Former boxer Gary Sykes opens up about his battles against depression following retirement

Gary Sykes after re-capturing the Lonsdale Belt following his victory over Jon Kays in May 2014
Gary Sykes after re-capturing the Lonsdale Belt following his victory over Jon Kays in May 2014

Gary Sykes was regarded by many as one of the most exciting boxers in Britain.

Regularly topping bills live on Sky Sports, Sykes was an all action fighter whose work ethic and unrelenting pressure saw him rise to the top of British boxing.

Sykes was invited to Downing Street to meet then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his achievements were celebrated with a Civic Reception at Dewsbury Town Hall.

However, Sykes was facing issues out of the ring throughout his rise to stardom. Going missing for weeks on end celebrating his successes, while his new found fame around his home town also attracted a host of new friends.

A thrilling victory over Andy Morris in Huddersfield on March 5 2010 was the culmination of years of hard work for Sykes, as he became Dewsbury’s only British champion.

He went on to successfully defend his title against Kevin O’Hara and big punching Leeds man Carl Johanneson.

Having been narrowly beaten in the third defence of his title by Welshman Gary Buckland, Sykes spent the next three years battling his way back to the top of the British game and he recaptured the Lonsdale belt with victory over Jon Kays on a famous night in Dewsbury.

Some of the biggest nights of Sykes’s career saw him fight on bills alongside Tyson Fury, George Groves, Deontay Wilder, Chris Eubank Junior, Billy Joe Saunders and his former teammate on the England squad, Amir Khan, while sharing the ring with the cream of the British super featherweights.

Sykes also twice defeated Manchester star Anthony Crolla, who went on to capture a world title and headline his own huge arena bills.

However, in contrast to the glorious highs, Sykes had some massive lows during periods of inactivity, which intensified after his retirement following a stoppage defeat to Olympic Gold Medal winner Luke Campbell in March 2016. Speaking exclusively to The Reporter, Sykes looks back on his career with regrets of just how far he could have gone in the game. He explained: “The highest point in my boxing career came in 2010 when I won the Lonsdale belt. This was the culmination of many years dedication, training, diet, abstinence, sweat and pain.

“I would not have traded this for anything in the world. From being an enthusiastic amateur I had stepped up to the professional ranks, where I was paid for doing what I loved. I could not have asked for more.

“The lowest point in my life came after retiring, when my daily routine and structure fell apart, through alcohol, depression and an identity crisis.

“Retirement meant I did not have any goals on which to focus and the lowest point of all was when I was left to sober up having crashed my car drunk.

“I was just so relieved that nobody was hurt.

“I missed out on the joy of seeing my young daughters growing up. I made life hard for the very people who were nearest and dearest to me and I have to live with that fact.”

Now 35-years-old, Sykes reflects honestly: “I was not the first professional sportsman to suffer from this trauma after retirement and I will not be the last.”

Sykes admits his battle with alcohol began before his retirement, with his problems fuelled by fans wanting to have a drink with him post fights or at the many parties and functions he was invited to as British Champion.

Having captured the Lonsdale belt in a bruising 12-round contest with Morris, Sykes ignored the advice of experts and went out to celebrate. In a moment of panic the morning after, Sykes woke to find his treasured belt missing but thankfully a close friend had kept it safe.

Sykes looks back on his career with a deal of regret at just how far he could have gone.

He added: “Did I achieve everything I wanted to in my career? Not one bit. In between fights, I would drink excessively, eat junk food and not train. I was never focused between fights and wish I would have seen the bigger picture.

“I think all the time what might have been and that is one of the reasons I continued to drink after retirement.”

Sykes’s battles with mental health continued as acquaintances left when he was no longer in the local or national spotlight. He added: “When I was British Champion, one New Year’s Eve I received over 150 text messages wishing me all the best, last year I got just three.”

Despite falling into a downward spiral, Sykes has now begun to turn his life around.

He is now seeking help for his alcohol addiction, attending meetings and is due to be put on a course of medication.

Slowly but surely, Sykes is finding a way back into boxing and with friend and mentor Ian Murray, he held a charity boxing bout last month.