Mick Learmonth: Ex-rugby league player trading passes for punches in boxing

Mick Learmonth
Mick Learmonth swapped rugby league for boxing after a horrendous chest injury

Mick Learmonth has become accustomed to getting whacked.

He spent years being upended, smashed and belted as a rugby league player until injury struck.

Now he trains all day for the privilege of being punched in the face, head and body as a professional boxer in the cruiserweight division.

Talk about a sucker for punishment.

"People say 'do your mum or your nanna or your sisters not mind?' But they've seen me getting battered or carried off pitches since I was young," Learmonth, 24, told BBC Sport.

"They don't mind it at all, they get excited. My sisters get nervous but they love it, they can't wait for the fights.

"I think if you're playing rugby or boxing, you're a physical type. I find it exciting more than anything."

Agony, both emotional and physical

Mick Learmonth
Mick Learmonth has shed some of the bulk he needed for rugby league, cutting down for the boxing game

The 6ft 1in lad from Leeds found the physicality of rugby league to his liking, having picked up the game at amateur club Hunslet Warriors.

Back then he juggled both sports, with the boxing club just a stroll round the corner from the rugby, until he was signed to the Leeds age groups set-up and had to make a choice.

He signed a professional deal at Warrington Wolves on the back of his efforts with the England Under-16 and Warrington under-18 sides, and then moved back over the Pennines to join Huddersfield.

That was when his life and career were turned upside down.

"I was doing ok in my last professional season at Huddersfield. We were doing a strength-testing session which is done at the start and end of each season," Learmonth continued.

"It was the first session of the year. I was just bench pressing. We do a three-rep max: I did the first two reps, on the third rep I went to press and completely snapped my chest.

"I snapped my tendons, ligament, my muscles so I had to have a full reconstruction. It impacted me a lot, and put me out for nearly two years."

Such a crushing injury, added to an extended lay-off, was only compounded by hours and hours of rehabilitation.

It was a test of character for a young player at an uncertain time.

"It was very frustrating, having my arm strapped to my body, my right side of my body was paralysed for two days and mentally it was challenging," he said.

"Going through all the rehab and getting it right was hard, and I couldn't even lift a 2kg weight initially. I had to work with bands for a certain amount of time.

"I worked with some great physios who got me back on track and I haven't looked back since."

Putting the gloves up

Learmonth turned to Thai Boxing at the Golden Team Gym in Leeds, initially to help develop his fitness on the back of such a devastating injury.

But it was his handwork which impressed trainer Padraic McDonagh - known predominantly as 'P' - and prompted a straight switch to regular boxing.

"You don't start maturing until your mid-20s in rugby, so I thought I was at the right age to give boxing a shot," Learmonth continued.

From the daily patter and camaraderie of the rugby paddock, to the long, sometimes lonely hours of road-runs and the boxing gym; the training schedule is very different now.

He misses the banter and friendship of his old sport, but the fight game is both rewarding and demanding in equal measure.

"I'd take a week of rugby training over one day of boxing training any day," he laughed.

Mick Learmonth
Mick Learmonth works on the pads with coach 'P' at Golden Team Gym in Leeds

"Boxing is the tougher side to fitness. If I was going to go back to rugby now as I am, I'd like to think I'd ease through it compared to where I was. It's definitely more fitness demanding.

"My main position was number 10 - prop forward. As soon as I saw their number 10, I was gunning for him all game. I would get the ball and run at him, tell him to run at me and if it came to getting dead physical it was it.

"You can relate that to boxing. There's that opponent in front of you. I do enjoy it more, and it's a new challenge as well - mentally and physically.

"There are days when coming in the gym after a hard week, or I've been on a run and when you're feeling flat, is tough. It's not like you don't want to train, but your body won't do what your mind wants it to.

"But we're getting there slowly. I've never felt as fit and probably as strong."

Ultimate Boxxer offers new challenge

Having won his opening seven fights, all on home turf at Leeds United's Elland Road stadium, Learmonth is now headed for London and the O2 Arena.

Polish fighter Pawel Strykowski will be the southpaw's opponent on the undercard of the Ultimate Boxxer 5 super-welterweights tournament.

The walk to the ring, the travel, the new venue are all factors to take into account, and will add to the tension which leads up to the very real sensation of one-to-one combat.

"It can be intimidating, but you either hide from it or embrace it," Learmonth said.

"It's great opportunity, at the O2, fighting away from Leeds, it's great exposure and great for the people to come down and follow me.

"I'm looking forward to it. You could say I get nervous, but I get nervous to perform, for the people who come to watch. I don't want to let them down. They work hard and the living that they make - they're spending that money to watch it.

"I just have to go out there on fight night, and I need to perform."

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