Even in retirement, Garth Wood is passing on the lessons learned in boxing - Photo: Boxrec.com

The Contender Australia winner Garth Wood chats to The Inner Sanctum about his epic two fight series with Anthony Mundine and his post-fight career.

All too often there are media narratives that highlight the negatives that come from boxing. The ‘this fighter needs to hang them up’, ‘that promoter has underpaid fighters’ and ‘this referee let the fight go on for too long’ stories, while an extremely vital part of the coverage of the sport, all have one common flaw.

They overshadow the redemptive power that boxing has.

Winner of The Contender Australia, Garth Wood is more than aware of the transformative nature of the sport. As April passes, so too does the ten year anniversary of perhaps the biggest moment in his career – the conclusion of a two fight series with Anthony “The Man” Mundine.

Despite being on the losing end of a unanimous decision, the occasion marks a serious turning point in the life of the fighter who went by the nickname “From the Hood”, itself more of a reality than a moniker built on hyperbole and over-exaggeration.

Life as a kid in the suburbs south of Sydney was one in which excitement of youth gave way to a toughened existence, sharpened by harsh experiences.

“Growing up in that neighbourhood, you either played footy or boxed or get yourself into trouble. I did all three,” Wood told The Inner Sanctum.

Some positives did emerge from the circumstances, as Wood followed in his father Barry’s footsteps and embarked on a career in the NRL in the late 1990s and early 2000s with Balmain and South Sydney.

Such a feat should be applauded. Playing any sport at the highest level available is only achieved by turning talent into ability through hard work. Unfortunately, careers of great accolades and length only pan out for a small percentile.

Just as quickly as League began to dissipate as a presence in Wood’s life, the other social forces of his formative years – fighting and trouble – worked hand in hand to capture his existence.

“I was going nowhere fast. I got cut from an NRL career, didn’t get a trade at school like I should have. I was just banking on being a footballer,” he candidly told.

“I’d been on the drink for that long, broke up with my missus, footy was gone, didn’t have a job. I was off the rails hard.

“I had a death wish more or less, hanging with the wrong gang, getting up to some bad stuff.”

Garth Wood and The Contender lifeline

It was at this point that things unexpectedly began to change. With just a handful of professional bouts behind him at a record of 4-1, the ultimate lifeline emerged in the form of reality TV show as Garth Wood got his breakout opportunity on The Contender Australia.

The show pitted 14 Super Middleweight fighters from Australia and New Zealand against each other in a tournament format. The prize: $25,000 and the chance to fight Anthony Mundine.

Garth’s The Contender entry did not come from being headhunted by recruiters and producers however and can be more accurately described as a simple twist of fate.

“On three days’ notice, they rang me as an emergency and I had three days to decide whether I was coming in.

“It come to me out of the blue. Shannon Taylor pulled out all of a sudden.”

The rest as they say, is history. Wins against Israel Kani, Victor Oganov and Kariz Karuiki resulted in The Contender title and a plethora of career opportunities.

Garth Wood on the Contender. Photo: Boxrec.com

To Wood, it was not a simple as winning a few fights. It was instead a culmination of hard work and a change of mindset from complacency to determination.

“Getting put in that reality show – under the big lights, the big screen – I think I just had to, like anything with life take the good, the bad and the ugly and you’ve got to shape it into your own. Otherwise, it comes back to bite you on the arse” he said.

“You’ve just got to block everyone out, go to your little place. The only thing that matters is what you let matter, I believe in life.

“I just turned my life from a negative to a positive and just didn’t look back.”

If you look at Garth Wood’s boxing career as the metaphor of Everest, winning The Contender was akin to reaching base camp.

Making it to the Summit was to come in the form of Anthony Mundine, who was 40-3 at the time with the IBO and WBA World Super Middleweight titles on his record. A left-hook knockout in the fifth round of an awkward ten round fight flew the flag of the underdog for all to see.

Garth Wood had not only arrived, he stood atop the mountain that is Australian boxing in December 2010. The fabled stories of “the underdog” and “the Cindarella man” had come to life and captured the imagination of the nation’s public.

Looking back in hindsight, he would not have had it any other way.

“I just wanted to be that sort of boxer that would fight anyone that comes along. Most of the people I fought in my career always outweighed me when it comes to stats, their record, their ability, their belts and I just didn’t want to change it,” Wood told.

“I just wanted to make sure that was my reputation. You know, ‘he never fought any tomato cans’ like Micky said to Rocky in the movie.

“I think it’s just part of my nature. I want to fight the best. I want to test myself. I never wanted anything handed to me. You can bullshit to everyone else, but you can’t bullshit to yourself. Especially in boxing, everyone pats you on the back.”

In another incredible twist of fate, an avalanche nearly emerged in his climb to the top through a familiar face and the turn of events has left Wood pondering the way in which life’s cards are dealt.

“If you have a look at that first fight, I knock Mundine out. Billy Hussein or one of the crew in the corner – my brother goes to jump up and jump in the ring and someone pulls him back. If he jumps in that ring before they count to ten I lose the fight,” he said.

“He’s just so excited and over the moon because what I did was crazy.

“Billy said to me, ‘mate, if your brother jumped in the ring, you’d have lost that fight.’ I said, ‘f**k off’, that’s how much I knew about the ins and outs of boxing. I just knew how to fight.

“I’m so superstitious now, just the way my cards have been dealt. Sometimes, I don’t know – is it meant to be or do you just create your own luck? It’s one question, but all I know is you’ve got to be yourself, not lie to yourself and go about business.”

In reality, these superstitions are outweighed by all the hard work Garth Wood has done. A willingness to do better and be better determined his future. These are lessons that he has learned by surrounding himself with the best in the business.

Through tough, but unwavering love from the likes of his father Barry and boxing legends Johnny Lewis and Jeff Fenech, Wood was able to see the value in sticking to a path. That dreams only become reality when they are the sole focus.

“When I got out of The Contender house, I wasn’t going to go down that road and f**k things up or say ‘if only I did this and that.’ I stayed pure, I got a good team around me and I just stayed away from negative people and lived in my own little bubble” Wood said.

“Everything’s related in life, you want to be a musician, you want to be in politics or whatever, you’ve just got to stick to your guns and do what you’ve got to do.

“If you start listening to too many people, then you start blaming everyone else and going ‘why didn’t I just do my own thing.’ That’s the sort of thing that I grew up doing. I’ve got so many regrets with football, like ‘I shouldn’t’ve done that, shouldn’t’ve hung with them, if only’, that sort of stuff.

“Because I played NRL and I didn’t get to fulfil all my dreams that I wanted to do, when I got this next bite of the cherry with boxing I just ignored all the negative people.

“Your thoughts control your life, it’s how much you want it.”

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While he came up short in the aforementioned rematch with Mundine the following April, as well as in future fights with other World champions Sam Solimon and Daniel Geale, Wood did find success in the ring.

Consecutive bouts in 2013 saw him capture the PABA Light Heavyweight and WBA Pan African Middleweight titles.

In all, he did not take a backwards step. Just the reputation he wanted.

“it’s not me, it’s we” Wood finds his post-fight purpose

Now, with over seven years out of the ring, Wood is aiming to pass this mindset, as well as his life experiences, on to the next generation of Sydney youth.

Recently, he has taken on the role of boxing coach at the Balmain Police and Citizens Youth Club. Although it is the second oldest PCYC in Australia, the club’s boxing program had been in a state of flux.

This presented a carrot to be appropriately dangled in front of a hungry individual. True to form, the opportunity presented itself out of nowhere.

“A good mate of mine, Andrew Bell told me that boxing at Balmain PCYC had been closed for two years. He goes ‘mate, why don’t you get your head in there?’ because I wasn’t working through Corona Virus, so I stumbled across that thanks to my mate,” Wood recalled.

“First time I’ve ever run a business, so I’m learning on the road. I’ve got good people around me.

“Just like boxing, it’s not me, it’s we. It is you when you’re in the ring, but you need good people behind you and good people in your ear.”

Part channelling his love for the sport, part acknowledging the importance of the outlets and guidance offered by PCYC’s across Australia, Garth is passionate about the relatively new role he has taken on.

“PCYC’s are vital for the community. I know how vital it was when I was a kid growing up,” he said.

“Kids of today, there’s so many ways that they can go down the wrong path. I just think there’s a lot looking for father figures, and I’m enjoying doing what I’m doing.

“I’m teaching them how to defend themselves but also how to look people in the face and show some respect.

“I’m not too hard on them. Just make sure I’m assertive with them, teach them the right rules from day dot. Be a role model for them.”

Admittedly, Wood acknowledges that there have been some challenges in running a class with a diverse range of behaviour patterns involved.

“You have a few kids that don’t listen, so I have to put in a bit of discipline – ‘give me five push ups’ – now they’re the best kid in the class.

“Their attention span isn’t that great, but I’m impressed with the amount of effort.”

Garth Wood putting Sydney’s next generation of boxers through their paces – Photo: PCYC Balmain Facebook page

Just like in boxing though, the reward far and away outweighs the challenges.

“I did a mini marvels class, for five to nine year olds. I didn’t think I was going to get many and I ended up getting six kids and the parents sat in the class watching.

“I got a few text messages from the parents saying how good the class was and they’re going to try and get kids from their class and their school.

“I just love sharing the love and teaching the kids of today what I was taught. It’s treated me well.

“I’m enjoying going there, training, getting back in the game. I really love helping the kids that are a little less fortunate in the area, keeping on the right path to being pretty good human beings.”

For updates on Garth Wood’s boxing program, follow @hood_boxing on Instagram.

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