By George Ogier
On Saturday night in Sheffield one of British amateur boxing’s most famous names takes what could be his last swing at professional success. The former Olympic champion Audley Harrison faces American puncher Deontay Wilder on the undercard of Amir Khan’s fight with Julio Diaz.
Plenty of column inches and internet forums have been devoted to the subject of Harrison’s failure to convert successfully to the pro game. In the city that is the home of GB amateur boxing it really is Audley’s final opportunity to make a dent in the rankings of the paid world.
Another boxer who is no stranger to Sheffield and the GB set up is London 2012’s boxing team captain Thomas Stalker. After failing to win a medal in the summer games Stalker took the decision to hang up the head guard and sign with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom team. However, three fights into his professional journey and many are starting to question whether Stalker has what it takes to fulfil his ambition and become a world champion.
Tom Stalker came to boxing late, only entering a gym at the age of 18. In spite of these tardy beginnings Stalker became one of the most successful amateur fighters this country has ever seen. ABA, European and Commonwealth titles were added to his CV as the Liverpudlian chased the big one, gold at a home Olympic games.
Stalker went into the Olympics as the AIBA ranked no. 1 light welterweight in the world. Controversy dogged Tom’s time at London 2012 with him being on both ends of disputed decisions. Some people felt that Stalker had been the benefactor of some generous judging in his round of 16 contest against Manoj Kumar. Conversely Stalker’s fans were furious when in the resulting quarter-final it was decided that Tom had lost a close fight to Mongolia’s Munkh-Erdene Uranchimeg.
The disappointment of London 2012 gave Stalker little appetite to put in another four years of preparation for Rio 2016. The opportunity to turn pro was there and cashing in on fame generated by the games was too big an offer to turn down.
In the past, decorated amateurs have turned professional in a blaze of publicity but for Tom Stalker the switch has been reasonably low-key. In an interesting twist Stalker made his professional debut at York Hall, fighting just before Audley Harrison’s recent Prizefighter triumph.
That night Stalker’s fans turned a corner of East London into a Liverpudlian enclave, all for just twelve minutes of action. Support will not be hard to come by for the popular Stalker but as a flat performance progressed the crowd matched it with a deflated atmosphere.
Stalker’s less-than-stellar showing against Kristian Laight was understandable. A first professional fight in front of a raucous crowd would make even the hardiest of souls nervous. The general feeling was that “The Captain” would improve, he just needed rounds.
Since that night in Bethnal Green Stalker has fought twice more in a short space of time. Points decision victories over Andrew Harris and Gyorgy Mizsei Jr have kept the former amateur busy but there is now a rumble of discontent from some fans over Stalker’s potential as a pro.
I watched Tom Stalker’s debut at York Hall from ringside and to be frank it was rather underwhelming. More worrying though is the fact that he doesn’t appear to have learnt anything from that experience. In Harris he faced a three fight novice with no wins and yet Harris was able to draw one round.
Mizsei Jr had lost a third of his fights against Eastern Europeans who would struggle to be recognised in their own homes and yet at times he made Stalker look silly. It is worth remembering that Tom himself is also a three fight professional novice. However, with the amateur pedigree that Stalker possesses his technical ability should be way beyond what we have seen so far.
Are we being too critical of Tom Stalker? Steve Bunce wrote recently in Boxing Monthly “It is not the job of Robert McCracken, his team and the GB funding system to prepare boxers for the professional business.” This is undoubtedly true and whilst there is often a chasm between the two codes many of the skills are clearly transferable.
One of the most disturbing things about Stalker’s time as a paid fighter is how easy he has been to hit. On Saturday it felt like every time Tom tried to move inside Mizsei Jr’s guard he was getting clipped. It all feels like it’s a bit rushed and perhaps that is at the root of the problem.
Tom Stalker is almost 29 years old and 95% of his boxing experience has been centred around the amateur sport. The cliché of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a well-worn one but it’s well-worn for a reason. Can Stalker learn the skills he needs to be a success in the pros? There is a feeling that the likeable Scouser may well have left it too late.
There is a counter argument that age is no barrier success. It was a mantra espoused by George Foreman as he made his comeback in the late 1980s. However Foreman was already an experienced professional and the only issue he really had was one of ring rust (and perhaps diet rust).
Stalker needs to learn and learn fast. However, the two or three years it might normally take a novice to get to domestic title level isn’t really an option here. The problem is that during Stalker’s three fights so far we have learnt that he isn’t going to slip naturally into this change of career.
In his desire to please the fans with eye-catching performances it seems like Stalker is forgetting the fundamentals that served him so well in the world of head guards and vests. It isn’t just fight to fight that Tom is forgetting these rules, it is during contests too. On Saturday Stalker’s trainer was becoming frustrated with the Liverpudlian’s seeming inability to stick to the game plan.
Another difficulty is Stalker’s apparent lack of power. You could forgive him for eating a punch or two if he was getting inside to land a knockout blow but that simply isn’t the case. Tom appears to be chasing a shot that will never come. At 28 it will be difficult to add a power game to Stalker’s armoury so he needs to box smart, something that seems like a distant dream at times.
Nobody can begrudge Tom Stalker’s desire to box in an Olympics held in his own country. Especially not when he was the world ranked no. 1 in his weight class and the team captain. Sacrifices had to be made by every fighter on the GB squad and Stalker was no difference. However, the sacrifice Stalker made to appear at those games might just be the dream of professional success.