Exclusive interview: The British cult hero heavyweight returns to the ring on Friday night
Without so much as a flinch or the faintest hint of regret, Dave Allen is detailing the brutal injuries he sustained over the course of his career. “I’ve woken up paralysed in the back of an ambulance. I’ve sat on the Eurostar home with a concussion while barely being able to see. I’ve been stitched up, broken my nose and perforated my eardrums,” he says, not as a means of bravado but in an attempt to explain how thick boxing runs in his blood. “I probably took years off my life, and I still wouldn’t change it.”
It might sound like reckless courage, but it also encapsulates the mentality that made Allen one of British boxing’s unlikely cult heroes. From the relative obscurity of small-hall shows near his home in Doncaster, he amounted an impressive record as an undersized heavyweight and stepped in fearlessly at late notice to face some of this generation’s best, including Dillian Whyte, Luis Ortiz and 2016 Olympic gold medallist Tony Yoka.
On each occasion, Allen fought to a brave and bitter end, sacrificing small pieces of himself in the ring, refusing to quit or take a step backwards, but his career is hardly defined by falling short. The 29-year-old has produced spectacular knockouts, beaten a former World Boxing Association (WBA) champion in Lucas Browne and enthralled a fanbase with a humble but dry sense of humour. It was during his last major bout, against David Price in 2019, that 20,000 of them chanted his name at the O2 Arena. That is his abiding memory from the fateful night when Allen awoke in the back of an ambulance and surrendered that he’d emptied the last of his reserves.
With little to prove and a limit on what he can gain, it begs the question of why Allen is making a comeback tonight. “I had no intention of ever boxing again,” he says just as frankly. “I’m not a multimillionaire but I just thought I don’t need this anymore, it’s not good for my headspace. I blew up to 21 stone, I made a living doing other things, and I was happy, but then I got my manager’s licence.”
During the pandemic, Allen formed a cohort of boxers to whom he’s offered the sort of counsel and protection that he never had during his own career. “I’m doing it for free,” he says. “I don’t take or want anything from them, I just want them to be winners.” They are the primary reason Allen is returning to the ring. Unable to get promoters to take a chance on his protégés, he instead decided to headline a card himself, using his much-loved status to draw a crowd and create a platform on which his fighters can thrive and build their own legion of support.
“I do still loving boxing as a sport in its purest form,” Allen says. “But I hate the business side and the politics of it. I wasn’t smart because I was broke. I came from a council house, my mum and dad never had a car, we had nothing. I was offered figures that felt like millions of pounds but in hindsight were less than what I was worth. I didn’t care, for me thousands is enough, but now I realise what I missed out on and I don’t want that to happen to the fighters I work with. They’re friends of mine. It puts a smile on my face. That might sound simple or sad, but it makes me happy.”
It’s a sense of undiluted joy Allen had often struggled to derive from boxing, his personal torment disguised by the charisma of his public persona. He has battled with his mental health since he was a teenager and a gambling addiction became his crutch. On the surface, his high-profile fights were David vs Goliath fantasies, but they were also underwritten by a need to pay off debts and a debilitating pattern that left him in a darker place than most ever realised. “As a young man, I used to be racked by self-doubt, I had zero confidence,” he says. “It took me a long time to realise who I was. I’ve always been very up and down, I wasn’t mature and I couldn’t handle my feelings. When I was feeling bad, I’d have a bet. I’d hide away and lock myself in the house and lose all it all.
“No matter how good things were (in boxing), I was never happy as a young man. I began to self-harm a lot and in 2015 I tried to commit suicide because of my gambling. I’m not ashamed of it and I don’t shy away from it. I went to see a (psychiatric nurse) but I still carried on (gambling and self-harming) for another two or three years. Even before the Browne fight – (the biggest win of Allen’s career) – I had a mental breakdown and didn’t leave the house for a week.”
Retirement from boxing brought a form of solace. Allen has been “clean” from harming himself for 14 months and says this last year has been the happiest of his life, having been able to escape the pressure and strain of training camps, and the feeling that his life was passing by in a blink of an eye between punches. “I’m smarter, more sensible and happier than I ever was,” he says. He doesn’t go on social media other than to promote his fights and prefers to block out any negativity but knows there is a core of fans who worry about whether he is right to return. He insists this comeback, though, is an entirely different chapter and one that is far removed from that old “stressful way of life”.
“I see this time as a free go round,” he says. “I feel like my career is over. I’ve had amazing nights, fought some of the best and if I’d never boxed again I’d be happy with my lot. Anything positive that happens is a bonus. There are no worries whatsoever and I know I can still compete. I’ve passed all my medicals and my licence has been given back to me. I’m not going back in at the level I used to be but that’s fine. As long as I’m still safe, well and healthy, I’ll do it because I love boxing. Without it, I’d be in a dead-end job in a council house with six kids. I’m grateful for boxing. Of course, it’s taken a toll on me physically, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”