Christian Schembri Interview
Christian Schembri Interview: ‘Coqqos’, as he is known, is arguably one of Malta’s most popular boxers. Not only that, but he is a boxer on the rise. In an exclusive interview with BoxBets, he discusses his career to date; the boxing scene in Malta; how our sport could be improved; and who would win the fantasy fight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. It is insightful discussion to say the least…
BoxBets: So, let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me when did you first become interested in boxing and what made you decide to become a professional fighter?
Coqqos: I’ve been interested in boxing all my life. I remember when I was a kid me and my dad used to to stay up late to watch the Mike Tyson fights on the Italian TV when he was on, like, his European comeback tour. We used to watch K1 fights a lot because I used to do karate when I was kid.
Then, when I was 16, I started going to a kickboxing gym in Mosta – and there was Steve Martin back then teaching boxing as well – so I used to do kickboxing and boxing with sensei Silvio Camilleri and Steve Martin. Then, when I was 19, I had my first [kickboxing] fight, I won it, and I had my first boxing fight and I won that too – so I started in June 2012 in October. So that’s when I said “to hell with it”, this is what I want to do.
Good stuff! So, the professional boxing debut of any fighter is a nerve-wracking experience. A lot of expectations, a lot of pressure, but you went one step further and you decided to fight Scott Dixon, a former Commonwealth champion in your debut fight. So, tell me about the build up to that and how the events played out on the night.
Yeah, back then my training schedule was like me, Tyrone Borg and Richard Vella, would spar 8 or 10 rounds on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesday would be bag work or shadow boxing and stuff like that. Thursday would be footwork. So basically, even though I was still an unlicensed fighter, I was training like a professional, going out for runs in the morning and stuff like that, so I was always preparing for a 10 or 12 round fight even though I was fighting four two-minute rounds or six two-minute rounds.
Then something happened with Tyrone, because Tyrone was supposed to fight Scott, and then Tyrone Borg dropped out. He injured his back and he dropped out. And Demis Tonna [the promoter] was going crazy, he’s like “I’m going to cancel the show, cancel the show” and I’m like “Dude, like don’t cancel the freakin’ show, you know, I mean, I’ve been training for two months for this and now you’re going to cancel it?”
And Steve Martin told him, “Christian can step in if he wants, he’s on weight,” I told him as long as he fights me at 76 kg, as they were going to fight at 79, fight at 76/77 and I’m up for it and so Scott was on… It’s funny, this week I was doing pad work with him, as my coach was abroad, so I went to see him [Dixon now trains boxers at his own gym in Malta].
So Scott was on the phone with Demis and I was in the background and hearing Scott on the phone like “Demis are you fucking crazy, literally? You want to get a novice unlicensed fighter fighting me? Are you crazy? I’m going to hurt the kid; I can kill him you know?”. And I’m like is this motherfucker serious? Does he know who I am? (laughs) And he said “Ok, it’s your call, if he wants to fight me, I’ll fight, but if I hurt him it’s not my fault!”
Then for the first couple of days I was really nervous, like all over the place, then I said “This guy has two hands, two balls and two feet, just like me”, so that’s how it was. On fight night I was really calm, actually. It turned out that I still think I won that fight, but it was very close, you know, but they gave it to him – he’s the guy with more experience, so it was like… I’m still upset about it, but you know, you get over it.
Okay, the first fight with Dixon didn’t go as planned, but as a professional athlete how do you mentally deal with defeat?
(Sighs) I just get to the gym as quickly as possible to improve (laughs)
Straight back in there!
Yeah, usually before I didn’t even used to take three days off, so now I take a week off and get back to the gym. And then it depends what kind of defeat it is, you know, thank God, touch wood, up until now, all my defeats have been on points and very, very close, you know? It’s not like I was outclassed, beaten up, or knocked out cold. I’ve always lost on points.
The first time with Scott, I fought the guy who knocked out everybody else in Malta – except Steve Aquilina – and I was like “OK, this is good, I’ve got a future here!” Then I started travelling and stuff like that. I won my next five or six fights. Then I got a call to go to Italy to fight in Rome. Again, I lost on points, but it was as very good fight against one of the top Italian prospects. I was never hurt… I was the one putting all the pressure on.
I think he was 9 – 0 at the time. Undefeated.
Yeah, Yeah,Yeah. Vincenzo Bevilacqua. So then, in the other fights I lost, they were all very close – against the Dominican fighter Segura. So basically, they were all step-up fights.
Against Richard Vella, which is the best fight our island has seen so far, like I lost by split decision. So, even my last fight in Switzerland, I lost that, but it proved I belong at WBC title fight level, you know? Against the best Swiss boxers they have, so I have the respect of the WBC officials, the fans… everyone shaking my hands, stuff like that, you know.
So you take pride in the performance, anyway.
You learn, you learn. I mean, when you go on the road, it’s always harder to win. It always hurts more to lose, when you lose at home, especially against another Maltese fighter, that hurts the most. You’re like you want to prove you’re the best, you know, but of course it takes you a while until you get over it. But you can’t get down or depressed, you know? If you do that instead of the gym it will always…..the longer you stay out of the gym, the harder it will be to get back.
Sure. Okay, so going back to Scott Dixon – how satisfying was it for you to win the rematch just a few months later?
Ah, you don’t even know (laughs) – It was so, so nice. I mean, listen, with the experience that I had, if I had fought him in my fourth professional fight when he was at his peak, I think it would have been a different story. Because I fought a 37 or 38-year-old Scott Dixon, I didn’t fight a 26-year-old, you know, you gotta keep that in mind.
But I was still, and I am still, the only Maltese guy to beat him, you know, so…. Well, the judges said I beat him, trust me, you go and ask him now, still, “Did Chris beat you?” he’s gonna say “Fuck, no! I won that fight fair and square; the judges were blind, three Blind Mice.”
So, you say you won the first fight, he says he won the second fight, so it works out okay. (laughs)
Having a win over a former Commonwealth champion is a great achievement. Some of the other highlights of your career: You’ve picked up the UBO title and off the back of that you were invited to meet the Prime Minister of Malta. So, tell me how important were those two events in your life.
Yeah, it was really, really, really important. I mean, the UBO Intercontinental title was my first international title and was my first international title as a pro, so it was really, really satisfying, you know, to have the belt on my mantelpiece at home. It was really, really, nice.
And then to be invited to meet the Prime Minister, like suited and booted, it was a great experience, you know, and not everybody can say they have done it. And I mean this guy the Prime Minister, he leads the whole country, he has so much pressure on himself and he takes time to meet us three Maltese boxers. I mean it’s truly brought honour to the country. So you know, it’s a very great honour and I’m really like, satisfied that I have that off my bucket list now.
Great Stuff. Many boxing fans don’t realise that a lot of fighters today still have to sell their own tickets. How much of a distraction would you say that is when you’re preparing, when you’re training for an upcoming fight?
It’s a lot easier to fight when you’re not selling tickets. When you go to fight abroad you just go and live your daily life. Ahh, just wake up at 4am or 5am in the morning, you train, just give my boxing lessons, train again, you know, just eat, sleep, you know, concentrate on the fight. When you’re selling tickets, you have to be on the phone all the time. I contacted you as well once.
Yes, I know. I got some tickets off you, yes.
So, yes, it’s a distraction because you get home, like right now, I get home, I eat, prepare my stuff for the day after, just chill a little bit with my girlfriend, soon to be wife, and yeah, I just go to sleep.
When I am fighting in Malta, I get home, eat, prepare my stuff, get on my laptop, and spend about 30 minutes replying to messages that you receive, to people who are interested in tickets you have to follow up , like people who said they are gonna get tickets and they still haven’t. You know, so it’s hard. In an ideal world you just concentrate on the fights and the training, but you have to do what you have to do.
Obviously you would rather boxers didn’t have to sell tickets, but in a general sense, what do you think can be done to improve the sport of boxing? What do you think can make it even better and more appealing to the general sports fans out there?
The fights have to be competitive, you know, it’s like, nobody likes to come and watch a helpless boxer get beat up by a better boxer, you know, so the fights have to be balanced. Whether they get fighters from abroad to Malta or when Maltese boxers fight against themselves, you know, local boxers, not just Maltese boxers, because you know Malta is an international community right now.
Yeah, I mean, sponsorship money, should go to the fighter. It covers training costs and stuff like that, but I don’t think it should cover, the opponent, you know?
I mean to be honest, the promoters in Malta, they’re doing a very good job. They’re consistent, they give the fighters the opportunity to fight on a regular basis, and I fight on average about 4 or 5 fights every year – which is very busy in today’s day and age. Now we have a choice, there’s more promoters on board.
The reality is what it is, and that fighters have to sell tickets because there’s no television money involved. But it has to work out for both, you know.
For the fans, it’s competitive fights, the more competitive the fights, the more people will speak about it. And no matter how much marketing you put in, if the word of mouth is not positive, as you know yourself, nobody will come in – the best advertisement is word of mouth.
We need competitive fights and the event needs to be organised top notch, and we keep to the time slot. I mean once in 2016 I think it was, I was the main event at one show and I fought at 1.30am in the morning! Usually I go to sleep at 9pm and wake up at 5am. I fought in front of an empty arena and I should be the main event, you know? So, it was 1.30am in the morning and stuff like that, you know?
If there is the VIP area, get a waiter so that people who pay top Dollar for ringside seats they don’t have to go wait behind a bar like everybody else. You know, like finger food on the table, needs to be good – and we are improving. Slowly we are improving. The little things, but the key is competitive fights and good service and good timetable.
Perfect. Good answer sir, good answer. Now, when you’re not training for your own fights, you do actually train other people. So how satisfying and how rewarding is that for you, as a boxer, to train others in a sport that you love?
I love it! I’ve already planned out my life after boxing – I’ll be a boxing coach, you know? There is various levels of satisfaction, like when you are teaching kids it can be very frustrating at times. In the immediate time it’s very frustrating because you tell them to keep their hands up – they do it for two minutes then they start doing their own thing, you know, because they’re kids. But now I’ve helped the same group of kids now for about a year, year and half and you start seeing so much improvement from them and they practically look like mini-boxers.
I don’t get them to sparring and stuff like that because they are young and only come like once or twice a week, so I don’t think it’s right you know? If they were training every day and their parents were pushing them to be fighters, and they want to be fighters, then yes, by all means.
With other clients like they come for weight loss and you see them slowly losing weight whilst improving their boxing technique, while punching their stress out – it’s satisfying as well! But I think the most satisfaction I always got was when I got a few amateur boxers, like 5 or 6 up until now, that went into amateur boxing matches and some of them won and some of them lost, but they all of them gave a very good account of themselves like with proper boxing technique and stuff like that, so that’s really satisfying you know.
Good stuff, good stuff. Now, I’ve seen you fight at Super Middleweight and more recently you’re fighting at Middleweight. When you look out at the world today there’s a stack of quality fighters in and around your weight division. So let’s imagine you’re at the National Stadium, outdoor fight, capacity crowd, you’re the main event. Who of today’s super middleweights or middleweights would you choose as your opponent?
Ah, just one, just one?
Well, if you knock one out, we can bring another one on! We can keep it going! (laughs)
Of course, I would fight Canelo, I’d fight Golovkin – I’d love that. And I’d back myself against every one of them
Shit happens, you know it’s like “Canelo, how to fight him?” Canelo, [I choose] Canelo.
Okay, if he sees this interview maybe he will take you up on the offer. Let’s hope so. (laughs)
Canelo – Madison Square Garden! Las Vegas! Malta National Stadium! He would bring like a truck load of Mexicans with him. (laughs)
It would be quite a party! (laughs)
Listen, it would be great. If the worst comes to the worst I get knocked out – shit happens! I got knocked out for free, at least if I get knocked out, I get a few million! (laughs)
Awesome, awesome. Exactly! So, I read in one of your other interviews that you said when you were growing up you used to follow Roy Jones Jr, who for me is the best boxer of all time. You also used to follow Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. So, here’s a bit of a special question for you: The Mike Tyson that defeated Trevor Berbick, against the Muhammad Ali that defeated Sonny Liston. So, who…
(Interrupts) Muhammad Ali.
Why? Why do you think that a prime Ali would beat a prime Tyson?
Ah, I mean, I read a lot, but I’m not going to say I am a boxing historian, but I watched a lot of fights, but Ali when he had to go to the well he kept fighting on empty. When he did the fights with Joe Frazier and Foreman, and the way he floated and jabbed against Sonny Liston. Then, you when you go back to Mike Tyson when he fought – who was that guy’s name…
No, when he fought Mitch Green.
Yeah – Mitch ‘Blood’ Green!
And there was another guy, Razor Ruddock, I think. When they took him to deep waters, he didn’t fare that well and you know you’re not going to knockout Muhammad Ali in the first round! Pardon my French, but Fuck that! He’s got a chin on him, he can fight for 15 rounds, he can be on his toes, he can trade. There’s no question, Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight of all time.
OK. I think in their prime Tyson would edge it, but when I think over the course of their careers, Muhammad Ali is a better boxer. Mike Tyson, when he came out of prison in the 1990s, was a shadow of the 1980s Tyson. That Tyson was not good, but Muhammad Ali all through his career had the consistency, was still fighting, still going to the well, still doing the 15 rounds, so I appreciate your answer on that one.
Have you read Mike Tyson’s autobiography?
I have. Yes, yes. Undisputed Truth.
Exactly. I think we never got to see the prime, prime, prime, Mike Tyson. I think what he’s got… what he achieved with his lifestyle, is amazing. You never know what could have happened. Maybe he wasn’t as good as back when he was disciplined by Cus D’Mato in the early stages, before he started partying, drinking and taking drugs, I mean the guy used to have a three week training camp after 3 months of partying and still knock them out in the first round, you know? Imagine what he would have done if he was dedicated to his craft.
So, I don’t think, nah, I don’t think he would have done it. I don’t think he could have knocked Ali out, in the first couple of rounds, three rounds, and he hadn’t the gas to go with him for 12 or 15 rounds! I think. I don’t know!
It’s one that splits opinion, you know. I think a lot of hardcore boxing fans always side with Ali. I think I’m one of the few that looks at the skill of Tyson, the head movement, the hands speed, the lateral movement… I mean people see him as just a knockout artist, but I look at the defensive skills. For me he was a phenomenal defensive boxer.
And did you see, you’ve seen it of course, the highlights, I don’t know against who it was, he like slipped 6 or 7 punches, he rolled then hit him with the left hook ….
The rising left hook… that was one of his great punches!
Exactly! And against Jose Ribalta when he hit him with an uppercut, snapped his head back – I don’t know how he didn’t break his neck. He just fell down on his knees like and popped right back up and did another 12 rounds fighting…10 rounds. If you don’t get brain damage from that (laughs) I don’t know where you get it…
So Coqqos, I would just like to say it’s been an absolute pleasure interviewing you today and I wish you all the best for the rest of your career, sir, thank you.
Thank you, I really appreciate it. I want to thank my sponsors for helping me through my career. My main sponsors are Fort Fitness, Remax, High Score Academy, Doma Korean Restaurant. Print Art – they do an amazing job with printing. Virgata Holdings, they are a company which lets out office space, they’ve been very good to me, they’re really nice people – I train their kids as well and they’re gonna be my ring bearers at my wedding because they’re really sweet kids.
Without sponsors… I mean we don’t get state funding, we don’t get any state funding. As a boxer I never got any help from the state. One, because I’m not an amateur and I don’t represent my country, but when I win, I do, you know. So, but we never get state help.
Maybe in some ways this is more satisfying because you’re a self-made man. Everything you’ve achieved, you’ve done on your own. So with any achievements you must feel “Ok, I’ve deserved that, I did that on my own.” It’s more satisfying in a way.
It’s a lot more satisfying. What I do is usually because of the sponsors – and I thank them for that. It allows me to travel a lot more – I’ve been to up until now I think four or five times to London and twice to Hungary, twice to Sweden and once to New York and to broaden my horizons and learn a lot more, you know and spar other fighters, learn from coaches.
The coaches that I have in Malta – Quendar Pena, he’s a great guy and he puts in so much time with me and I’d like to thank him a lot. I’d like to mention him because he’s a great guy and a very good coach. Donny Lalonde, when he’s in Malta, is another great coach and a good manager. He does a lot of good work with me as well. But it’s always good to travel and spar different fighters as you learn a lot, and if it wasn’t for my sponsors I wouldn’t be able to do this. Thank you.
Great stuff. Thank you Coqqos.
Christian Schembri Interview
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