For arguably the most influential trainer in British boxing, Robert McCracken cuts an unassuming figure – especially when set against the looming bulk of Anthony Joshua, his prize pupil.
But you do not need to study this pair for long to recognise McCracken’s power and influence. As McCracken talks, Joshua’s eyes never leave his mentor’s – every word uttered in McCracken’s trademark Brummie drawl is absorbed as he expertly guides his fighter’s hands to switching combinations on the pads.
McCracken’s deep well of expertise has earned him respect in rings the world over – as well as an MBE, for his work with Britain’s Olympic programme – and his reputation will go stratospheric if Joshua overcomes the sternest challenge of his fledgling professional career by defeating Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley on Saturday. But anyone expecting McCracken to fuel the hype and hysteria around this fight will be disappointed: a man who gave up his trade as a wood machinist in a cabinet factory in the Midlands to pursue his own professional career, in which he won British light-middle and Commonwealth middleweight titles in the 1990s, remains refreshingly grounded, and wary of the threat posed by Klitschko.
“It’s a very dangerous fight but at some point you’ve got to make that move,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “Professional boxing is dangerous and the opponents are as big as ‘Josh’ and as dangerous as him and can punch as hard as him. So there’s got to be lots of thought going into it. There’s always a duty of care.
“The main thing is that he’s fresh. He’s not taken any sustained beatings. He’s not been fed up with the politics of professional boxing. Now obviously it’s the big time, it’s Wladimir Klitschko, who has been the best heavyweight for the last decade. Experience versus youth. How will it go? Everyone is fascinated by it.”
Calmness personified, McCracken oversaw Joshua’s rise to a gold medal at London 2012, and continues to form a formidable role in the boxer’s mental and technical education at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, where Joshua trains for his fights.
There is a synergy at this boxing talent factory, McCracken having overseen the £40 million UK Sport investment into British boxing in his eight years as head coach, a programme which has yielded eight medals, including four golds.
McCracken purrs about the most precious jewel to have been unearthed in Sheffield, but believes great danger lies in wait in this fight for Joshua.
“You never know until the first bell goes in any fight. It was similar to Carl Froch’s reign and his title fights. You’re boxing at the highest level. It’s very very difficult,” McCracken said. “You can’t make mistakes, especially in heavyweight boxing. It’s a big, big challenge for both of the fighters.”
McCracken is well placed to warn Joshua of the pitfalls that can snare fighters. In his own fight against Manchester’s Steve Foster at Birmingham’s NEC in 1994, violence erupted between a group of Birmingham City football hooligans who had adopted him as a hero, and Foster’s followers from Salford. A pitched battle threatened the suspension of the main event on a night when the master of ceremonies, Mike Goodhall, in appealing to the rioting fans, had said: “You are threatening the future of boxing in this country.” How the world turns. McCracken is now the figurehead of Britain’s boxing establishment, and the man charged with guiding the career of Joshua as he seeks to elevate himself to the ranks of boxing superstardom. “The world has changed,” he reflected. “The days of fighters having 60 and 70 fights are going to be gone soon. There was a lot of social media pressure on Josh to have the Klitschko fight – there’s more of a spotlight on the fighters now and it’s harder to bring them through without taking a risk. It’s boxing, it’s a sport, and you learn on the job. And that’s certainly what Anthony is doing.
“When Joshua came to us in 2010 he was a relative international novice. But he learnt, he took his lumps and bumps. And he came back stronger each time. That’s the main thing with boxing. You’ve got to enjoy it. And he enjoys it.”
McCracken’s role cannot be understated this week, or on Saturday night. “Ultimately, when the bell goes, the fighters are on their own. They have to think on their feet and make quick decisions on the spur of the moment. My job is to advise him and guide him through the fight.
“He’ll be very prepared. It’s a huge, huge challenge fighting Wladimir Klitschko. He’s a great fighter. But Anthony is relishing it as the reigning champion. This is what prizefighting and pro boxing is all about. And if Anthony gets through this huge obstacle, he will create a new era of the dominant heavyweight. But it’s heavyweight boxing. And nothing is easy.”