The Tibbs name has been synonymous with boxing for over 50 years. Dad Jimmy was a prizefighter during the 1960s – finishing with a professional record of 17-2-1 – before overcoming a colourful past led him to become a celebrated trainer to the likes of world champions Nigel Benn, Chris Pyatt and Billy Joe Saunders.
Son Mark was also a professional fighter, with a record of 22-2-1, who, after spending many years as assistant to his father, now trains a stable of fighters out of The Origin gym in Rainham, Essex. A stable, which includes WBO European flyweight champion Harvey Horn, heavyweights Johnny Fisher and Daniel Dubois, and also the undefeated WBO super middleweight world champion Billy Joe Saunders.
On 8th May, Saunders will contest Mexico’s Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez for the WBC, WBA Super, WBO and Ring super middle weight titles. Providing he prevails, this a fight will likely represent the pinnacle of his professional boxing career.
‘The biggest fight so far’
As a trainer, Mark, who helped guide Billy Joe’s career between 2009-2015, the period in which he won the WBO world middleweight title, has since achieved championship success with several fighters. But will this occasion top them all?
“Yes, I have to say that this will be the biggest fight I’ve ever been a part of in my professional training career. Obviously, I’ve been in stadium fights and sold-out arenas, but with what’s on the line, the profile of the opponent and the history we’ve got with Billy Joe, this will definitely be the biggest fight so far.”
‘There has been a noticeable change in Billy’
Since the retirement of Floyd Mayweather, Canelo Alvarez’s profile has ascended to fill the void, now making him boxing’s money fight. Arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, he has won world titles across four different weight classes, unifying three of them. He represents the marquee challenge which Saunders has been coveting for some time, the one which moving promotional stables from Queensberry to Matchroom was intended to facilitate.
Though now that this fight is finally here, how does one actually prepare for an event, and indeed for a future Hall-of-Fame opponent, of this era-defining magnitude?
“You know what, I’m gonna let you in on something here, and I feel a bit guilty saying it, but even given the size of the occasion, psychologically I don’t feel any different [laughs]. But regarding preparation, it is all about levels. And the levels have increased this time. It’s been a real team effort between Greg Marriot [Billy’s nutritionist], Cameron Goff [his strength and conditioning coach], Tom Watts [camp manager], and then me working on the boxing side of things. And there has been a noticeable change in Billy. He’s ultra-focused for this fight.
“He stayed fit and ticking over since his last outing, so this camp has really been about four months of proper, focused work. Billy knows he has to be on his very, very best to get the result that we all want and the one that we know he can deliver, and he can’t cut any corners to do that, and he hasn’t. He’s been working with an extra spark and at an extra level for some time. He’s right where I want him physically. He’s done all that’s being asked of him, and he’s in the best shape, physically, mentally, and spiritually, that he could possibly be in. I’m very happy with him.”
‘These are the nights that you do it for’
As implied, this will be the second phase in which Mark has worked with Billy Joe, though his first as head trainer. Since Billy split with Mark’s father, Jimmy, in 2016, he has gone onto work with notable British trainers Ben Davison, Adam Booth, and Dominic Ingle. However, whilst still a swift counter puncher, this five-year estrangement has resulted in a version of Saunders which is noticeably different from the one that Mark helped to initially develop.
“It is night and day, to be honest. But then Billy has changed as well over that time. He’s matured, he’s become a world champion again. He’s added certain skills to his repertoire and other things he’s not focused on as much, so it’s about us working on them again and working on his whole skillset to make sure that everything is firing as it should be, and as it needs to be, coming into this fight.”
The pair’s renewed relationship has yielded one victory thus far, a unanimous points decision victory over St Helen’s Martin Murray, however the Canelo fight was always the desideratum, the aspiration to potentially reward several lifetimes of hard work and sacrifice.
“You never want to look too far ahead, or beyond any fight or any opponent, but in the background, things were happening and moving, and it was definitely something you’d think about and something we wanted.
“Billy has worked incredibly hard to get here. He’s an Olympian, a two-weight world champion. He’s hit pain barriers to get here that you wouldn’t believe. And then there’s the family side, both of us, you know, have worked so, so very hard to be where we are. Time away from family, traveling, just working and working. But these are the nights that you do it for. You know, Billy wanted this fight to show people what he can do and to become everything that we all know that he can be, and we are in this business to be on platforms such as this.”
‘Sometimes it’s about taking the fighter outside of himself’
With 88 professional fights between them, one may be forgiven for assuming that the style of each fighter is already established and therefore that the outcome of this fight is perhaps already predetermined, that each trainer’s influence will be marginal and primarily focused on getting his fighter into the best physical condition possible before such an inevitability takes place. But on the inside of the hallowed fighter-trainer sanctum, the workaday realities of the experienced trainer’s role are significantly more profound than that.
“Being the head trainer is about overseeing everything and making sure that you have balance. Balance between all the team members, so that you are each working to fulfil an overall, shared vision. How big your fighter is, or how much he prioritises strength, for example, at the expense of speed or finesse. How hard he trains in specific moments and with who. Making sure he does enough fitness work, but that he also has enough sharpness to dedicate to the boxing element. That he isn’t overdoing it. All these aspects are your responsibility.
“Then there’s the mental side. Billy joe Saunders, for example, is a very intelligent fighter. He is a freethinking fighter; he reads fights better than anyone. He doesn’t need me to help him focus for this fight, he is already fully switched on, but a fighter can’t see how things look from the outside, how sparring looks from the outside. Sometimes they need to be told to pick things up or to throw certain shots. A fighter as talented as Saunders can coast because he is that good that he can fight within himself and still win. So sometimes it’s about taking the fighter outside of himself.
“Look, tactically we know that Billy and Canelo are both quick counterpunchers. Both slick. Both very, very good. But there are still things you can work on within that. With Billy, we need to make sure that he is able to get in and get out clean. Minimise his risks but still have a tactical approach in place which to allow him to continue to do what he does best.”
It is a testament to the esteem that fighters continue to hold Mark and Jimmy Tibbs in, that for the biggest fight of his professional career, Billy Joe Saunders, the Prodigal Son, has returned to the methods and to the tutelage that he trusts to steel him for it. Victorying on May 8th and he will rightly be lionised as a current pound-for-pound great. And behind him, he’ll have a trainer quietly deserving of the very same accolade.