From KOs to GCSEs: Straight-A student and Burnley boxing prodigy on life in the ring and hitting the books hard
For most, the idea of getting into the boxing ring and facing some of the UK's most fearsome 18-year-old fighters is the stuff of nightmares. Not for Joe Crawford. With an easy smile, the Burnley-born 16-year-old chuckles as I ask him about the National Amateur Boxing Championships later this year. "I love the challenge of fighting older lads," he says. "I feel the buzz. That's my chance to shine."
Destined for a life as a pugilist from an early age when he would browse his dad Kevin's collection of boxing memorabilia and dream of the day when he could finally take to the gym in earnest, Joe has always been fascinated by the sport. "There's nowhere to hide," he says on being in the ring. "It's just you."
From his first bout at the age of 11, it's been a meteoric rise for the former Sandygate ABC fighter. Now an eight-time consecutive North West champion currently ranked as the number two England Youth boxer, Joe is dreaming of a career in the ring. And you wouldn't bet against him.
"I just got the rush," says Joe of his first time in the gym. "I knew it was for me. The first person I took to was Anthony Crolla; I boxed in a club show for The Fox ABC in a working men's club where Anthony used to box and he was actually there. I got chatting to him and he said to me 'I was here literally a few years ago, where you are now,' and that got me.
"You've got to start somewhere, and that just motivated me," he adds. "I knew if I stuck with it and trained hard I could be where my heroes are in ten years time - from an early age, I've seen them start in the amateurs, boxing in pubs and working men's clubs. That's where Olympians have started."
Famed for his unbending will to improve, a crucial aspect of Joe's development has been his work at Fitness Experience, a world-class personal training facility in Burnley. Since they spotted him as a six-and-a-half stone 12-year-old fighting at Burnley Mechanics in 2015, brothers Josh and Jamie Kennedy, who run FX, saw something special in Joe. After one look, they made him their first ever sponsored athlete.
"It was his mindset and focus - he had potential, he really wanted it, and he was willing to put in the work," explains Josh. "We wanted to build different fitness qualities which can get missed in boxing. Initially, it was movement quality, as with any sport that has a movement bias, you need to develop into it to prevent overuse injuries and postural issues."
Joe took to the programme like a duck to water and now works at FX two or three times every week. "Strength and conditioning with FX has been great; I wouldn't be where I am now without it," he says. "You can only get so far with skill and talent and it's when you start training hard that you get to higher levels. It's allowed me to excel, and since I started at FX, I've not really had a major injury - that's not a coincidence."
The first ever amateur boxer from Burnley to make it onto the England Boxing talent pathway, Joe says that the time spent with England coaches has been invaluable. "They correct minor things which make a massive difference," he says. "No matter how long you train, there's always something that you haven't learned yet and if an England coach is telling me something, it'll work.
"It's good to find the things which will make me better and train hard at them," adds Joe, who works with coaches at Queensway ABC in Rochdale and trains six days a week. "The effort I put in will pay off and that's what I like about boxing."
Joe's training with FX is focused on the fundamentals to provide him with an infallible foundation from which to work, according to Josh. "People see what Anthony Joshua does on Instagram and think 'that's what I need to be doing', but that's the flashy stuff, the final 2%," he says. "There are years of work that need to be built. It's only in the last year with Joe that we've started doing more specific stuff."
More than just a generic workout schedule, FX also provide a more holistic approach. "We look at the bigger picture," Josh says. "We look at Joe's total training stress, what his week's been like, what his month's been like, what his year's been like. If Joe has two hours of sparring the night before and an exam the day after, his total stress is high, so we pull it back. Credit to Joe, he's always on top of his schoolwork - that structure, organisation, and routine is crucial. He's always had that."
Indeed he has. Equally as hard-working when it comes to matters outside the ring, it's safe to say that Joe's competitive edge honed in boxing has seeped through into his academic career at St. Christopher's CoE Sixth Form - where he is taking A-Levels in Maths, Chemistry, and Biology - as well.
In fact, juggling boxing with education is now second-nature: last year Joe fought a Scottish champion in Whitehaven in the midst of his GCSEs, adapting his training with Josh's help to mitigate the added stress. Suffice to say that he went into the summer following a massive win in Cumbria and with an impressive array of qualifications.
"Boxing's taught me a lot of life skills - dedication, effort, hard work... so if I put that into my schoolwork, I get the same rewards," says Joe, who has half and eye on the prestigious University Championships should he follow that path. "Schoolwork is good because if I just did boxing, boxing, boxing I'd have nothing else to do. And it's a Plan B; if boxing doesn't go through, I've got grades to be able to do something else."
It's rare to find a 16-year-old so level-headed and steely-eyed in his focus on bettering himself, and as a supremely talented athlete and astute student keeping more than a few plates spinning at the same time, for Joe, equilibrium is key.
"It's about finding a balance," he says with a trademark smile.