CURT Warburton’s at camp, training camp. It should neither be confused with Baden Powell nor with Billy Butlin’s, not unless they’ve opened one in Widnes.
It’s called Wolfslair, subsumed by a humdrum industrial estate in the Rugby League belt between Manchester and Liverpool, both gym and temporary home to some of the country’s top mixed martial arts exponents – cage fighters, few holds barred.
Mostly they doss down in near-windowless ground floor rooms, three bunks in each, sharing cooking and toilet facilities and a certain barrack block humour.
Curt, a thoroughly good bloke, is conducting the notvery- grand tour. A cheerful combatant called Gavin lies on an unmade bed upstairs, watching afternoon television between training sessions.
“Welcome to the Excelsior suite,” he says.
The regime’s communal, convivial, but carefully controlled. The Spartans may have lived like this, and it didn’t do those guys much harm.
“You need it, it keeps you focused,” says Curt. “We’ve some really good gyms up home but this is probably the best in England, they really push you here. I really feel I’m a better person for it.”
Asceticism notwithstanding, the conversation turns inexorably to cream cakes. “We walk past the Asda cake counter every week,” says Gavin. “It’s really quite a high, just to show that we can.”
Widnes railway station, by happy coincidence, is where the American singer Paul Simon is said to have written his 1960s hit record Homeward Bound – he wished he were – while awaiting a train to somewhere ineffable.
Might Curt also wish that he were back home in Coundon, Co Durham? “Not a bit,” he insists. “If you’re doing something you love, you’ll do anything for it. How many people like their jobs?
“I used to dig holes for a living, look out of the window some mornings and wish so hard that I didn’t have to go to work. I’ve never once woken up here and wished I hadn’t to train.
“You have to be really fit, dedicated, have the right people around you. If you don’t do something like this 100 per cent, there’s no point in doing it at all. There are some great lads here.
“It’s basic but it has to be.
It’s the best move I ever made.”
Cage fighting, he says, has changed his life. “It’s completely turned it around, it’s an awful lot better than digging holes. I’m living a dream and, besides, my mortgage depends on this.”
He’s been fighting for just four years, already been to a training camp in Australia and more recently to a West End premiere – “red carpet the lot” – of a film starring a cage fighter called Rampage Jackson. Now the former pipe layer is himself about to mix it with the best.
COUNDON’S a former pit village near Bishop Auckland where Curt lives with his partner Emma, their twoyear- old son Theo and Emma’s daughter Ella, 11.
“I used to love playing football. You had to in Coundon, it was the norm.
Until I was 16 I was quite dedicated, but then started going out on Saturday nights, sometimes Friday nights, and would turn up next morning wasted like everyone else.
“It didn’t matter so much because there were another ten people to help you out. In this game if you aren’t 100 per cent you’ll get punished. I haven’t had a drink for two months, I won’t until after the big fight.”
He was 25 when a friend suggested he try mixed martial arts at a gym in Ferryhill. “I only went to keep fit, but I was immediately hooked by it.
Soon I was training four nights a week, then I was fighting. I love it.”
Two years ago he turned professional, has one six of his seven fights – “getting beat was the worst experience of my life” – and now been offered a four-fight contract by the UFC, the Premiership – the ultimate – of the sport.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked,” he says. “Every mixed martial arts fighter wants to be with the UFC. I’m so lucky to have the chance.”
The first is on October 16 against Spencer Fisher, an American, at the 18,000 capacity O2 Arena – the former Millennium Dome – in London. Television will broadcast it worldwide; around 200 friends and family from Co Durham plan to travel down by plane, train and coach.
“The next day,” says the south Durham Spartan, “there’s going to be one hell of a party in Coundon.”
HE MEETS me at the Homeward Bound railway station, drives to a Toby carvery, insists – so much for a mean fighter – on paying for lunch. He has turkey and beef – no raw meat – one roast potato (“it used to be five or six”) declines a Yorkshire pudding and drinks orange and water.
The evening previously the lads had had their weekly cinema outing. “I snuck an ice cream,” Curt confesses.
On the shelf behind us there’s a John Prescott toby jug – does the ennobled gentleman know this? – though even that might seem ostentatious back at Wolfslair.
Curt’s usually there four days a week – get up, run, eat, train, eat, train, eat, spar, bed – coached by experts in boxing, wrestling, fitness and ju-jitsu. Two have arrived from Brazil.
Once a week he drives to a specialist strength gym in Bolton. “They do strength conditioning, explosive strength, all sorts of crazy things but it works. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.
I’ve really upped my game.”
And courage? “Yeah, I suppose you do have to have it inside you, but everyone has it inside them.
“A lot of people beat themselves up before a fight, but it’s just about being in the right frame of mind. You know you’re going to get hit; no one thinks they can punch hell out of someone and not get punched back. I train three times a day for this.”
It’s also suggested that he’s innately shy. “You could say that,” he says, enigmatically.
Back home, he trains at Gary McAllister’s Phoenix Thai boxing gym in Shildon, his disciplined lifestyle made possibly by generous sponsorship by RD Utilities, his employers, by CMW Utilities and by Kolospray.
Emma, he says, is OK about it. “My mother gets a bit worried, but I hope she can see the bigger picture. There’s a lot of money in this if you do well. It could change my life and my family’s.”
Eventually he hopes to open a gym of his own in the Coundon area – “I was 25, it would be great to catch kids when they were ten” – maybe even move to a house with a garden.
The camp’s quiet. By five o’clock it’ll be vibrant, belligerent, again. The station’s almost deserted, a little plaque marking its claim to fame. Curt doesn’t give it a glance: the following evening he’ll be homeward bound, too.
Cricket club’s base goes up in smoke
TUESDAY’S column lugubriously reported an arson attack, as calamitous as it was senseless, on Brighouse football club, where we’d been the week previously. Much closer to home, Peterlee Cricket Club – home to the world egg jarping championship and to much else of a more conventional nature – was gutted by the wreckers on Wednesday night.
Officially opened by Geoff Boycott in April 1978, it swiftly became a centre of community activity. “Volunteers have spent countless hours of their own time making things happen,” says Roy Simpson, who also sends images of the devastation.
“It’s too early to say if it can be rebuilt or even if it’s viable. It looks like we’ve reached the end of an era. It’s just so sad.”
Pools keeper an “absolute leviathan”
MIKE Bayly’s thoroughly diverting new book Changing Ends is sub-titled “A season in non-league football.” His first live match however – “They say it’s like losing your virginity, you always cherish it no matter how bad the performance” – was Hereford United v Hartlepool, 1986-87.
He mentions that rite of passage for two reasons, firstly because he was having a pee and missed the first of Hereford’s four goals and secondly because of the Pools goalie.
“Whereas the Hereford goalie was a slight, anaemic looking chap, his opposite number was an absolute leviathan, all beard and belly and monstrous kicks.
He looked like Grizzly Adams.”
The keeper in question, unlikely to be amused, was Houghton-le-Spring lad Eddie Blackburn who in 181 Pools appearances may never hitherto have been compared to Grizzly Adams.
A Century of Poolies reckons him “a great servant” to the club.
Last heard of, the Blackburn rover, now 53, was a school caretaker in York and coaching City’s keepers.
THAT long-gone match narrowly preceded the first issue of Monkey Business, Hartlepool’s admirable fanzine, presently celebrating its 100th issue.
It was 1989 and Garry Gibson, reputedly the Football League’s youngest club chairman, had just taken over. “Garry Gibson – Wunderkind?” asked the headline. They may still be wondering.
“This week has been especially fun as I’ve been shot at less than twice, which is fairly quiet compared to a night on Redcar High Street.”
Bless him, he’d taken a load of Boro notepads and pens to give to the local kids – and one recipient, he recalls, looked like the happiest little lad in the world.
Excitedly, the bairn pointed at the Boro badge.
They may have been the only English words he knew.
“Man United,” he said.
STILL with reading matter, though quite possibly under plain brown cover, a note arrives from Barry Jackson.
“Just in case it’s slipped under the radar, a reminder that on September 2, Peter Storey’s autobiography is published.” It’s called True Storey: My life and crimes as a football hatchet man.
“Not for the squeamish or the kiddies,” says Barry.
WE have remarked previously that the Rev Leo Osborn, chair of the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist district and president-elect of the Methodist Conference, is an Aston Villa fanatic. Thus it was that, last weekend, he got as far as the St James Park ticket office, thought better of it and missed a 6-0 defeat. Instead the minister for sport took himself off to watch Warwickshire – his other passion – play cricket against Durham. Durham murdered them. “There are days,” says Leo, “when you wish you’d just stayed at home.”
ON Manchester Piccadilly railway station I bump into former Darlington footballer Steve Holbrook, 58 next and still enthusiastically playing five-a-side at the Dolphin Centre. Steve’s but a bairn, of course, compared to his team mate Bill Smith.
“We’ll come off knackered and Bill’s standing there wondering what all the fuss is about,” says Steve. Quite soon they’re all over to Greece. “Lads’ week away,”
says Steve. Bill Smith is 85.
TUESDAY’S column sought the identity of the Football League side that, in the 20th Century, won every home game in one season. The intended answer was Brentford in 1929-30 – their away record was so bad they weren’t even promoted – though several readers have pointed out that Small Heath also achieved it in 1902-03.
Norman Robinson, among them, today invites readers to name five West Indies Test players who’ve played in the county championship for Durham.
Bank holiday weekend or not, the column returns in three days.