Lewis van Poetsch knows his boxing record is an easy conversation starter. The 29-year-old has had 134 professional fights and lost 123 of them. His record may look damning but in fact it highlights his durability as a journeyman, a crucial cast member in the opening acts of the most brutal of sports.
“I used to work as a barber and I was asked what is a journeyman all the time by my customers,” says Van Poetsch. “Basically, my role is to go in, put on a good show and initiate a new prospect into boxing. I know what I’m doing in there – when to go hard and when to just go the distance. People think it’s like something out of Snatch, going down for fixes in the fifth round, but it’s not like that. We play a vital role at the start of a prospect’s career.”
Standing at 5ft 7in with thick muscular arms, a beaming smile and an ornate moustache, Van Poetsch could have once passed for a celebrated Victorian strongman. Instead, he is a full-time lift engineer and a part-time boxer. Van Poetsch usually fights three times a month, as long as he doesn’t get stopped or severely cut in a contest, in which case he sits out for 28 days. His best friend, manager and travel companion Richard Farnan sources bouts for Van Poetsch, who always accepts them, wherever they are and at whatever notice.
“It’s generally a flat fee,” says Van Poetsch. “If it’s on TV against a big name, you might get an extra drink or two and looked after with a hotel or something. Some fights are pencilled in months in advance, but it can vary completely. I got 10 hours notice to fight John Docherty. I was meant to be going to Liverpool to fight another opponent. When that got cancelled, I was going out to have a beer, then I’m told I’m fighting Docherty in Newcastle who is a renowned KO artist. I just said to Richard: ‘What time are you picking me up, mate?’”
Like most journeymen, Van Poetsch did not dream about becoming one. He took up professional boxing when he was in the British army after completing a tour of Afghanistan and initially had dreams of winning a British title. For his first bouts, as the home fighter, Van Poetsch found the pressure of selling tickets increasingly stressful, often worrying about the gate sizes while he was warming up to fight. Once he was offered a flat fee to be the away fighter without the worries of selling tickets, he stepped into the role of the journeyman seamlessly.
“I love fighting. It’s not really about the money, although it’s nice to have a few extra drinks from it. I just really enjoy the sport of boxing, getting in there and having a fight. I never get nervous, maybe apprehensive is the right word. I fought recently against the Irish prospect Padraig McCrory, and I’ll not lie I was in the changing room in the Ulster Hall in Belfast shitting myself. This kid can seriously punch and I had a seriously long week at work and about four hours sleep before the fight. I got into the ring and, once that bell goes, you’re hypnotised or something. I ended up really enjoying myself.”
Van Poetsch recently changed his other career from a barber to a lift engineer and is grateful for the steady work that it provides outside the ropes, particularly now the coronavirus pandemic has decimated small-town boxing shows for the foreseeable future. “I consider myself lucky in that I have a good steady job doing the lifts, but it would be very worrying for other fighters. I’ve had a few people texting me and checking I’m alright. I haven’t really thought about it too much. I suppose I’m enjoying having a bit of a break from it, but I know the longer it goes on, the more I am going to miss it. In truth, I’d be lost without boxing, I really would.”
Van Poetsch is happy to play a supporting role to the main attraction. He takes pride in his work and believes he must entertain the fans. “I love being the pantomime villain. If that means interacting with the crowd between rounds, dancing to my opponent’s ring walk music, whatever. I’ll do it if it gives them a laugh. I get crowds yelling at me all the time – things like ‘you’re a fat bastard’ – and I just rub my belly, and they love it. Boxers often forget that we are there to entertain and that’s what I love to do best.”
Van Poetsch fights finely conditioned athletes who have gone through hours of intense training at world-class facilities. He trains when he can but, by his own admission, he does not live a monastic existence. “I don’t live an athlete’s life. I have a couple of pints during the week, and I like fish and chips. I’m an athlete in the absolute loosest sense of the word, but I know that I can make it a difficult night for any boxer. My manager and I say that my fights are a bit of a welcome to pro boxing for opponents. I can make it very hard for them. I know exactly when to step on the gas and when not to. It’s a fine line as a journeyman.”
He has to make fights exciting and competitive enough to give his opponent a valuable night in their apprenticeship, without getting hurt himself or damaging the prospect. Van Poetsch understands the boundaries of a journeyman on the professional boxing ladder, but he has stepped outside them at times.
“I remember fighting a prospect, and there’s almost an unwritten rule when fighting a journeyman: don’t bash him up in the first rounds, just work behind the jab. Well, this fella just came out swinging wildly and he wouldn’t stop. Well, I had to protect myself. I ended up winning the fight and breaking his nose. His promoter wouldn’t speak to me for ages and I probably cost myself some work out of that, but it ended up being all fine between us in the end.”
Coronavirus has left a big hole in Van Poetsch’s diary. Adrenaline-inducing boxing trips across the country have been replaced by DIY jobs with his housemate in Bristol. Given the time to reflect, does he know when he will hang up his gloves? “Not really. I always wait to get through each medical examination at a time. Once I have done that and everything is OK, then I just want to keep doing it for as long as I am enjoying it, which I still absolutely am. If I find myself getting slow and getting hit too much, then I will know when to get out. Until then, a journeyman like me will always be ready to fight.”
Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you can read his interviews here.