For the charismatic John Harding Jr boxing isn’t just a sport that he happens to be very good at, it’s also a form of civic, even spiritual duty. When he talks of setting an example to others there’s an undercurrent of passion and sincerity in his voice that’s impossible to deny, and having undergone the sort of experiences that disrupted his twenties with stretches spent in prison, he’s in a position to know exactly what he’s talking about. Born in New Cross and now thirty-three, the six foot middleweight has put together a record of four wins and a draw in the past year, and with his next outing on 14th April at the York Hall on a Warrior Promotions show he’ll be looking to extend that winning run even further.
Anyone wishing to know about Harding Jr’s chequered past can find that elsewhere, but today he’s a man with his gaze firmly on the future. Managed by Mo Prior and trained by highly-experienced former pro Ted Bami at Miguel’s Gym in Brixton, Harding Jnr shares plenty of ring-time with gym-mates Isaac Chamberlain and Chris Kongo, and the 14th April can’t come fast enough for the father of one: “I love boxing at the York Hall, there’s always so much energy in there. You can test yourself out, get your nerves out of the way, it’s a great place. I like how many people there are genuinely interested in your boxing and will stop and talk to you. Now, because of the power of social media boxing is much more of an ‘it’ thing, it is lovely the way it’s being noticed now and it helps change lives, it’s helped me progress and change mine.” Given his height, Harding Jr has had to graft hard to get to the middleweight limit: “Making the weight is all about the focus and believing you can. When I came out of prison I was weighing ninety something kilos, and I remember Chris Kongo at one time was absolutely battering me in sparring, and while my mind was there my body wasn’t. I think I weighed eighty-one kilos in my last amateur fight and in my fourth fight as a pro I was seventy-one kilos, and that was the lowest of my career. I’ve learned to listen to my body and I think that’s why I performed so well in my last fight (W PTS 4 Lewis van Poetsch).”
In some ways Harding Jr is making up for lost years with his time in the unpaid ranks harshly interrupted by time ‘away’: “As an amateur I had fourteen fights and eight wins. I started at Honor Oak ABC and I then settled at Lynn and that’s where I went back to after prison, it was time for catch-up and it was tough you know, getting the motivation back, the timing. This is my training ground now, trying to learn and get things right, and I’ve learned so much already especially from the draw (against Wiltshire’s Anthony Fox in April 2017). I was winning by boxing but when he head-butted me and the ref didn’t say anything I forgot the boxing and started fighting. In my head I just wanted to show him what I can do but I lost discipline and I also got a point taken off. It was my own fault. I remember in my first fight (WPTS 4 Iain Jackson) he hit me clean and damaged my eye, but I thought ‘just stick to the boxing’. A lot of it is the pressure of expectation, because in the gym people see me pressure cruiserweights and back them up, but I’ve learned to take my time. Some of it is nerves and I didn’t have enough time in the amateurs to get rid of those nerves. I’ve showed since then that I can stay in control and I’ve got all the tools.”
Despite his relatively advanced age Harding Jr approaches his trade with the caution of a man who realises there are skills to still be acquired: “I know which facets of my game I have to work on and not worry about everyone’s expectations, ‘Oh, John will get a straight KO’ because my coach has me sparring with Isaac Chamberlain as he knows I’m going to put the pressure on. I’m just really trying to improve and this year has been about learning, so sparring people like Chris Eubank Jnr has been great for that.” Harding Jr has also discovered he has talent in another sphere, one that he’ll perhaps pursue in the future with the same single-mindedness with which he presses his ambitions in boxing: “I work at Anytime Fitness as a personal trainer where I take a few classes, and I’ve been doing that since October or November last year. I make sure I’m always out of there in time for my boxing and while it can be tiring my body’s used to it. Getting into acting was accidental really, I was in the gym and met someone who needed extras and I just did it. Another time I got a phone call after my first fight and that was the first time I’d had to read from a script, it was surreal being around a table with people from Hollyoaks and such like, and afterwards they asked how long had I been doing it and I said this is my first time! I think they were a little in shock and the Hollyoaks guy said ‘wow, you’re really good’ and I ended up getting the part and not him! It’s amazing, and it did touch me. Life can be full of surprises, and you must never give up.”
Harding Jr draws much motivation from his ability to provide a younger generation with a positive example, and listening to the New Cross man is reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s ‘I want to win my title and walk down the alley’s….’ speech: “My ambitions in boxing have grown greater and greater with each fight. At first I was doing it for me but I’ve started to become a pioneer of change, people stop me on the street and say what I’m doing is amazing and I’m from an area without a lot of opportunities. My age is irrelevant, I feel young, I look young, and the more fights I have the more people are looking at me as a pioneer.
“I tell young people of my experiences and right now it’s become more like a calling, and I feel I’m being employed to pave the way. I want people to come and support me because that support is helping the many others who are looking up to me. The supporters enable me to fight and I want the people who say how well I’m doing to know that they can do it too. For the next generation, anything is possible.”
Very true, and if Harding Jr can influence one young person to not make the same mistakes he did and paid a heavy price for with the loss of his liberty, perhaps that will be of far greater value to him than anything he achieves in the ring. In the meantime he awaits the announcement of an opponent for the 14th April and his next test, and I would urge anyone to get behind Harding Jr and follow the journey of a man on a true mission.
Interview written by Andrew Fairley (@AndrewFairley1)