Many youngsters grow up dreaming of becoming professional footballers, but for every one that makes the grade, there are so many that fail to fulfil their potential and drift into obscurity. We’ve all heard that story before.
Similarly, the tale of the ageing boxer who somehow manages to pull off one last shot at the big time is something of a cliche.
Combine both stories, however, and you have something a bit different – people don’t just go from being nearly men in football to really men in boxing. But somehow Curtis Woodhouse managed to do just that, and his autobiography ‘Box to Box’ tells his remarkable story.
The start and the end
When he stepped up from Sheffield United’s academy to the first team at the age of 17, the outlook was bright for Woodhouse as he moved from earning £42.50 a week as an apprentice to taking home more money than he had ever seen before.
Once he broke into England under-21s team alongside Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, his future looked even better. But something was missing. Desire.
“Ever been trapped in a loveless relationship?” he says in his book. “One day you’re head over heels and all set to take on the world together, a few years later it’s all gone to shit.
“You’ve fallen out of love and you don’t know how it happened. The dream has gone and it’s impossible to get it back. Love and hate are similar emotions. And I really hated football.”
Whilst to an outsider, a Premier League footballer may be living the life of a king, for Woodhouse, the reality was very different.
For sure, he enjoyed the parties and the drinking culture, but for the young child who grew up on Northfield Crescent in Beverley, outside Hull, with dreams of being the next John Barnes, the lustre had faded.
‘Living in my own little Beirut’
Despite a close relationship with family members, particularly his father, Woodhouse’s childhood was permeated with violence and anguish. Fighting and arguing were all around him.
“Between the ages of 10 and 14, I lived in a war zone,” he writes. “Northfield Crescent was my own little Beirut. I wouldn’t wish those years on my worst enemy. Please, Dad, don’t kill her. Please, Mum, don’t die.”
“He brawled in nightclubs and was arrested numerous times. Repeatedly, he declared himself a new man and spoke of controlling his destructive urges, but no matter how far Woodhouse walked, trouble followed”
The challenges Woodhouse experienced as a youngster left mental scars, and when his mother fled the family home with his siblings, fed up with rows and heartache, for years Woodhouse despised her.
As he got older, though, he realised the challenges she had faced – and also that his father, whilst being his hero, was by no means a saint.
The bitter youngster descended deeper into chaos, taking solace in drinking and fighting with anyone who got in his way. Although he says he was not by nature confrontational as a youngster, he changed his ways after a piece of advice from his father.
“Listen, do you want to be running for the rest of your life?,” said Woodhouse Snr. “It’s embarrassing, son. Get out there and fight. From now on, if anyone ever calls you nigger, smack em as hard as you can, straight in the face.”
Problem after problem
Throughout his footballing career, Woodhouse’s combative personality was a problem, and the book lists his series of run-ins at every club he played for.
Off the pitch, he brawled in nightclubs and was arrested numerous times. Repeatedly, he declared himself a new man and spoke of controlling his destructive urges, but no matter how far Woodhouse walked, trouble followed.
“Five years after being booted out by Birmingham, aged 33 and in his 28th fight, Woodhouse became the British light-welterweight champion”
Inevitably, his Premier League career came to an end when he was sacked by Birmingham after a 44-day bender. Not that he has much memory of his actual dismissal, however.
“I thought [manager] Steve Bruce was a wanker. I thought [club director] Karren Brady was a bitch,” he writes. “When I was smashing up Indian restaurants and playing for the first team, they pretended it didn’t happen.
“But now I was in a mess, they wanted me off the wage bill. I couldn’t tell you what was said or even the official reason I got sacked. I haven’t got a clue, because I wasn’t really there.”
Dreams can come true
With Woodhouse filled with rage, Barry Fry – manager of his next professional club, Peterborough United – suggested he take up boxing as an outlet for his anger.
This proved to be the turning point, as Woodhouse began his journey from the laughing stock who was pummelled by kids in sparring into a seriously talented and dedicated fighter, motivated by those early humiliations.
In September 2006, Woodhouse made his debut as a professional boxer. Just a few months later, in May 2007, his already ill father suffered a stroke, and shortly before he died, Woodhouse made a promise to his ‘superhero’.
“Dad, I promise that I’ll win the British title. I promise… I promise.”
And this he duly did. Five years after being booted out by Birmingham, on February 22 2014, aged 33 in his 28th fight, Woodhouse beat Darren Hamilton to become the British light-welterweight champion.
‘Box to Box’ is compelling, honest and very amusing, telling an amazing story of a remarkable sporting life.
It is a bruising ride through adversity and a lesson in shattered dreams, wasted opportunities, and the power of not giving up.
Despite the demons he faced, Woodhouse has conquered all.
“The demons are still inside but now I’m their master, rather than the other way round,” he writes. “I’ve succeeded in two sports and also overcome all the bad shit that happened when I was a kid.”
Box to Box is published by Simon & Schuster (Amazon £12.91).