A tweet this from Melanie Lloyd about the lovely ex-boxer Derek Williams gives me the opportunity to provide a Xmas excerpt from my book Dangerous.
It concerns an apology I made to Derek, fully 25 years after doing him wrong.
I take the tube to Farringdon and my thoughts are consumed by death: the idea that at any moment something might happen, that a gentle prod in the back might hurl me into the path of an oncoming train and in the blink of an eye it will all be over. I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. Maybe it was talking about the late Jonathan Rendall the other week, rereading his book. Night after night I lie in bed until the early hours thinking of nothing else. Yesterday morning I toyed with the idea of taking anti-depressants again; the packet is still where I left it on the bookshelf in the bedroom.
I drag myself through the catacombs of the London Underground like an old man. The gash on my purple and yellow leg is slowly healing and the stitches will soon come out. But it still hurts like hell. People rush past me: a blur of arms and legs and faces that take on a comedic quality, moving at twice, three times’ my speed like characters in a silent movie; speedboats leaving me in their frothy wake. I’m deeply troubled by something that I don’t quite understand. I wonder if writing about boxing again after all this time is at the root of my preoccupation with death, the idea that if I was to stop somehow everything would be done. There’d be no reason to go on. The circle would be complete. Or perhaps it’s guilt. Guilt and the hope that what I’m about to do this afternoon might have the remotest chance of righting a wrong that I committed a very long time ago.
More than a quarter of a century ago I did a terrible thing to another person. Something that still fills me with shame: shame at my own weakness and shame at the fact that I deceived another human being for nothing other than money. It still leaves a sour taste in my mouth. That person’s name was Derek Williams, a heavyweight boxer who went by the nickname ‘Sweet D’. I want to make things right today. I need to make things right. (Is it any coincidence that I seem to be revisiting my boxers in alphabetical order: last time I met with Sweet C, today it’s Sweet D. Next time will I be meeting Sweet E? The time after that Sweet F? I laugh out loud at the notion and the pretty young girl sitting beside me on the train nervously edges away from me.)
I exit the tube and hobble up and down the Farringdon Road until I finally locate the gym where Derek Williams works. It is strapped to the side of an anonymous tower-block, presumably in an effort to attract office workers and their attendant beer guts. As I enter, a booming bass hits me like a blast of hot air.
A stilted conversation at the reception desk: these days always a stilted conversation with a young woman of Eastern European origin. I shout to get myself heard above the din and she motions for me to sit down. The music pounds my brain like a claw hammer as I fidget beside the lift waiting for Derek Williams. He arrives about five minutes later: a giant, megalithic behemoth of a black man, on a totally different scale to all around him. I find myself wondering what it must be like to live in a world where everybody else is a midget; everybody, that is, except the people who hit you back.
When I knew him years ago Derek was a strikingly good looking man with a princely bearing. He hasn’t changed much. Aside from a little extra weight and a slight thickening of the features the intervening years have mostly kept their distance. ‘How are you Ian?’ he says in a voice as deep as he is tall. ‘You’re looking good.’
We both know that this isn’t true but I’m already learning to tolerate this particular variety of white lie. I shake Derek’s mammoth fist, fingers like sausages, and ask if there’s somewhere we can go that is more quiet. We head for a nearby Costa and I immediately feel eyes upon us in the street. The older Derek Williams remains such a striking, imposing figure that one cannot help but stare at him. People also turn to look at us as we enter the café: the fat balding middle-aged white guy with the limp and the black colossus.
Derek has three phones, which he lays out on our table. I tell him I don’t remember meeting anybody else who has three phones. That it suggests to me that he can’t be doing too badly for himself. ‘This is for the work with Jim Watt’s people,’ he cheerfully explains. ‘This is for the work I do with all the gangs. And this is personal.’
‘Like the Bat Phone,’ I say.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, man,’ he replies.
I pull out an iPad Mini from my bag and find the audio recording app that I intend to use. I ask Derek if he’ll say something so I can check that it’s working.
‘Hi!’ he says in a cavernous voice that instantly has customers swivelling their heads in our direction. ‘This is the former heavyweight champion ‘Sweet D’ Williams. Still tall, dark and handsome. I’m sitting here with Ian now and looking forward to how I can give any information about the fight game…’
We begin. With little prompting Derek launches into a detailed description of what he’s doing with his life. Derek seems to primed to do this, as if it’s essential that everyone should accept him as more than just an ex-boxer.
‘My day job is running the boxing in Gym Box,’ he tells me on autopilot. ‘What I do is supervise their boxing team. I also work with challenging kids. I keep myself busy by giving things back to the community. I also train my son, Kered Williams. He had his first amateur fight two years ago and he won in the second round.
‘I used to be part of the Kids Company that just closed. They did things for children from broken homes and gangs. My whole thing was to try to empower them to turn around. So I was the director of programming.
Derek talks so fast that it’s difficult to keep up. I ask him if the company in question is the one set up and run by Camila Batmanghelidjh, recently controversially placed into liquidation.
‘That’s right,’ he replies. ‘I used to go in there two, three times a week. Camilla was a force of nature. She was amazing. But now it’s a case of understanding how to move forward.’
Derek stops talking suddenly and looks at me for a few moments. He asks me my age. ‘Guess,’ I say, instantly regretting my rashness.
‘About the same age as me,’ he says, too generously.
‘You’re being polite,’ I say. ‘I look knackered and you look good.’
And then it’s back to boxing because, after all, Derek is an ex-boxer and I’m an ex-boxing writer. This was our only point of connection whenever we met all those years ago so why break the habit? Derek might be only the third boxer that I’ve interviewed in a quarter of a century but I’m suddenly beginning to understand something that I overlooked before: they all like talking about boxing. Even when they’re no longer doing it, you can’t stop them talking about boxing.
‘Muhammad Ali was a great influence on me.’ says Derek with no prompting. ‘Now, looking back on it, some of the things that Ali said and done was quite offensive to people. Some of the things he said to Joe Frazier was really hurtful…’
Boxers like talking about boxing. How could I never have realised this? And there was me thinking how lucky I was, how fortunate I was in life, to have met with and had the chance to extract a few words, a few phrases from these unique individuals. In reality is seems that they were just as anxious to offload their stories as I was to listen.
‘I had ten amateur fights. I never had an outstanding amateur career whereby I won titles. With me there was no plans.’ Derek continues the chronology of his life. ‘I fought on a lot of Frank Bruno’s undercards. I was getting fair money. I was like getting five grand… Ten grand… It was good money for the time. And I was studying to become a draftsman.’
I tell Derek that we have something in common: my first job when I left school was as a trainee draftsman.
‘One time I was fighting on an undercard and I was getting thirty grand. And I think the main fighter was fighting for a world title fight and they was getting 25 grand. So I thought I’m glad I’m not a small weight.’
I’ve heard all this before, of course: we all have. And not just from Derek. In his case it’s the story of a physically advantaged young man who excels at boxing to such a degree that he takes it up professionally. A run of wins, a couple of losses, a few titles and then a long run of defeats followed by retirement. In Derek’s case, however, those particular titles comprised the British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight titles. When you consider that most professional boxers plying their trade in this country can only dream of owning silverware of this nature, these are no minor achievements.
Derek, however, is more interested in telling me what happened when he flew over to the US in the late 1980s to be heavyweight champion Mike Tyson’s sparring partner. I have clear recollections of him telling me exactly the same stories twenty-five years ago.
‘Sparring with Mike Tyson really made me,’ he remembers. ‘He had good sparring partners: Greg Page… Oliver McCall… Outstanding fighters. I was about 21 at the time and I was annoyed because everyone thought I wouldn’t last long in the ring with him.
‘I said: “What you trying to say? Are you trying to say that Mike is going to knock me out?” I done three good rounds with Mike and afterwards people were clapping. Don King came up to me and said: “Hey! You’re a good fighter!” He wanted to manage me.
‘Over the weeks me and Mike was sparring and people started to take note of my name. It was a chess match. People was loving it. Mike said to me: “How come I’ve never heard about you? You’re a good fighter.”‘
‘That was the funny thing. I was handling this guy who was supposed to be the bee’s knees. In my head I knew I got the better of him. One day I was feeling sore. So I went into a sauna and Mike was in there. We started talking and he was nice. In my head I was thinking: “I’m there now”.’
Derek reveals that he’s writing a book about his life at the moment: ‘It’s basically looking into the mind of a champion.’ he says. ‘How champions see things. I boxed at a high level. I was number one in Great Britain for eight years.’
I tell him that if he does that the opening chapter has got to about Tyson. But Derek disagrees. He’s more interesting in letting people know about the time he feels he was drugged before a fight. This allegedly happened in 1990 when he defended his European title against Jean-Maurice Chanet in France.
‘Somebody came up and said: “You have water?”, he recalls. ‘And then soon after I started to feel really hot. I was sweating before the fight started. As I walked towards the ring I felt drained. I was depleted of energy by the second round. All I wanted to do was go home and sleep.
‘We don’t know what it was but the funny thing was when Chanet later came to England to fight Lennox Lewis he had something on his body. The BBBofC made him wash himself off. And then he went back to France and got banned from boxing.’
I ask Derek if he can recall the moment that he suddenly decided that he would no longer box:
‘When I was boxing I used to run all the time.’ he says. ‘From a young age I set my alarm for five o’clock in the morning to be out the door by five-thirty. I used to run five days a week in all weathers. I was running one morning and reached a hill and I was tired and I said to myself: “You don’t need to do this” and so I ran on the flat instead. I realised then that my mindset had changed and that something inside of me had changed. Once you don’t have that drive inside of you no more it’s time to move on…’
‘Were you ever tempted to make a comeback?’ I ask.
‘No. You have to respect yourself.’ he replies. ‘I didn’t want to be no stepping stone for people. But one time a guy from New York called me and said: “Hey Derek, I hear that you’ve retired. We want you to fight this young heavyweight. He’s just turned pro. He’s green.” I said: “Who’s this guy?”. And he said his name’s Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko.”
‘I said: “No. I ain’t interested, man.” If you’re fighting just for the money it’s not an incentive. Your focus must be on being the best.
‘He said: “Derek, he’s slow and clumsy – you’ll kick his ass.” Later he called me back again and offered me $50,000. I said: “When’s the fight?” He said: “In two week’s time.”
‘But didn’t you miss the buzz?’ I ask. ‘That feeling of walking into the ring with thousands cheering? There must be nothing else like it in life.’
‘Yeah, the whole thing is a buzz. You like the crowd. You like the thrill of the opponent throwing punches and you throwing them back at him. All that is like a dance. I miss fighting. Not because I want to go back but because of the excitement. We have our time in the sun but we move on.
‘If you could go back and do it all again what would you do differently?’ I ask
‘I would have moved to the right instead of the left when Lennox Lewis hit me,’ says Derek. We both laugh.
‘When he knocked me out I was so surprised that I was knocked down. I thought: “Wow! what’s happening!?” It was the first time I’d ever been down but it didn’t hurt. You don’t feel any pain because of the adrenaline. A good shot don’t hurt you. The shot that hits you on your jaw detaches you from your senses.’
Derek continues to talk. Another machine gun monologue is on its way. It’s no wonder that he’s occasionally employed as an after dinner speaker. Some twenty minutes have gone by since I last managed to ask a question and he’s barely stopped for breath. However, the sudden seriousness of what I tell him next stops him in his tracks.
‘Can I say something to you?’ I interrupt.
‘Yeah…’ The dryness of my tone produces a frown.
‘One of the reasons I wanted to see you is that I wanted to apologise.’
‘Yeah?’ he repeats, obviously confused.
‘I wanted to apologise for 25 years ago… Doing that article. Do you remember it?’
Derek shakes his head. ‘I can’t remember it,’ he says.
He may not remember but this is the real reason I’m here. The real reason that I wanted to see Derek ‘Sweet D’ Williams and try to set the record straight. Back in the late-1980s I somehow managed to find myself in the position of boxing reporter for the one of the worst newspapers of that era. When I tell people about it these days they laugh. They think it’s hilarious that I would ever have done such a thing. But at the time it was certainly no joke. I was young, desperate for money and apparently willing to set aside any principles I thought I had by working for one of the red top equivalent of Viz comic. A quarter of a century later and I still can’t really defend it.
In life we all do things that we don’t really want to do, particularly when we’re younger. We all jump through hoops on the promise of better things to come. However, on the morning of my first day on the job I did something that I’ve always been ashamed of.
‘So what happened was, I was 24,’ I murmur guilty. ‘It was my first job ever in journalism. The Sunday Sport. Remember the Sunday Sport?’
‘I was on the phone to you…’
‘I think I remember. Did you do the story about the ladies and stuff?
‘Yes. it was my first morning on the job.’
I cover this pretty shameful episode in great detail in my other book on boxing Rope Burns. But the nub of the story is that under pressure from the newspaper’s unscrupulous sports editor I was persuaded to telephone Derek Williams a number of times and get him to admit that his fans regularly performed fellatio on him. I’m not proud of succumbing to this pressure and I’m frankly still surprised that I was able to go through with it, but at the time there was the very real threat that I might lose my job and so I took the coward’s way out. When the newspaper duly appeared on Sunday morning my story came with the headline; ‘My Gals Call Me Sweet Dick’. (Derek’s nickname, remember, was ‘Sweet D’ – geddit?) It’s probably true that some people may have found the story amusing but I certainly didn’t and nor, unless I’m completely missing the point, did the man standing in front of me.
‘I felt really bad about it,’ I say.
‘Yeah?’ says Derek, apparently untroubled.
‘You didn’t want to beat me up or anything like that?’
‘No. I don’t do that kind of thing. With me, Ian, my whole mindset is to teach people about channelling their aggression and anger into positivity. People do things in life for whatever reasons they do them, right? The important thing is to have control.’
‘Were you not angry?
‘Did you not feel exploited?’
‘No. This is amazing, I said to myself at the time, this is amazing. I said: don’t get mad. Don’t get mad. Leave it. I didn’t say nothing like it to this dude but this is the way life is. I let it go.’
‘That makes me feel even worse,’ I say. ‘I can’t tell you over the years how much it’s haunted me. I was young back then but that’s no excuse… So the least I can do is say sorry.’
Derek scrutinises me for several moments before speaking: ‘I accept your apology, man,’ he says. ‘I accept it.’
And just like that it’s over. I understand that we all perceive things in different ways, of course we do; that one man’s malefaction is another’s petty crime. But I never expected it to be so easy. For 25 years I’ve been dreading coming face to face with Derek Williams, not for fear of any physical retribution – in many ways that would have been too easy – but because I just didn’t think I’d ever be able to look him in the eye. And now that I’ve finally done so he’s proven himself to be the bigger man, both physically and morally. As I look at Derek Williams he grows a further couple of inches in stature – as if he needed to be any taller – and I shrink by the same amount