How Bennett helped forge Hodges boxing union

SPEED was Justin Hodges' greatest asset when he scored 99 tries for the Broncos and Roosters and the Maroons rugby league great is backing that athleticism to be the matchwinner in his boxing debut in Sydney on Friday night

Hodges has dabbled in boxing most of his life and at 36 says he's thrilled to finally chase his dream of being a professional fighter against Ipswich tough guy Rob Baron.

His coach, Garth Williams, says the key to Hodges winning and then pursuing more fights in 2019 is not so much his speed but his "professionalism''.

 

Justin Hodges with his trainer Gareth Williams.
Justin Hodges with his trainer Gareth Williams.

Williams has been a long-time coach of Queensland amateur boxing teams and was once in Jeff Horn's corner when the future world champ was fighting for a place at the world amateur titles in 2009.

Williams' partner Shara Romer has coached Australian teams at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

Ten years ago, when Williams was embarking on his new career as a fight trainer and wanting tips on how best to inspire his pupils, he wrote to then Broncos coach Wayne Bennett for advice.

"I wanted to learn about man management and Wayne told me to come down to training whenever I wanted,'' Williams said.

"I started forming relationships with Justin and some of the other Broncos, putting them through the punching pads. Justin started coming to train with me in the off-season or when he was injured and he's been pretty constant in the boxing gym ever since.

"He's a natural talent but the key to him winning fights is the discipline he learned in 16 years as a top footballer.

"He's been sparring good fighters, including Jack Bowen, who has represented Australia. He really works hard twice a day and he's always encouraging guys in the gym.

"His attitude is that of an elite athlete. Even when he's totally spent, it's one, two, three and ready to go again."

 

Rob Baron and Justin Hodges are ready for their big fight on Friday night.
Rob Baron and Justin Hodges are ready for their big fight on Friday night.

Hodges fights Baron on a big card topped by an all-league battle between Paul Gallen and John Hopoate.

"A lot of people bag footballers boxing, saying they're not real fighters, but people should remember that Hopoate is a former Australian heavyweight boxing champion and Gallen has beaten nationally rated heavyweights," Williams said.

"We're looking for Hodgo to keep fighting after this and maybe even to go into promoting so we can showcase some of the rising stars of Queensland boxing who are coming through."

Hodges knows he's taking an enormous risk to his health and reputation in Friday night's fight but says the support of his family - wife Gyanne, son Carter, 4, and daughter Milane, 1 - has given him a huge boost for the massive challenge.

"Gyanne and my mum Cheryl both saw me cop a lot of injuries playing footy and they were the ones picking up the pieces, the ones bringing me food when I couldn't move," he said.

"For a long time I kept dropping hints over dinner that I'd like to have a proper boxing match.

"I've followed boxing since I was a kid growing up in Cairns and working out on a heavy bag that my dad put up at our house. I didn't want to get to over 40 and wish I had a go, so now I'm giving boxing my best shot."

Gyanne says her husband "deserves a lot of credit for having the guts" to try a new - and dangerous - sport after 16 seasons at the top of rugby league.

 

Justin Hodges puts the finishing touches on his fight preparation.
Justin Hodges puts the finishing touches on his fight preparation.

She is a former national trampoline champion and knows what it's like to chase a sporting dream.

"Justin and I sat down and I said 'why do you really want to try boxing?', and he told me all about his lifelong wish to test himself,'' she said.

"I've been to the gym to watch him sparring and he looked really sharp. I'm nervous but I'm also confident he has done the hard work to be successful.''