GREATER MANCHESTER, England -- Rocky Fielding was only five minutes late at the gym when he walked in on his own, carrying his bag and clutching two brand new pairs of sparring gloves and making apologies when none were needed.
"I had to do the nursery run and then go to the post office to collect these," he said, nodding at the gloves. Fielding had no entourage, no paid or unpaid friends to carry his bags, monitor his social media or be ready with a recovery shake or clean towel. Fielding belongs to a different time in boxing, a time when champions had a life away from the ring and hangers-on were the exclusive domain of the very, very best. Muhammad Ali had a man to lick his sweat to check for salt.
In July of this year Fielding travelled to Germany as the underdog to fight Tyron Zeuge for the WBA super-middleweight title. Zeuge was unbeaten in 23 fights, won the first few rounds and was then dismantled, dropped and stopped in round five. Fielding was, in many ways, British boxing's unlikely world champion, an overlooked fighter, a quiet guy. "I always dreamed of winning a world title -- it's a dream come true," he said.
The fantasy is far from over. On Dec. 15 at New York's legendary Madison Square Garden, Fielding will make the first defence of his title when he meets Saul Canelo Alvarez, who is officially the No.1 attraction in boxing: Alvarez signed a multi-fight deal with DAZN worth a minimum of $365 million over five years, the most lucrative in sport.
Fielding, let me remind you, drives himself on his own from the nursery run in Liverpool to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Manchester to train. Somewhere near San Diego, a dozen people will be monitoring Alvarez as he skips, hits and runs. They will provide a necessary chorus of confirmation each time the Mexican lands a punch during sparring or finishes a speed-ball session with a glitzy combination. Alvarez is the boy wonder, make no mistake and there just might be a man there to taste his sweat.
"He deserves the money, he's a great fighter," Fielding said. "I still know I can beat him and that is why I took the fight. I have been next to him and I know I can put it on him."
The pair met in New York at a conference to promote their fight and there were no tricks or insults to help the sales; Fielding is simply not that type of man and neither is Alvarez.
"This is a massive fight and a massive opportunity for me," Fielding continued, speaking as he applied his own bandages, tape and padding and even pulled on his own brand new sparring gloves. "He is the favourite, I'm not stupid -- but, I'm bigger, I'm going to push him." Alvarez has never fought at the super-middleweight limit of 168 pounds and will be conceding as many as six inches in height in addition to the natural poundage.
Fielding has lost once in 28 fights and that was in a bad-tempered brawl in Liverpool against Callum Smith for the British title in late 2015. It finished in the first. "I got caught in a shoot-out, there are no excuses -- it happens," Fielding said. Smith is still unbeaten and stopped George Groves in September to win another version of the world super-middleweight title.
The day after that loss to Smith, Fielding was at his mother's house and she pulled him to one side, sat him down in the kitchen and told him she had cancer. "Suddenly, my loss didn't matter," Fielding said. Fielding was then on full-time duty looking after his mother, shuttling her back and forward daily to the hospital for life-saving treatment. He was also preparing for a return to the ring and he refused to take an easy fight, was insistent that he was not going to go backwards and less than six months after losing to Smith there was another test in the ring.
Fielding beat former European champion Christopher Rebrasse on points, a split decision over 12 torrid rounds, having survived an early knockdown. It failed to convince some observers.
"It was a hard fight and that is what I wanted -- I didn't want a walkover. I was not in there for praise: The fight showed me what I needed to know," Fielding insisted. It was a sign of Fielding's character and he shielded his devotion to his mother's battle for a couple of years.
Fielding kept on winning, kept on moving closer to a call for a world title fight. He won the British title, made a defence but then there was more heartache outside the ring. Fielding had been trained by Oliver Harrison from the start of his professional career in 2010. However, Harrison is fighting his own cancer battle and Fielding was forced to switch trainers last year and move across Manchester to Jamie Moore's gym. "I had been through it all before," Fielding added.
In June of this year, the call came just five weeks before the first bell for Rocky Fielding to fight for the world title. He accepted. He spoke to Oliver, his mother Carol made the trip to be ringside and Zeuge was beaten. "Yeah," he smiled, "it was a perfect night, a great fight." Fielding went to see Harrison with the belt when he returned. "You will not find a nicer man in the boxing business than Rocky Fielding," Moore said, who also paid homage to Harrison after the win. Both are Harrison old boys.
After the gruelling sparring session on the day of our interview, Fielding stood, steaming and breathing heavily. He was listening to Moore, the pair had their heads almost touching as the trainer talked. "It was only the second session," Fielding said. "It's going to be a long road, a hard road to New York. And when I get there it's going to be worth it. I just know it."
It will certainly be a long road and it will get harder on fight night once the bright lights start shining. Fielding knows that, just as he also knows about things being hard on both sides of the ropes.