone was telling me I’d won and what a great fight it was. Steve told me to stand up straight and show I wasn’t tired, I’ll be honest at this point I really didn’t care how I looked, all I could think of was to sit or lie down. I got the decision and the title. When I got back to the changing room I remember people were trying to talk to me but I could barely speak, all I wanted was water.
Craig and I actually got on really well after this, even trained together a few times and chatted often at shows years later. I think this a great sport and people should remember it’s a sport and here to be enjoyed. I can honestly say that there isn’t anyone that I dislike or don’t get on with in the sport; there are people that I’m competitive with but that’s all part of the fun.