Maree's stable looking very strong
When a pantheon of boxing legends have walked through your doors you know you must be doing something right.
The walls at Maree Leisure are adorned with pictorial collages of the sporting greats which have visited the Ribble Valley hub and it’s pretty impressive.
Mike Tyson, Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marco Antonio Barrera, Roy Jones Jr, Barry McGuigan, Steve Collins, Carl Froch, Joe Frazier, Joe Calzaghe, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank all form part of the shrine – each one a world champion.
And there’s room for one of the newest global kings - Carl Frampton - whose perfect professional record was ignited by the Gisburn venue’s owner and coach Kevin Maree.
Now the dream is to propel his current stable towards those dizzy heights of boxing’s hierarchy with Mark Heffron, Qasim Niaz, Alex McCloy and Ben Chapman all benefiting from his expertise.
Maree, who has trained Yassine El Maachi, Kenny Anderson and Luke Blackledge in the past, said: “We’ve had some unbelievable talent here. We’ve got so incredibly close but not quite made the mark. Yassine El Maachi won Prizefighter and was about to set the world alight before a freak accident ended his career.
“Kenny Anderson won a British title and then his whole world fell apart. Luke Blackledge got caught with a freak punch off Rocky Fielding and Carl Frampton moved to Shane McGuigan.
“We’ve been so close. To keep getting all these named fighters to the little town of Gisburn is a credit to us. We must be doing something right.”
Maree added: “Because of what we do here in this gym–unless I think the lads can go very far – I don’t have the time to do it. With all my lads we’re building towards the minimum of a British title. That’s the basic requirement.”
Heffron is currently Maree’s biggest hope of going the distance. The 24-year-old younger sibling of Ronnie, who possesses model good looks and crippling power, caught the eye of Freddie Roach as a teenager when helping Amir Khan prepare for his WBA World super lightweight title defence against Paul Malignaggi.
Heffron, who has 11 wins with nine knockouts, has previously trained under Joe Gallagher and Anthony Farnell but his development was stunted by a couple of debilitating hand injuries.
“I love the super-middleweight division – I had Kenny and Luke – and now I’ve got Mark,” said Maree. “He’s an unbelievably rounded fighter with frightening power. Mark hits you with such rapid speed and he sends his opponents spinning. He’s ready to step up now.
“We struggle to get him an opponent because of his record. People just don’t want to fight him. He’s got ferocious power and a bit of a nasty streak but he looks like a Hugo Boss model. If Mark didn’t win a world title then I would retire because the job hasn’t been fulfilled.
“He’s world title material. I’ve had some really good fighters but he’s one of the best talents we’ve had. He’s got the full package and he’s a tremendous boxer. I’ve got unfinished business in the super-middleweight division.”
For now Heffron is eyeing up a catalogue of domestic dust-ups including a potential blockbuster, in these parts, with Commonwealth champion Blackledge
“There should be some big fights for me,” he said. “I’ve had 11 wins with nine knockouts so I couldn’t really have done much better. I want to be a world champion which I’ll hopefully achieve in the next few years.
“I want to take all the titles this year – the Commonwealth which Luke Blackledge has got. I’ll hopefully take the British as well. I’m confident of doing that. I think, 100 per cent, that I can become number one in the division but first I definitely want some sort of title by the end of the year.”
Then there’s Qasim Niaz, a pugilist who is genetically tailored for the welterweight division. The 24-year-old had a chequered past, despite excelling in more than 50 fights at Blackburn with Darwen Boxing Academy, but regained his discipline with Maree after serving time in prison.
The Pakistan-born fighter, who carries the alias ‘Qast Iron’, hasn’t conceded a round in all eight of his outings in the professional ranks but that progression has been temporarily halted due to a shoulder injury, which worsened during a sparring session with Shayne Singleton.
Unfortunately that damaged his chances of taking on AJ Faizy for the WBC Youth title - a strap once held by Adrien Broner and Danny Garcia at 147lbs - and now he’s hoping to return to the ring in the summer.
“Qasim is a freak for his weight,” said Maree. “He’s 10st and 6ft. He’s a monster and the difference over his opponents in the ring is phenomenal. He’s a horrible build - a Tommy Hearn style - but he’s a slick, awkward boxer with rapid speed. He’s very tidy as well.
“He’s got a great attitude and lives the game right. I really do expect him to go far. He’ll get a lot of confidence when his shoulder is right. He’s going to be really exciting. I think he’ll start stopping fighters.”
And Niaz is determined to make up for lost time when his troublesome shoulder injury is cured. “I turned my life around with Kev and I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “I’m loving it here. The ligament damage has set me back a bit but hopefully now I’ll get a bit more fast-tracked.
“Me and Kev genuinely believe that we can go all the way to the top, which is to become a world champion. My first dream is to win a British title which I would like to achieve by the time I’m 25. From there we can take it further.”
One of the gym’s latest acquisitions, Alex McCloy, is one of the most humble and courteous athletes that you’re ever likely to meet.
The 21-year-old, whose amateur background was moulded by Kingscote ABC in Blackpool as well as Jeff Thomas, fought the likes of Danny Roberts, Bilal Rehman and Jack Catterall as a teenager.
You immediately get the impression that the super welterweight, who has won all 16 rounds of his pro tenure to date, is genuinely privileged and appreciative of the position that he’s found himself in and he’s willing to work hard to make the most of it.
And there are no gimmicks with McCloy; he’s not interested in his ring entrance music or glittery shorts. Everything is centred on his performance.
“Alex is a baby,” said Maree. “Just turned 21. He’s 4-0 and improved with every single fight. He’s got the best attitude of any boxer I’ve known. He’s worked with Jeff Thomas, my old fighter, and he’s an absolutely fabulous kid.
“He’ll fight anybody but we’ll take our time with him. I’ve put him in with some top lads sparring and every time he’s come up trumps. He’s a brilliant kid and he’ll go far.”
McCloy is next out at the Village Urban Resort in his hometown of Blackpool on February 20th, stepping up to six rounds for the first time, though an opponent is yet to be confirmed.
“I’ve yet to lose a round as a pro which gives me a lot of confidence,” he said. “I’m loving the experience of it all. It’s been brilliant as well as surreal and crazy. You don’t ever think it will happen to you but it has and it’s amazing.
“It’s mental to be where I am now. It was a dream as a kid but my other dream was to be a footballer and that never panned out. It’s here and it’s weird so I’ve just got to keep my feet on the ground. I’ve got to remember why I’m here – to get as much experience as I can, get my name out there and win titles.”
McCloy added: “I’ve developed tremendously under Kev. I’ve improved immensely. My boxing style as an amateur was simply hands up, close the doors, move forward and throw as many shots as I could.
“Kev has got me thinking about throwing shots, ring craft, when to step in which direction to cut the ring off, when to let opponents come to me and get counter shots off. His advice and instruction has helped me progress a lot. It’s becoming more of an art form than just swinging wild.
“Over the next year I want to get to 10-0 with a stoppage in there as well. I’m still young so I’ve got a lot of time to progress. I don’t have any title ambitions in the near future. Further down the line I’d be hoping to fight for the British, English, Commonwealth. I’d really love a Lonsdale Belt to keep.
“The world is my oyster. The aim and the drive is to win a world championship belt. We’ll just have to wait and see. There’s no point in rushing things. I just need to stay grounded and remember where I’ve come from.”
That leaves hard-hitting Ben Chapman, a crowd-pleaser who is yet to make his professional bow. The light-heavyweight has had a similar upbringing in the sport to Blackledge, competing in the unlicensed scene under Denzel Brown in Leeds.
“Ben was due to turn pro a few months ago but a few personal issues scuppered that,” Maree said. “He’s back right and he’ll make his debut in the next couple of months. He’s a very powerful guy. He’s got a monster punch with ferocious power and he’s very raw.
“He’ll either get knocked out or knock somebody else out - there’s no in-between with him. He’ll have a very exciting career and the fans will love him. He’s loves a fight and he’s just go ing to go for it.
Now, at the age of 30, Chapman is ready to give it everything he’s got in order to avoid looking back with regret when his career is up.
Chapman, who once trained under Dennis Hobson, said: “I’ve got to 30 now and I just felt like it was now or never. I needed to get it out of my system. I don’t want to look back at 40 and think ‘what if?’ I just want to keep going until my heart tells me ‘no’.
“I love the camp and now I want to get in, see what I can do and look back without regret. I’ve already wasted a year.
“I started at the same time as Alex (McCloy) and we were both getting cancelled on but I spat my dummy out.
“Alex stuck with it and he’s now 4-0. I should’ve had that patience and maybe I’d be 4-0 with him. Patient people get rewarded. I’m just going to take each fight as it comes.”