A Punjabi razzmatazz promise, a Pint-Size Powerhouse with a baby inbound, the oft-excluded pupil that no school would accept, gym partners-turned-ring rivals, a sibling spotlight and one mutual goal.
The BOXXER Series awaits as a national platform for unfamiliar names with compelling stories to tell, the point being that victory in the one-night eight-man tournament carries the potential to turn that narrative on its head.
They are stories of balancing full-time jobs with professional training camps, stories of childhood hardship, stories of fighting to provide for family, stories of outright honesty with regards to what a hefty prize fund would mean and a shared story of each man fighting to progress his career.
Cori Gibbs became evidence of what is on offer at November’s launch event when the Super-Lightweight prospect prevailed in Liverpool to collect the largest professional purse of his career while also securing a long-term promotional agreement with BOXXER and Sky Sports Boxing.
On Saturday the tournament travels to Coventry, where eight British lightweights will compete in the quickfire 3×3-minute round format with a view to following in his footsteps.
BOXXER Series: Coventry lineup
- Dylan Cheema (2-0)
- Rylan Charlton (7-2-1)
- Tion Gibbs (8-0)
- Scott Melvin (4-0)
- Otis Lookham (1-0)
- Shaun Cooper (12-3)
- Joe Underwood Hughes (7-0)
- Brooklyn Tilley (3-0)
‘I want a KO bonus!’
For Rylan Charlton (7-2-1) a lucrative payday beckons as a perfect set-me-up in preparation for the arrival of his child, with his wife due to give birth at the end of August – a year after the couple endured heartache.
“It’s definitely life-changing,” he said. “I’ve got a kid on the way, it’s going to set me and my partner up when the child is here.
“It was Christmas Day we found out. Before we started having a little drink together she thought she’d do a test so it was probably the best Christmas present I could have asked for. Quite emotional, because she had an ectopic pregnancy last year in August, lost the baby then, so to see this one in there, in the right place, was very emotional.
“I’ve always been very motivated to get in there and win, to give it my all, but this feels like a different motivation. I’m fighting for my family now. The motivation, I’m really going to be getting up for this.”
Charlton, nicknamed the Pint Size Powerhouse, enters as one of the more familiar names in the lineup after fighting on the undercard of Liam Smith’s win over Anthony Fowler in Liverpool in October, losing by decision to Luke Willis, having also taken on Florian Marku at Wembley Arena in February 2020, losing via TKO after knocking the Albanian down in the sixth.
The 29-year-old chef-turned-boxer prides himself on being a power-punching fighter and has been vocal in urging those in charge to introduce a knockout incentive that would add further spice to an already frantic format.
“I want a KO bonus! Because if there’s a KO bonus riding on this everybody is going to come in, they’re all going to want to get the knockout to get extra money and bringing two people together trying to knock each other out, it’s entertainment,” he laughs.
“I’m going to take everyone out in this game, even more so if you put the KO bonus on it. Let’s say 5k for a KO bonus!”
The avid traveller has covered much of Asia as well as Central and South America, and jokes that winning the BOXXER Series might also allow him to trade in hostels and “chaos” for “nice places” when he resumes exploring the world.
‘My brother won it in November – now it’s my time’
Tion Gibbs watched brother Cori transform his career at the inaugural BOXXER Series event in 2021, and has no intention of letting the title leave the family name.
The Midlands champion is one of six unbeaten fighters in the field as he arrives with an 8-0 professional record having beaten Jack O’Keeffe in September after two years away from the ring.
“Throughout my whole career I’ve fell in love and out of love with the game so many times, so it’s been up and down,” he said. “Hence why I’ve only had eight fights in my career as a professional so far. I feel like I’ve got the hunger back now.
“I just think relationships with the sport, not getting the recognition I feel like I deserve, just having the hunger for it.
“The only thing that got me in the game originally was that I love to fight, me and my brother when were 10 would just have 4oz gloves on and used to punch each other’s heads in, but when you get into the game there’s politics and the people around you.”
An emotional Gibbs paid tribute to his fiancee as he admitted he would have likely walked away from the sport were it not for her support and reassurance.
There is no jealousy or envy when it comes to his brother’s achievements, but instead a motivation to create and dictate his own story. While the money has appeal, the primary goal is recognition in the form of getting signed.
“My brother is vastly talented, he’s a great boxer and I feel like he, not took the shine away from me on purpose, he did his thing and he’s really good. I’ve watched him all my life, he’s very good,” he said.
“Then it was kind of ‘Tion, Cori’s brother’ and it wasn’t just my own thing, even though I’ve done well, like I was England international as an amateur, I’ve done my own thing. But it’s still like living in his shadow a little bit.”
The 27-year-old, notably a gym mate of fellow BOXXER Series fighter Scott Melvin, goes on to describe it as the “perfect” moment for him and his career.
“My brother won it in November, in April, it’s my time,” he said. “My message to myself is, ‘you’ve been in it for a long time now, this opportunity has come up to change my life and get exactly what I want and nobody is taking it from me’.”
‘Without boxing, I’d be dead or in jail’
As a kid Otis ‘Lights Out’ Lookham would flip over his worksheet in school and draw characters from Japanese Manga cartoon Dragon Ball Z, recalling how he only ever paid attention when it came to PE or Art.
He was permanently excluded from four different secondary schools growing up, with his reputation leading others to turn him away: “I had to go to a bad school, that’s what they called it,” he said.
The 29-year-old does not shy in admitting boxing saved his life.
“Definitely, the life I was living and going down, I’d either be dead or in jail,” he said. “The people who know me and know what I’ve been through, what my life is about, they’re all proud of me for where I am now.
“I do look back and think, where would I be without boxing? My honest opinion would be dead or in jail, it’s as easy as that.
“Most people that lived my life wouldn’t be able to cope with what they’ve had, I’ve had a hard life. I don’t share it with people, it’s always in here (points to head). It’s a culmination of everything, losses in my family, my upbringing.”
Lookham only made his pro debut on March 5, stopping Paul Scaife in the second of their four-round bout at Newark Showground.
He jokes that the TV and ‘showbiz’ is not his “cup of tea”, but is more than willing to embrace it for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at transforming life for both himself and his family.
“To look back at where I’ve come from, it gives me a burning desire to do this and to prove myself and make my city proud of me,” said the Nottingham fighter. “We’ve got people like Carl Froch and Leigh Wood coming from the city, I want to be one of them names, I want to be remembered and for people to say ‘this kid may not have started as gracefully as the rest but he’s in it and he’s coming’.”
He cites his resilience through turmoil as a warning to his competitors of the threat he poses ahead of Saturday.
“Sleep on me at your own peril,” he says. “A lot of people throughout my life have brought me down, look where I am. Don’t write me off. I’m in this to win it. I’m in it because I truly believe I can win. I’ve got the punching power and speed.”
A must-see homecoming
Saturday meanwhile promises to hold a personal attachment for former kickboxer Dylan Cheema, who happens to live just 10 minutes down the road from the Coventry Skydome Arena.
The 25-year-old is just two fights into his professional boxing career, most recently beating Jahfieus Faure on points in December last year. It may have come quickly, but he has no plans to waste his chance on the big stage.
“This is going to be the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “Winning this tournament means a lot and opens so many doors for me and my career.
“We’ve got a special little treat for the entrances which I’ll show on the night. As anyone knows, when Team Cheema turns up we bring the razzmatazz before I even compete.That starts with my heritage, I’m a Punjabi boxer, that starts with my Indian drummers, they walk me out, they walk me into the Lion’s Den. It’s going to be loud and electric.
“Tune in for the ring walk because you’ll be on your feet dancing, if you aren’t on your feet dancing you’ve got a problem, you’re going to see me focused but the crowd dancing and have a good time. Then you’ll see me box and see me win, you’ll see me have a break and you’ll see me do it again, you’ll see me have a break and then see me do it again, next thing you know I’ve got 40k and I’m happy.”
Cheema, who earned a Business Consulting degree at Lancaster University, still works for a cash and carry company in Manchester as well as staying involved with the family-owned shops he has been sweeping and locking up since the age of 14, something he says has helped mould his “hard-work mentality”.
“I’m up at 5.30 and back in at 10.30 with no break in between, training twice a day and working full time, so this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Work is work, I’ve got to be able to support myself financially outside boxing.”
His route into combat sport began with martial arts, in which he became a two-weight kickboxing world champion before making the decision to move across to boxing.
“I grew up in the world of kickboxing, my best mate and his dad are still my coach today. I had my first fight when I was 10, I’m 25 and going to be 26 so it will be my 16th year of competing in martial arts,” he said.
“Kickboxing was a lifelong dream of becoming a professional champion and I had that opportunity when I was 21. After that I fought four times, became a two-time world champion and fought in a unification fight.
“Kickboxing was my first love, boxing is now my new love.”
‘I want to box the favourites’
As the most experienced boxer on the card, Shaun Cooper is certainly ready to challenge for a life-changing sum of money.
Cooper (12-3) has alternated wins and losses across his last six fights, coming out on top in his last against Des Newton earlier this year.
Despite some mixed performances of late, the Walsall boxer believes that despite Ryan Charlton and Tion Gibbs being the “favourites”, he is ready to get in the ring with anyone and prove he is the man to beat.
“I feel great, I am buzzing and I am excited with two days to go,” Cooper told Sky Sports.
“I am excited to put on a good performance and show everyone what I have been training in the gym for, the late nights, the early runs, it will all be shown on Saturday night when I am crowned the winner.
“I want to box everyone who is predicted to win this tournament.
“If I box them first I don’t mind that.
“Everyone is saying (the favourites) are Tion Gibbs and Ryan Charlton but if you pulled them out and I had to fight them first, would I worry? I wouldn’t worry at all.
“I would get them out of the way and get it done.”
A friendly face-off
Affectionately known as the “Showman”, Scott Melvin has one of the more unique storylines of the lightweight tournament.
Melvin is the youngest of the fighters at 21 and comes into the tournament unbeaten after four fights, having beaten MJ Hall at Villa Park in February.
Coming from the same Midlands gym as Tion Gibbs, he will have the added pressure of possibly facing his regular sparring partner in the BOXXER Series ring.
In the face of such pressure, Melvin remains a calm figure and believes his amateur career has readied him for his biggest moment so far in his professional career.
“Eleven years I have been boxing now, all to this moment on Saturday night,” says Melvin.
“I will be loving it, big smile on my face, ready to show the world what I can do.
“Not knowing who you are boxing in the amateurs is normal, I have had 70 amateur fights so I am prepared.
“I feel like it is getting to the point now where I can just be myself now and enjoy it, this is what I have been looking to since I was a little kid when I was boxing.
“The press conferences, interviews, weigh-ins on the big stage and my time is here.”
For the coaches of Gibbs and Melvin, decisions will have to be made on how they will split between the two fighters, but Melvin is hoping such decisions won’t have to be made until the final.
He said: “I think just agreement wise, for the coaches, we will just have to do a flip of the coin to see who goes in whose corner.
“Just for me and Tion it is ‘may the best man win’.
“I would love to get other sides if the draw because I genuinely believe we can both make it to the final so that would be a great storyline for us to be fighting each other.”
Twenty-two-year-old Brooklyn Tilley represents Kent with three wins to his name after seeing off Jamie Quinn in Maidstone last month.
Joe Underwood Hughes, 25, is meanwhile also undefeated after eight professional fights, beating Taka Bembere in November last year.
Watch the second BOXXER Series tournament from the Coventry Skydome Arena live on Sky Sports on Saturday, April 16.