Hate it or Love it – Introducing the real Ohara Davies

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. How many times have you heard that assertion? A firm handshake, sharp yet understated dress, unwavering eye contact, confidence emanating from both posture and tone. Be careful not to appear needy, lest they pass you over and select another. Desperation is hard to conceal, however, especially if a fraught past has already begun to define your future. You have been here too many times before, incrementally losing hope like a leaking tap drips water.

This is a familiar story to many children who grew up in care. Having been removed from ailing and/or absent parents, already damaged siblings can be torn asunder, bounced around from location to location and only belatedly reunited; each time yearning for security and a welcoming embrace, only to be moved along just as those needs start to be addressed. How can you be a product of your environment if you never stay in one place long enough to call it home?

Several fostered children recount wonderful childhoods replete with love and affection, but the best-case scenario is just that. Some kids, through no fault of their own, find the things they crave the most – attention, love, acceptance – remain tantalisingly beyond their reach.

“We were in foster care for about three-four years so we got moved up and down the country,” says Ohara Davies, while on speaker phone driving to the recent Anthony Joshua show in Cardiff. His two travelling companions remain silent throughout, perhaps well aware of his troubled childhood or, if not, stunned into silence. “My mother wasn’t well, she had mental health problems, she was in hospital for a few years, my dad had left.

“At the time it was all normal to me, it’s the only life I’ve known, a tough life, a struggle. It wasn’t easy to handle, but you don’t really see the effects until you get older. Foster care for me was all new, I got put into about eight different houses, we moved around once every few months, always adjusting to new houses and parents - once I got used to someone it wasn’t so bad. We got split up - me and one older brother were together, and my other brother and sister were together - so that was really tough. The last place we went to, all four of us were in the same house for about a year. It made me grow up quicker than most kids but it didn’t stop me getting involved with bad things; I feel I coulda been brought up a lot better.”

The entire reflection is delivered dispassionately, as though Davies were relaying the backstory of an acquaintance or distant relative. No such luck. Initially raised by his struggling mother on Hackney’s notorious Kingsmead Estate - which the Guardian stated in 2009, the year Davies turned 17, had “become synonymous with crime and urban decay” - Ohara and his brothers and sister were absorbed into the care system when he was aged just nine, not long after their errant father had vanished, leaving his partner, their mum, trying and failing to cope. Foster families provided essential care but no matter how well behaved Davies was, how eager to please, the placements were only ever intended to be short-term. He returned to the London borough a confused, resentful teenager, irrevocably changed by his experiences. With an unwell mother to look after and a dogged determination to become self-sufficient, the hardened adolescent, angry at a world that had repeatedly abandoned him, looked first to easy money.

“Just normal gang stuff around Hackney, smoking and selling drugs, a general life of crime,” is how the super-lightweight, now 25, describes the half-decade before boxing found him. Still matter-of-fact in tone, betraying neither pride nor remorse. “I thought that was the cool thing to do on the streets, that it was cool to rob someone’s phone. I was about 11-12 years old, I didn’t start boxing until I was 17. I lived that life until then, if boxing didn’t come along I’d probably be in jail somewhere or still doing what I was doing. “I was in a new school every few months while in foster care ‘coz every new house was so far apart. I did go school, but I didn’t really enjoy maths, English, science, I didn’t find anything I really liked until I got into boxing; it caught my heart from the start.”

Trite soundbite perhaps, but voiced with indisputable sincerity. Admirably, Davies does not emphasise either the trials of his youth or the strength of character shown in surviving them; like the better times that would follow, these are just things that happened. “I don’t like to think about the past, I focus on the future,” he concludes, not dismissing the theme entirely but signalling it’s high time I changed the subject.

Tony Cesay could relate to some of the teenage Ohara’s challenges. Latterly a national amateur champion and reputable youth worker, Cesay had grown up on the same Tower Hamlets estate as your author, which means he came from limited means; a more eloquent way of saying we were all piss-poor. “Sanky”, as he had been known to us, was, like Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “a man who knew how to get things”, an entrepreneurial spirit that recognised few laws. Cesay shared similar ambitions to Davies but age, perspective and a sport he grew to cherish had transformed a once-wayward young man. One of Cesay’s regular assignments was at the Concord Youth Centre on the Kingsmead, where Ohara first found boxing, aged 17.

“Tony would come in every Wednesday to do pads,” Davies recalls, his vivid recollection bridging a seven-year gap. “At first there were 30-40 of us, literally everyone, then, as weeks went by, 20, 15, 10, 5, until there was only me left. Then the youth club couldn’t afford him anymore, so he took my number and trained me at his boxing gym. He was like a father figure to me, he kept me in the boxing gym all day so there was no time to go back into the streets and live that life. My life was gym, gym, gym, I didn’t really have a life outside. The only thing I ever needed was that focus.”

Restricted to just 18 amateur bouts as a growing undefeated record deterred potential opposition, Ohara, proudly wearing the famous green vest of Bethnal Green’s Repton club - as his mentor once had – prioritised championships, winning two Haringay Box Cups and a national novices title. With each trophy came a degree of respect but it was insufficient to fill the gaping need. Only by making a living from the pursuit he loved could Davies achieve true self-determination, and a sense of belonging.

Babatunde Ajayi is a unique character, even in the somewhat sketchy world of British boxing. A mostly engaging mix of evangelical guru and stubborn gym instructor, Ajayi trained the equally headstrong Davies for the closing stages of his unpaid career and first two pro fights, before the prospect joined current coach, Tony Sims. The high point occurred in May 2013 when Ajayi took Ohara and two other aspiring pugilists to Las Vegas, where they formed part of Floyd Mayweather’s camp for the Robert Guerrero fight. The affinity between Tunde and Davies was undeniable, but theirs was a combustible dynamic that forced yet another fleeting relationship to end.

“We used to argue over anything and everything in the gym, so we both thought it’d be better to move on and go our separate ways,” Davies says, the clinical distance between us now re-established. “We’re still fine, when we see each other I give him a hug. Me and Tunde are a bit too similar, we have the same mindset, I like to argue and so does he, so if we had a little argument I wouldn’t give up and neither would he, whereas Tony Sims is a lot more chilled out, so I can be more me without having to clash.”

Once settled with Sims, Davies built a reputation as a raw but strong and perpetually improving fighter possessing knockout power. Ohara sought also to raise his profile outside the ring and, shrewdly, utilised the growing popularity of social media to become something of a pantomime villain. Following in the charismatic footsteps of Naseem Hamed and Chris Eubank Sr, albeit to a less polished degree, Davies crafted a persona that fans would love to hate and, crucially, pay to see humbled. Projecting an exaggerated version of his natural personality, the Londoner’s barbed comments have ranged from merely crass to groan-inducingly distasteful. Labelling adversaries “bums” is hardly novel, but perennially insulting Liverpool fans before his appearances in the city and a more personal, highly immature attack on Paddy Barnes and his new wife – quickly deleted from Twitter with an apology soon added - have exceeded even boxing’s accepted standards of decorum. Davies’ tactics, which have proved simultaneously beneficial and detrimental, owe much to the influence of professional wrestling.

“I’ve been a massive WWE fan for years and years and I used to love to watch ‘Stone Cold’ [Steve Austin], the Undertaker and how dramatic it was; that is how I wanna be,” he tells me, enthusiasm building with each word. Davies was fascinated by the Attitude Era, the organisation’s biggest ever boom period in the late-1990s and one that featured a risque, larger-than-life product. “I want to bring as much of that to boxing as I can. I am loved by a few fans, but hated by most. If someone isn’t a fighter, then I can be me coz there isn’t any competition, but if a fighter is in my weight class, I despise them from the get-go.

“That’s what sells fights, I can’t sell tickets to where I’m from, people there can’t even afford them, but when I talk trash, tickets sell themselves for this fight and for future fights. I don’t look at social media much ‘coz I only get negative things. Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, I’ve done nothing wrong to this guy and he says I’m a prick.’ I don’t really mind but after seeing it day after day it does get on my nerves a little bit. I block it out as much as I can. But you’ve gotta take the bitter with the sweet.”

It’s an interesting if unsurprising paradox: Davies has intentionally made himself a hate figure, gleaned the benefits at the box office, but still derives pain from the more hurtful consequences of this strategy. Live by the sword and all that. In boxing he has finally found his place, secured the acceptance he longed for, but not as a beloved hero. He’s not an Austin or Taker, he’s a baddy, a heel. He’s the guy that engenders inspires support for his opponents, and a majority of fans delight in his failures.

Never was this more apparent than during and after Davies’ first defeat – at any level – in July, a punishing seven-round loss to the rapidly rising Josh Taylor, who outboxed his counterpart before ultimately forcing him into submission. Twitter sizzled with schadenfreude that night, as, for the first time, Davies’ athletic prowess could not sufficiently compensate for his technical limitations and lack of experience. Davies concedes he fell to the better man on the night, and that widespread fan satisfaction was an inevitable consequence.

“If it was up to me I woulda got into boxing at 11 or 12, had a lot more time, stayed amateur a lot longer, got more experience,” he reflects, alluding to weaknesses he rarely acknowledges publicly. “I didn’t have a choice but to turn pro. I am playing catch-up, look at Taylor for example, an Olympian who won gold at the Commonwealth Games. He fought over a hundred times as an amateur and I’ve had 18 amateur fights. I will catch up though, no problem.

“After the fight, I turned it all off, I didn’t look at any comments. I used to tell myself, ‘The time I do lose they’ll take that and milk it for as long as they can.’ But it is quite hard to take, seeing what everyone said. Even though I did get beat, I got paid really well and a lot more than he got paid; this is a business too.”

Ohara insists he is driven by money rather than glory, although I suspect it is more about his associating cash with power, independence and self-respect; for these are the commodities he really values.

“For me boxing is a business,” he summarises, aware we are almost finished and keen to reprise the venal, superficial ‘OD’ character. “I’m not going to bed early and getting up at six, running hills to win belts. There are people who’ve won belt after belt after belt and still ended up bankrupt, and that’s not gonna be me. It’s all about being business smart - invest well, save.

“To the haters, keep on buying my tickets, coming to my fights and talking about me. I wanna thank them for their hate and tell them to keep on hating.”

Davies rebounded in style from the Taylor humbling, overpowering Tom Farrell in September. His polarising personality, temporarily quietened, also returned to form and seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Now reunited in the family home, Davies and his siblings still strive to relieve their mother’s burden.

Kipling famously mused that “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same;” you would be a man and inherit both the earth and its contents. Davies’ ambitions are rather less quixotic and, given his tumultuous history, he is already a winner, in life, the only battle that really counts.

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