IT’S two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and Maxi Hughes is outside in his garden picking the apples that have fallen from his apple tree. It’s a laborious, surprisingly physical task, yet one made all the easier by virtue of the fact he has time on his hands and will eat as many of the apples as he throws away.
With a fight behind him, and no future fight scheduled, Hughes can afford to take his time and indulge in ways he could not before beating Kid Galahad on September 24. This means he spends his days “pottering around the garden” ahead of collecting his children from school. It also means he mourns the loss of every apple too damaged to be eaten.
“It’s a right waste because they’re ‘eatable’ ones, but there’s just too many,” he told Boxing News. “My missus was under strict instructions before my fight not to make any apple crumble because I’ll eat it if it’s in the house. Since the fight (a fight Hughes won by majority decision), though, we’ve had a few apple crumbles and she’s made apple puree for our porridge in the morning.
“Other than that, they just have to get wasted. It’s a shame. You’ve got to be on it. I’ve got a bench at the bottom of the tree and if they hit that it knocks chunks out of them or puts big bruises in them. If they’re on the floor for more than a couple of hours, they either get damaged by the floor, or wasps and bugs get on them. If you want to eat them all, you need a net around them.”
Picking apples at the bottom of the garden is something Hughes, 32, does every couple of years, though this will be the last time on account of his family soon moving house. “You only get apples every two years,” he explained. “We’re in the process of moving house so this will be the last time with an apple tree. We’re making the most of them.”
It’s fair to say few other boxers will have spent their time this week collecting fallen apples from the bottom of their garden, then surveying them to see whether they are good enough to keep or have to unfortunately be thrown away. It is, after all, a world of short attention spans and disposability, which is, in many ways, why a character like Hughes, so down to earth he is almost underground, stands out and tends to resonate. He is this way, one suspects, because unlike so many of his peers he knows hardship and he knows setback and he knows how it feels to be a fallen apple nobody wanted to touch, let alone use to create something wonderful.
“I started quite late at 15,” Hughes said of his boxing journey. “I got into it because I was playing Rugby League, which I enjoyed and was a rough, tough sport that kept me fit and healthy. We did two seasons and then for pre-season training, just for something different, our coach took us to a boxing gym for fitness. I really liked it and wanted to have a go at it.”
At the time Maxi’s mother was working in Royal Mail’s sorting office in Doncaster and it was there, she told Maxi, she worked with a former boxer who had once won a Yorkshire Area title. If he liked, she said, she would ask this man to recommend a boxing gym for her son, and Maxi, by now obsessed with the idea, said yes, he would like that.
“He recommended I go to Doncaster Plantworks,” said Hughes, “which has produced many champions, including Bruce Woodcock. Once I went there, I was hooked. They said I was a natural but I wasn’t. I just had that fire in me. When parents take their kids to boxing, they know if they’ve got that fire in them or not. When you’re put in that ring for sparring, it’s either fight or flight. Luckily for me, I had that instinct to fight when the pressure was on.
“The first time I sparred the red mist came over me and in my mind I had to hit this lad first because he was coming to fight me. It was something my grandad always told me as a kid: ‘If you ever get in trouble at school, make sure you always hit them first.’ That was in my head. I just remember chasing him around the ring, no skill, nothing. Also, because I’m naturally left-handed, that’s all I would use, my left hand. He ended up running around the ring to get away from me.
“Next thing I remember was Ken (Blood, coach) saying, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop! You’re not here to kill him. We’re here to box.’ He said, ‘Here, look, your right hand. You use that to jab. Do it properly.’”
Happy to learn, Hughes did as he was told. He respected Ken Blood and he wanted to experience the feeling of a hard sport becoming easier.
“Shortly after that he spent some time with me and taught me my style and how to jab and throw one-twos,” Hughes continued. “I started out as a big puncher and had a few fights against lads who had the same amount of fights as me and was stopping them all on pure aggression. After a few fights he had to match me well. I remember coming into the gym one day and old Ken saying, ‘You better s**t yourself now because I’ve put you in the championships.’ I said, ‘What are championships?’
“First kid I came up against had nine (fights) and won six. He had experience on me. He never hurt me but he just outboxed me and I lost. But it did me well. It never made me think this sport wasn’t for me. It just made me say, ‘Right, how do I get better?’ That was it for me.
“From there, I got well-matched and did all right. I always fought top kids. I boxed some squad lads, like Mark Heffron and Liam Taylor. Both those lads beat me but as a professional nobody on my amateur record got a domestic title before I did. That’s something I’m proud of. I never boxed for England, never won a championship, but through hard work and persistence I managed to succeed in boxing.”
After an amateur career that saw Hughes win more than he lost, a source of pride for the Yorkshireman, he eventually turned professional in 2010. He did so initially with Chris Aston, the trainer from Huddersfield, and it was while part of Aston’s stable Hughes shared many a sparring session with Gary Sykes, the British super-featherweight champion.
“At first, I thought it was a massive achievement just to call myself a pro boxer,” Hughes said. “It wasn’t until maybe a year in, when I’d done plenty of sparring with Gary Sykes, that I thought, I’d love to be British champion like him. Gary was on decent money and I wanted some of that. I certainly never thought I’d be boxing on telly, signed by big promoters, and fighting for world titles, though. I used to put those people on a pedestal.
“I was never confident enough. That was a problem early on in my career. I didn’t have confidence in my own ability and it cost me. I used to think, No, that’s never going to be me. I read that only a small percentage of boxers actually make decent money and, not being very confident, I’d think, Well, if there’s only a small percentage, it won’t include me. I’ll just do what I can and try to enjoy it.”
Wise enough not to expect his career to be plain sailing, Hughes, owing to both his character and experience in the amateur game, knew there would likely be ups and downs. His only hope, of course, was that in the end the ups would outnumber the downs.
“After I boxed Sam Bowen in 2018 for the British (super-featherweight) title, I gave up,” he said. “I really thought I was going to win that. My wife was pregnant at the time with our first child and I just thought after winning this British title we’d have a few years of me earning good money. Then obviously that didn’t go my way. I was devastated. I couldn’t even go on social media because most of the pages I follow are to do with boxing. I was sick of it. Fed up with it. Every time I would see people around town, they would ask me when I was fighting next and I’d just say, ‘I’m not. I’m done.’”
But he wasn’t. Far from it. In fact, within just two years, Hughes would embark on the finest run of form he has so far managed as a pro; the kind of form that has many calling him “Cinderella Man” and labelling him Britain’s most improved fighter.
“Six to eight months later I thought, I’m still only 28, I’d sparred really good fighters, champions, and always used to do well and sometimes get the better of them,” he said. “I couldn’t retire being the ‘Nearly Man’. I’ve seen them over the years and I didn’t want that to be me. I didn’t want people to mention my name in years to come and say, ‘Oh, yeah, he was decent. He nearly won a British title.’ That’s when I decided to come back.”
His only defeat since then came against Liam Walsh in November 2019. Hughes was that night beaten on points but, crucially, never once felt out of his depth.
“Liam Walsh was probably the best opponent I’d faced on paper,” he said. “Liam was unlucky he came up against (Gervonta) ‘Tank’ Davis in his world title opportunity (in 2017). Against anyone else he would have been world champion.
“I remember the ride home that night from York Hall and I remember saying, ‘All I want to do is win a proper domestic title before I retire. That’s all I want.
“Then Covid came around and I got thrown in the deep end as a keep-busy fight for Jono Carroll (in August 2020). The self-belief had started coming because of sharing a ring with Liam Walsh and doing well. He was an exceptional talent and I pushed him pretty close. That turned my confidence.”
Fuelled not only by a shock decision win over Carroll but newfound self-belief, Hughes received his next shot at a British title in March 2021, this time at lightweight against Paul Hyland Jnr. It was a fight held behind closed doors, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but was one Hughes, 26-5-2 (5), would ultimately win, stopping Hyland Jnr inside eight rounds.
“It was down to Liam Walsh I managed to get that shot,” Hughes said, laughing. “He pulled out and retired and on four weeks’ notice I stepped in and saved the show. I also completed my dream.
“When I retire, if I never do anything more in my career, I can retire happy. I achieved my goal of becoming British champion and now I’ve had the added bonus of winning an IBO belt, being signed by Matchroom, the biggest promotional outfit out there, and headlining one of their shows. I’m proud of that. I have done more than I expected.”
No “Nearly Man”, no “Forgotten Man”, simply “Cinderella Man”, Maxi Hughes will be remembered and admired long after he has retired, of that there is little doubt. And if he isn’t granted the attention and accolades his form deserves in the present, it’s like Nick Drake said: “Fame is but a fruit tree, so very unsound, it can never flourish, ‘til its stock is in the ground.”