BOXING BLUES (Part Two) By Matt McCormack
You often hear stories about promising young sportsmen having careers cut short by serious injuries. But for a life-long Evertonian from Kirkdale, sustaining a serious injury was merely the catalyst for launching a career inside the ropes.
After suffering a broken knee cap, Stephen Harkin admits to losing hope when the doctors told him that the break was so bad that they feared he'd never be able to kick a ball again. In a bid to get fit and begin his rehabilitation, he returned to the boxing gym where he had spent many hours as a schoolboy.
Speaking about the first time he walked through the doors of the boxing gym as a kid, Harkin said, "I started at Kirkdale ABC when I was about 14-15. I'd always played football and I used to just go along and watch my mates box at first. But when I joined the senior school I started to go as well." As with many youngsters, playground nicknames can stick with them for the rest of their lives and Harkin is no exception. "I've been called 'Georgie' since I was a kid. I don't really know why. That's why I have it on my shorts."
As a boyhood Blue, Stephen was also a keen footballer and was even invited along for trials with his beloved Everton having impressed in a schoolboy tournament. "When I played for the school, we won a competition and the final was held at The Cliff, Man United's [former] training ground. Off the back of that, me and a few of the lads had trials with Everton at Bellefield." Deciding to focus on a sport that didn't involve getting punched in the face for a living, Harkin fell away from boxing, preferring to lace up his football boots rather than boxing gloves.
"I'd stopped boxing," Harkin says of his stint away from the ring, "but after the injury I started again to get fit. I would take the lads from the football team that I was running to the Kirkdale gym," not expecting for one moment that the extra fitness sessions with his team-mates would lead him to consider a career as a paid pugilist. "I didn't plan to turn pro but enjoyed it," he said of his transition from Sunday league footballer to professional boxer, "The training is great for fitness."
"Sparkin' Harkin" made the move into the professional ranks under the tutelage of his trusted amateur trainer John Smith. Harkin was advised by Smith to speak to respected coach Oliver Harrison about featuring on the undercard of his shows. Harkin's first outing came in July 2009 when he outpointed Jason Smith over four rounds in St Helens. Victories over Matt Scriven on points and a stoppage victory against Paul Royston followed before Harkin made the move to renowned North West promoter Steve Wood's VIP Promotions outfit. "I won my three fights but he wasn't going to be putting on shows for a while so I joined Steve Wood," said the Scouser about the promotional switch.
Harkin was held to a draw by future James DeGale victim Ally Morrison, with the fight taking place at the super middleweight limit - the best part of a stone above Harkin's preferred fighting weight. The life-long Evertonian then extended his unbeaten record with wins over Bobby Wood in Colne and Alex Spitko infront of his hometown fans at the Olympia. The Kirkdale puncher was disappointed to suffer the only loss on his record so far after spending time in hospital with illness. Harkin admits that his performance against Birmingham brawler Terry Carruthers was hindered by his spell in hospital, sapping his energy after rushing back into action too quickly. A chance of redemption was foiled by his conqueror when the two men fought to a hard-earned draw in a rematch in April.
The Scouser is looking to the future and hopes to return to the ring in September at light middleweight and believes Matchroom's innovative Prizefighter tournament could be the ideal platform in which to kick-start his career. "I thought I was too late to turn pro at 27 but thought I'd give it a go. Like I said before I didn't even think about turning professional when I started. I wouldn't mind entering Prizefighter at light middleweight. It offers TV exposure, decent pay, entertainment and above all else, an opportunity." With former winner Prince Arron currently reigning as British champion at 154 lbs, the competition offers the springboard to fight for titles and Harkin would love nothing more than to be in contention for a tilt at a domestic belt somewhere down the line.
Speaking of his affection for the Toffees, Harkin says, "I had a season ticket for about 5 years but now I go to every home game and a few aways when I can." But it is the clashes with city rivals Liverpool that has Harkin checking the fixture list at the start of the season. "I love all the derby games. I'm normally sat in the Gwladys but for the recent one at Goodison when Gosling scored the winner I was sat in the Main Stand. The atmosphere was brilliant with it being a night game, you can't beat it. I was at Goodison for the 2-0 win and Anfield last season when Distin and Beckford scored in the 2-2 draw. All of my mates are Reds and I'll often have a bet about finishing above them!"
Stephen lists Duncan Ferguson as his boyhood hero. "Like all lads our age, he was the one," he says reminiscing about the man idolised by the Gwladys Street. When asked if Big Dunc had the attributes to have made the grade in the Sweet Science rather than at the School of Science, Harkin doesn't hesitate, "He's a good size, had that bit of aggression and could throw a punch so I don't see why not!"
Whilst the punches thrown in anger by the Blues' number nine normally led to dismissals by referees, one Evertonian will be hoping his own knockout punch will have referees counting to ten rather than reaching into their pockets. Battling back from a serious knee injury, Harkin has shown fighting spirit, determination, commitment and a will to succeed - all of which will no doubt stand him in good stead as he enters the next chapter of his boxing fairytale.
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