“The stadium was too big. I didn’t really enjoy it, if I’m honest.”
Dorian Darch recalls the night he, along with 70,000 other fans, crammed into Cardiff’s Principality Stadium to watch Anthony Joshua’s WBA, IBF and IBO heavyweight title defence against France’s Carlos Takam back in 2017.
He clearly wasn’t all that impressed by the glitz and glamour which came with AJ, and Eddie Hearn’s rather lavish roadshow.
Then again, maybe a small part of him was wondering if, in an alternate reality, it could have been him stepping into that ring.
Just three years earlier, in the very same city, he was stepping into the ring to take on AJ himself in what was only his fourth professional bout.
The setting for this interview is a touch more modest than the home of Welsh rugby. Indeed, many would feel the Rocks Bar in Newbridge does little to dispel the preconceptions which follow Dorian’s new career move.
After a nine-year stint as a professional boxer, the gloves are now off – literally.
Dorian has made the move into the brutal world of bare-knuckle boxing, becoming the latest Welsh fighter to try his luck at what is arguably the most brutal sport on the planet.
His debut fight against Mason Shaw last year saw him emerge victorious following a second-round knockout, and he’s now got his eye on becoming one of the stars of the scene.
We first meet for a chat in the bar’s car park. There is a skip filled with indeterminable rubble in the corner, a few old tyres and a hollowed-out punch bag near the entrance to the back room, which doubles up as the Pantside Boxing Club.
Once a pub, much of the old bar is still here, creating the sort of setting you’d expect to see in a Guy Ritchie film.
Apart from Dorian’s enormous size, his inability to sit still is quickly noticeable. He gives off the sort of energy you’d expect to see from a kid on Christmas morning.
In all fairness, there is plenty for him to look forward to. Indeed, this weekend could be one of his finest hours yet in the ring.
Dorian is set to fight at BKB 24 at London’s O2, bidding to become the first Welshman to win a world heavyweight bare-knuckle boxing title for more than a century (although the records are, as you would imagine, a little sketchy).
It is a chance to make a bit of history, and Dorian is focused on the task at hand.
So much so, the 37-year-old has bid farewell to his beloved Strongbow Dark Fruit – for the time being, anyway.
“Preparations are going good,” he says. “I think they thought that it would mess me up training over Christmas because everyone knows I like a Dark Fruits! But I drink all year round, so stopping over Christmas was no different to stopping at any other time.
“I took my daughter to Lapland just before Christmas and it was £8 a bottle up there and that helped me stop!
“When I came back, I only had a drink on New Year’s Day and Boxing Day. That’s it.
“The belt’s vacant at the moment. Daniel Podmore and me were going to fight for it, but he’s pulled out and now so Jody Meikle has stepped in.
“It’s not quite the same as a boxing belt because it’s a new sport. But because my boxing career didn’t really end well – I didn’t really train, I did myself an injustice – this just redeems that all in a way.”
Dorian freely admits he fell out of love with boxing towards the end of his professional career.
Seven straight defeats was a lot to take on its own. But to compound matters, his final fight with Dave Allen in Sheffield in 2020 was dogged by controversy and allegations of fixing.
Dorian was knocked down in the third round of the fight, with authorities alerted to perceived betting irregularities.
Both men have always strenuously denied the accusations, although Dorian’s tweeted response at the time of “should have chucked a couple of quid on myself if I knew lol’ probably didn’t do him any favours.
“I was on my way up to the office to get some paperwork and I received a picture of the back page of the paper with DARCH FIX ROW,” he says.
“I nearly crashed my van!
“The media feeds on things like that, though.
“I went up there. The first round went alright, the second round went alright. Third round it got stopped because he came out like a bull.
“I had people on Twitter then complaining that their f*****g bet hadn’t been paid out.”
Nothing came of the investigation, but given his nosedive in form, he was nevertheless forced to call time on it all after conversations with the British Boxing Board of Control.
It was a bitterly disappointing way to end a career which brought up its fair share of good memories, including the fight with former Olympian Joshua at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena in 2014.
It was a culture shock more or less from the start for the civil engineer from Aberdare.
Even the weigh-in was unlike anything Dorian had ever experienced, although he mainly remembers being blown away by the imposing figure of his opponent.
“I’d never done anything like that before,” he remembers.
“I’m not a nervous person, but I’d spent all my time thinking I was 6ft 3ins, but he was huge. I joked that their tape measure must have been wrong as he was only supposed to be 6ft 5ins. I was looking up at him and my neck was hurting!”
So, what was it like stepping in the ring with one of the icons of British boxing?
“Pretty good. Paid for the holiday to Mexico!” he laughs.
Joshua won by technical knockout in the second round of the contest, although Dorian seems pretty pleased with how he a fared.
“If you watch the fight, the first round, I didn’t do too badly. But as soon as he caught me, I was f*****g gone. He didn’t hit me down. That was always my claim to fame.
“But if the ref hadn’t jumped in, he would’ve hit me into the f*****g third row.
“I was gone. I didn’t even pretend I was alright. I was like f*****g Bambi.”
Dorian would carry on for several more years, but it was a moment which laid bare just exactly what it would take to reach the top.
He admits his career probably lacked the sort of professionalism needed to even give him a chance of catching the AJs of this world.
But Dorian’s love of a scrap, after all these years, has never been in doubt.
“Bare-knuckle’s more suited to me, if I’m honest,” he said.
“I’m a brawler. I’ve never really been a brilliant boxer.
“I was a header when I was younger. From the ages of about 18 to 24 I was fighting in pubs, fighting in football or rugby. On the football pitch, by the way. I’m not into hooliganism. They’re all f*****g w******, they are.
“I played amateur football, played rugby for Aberdare.
“My temper wasn’t particularly good for rugby. If someone slapped me, I would just bang them.
“But I’ve always liked a scrap. When you’re from the Valleys it’s almost bred into you. You go out on a Friday night, you have a few pints and a scrap.
“In the Valleys, the rugby boys are only three or four miles apart. And when you go to one town to have a drink, everyone just f*****g fights with each other!
“Then the next day, you’ll be saying hello to them. I guess it’s stupid, really.”
He makes no attempt to dress up who he is: some may admire him for it. There’s no pretence. No faux philosophy or unpacking of the psyche to try and justify things. No tales of a harrowing or traumatic childhood. No noticeable complexities to his character. He is a man who enjoys a can and a punch-up.
It would be difficult to condone that sort of behaviour, of course. Indeed, he admits that his antics nearly caught up with him on several occasions.
“I nearly went to jail twice,” he says.
“That’s why I wised up and started going to boxing.
“I was about 23 and I realised it was probably time for a change. I didn’t want to be locked up for some nonsense.
“My first fight was over in about 40 seconds. It’s the last time my mother came to watch me. She said there was something wrong with me!
“Boxing probably put me on the straight and narrow. It helped me stop drinking too, although towards the end I’d be drinking cans on a Wednesday and pick up the phone, find out I’d got a fight on Saturday and then put the can down.
“Stopping drinking isn’t a problem for me. I find it quite easy now. I’m not an alcoholic, despite what my missus says! If I need to stop, I stop.”
Bare-knuckle boxing clearly fills the void in a similar way. During lockdown, Dorian was putting away an eye-watering number of cans every night.
“Dark Fruits is like pop,” he said. “You know when you get in from work, it’s nice to have a can. I ended up drinking up about 12 cans a night, which isn’t good.
“I don’t really know why I was drinking so much. It was stupid, really.
“I’ll have this fight Saturday and be doing exactly the same again!
“It doesn’t harm anyone. I just enjoy a drink. I always go to work and that.”
Even so, things clearly came to a head, with his newfound drinking habits – combined with being furloughed by his employer due to the pandemic – placing increasing strain on his family.
“My missus said I had to sort myself out,” he said.
“She kept on about it so I said: ‘I will have to start fighting again’. She didn’t know it was bare-knuckle until a few days before!”
Dorian tells how his family has now accepted his new venture, and it seems he might just have learned a few lessons in professionalism from his time with the gloves on.
“Because of my sponsor, Maull Groundworks, for the first time in my whole life I’ve been able to take time off work, so I’m fit. Fittest I’ve been for a long time.
“During my pro boxing career, I’d go to work and then go to the gym at 6pm after work and just train once a day. I’ve been training twice a day now.”
Dorian’s not taking anything for granted in this upcoming fight. Indeed, he’s even been doing strength and conditioning sessions with former rugby star Tom James in order to get himself up to speed.
It’s hard to avoid wondering whether he perhaps has any regrets over his boxing career and how it panned out. Would he have maybe achieved more if he had done anything differently?
“No,” he snaps, not even allowing enough time for the full question to be asked.
“Some fighters are deluded, they think they’re better than what they are. I beat a few journeymen early in my career and then I asked to step up to face Ian Lewison. I’m not being funny, but he f*****g battered me. Broke my f*****g jaw. I was eating soup for five weeks.
“Some people would go back into the gym. Maybe start blaming people, but he was just better than me.
“I wasn’t able to compete at that level.”
Bare-knuckle boxing has clearly given Dorian’s career a new lease of life, and probably keeps his other vices in check.
If he keeps at it, he might just be able to afford another holiday to Mexico too.