By Anthony Cocks

Dwight Ritchie has always been a fighter.

The world-rated junior middleweight, who has the opportunity to become a crossover star if he defeats Tim Tszyu at the ICC Exhibition Centre in Sydney on August 14, was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his birth and defiantly battled the cruel disease for the first two year of his life.

“My mum and my nan always say that I was born a fighter, you got over cancer and stuff,” said the IBF number nine ranked 154-pounder. “Obviously I don’t remember it, but it’s something that resonates with them. It’s pretty bad trauma for my mum and my nana and my family to go through, but it does show that fighting spirit that comes from my family and just a never-give-up, never-say-die attitude.”

The proud product of a country upbringing, ‘The Fighting Cowboy’ has been overwhelmed by the support he has received ahead of the biggest fight of his 10-year professional fighting career.

“I’m from Shepparton, it’s a big country town but it’s not too big if you know what I mean. Since being back home for the last 18 months I’ve had people from everywhere getting behind me. People coming in the gym, sponsors coming on board, people just wanting to help,” said Ritchie.

“It’s been really overwhelming. It’s made me really proud to come from there and I definitely think I represent country people and the sort of morals that come with being from the country as well.

“A lot of people overlook us and maybe think we’re a bit backwards or simple, but when we do something, we do it properly, so I’m really proud to be from there. The amount of messages that I’ve received, even from people from other small towns, has been simply overwhelming.”

Tszyu, 24, comes from boxing royalty. The eldest son of International Boxing Hall of Famer and former undisputed junior welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu, Tim has been groomed for ring success since an early age. Now ranked IBF #12 and WBA #15, Tszyu is forging his way ahead to a world title shot.

But the slick-boxing Ritchie is confident he has the tools in his arsenal to exploit what he sees as the defensive deficiencies in Tszyu’s game.

“I don’t think his defence is as good as it can be. I think I’ll be able to get through to him with speed and accuracy. I’m a pretty sharp puncher and I’ll just be looking to exploit his weaknesses,” said Ritchie, who has been the 10 or 12 round distance in five of his last eight fights.

“I feel like I come on stronger in the later rounds as well. His lack of experience I think is another thing I’ll be able to exploit. He’s used to having things his own way.”

Ritchie and Tszyu share a common opponent in former national champion Joel Camilleri. Last August Ritchie decisioned Camilleri by scores of 97-94 and 96-94 twice, while Tszyu annexed the Australian title from the Melburnian in May by scores of 99-91, 98-92 and 99-91.

But Ritchie has warned against comparing the results.

“I don’t think there’s too much to take out of it because me and Tszyu are two very different fighters. He’s got more of a walk-up style and doesn’t like to waste too many punches, he likes to be very accurate and precise,” he said.

“Joel did get a good start on me. They came out with a very good gameplan and he threw me off for the first few rounds before I settled into my rhythm. Even though he started well against me we’ve got very different styles, so I don’t read too much into it.”

Ritchie had an unusual start to his pro career, entering the prize-ring for the first time at the tender age of 17. This was in breach of the minimum age of 18 imposed by the Victorian Professional Boxing and Combat Sports Board, who changed the result of his first four fights to no contests once they discovered his true age.

Still, it’s a decision Ritchie doesn’t regret.

“It wasn’t really a foreign concept to me anyway as my old man turned pro at 17 as well,” said Ritchie. “When I came down to Melbourne to continue my boxing career I just to see how far I could take it.

“I was training at Keith Ellis’s gym with all pro fighters and just my style, the way that I was taught and stuff like that, it just wasn’t suited to the amateurs. I had a record of six wins, two losses in the amateurs but I wasn’t really going anywhere there. When it came to wanting to step up to the national level or the Oceania Games back then, I just wanted to be able to compete with these guys. I felt like I was a long-distance runner in a sprint.

“It wasn’t working for me and Keith recognised that as well and said, ‘why don’t we just get in there?’. I always dreamed of winning a world title. The Olympics, they never crossed my mind. Growing up, wanting to box, I wanted to be champion of the world. I didn’t want to be a gold medallist; those things didn’t interest me. So when Keith suggested it, I was all for it. Unfortunately, you probably shouldn’t do those things, but I copped my suspension and moved on.

“I’m better for it. I don’t recommend people doing it, but I don’t regret it either. It has definitely helped my development. I can’t regret it all.”

The addition of strength and conditioning coach Troy Tremellen to Team Ritchie last year has given Ritchie a boost, allowing him to concentrate on his gym work and leave the battle with the scales behind.

The nutrition plan Tremellen presented Ritchie with was so foreign to him at first that he called him up to question whether the volume of food was right as he wasn’t able to eat it all.

“He has really opened my mind. A lot of fighters early on are taught to stay away from the weight room, that there is sort of no place for it. We’re fighters, not body builders,” explained Ritchie.

“I went to him, asked for his help and just said ‘I don’t know anything about this stuff’. I went to him with an open mind and he said ‘I’ll show you’. There’s definitely a place for that, even with the nutrition side of things, with weight management and things like that. He’s just helped me tenfold.

“I don’t even stress about weight anymore. I used to have battles with the scales. I wouldn’t even think about the fight until after I weighed in because I was so concerned about making weight. I don’t even worry about the weight now and I’m eating more than I ever was, yet somehow I’m smaller and stronger. I really feel it’s taken my game up another notch and it’s definitely something I needed to compete at the world level. It’s done me the world of good.”

As the old saying goes, a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter.

“It absolutely blew my mind,” Ritchie continued. “I couldn’t believe what was going on. It has picked up my performance, I wasn’t going into sessions tired and in the last week of training I wasn’t weight cutting. I was used to feeling dead but now I was walking around feeling fine, playing with the kids, doing what I’ve got to do. It’s taken so much stress off my mind.”  

Now 27 years old and with decade worth of experience in the pro game, Ritchie is in his physical prime. The Tszyu fight represents the biggest opportunity of his career so far and it’s one he’s going to embrace.

“I’m just so zoned in for this fight,” said Ritchie. “It’s a great opportunity and I know they don’t come around everyday so I’m taking it with both hands. I just can’t wait to get in there, I’m just pumped for it. Pumped for everything it represents. It makes it so much easier to get to the gym, you don’t even think about it because you’re excited, I’m up 24/7!

“All that support from my family, my friends, supporters and people I don’t even know has been overwhelming. I’m just a boy from Shepp and I’m getting messages from people all over the country. It just makes me so happy, I’m just so humble to be a part of this. If people out there can take something out of this then that’s great. I just feel blessed.”