While Rob McCracken sits through a meeting that is partly about Anthony Joshua’s ring walk before he fights Andy Ruiz Jr in their intriguing rematch on 7 December, there is time to wander around the Sheffield dream factory where he has been the understated foreman for the past 10 years. McCracken was appointed the performance director of GB Boxing in November 2009 and the transformation over the past decade has been staggering.
When he was offered the job McCracken was best known as being Carl Froch’s trainer – just as he now comes under fierce scrutiny in Joshua’s corner. The way in which McCracken has managed to blend the contrasting worlds of amateur and professional boxing, for the benefit of all his fighters, is just one of the fascinating features in a story which reaches another milestone period.
Apart from his 10-year anniversary in Sheffield, where he runs such a successful programme at the English Institute of Sport, McCracken faces a defining test in the unpalatable setting of Saudi Arabia as Joshua tries to win back the WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight titles he lost so shockingly against Ruiz in New York during the summer.
McCracken is too modest to talk up his achievements with GB and so, while meeting a few of his current boxers in the gleaming gym and adjoining training facilities, it helps to check the bare statistics. In the past 10 years GB’s male boxers have won 52 medals at 14 major competitions. Before he took over, from 2000 to 2008 the country’s best amateur fighters had won only 12 medals in 13 major competitions. There was no female boxing programme until 2010 but, since then, GB’s men and women have won 81 major medals between them.
Under McCracken’s leadership GB Boxing won eight Olympic medals at London 2012 and Rio 2016. This matches their boxing medal count at the previous eight Olympics, from Moscow in 1980 to Beijing in 2008.
The fighters he has helped to produce in Sheffield include world champions and top-10 boxers in the professional ranks – from Joshua, Josh Taylor, Callum Smith, Luke Campbell and Nicola Adams to Charlie Edwards, Khalid Yafai, Joe Joyce, Daniel Dubois and Lawrence Okolie.
The meeting about the gaudy ring walk in Saudi breaks up and, for the next 45 minutes, McCracken talks engagingly about his decade in the job and the compelling rematch with Ruiz. We start with him being asked in 2009 by Derek Mapp, the then chairman of GB Boxing, to take charge of the country’s elite amateur boxers. “Derek was a no-nonsense businessman and the first thing he said was: ‘What do you need for the boxers? Whatever the boxer needs, that’s what we’ll do.’ That was his strategy and it worked fantastically well. It’s been run really well and I have been allowed to get on and work with the team here, the coaches, the support staff. Obviously the boxers come first and we’ve been able to get on with it.”
In his typically downbeat way, McCracken lets slip a wry smile as he enjoys a slurp of his tea before taking a bite of a chocolate bar. It’s one way of celebrating sustained success. “I always tell my boxers you’re only as good as your last tournament – and that was the world championships in Russia [last month],” McCracken adds in his familiar Birmingham accent.
“The men won three medals with Pat McCormack, Peter McGrail and Ben Whittaker – all exceptional boxers. Frazer Clark would also have won a medal because he beat the Russian to get into the semi-finals – but they appealed the decision and the home fighter got the nod. We had two or three who were edged out in the quarter-finals by the gold medallists but we’re battle-hardened. Peter’s had five years of experience at world level, Pat nearly seven and Frazer has 10 years. That was really relevant when we’re out in Russia and there are 6,000 people on a Friday night in the crowd and the Uzbeks are banging a drum. Their fighters have a thousand supporters each and our boxers walk alone into the ring and can hold their own. That’s a real achievement for UK boxing.
“The women were brilliant. Lauren Price won gold and Kariss Artingstall and Demie-Jade Resztan picked up bronze. We actually thought Karris won in the semis against the gold medallist. Lauren boxed at 75kg, and she only weighs 69 kilos. We do that because of her speed. She’s very courageous because she looks half the size of her opponents. And some of these women – like Nouchka Fontijn, the Dutch girl she beat in the final – are very strong and powerful. Lauren’s done fantastically well and we have high hopes for her in Tokyo.
“We’ve created robust, battle‑hardened boxers. They all know they could win an Olympic medal if things go their way. There is a strength and depth to this squad that we probably didn’t have in Rio. Four years ago we had the physicality of Joe Joyce and Josh Buatsi and the experience of Nicky Adams – but we were probably two or three short in the cycle compared to this group of talented boxers.”
The growth of women’s boxing under McCracken has been striking. The 51-year-old is thoughtful when asked if women boxers need to be trained differently. “The female boxers want to know more. Most of the men will look at the plan and get on with it. But the women will ask intelligent questions. They want to know why they’re doing this or that. What it’s going to do for them? So they’re more inquisitive.”
McCracken pays tribute to the influence of the double Olympic gold-medallist Adams, who has just retired from professional boxing. “As soon as I saw her shadow boxing for one round, I knew Nicky was special.”
What were his impressions of Joshua when they began working together in Sheffield? “He arrived here in October 2010 with Anthony Farrell. They had just won the national championships and the Commonwealth Games were on the horizon in Delhi but we felt they lacked international experience and they weren’t selected. That was my first conversation with big Josh. He accepted my decision and got on with it.
“I took him to the European Championships in 2011 in Turkey. He wasn’t super fit but I thought I’ll let him know how hard this sport is, we’ll see if he wants it. He did better than we thought and had three bouts in five days – which was more than he’d had in the previous three months. He got tired in the third bout and lost in the quarters. He said to me on the plane afterwards: ‘I’m going to get fit so that won’t happen again.’ He was really driven and, unlike your normal kid, really believed in himself.
“The thing that sticks out with Anthony is when they did the 2012 Olympic draw in London. I said to the other coaches: ‘I want him to avoid the Cuban but I know he’ll get him.’ He drew the Cuban. Luke Campbell was a little concerned about drawing a tough Italian but Josh just said: ‘What time are we eating?’ He didn’t care who he drew. That’s rare.”
Campbell and Joshua won gold in London but, as a heavyweight, the big man’s life changed fundamentally. As a world champion for three years he has earned stratospheric amounts of money and fame.
“But he’s still the same person on the inside,” McCracken says. “I know it’s difficult to get that type of exposure. I remember him boxing Joseph Parker and the crowd was full of non-boxing fans. Josh has got the crossover appeal and he’s done fantastically well but he’s been through a lot as well.”
Ruiz cut a portly figure when he stepped into the ring against Joshua as a substitute for Jarrell Miller, who had failed a drug test, and he was dismissed by most people. But McCracken argued before the fight that Ruiz was dangerous. “I was happy for Josh to box in the UK, where he feels comfortable,” he says now. “Going to the States was always a challenge. He was very motivated to fight Miller as it was personal between them. He changes five weeks before, when Ruiz comes in. Ruiz is an exceptional fighter. Yeah, he’s a tubby guy but all the Hispanic fighters, like Canelo [Álvarez], rate him highly. But people on the internet are saying: ‘Oh, this bloke is hopeless.’ The main thing for me was Miller pulling out. Until then Josh was smack on target but a change at that stage is difficult.”
Did he argue against choosing Ruiz as a replacement? “I wasn’t keen on Ruiz. I much preferred a couple of other opponents.”
McCracken was criticised vehemently as the losing trainer on social media. There were demands he should be sacked while Joshua also suffered verbal abuse. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve achieved,” McCracken says. “You get constant criticism. If you lose it really hits the fighter hard. The magical thing about the Olympic programme is you see them lose a close fight. They’re very disappointed. Two days later they’re shouting for their teammates in the stand.
“The loneliness is deeper in professional boxing and social media makes it far worse. My generation can cope easily with social media because we don’t turn it on. I’m pretty robust and know that’s coming but with the younger generation it’s much harder. When you lose at Josh’s level it can be ugly.”
It will be fascinating to see whether Ruiz has been affected by his own sudden fame and wealth. If he has retained his desire then his style could once again be a nightmare for Joshua. McCracken listens when I say Josh Taylor, arguably the best fighter in Britain today and another of his former amateurs at London 2012, told me Joshua has always struggled against smaller heavyweights with fast hands.
“He’s beaten numerous small, mobile heavyweights and he’s lost to a couple of them,” McCracken says as he looks back over the nine years he has trained Joshua. “Sometimes fighters are just good. Ruiz has good technical ability. He can measure the distance. Knows how to defend. Got a half-decent jab, good timing and speed. Ruiz is an underrated world-class fighter but if you’ve got the height and reach, like Josh, you must use it. The minute you don’t, you’re open to quick powerful hooks off these heavyweights. And Ruiz is one of the best.”
Is Joshua’s challenge against Ruiz more psychological than technical? “It’s a challenge on all fronts but he’s working hard. He’s motivated. He’s been in the best mood in camp for a while. He’s laughing and joking. He also knows that if he does everything right, he’ll win but there’s no room for error.”
When McCracken returns from Saudi to Sheffield, whatever the outcome, his more restorative work at GB Boxing will continue. He smiles when I ask if he can imagine spending another 10 years in his role? “If people want me to do it, I’ll do it. I’m passionate about it. I love it. I’ve never once felt it wasn’t a privilege to be in my position.”