Jay Harris: From small halls & working nights to world title shot

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Jay Harris ready for world title chance

Jay Harris' ascent in boxing sounds made up, as if it has come straight from the mind of Sylvester Stallone for the latest Rocky film.

In March and June last year he fought at the Vale Sports Arena in Cardiff in front of a few hundred paying punters, still concerned he had made the wrong decision in not quitting the sport that was providing him with few opportunities to match his talent.

With his career stalling, Harris figured he always had that warehouse job with Amazon to fall back on.

Yet now the Swansea boxer is preparing for a world title shot in Texas, USA later this month against Julio Cesar Martinez in his Mexican opponent's first defence of the WBC flyweight title.

Harris has gone from small hall shows to world title contender and now has the chance to become Wales' 13th world champion.

He has not done it the easy way.

Training, night shift, training again - 'it's not ideal but it works'

The 29-year-old from Townhill in Swansea, who is trained by his father Peter, made his professional debut in 2013 at the Newport Centre against journeyman Brett Fidoe in front of a few hundred fans for a total purse of "about £100".

He won that contest, as he has all 17 of his professional bouts, but the doors of opportunity never opened.

When Harris beat the highly experienced Thomas Essomba at London's York Hall in 2017 to claim the Commonwealth title in only his 10th fight, it appeared that was about to change.

But this is boxing, and talent and hard work do not necessarily reap rewards.

Fast-forward two years to March 2019 and Harris was again on a small show, this time at the Vale Sport Arena in Cardiff. His opponent? Brett Fidoe, again. The promoter Mo Prior put him on the bill as a favour, because Harris works so hard and his opportunities were so scarce. Prior lost money by adding him to the card. Harris despaired.

It was as if he was back at square one, his career going nowhere. Where was the reward for six years unbeaten in the paid ranks? Harris was ready to quit and his manager, Gary Lockett, offered to cancel his management contract. All parties felt like it might be the end of the road.

"It was difficult then. I would say 18 months ago I was on the verge of quitting. I won the Commonwealth title and then through no fault of my own, it just went stale," Harris tells BBC Sport Wales.

"Gary was trying his hardest to get me a fight, to get me anything and we were getting nowhere. I had a chat with my dad and said I thought it would be easier to just work for a living.

"But luckily I have a good team around me and they encouraged me to stick at it, told me I was too good to quit.

"I had a think about it myself. I decided that as I had been boxing since I was 12, I owed it to myself to carry on and see how far I could go."

Jay Harris & Gary Lockett
Jay Harris is managed by Gary Lockett, a former world title level boxer, but is trained by his father Peter Harris, who also boxed professionally. Chris Jenkins and Rhys Edwards are among the fighters Harris trains with.

With the rewards failing to materialise, Harris never gave up his part-time job working night shifts at Amazon's warehouse in Swansea. His employers have given him paid leave to prepare for his world title opportunity, although Harris admits combining the two jobs is not ideal.

"Amazon have been great with me, they've given me time off to prepare for this fight and in previous fights they have given me time off as well to prepare," he says.

"I work part-time, two nights a week, Thursday and Friday, from about 7.15pm to about 5.30am.

"I unload all the lorries, put goods into lanes and then sign the paperwork and send the drivers off. It's a nice job and I actually do enjoy what I do there. A lot of people don't like what they do there, but I do, it's quite cushty.

"I have to juggle the two and it is quite hard, with obviously Thursday and Friday being the hardest because I am training in the day and then I have to work all night, get some sleep and then train and do it all again.

"Luckily I have my rest day on Sunday to try and recover my body and then go again.

"Boxing is hard graft so this isn't ideal, but it works for me - I am still unbeaten."

A father-son team and a breakthrough fight

After Joe Calzaghe and Nathan Cleverly, Harris is the latest Welshman to achieve success while being trained by his father - although there is one notable difference.

While Calzaghe and Cleverly's fathers Enzo and Vince never boxed, Peter Harris was a professional between 1983 and 1996.

Peter did not lead Jay to boxing, but when he found his own path there, his father stepped in to guide him. That partnership has now spanned 17 years, with Peter training his son full-time and Lockett serving as a part-time trainer as well as manager.

"Dad and I have been working together since I was 12, since I first went to a gym. I went to a boxing gym with my mate and actually my dad didn't know I had gone," Harris says.

"I told him I had been to the boxing gym and he said 'right, well if you are going to take it seriously I will come up there and train you'.

"He has trained me ever since. Gary trains me twice a week, and that is nice because it gives me a break from my dad. He's doing everything - it's a lot of time to spend together. It can get a bit ratty.

"Dad never pushed me into it. I tried every sport you can imagine - swimming, football, rugby, karate - and nothing stuck, but then I tried boxing and took to it pretty well.

"In my first year I'd had six fights and I won the Welsh title, even though my dad was pretty reluctant to enter me, because I was a six-fight novice. I won it comfortably and thought 'that's a good feeling isn't it?'"

Jay Harris v Paddy Barnes
Harris beat Paddy Barnes at the Ulster Hall in Belfast to push himself into the world title picture

Harris and Lockett cite signing with promoters MTK as the turning point in Harris' career, although October's stunning upset win over three-time Olympian Paddy Barnes in Belfast is what got people finally talking about him.

Harris' relentless, frenetic style is typical of recent Welsh world champions like Calzaghe, Cleverly, Gavin Rees and Lee Selby.

"I signed with MTK then and my life changed," Harris says. "The Paddy Barnes fight was one of my favourites. We went over to his back yard and people were telling me that I was fighting their 'golden child', you know? He was their number one.

"We knew we were going to win. I felt too big and too strong for him and timing is everything as they say. That was our time."

He is now the challenger for Cesar Martinez' WBC flyweight title, a dream opportunity.

If Martinez's name sounds familiar, that is because two of the Mexican's past three opponents have been from the UK.

He beat Welshman Andrew Selby in Mexico last March, before a controversial no contest with Charlie Edwards saw the Londoner retain his title. Martinez finally won the title outright in December with a TKO win over Nicaraguan Cristofer Rosales.

Bookies make him the overwhelming favourite to beat Harris, but the Welshman is confident.

And after years of small hall shows, he is excited to be the chief support at the 12,000-capacity Ford Center in Frisco, and by the prospect of sharing a star-studded bill with the likes of headliners Jessie Vargas and Mikey Garcia, Chocolatito (Roman Gonzalez) and Joseph Parker.

With his partner expecting the couple's first child in June, Harris is hopeful 2020 is going to be his dream year.

"I have pretty much been waiting my whole career for this. I am fighting for the WBC world flyweight title in Texas on a massive, massive card," he says.

"I don't really care if I am the underdog. I have felt like that most of my career. I thrive off it. All the pressure is on him.

"I am going to embrace it. This is a world title shot, the WBC belt is the most prestigious there is and I am fighting for it. I will give it 100% and I am confident I can win the fight, I really am.

"This year is the best of my life. I am going to come back world champion and then I am having a baby in June."