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Tennyson ready to seize his moment, and Irish attention, in Hearn's garden

‘I want to be the top dog in Ireland, topping the big bills — especially in the SSE Arena.’

James Tennyson faces Gavin Gwynne this evening.
James Tennyson faces Gavin Gwynne this evening.
Image: Emily Harney/INPHO

FIGHTERS FIND THEMSELVES all but quarantined for weeks on end even at the best of times, so being confined to his hotel room near Matchroom Boxing’s headquarters this week is no skin off James Tennyson’s nose.

These are boring weeks at the best of times, the tedium broken up only by interviews, a press conference and a weigh-in — and, in 2020, a Covid test for good measure. Most fighters would probably take the boredom.

Belfast lightweight Tennyson [26-3, 22KOs] has his own methods for keeping himself occupied as the clock ticks at an agonising pace towards first bell, but watching sport has never been one of them: he doesn’t watch much of it even generally and hasn’t seen any of the behind-closed-doors variety which he will experience first-hand tonight.

That’s somewhat surprising given he’s not even the only high-achieving sportsperson in his immediate family. His younger sister, Saoirse Tennyson, captained the Antrim ladies footballers last year, a feat which, to some, may juxtapose with the fact that ‘The Assassin’ tonight fights for the vacant British title.

But then, professional boxing has never paid much heed to flags nor flegs nor the lines drawn in the sand between them and, in any case, for all of the title’s prestige, British-champion status is pencilled in as merely a pit-stop on Tennyson’s itinerary.

The final destination is world domination. He got close in 2018 when, after scaling Europe, he landed into Boston only to be run off the road by then-IBF World super-featherweight champion Tevin Farmer.

It was a deserved opportunity but Tennyson was probably a bit green and, crucially, he was running on empty at 126 pounds. With the tank filled to 130 this time around, he can afford to take a more scenic route, starting tonight in the Essex mansion garden of his promoter, Matchroom Boxing chief Eddie Hearn and eventually, he hopes, circling back to his hometown and home country before traversing the Atlantic once more.

“That’s the plan — that’s what I want to be doing, you know? Being able to top bills in the SSE Arena [in Belfast],” Tennyson says. “And I think with the platform of Matchroom and they progress we’re making, we’re going the right way about it, too. In the next few fights, if things clear up with Covid and everything, I think it’d be possible to achieve it, yeah.

“With the lack of boxing and even sport generally that’s been on, there’ll be a lot of attention on Saturday — especially with it being Matchroom’s first big show back. It’s a perfect platform for me to go out and really showcase what I’ve got to a wider audience. There’s going to be a lot more people tuned in for this fight night.

I want to be the top dog in Ireland, topping the big bills — especially in the SSE Arena. I’ve been there fighting on Carl Frampton’s undercard. It’d be a pleasure to be able to top my own bills there someday.

vasiliy-lomachenko-v-luke-campbell-the-o2-arena Tennyson faces Gavin Gwynne (right) this evening. Source: Steven Paston

It probably won’t be such a pleasure for the guy standing opposite him. With 22 of his 26 victories arriving inside the scheduled distance, Tennyson is, pound-for-pound, one of the hardest punchers fighting on either side of the Irish Sea.

Tonight’s opponent, Gwynne, acknowledged as much in a brief conversation midweek, admitting: “I’m not going to out-punch him — he’s obviously a massive, massive puncher compared to myself”, albeit he qualified his own comparably modest KO ratio by recalling moments earlier in his career when he was warned not to stop journeyman opponents on the Welsh circuit as their services might be required the following week.

Tennyson, though, has legitimate, world-level pop in his fists. In the lead-up to tonight’s encounter, his team have drawn comparisons between his power and that of middleweight great Gennady Golovkin (again within a pound-for-pound context, naturally), and while that might be a stretch, there are certainly similarities in how ‘Tenny’ doesn’t merely punch opponents; he punches through them, generating a detectably similar propulsion to in his thudding shots.

What’s not really up for debate is the consensus within Irish boxing that the 26-year-old is this island’s biggest puncher since Andy Lee. And, perhaps somewhat like Lee for the majority of his storied career, Tennyson’s explosive highlight reel hasn’t yet translated into mainstream fandom outside of his hometown.

That’s why tonight’s clash with Gwynne is set up perfectly to be his breakout: in the COVID sporting vacuum — particularly with the Premier League done and dusted — even those of a non-boxing persuasion might be inclined to leave on some live fights when flicking through Sky Sports later tonight.

Gwynne, meanwhile, has vowed to play his part in a firefight, claiming he’ll fight “chest to chest” with Tennyson for all 12 rounds if he has to.

Mind you, to do so would probably play into Tennyson’s concrete hands.

“Gav is obviously confident in his ability but I think staying in the pocket with me would be my sort of ballgame and I don’t think it’d suit him too much,” says the Belfast Kronk fighter.

“I was listening to his previous interviews and he believes he can stop me in the later rounds, so it just goes to show how confident he is. He’s obviously had a good camp.

“No, like, I’m expecting a tough night from him, yeah,” Tennyson says through pursed lips and with a tilt of his head.

He’s just as much a threat as anyone else. It’s a must-win for me; he wants what I’ve got, more or less. He’s obviously been working hard to try and take that from me. And I’m not taking it lightly.

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“I’m close to top 10 overall (with all of the sanctioning bodies) in the world at the minute, but I can’t overlook Gav; I’m focused fully on Gav on Saturday night and it’d be foolish of me to overlook him. Obviously, I want to get back to world level and all that but I’ve got to beat Gav before any of that comes into account.

“He’s a tall, tough guy — he’s very durable. He’s got a good engine and he gave a good account of himself when he fought [fellow Welsh star] Joe Cordina. But we’re ready.”

eddie-hearn-file-photo The fight will take place in promoter Eddie Hearn's mansion. Source: Steven Paston

Gwynne wants more than Tennyson’s lofty world rankings and the British title, too: he wants his platform. Tennyson signed with Matchroom on New Year’s Day and is being rightly plugged as one of the world’s most promising lightweights by Hearn. “He’s always entertaining to watch,” said Tennyson’s promoter midweek.

I’ve never seen him in a bad fight, win or lose. He for me is the perfect guy to use in this kind of environment because you need excitement, drama and knockouts. I think he can deliver all of those.

Hearn, though, was also quick to point out that Gwynne will more than play his part, and the Welshman has openly indicated his hope that victory for him tonight will lead to a Matchroom deal of his own.

Tennyson, meanwhile, has pointed towards Gwynne as his “first big tough fight up at lightweight” after moving to 130 from 126 following his world-title defeat to Farmer.

Since then, he has won four consecutive fights by stoppage, his last outing arguably his career-best as he battered another Welshman, Craig Evans [then 20-2-2, 3KOs] — a close friend of Gwynne’s — into submission at Liverpool’s Echo Arena.

The extra four pounds, he says, have made all the difference and stand him in good stead in his second pursuit of world honours.

“I’m feeling very relaxed, very fresh. When I was down at featherweight, super-featherweight, the weight was killing me week in, week out. This morning, I’m getting up eating and drinking as normal; I’m getting into my sessions not feeling drained or tired or anything like that. I’m fresh as a daisy.

Sparring with guys like Stevie McKenna and Aaron [McKenna] — well, I was more sparring with Stevie than with Aaron — you can feel the difference in the extra weight. Guys like that are bigger, more durable; they can take the punishment but they can also give it back. It was great sparring but I believe if I was down at super-featherweight I would have struggled to take the shots a bit more.

“This is the best I’ve felt, the most comfortable I’ve felt. And I don’t have any regrets not doing it sooner — I think when you get a shot at a world title, anybody would jump at that opportunity. But I’m happy I’ve done it now and things are going from strength to strength for me. I’m just looking forward, now, to getting in there and putting on a show.”

callum-smith-and-john-ryder-public-workout-jd-gyms-liverpool James Tennyson during a public workout last year. Source: Nigel French

Amid the weight jump, there was an even more profound change outside of the ring: last year, Tennyson’s first child — a son, James Jr — was born.

An extra few pounds that altered the course of everything, even if the goal remains the same.

Before, it was just me and my love for the sport; getting myself by. Now, I’ve got a wee one-year-old child and he looks up to me, and it’s up to me to fend for him. Boxing’s just my way of doing it.

“I’m really enjoying it — boxing and fatherhood. You don’t need any more motivation than your one-year-old son, you know?

“But then I don’t lack motivation through training camp, anyway. I probably don’t need any extra motivation to keep me going; I enjoy my time in the gym.

“I know what’s in front of me — big fights, big opportunities.”

First up, it’s Gavin Gwynne. And if you’re an Irish sports fan flicking through the channels at around 9:30 tonight and you arrive at either Sky Sports Main Event or Sky Sports Action, you’d be well advised to put the remote down.

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