This is a little piece I wrote last week for Boxing News. I was very honoured to do so. Alan Minter was the first boxer I ever met. I was a 17-year-old wine waiter and he was drinking the wine. Our paths crossed a few times over the years. I liked him a lot. He was a very, very nice man.
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
If anyone’s interested in listening to my semi-incoherent ramblings on yesterday’s Sky ‘Toe 2 Toe’ podcast here’s a link:
I have a vested interest in the boxer Frank Buglioni. Firstly, in 2014 he was the first boxer whom I interviewed in nigh on twenty years; secondly, I’m not being sycophantic when I say that Frank is without doubt one of the nicest, most modest people you could meet in any walk of life; and thirdly, I’m proud – I hope – to call him a friend.
On Saturday night Frank won the British light-heavyweight title with a dramatic last round stoppage of Hosea Burton. Frank had been behind on all the judges’ scorecards before he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It is was the kind of fight and the sort of performance that will be remembered for a long time.
As a tribute to this career-defining moment, I’m reprinting Chapter 22 of my latest book ‘Dangerous’ in which Frank, having just been comprehensively beaten in a WBA super-middleweight title challenge to a Russian boxer named Fedor Chudinov, sits down and watches the fight with me in its grim entirety. It is a testament to Frank’s bravery both inside and outside the ropes that he consented to do this. Not many fighters – or, for that matter people who are not fighters – would be willing to rake over the coals of one of the most disappointing moments in their life in such detail.
Congratulations Frank. You really deserve success. The hard road that you have taken has, I’m sure, made this achievement all the more satisfying for you.
Boxers are adept at deception. It’s something they do better than an awful lot of politicians. And one of their myriad acts of subterfuge is that they would have us believe they are normal creatures, that they do normal deeds and behave in ordinary ways. When you meet them face to face their physical appearance may strike you as unremarkable. But that’s just another deception. Because it doesn’t take me long to realise that there is nothing normal about the person sitting at my kitchen table right now. It isn’t anything to do with the conspicuous lack of extra poundage on his long, too lean frame. Nor is it the glowing skin: firm and freshly scrubbed and ridiculously absent of wrinkles of any description. And it’s not the way he talks or moves or smiles or frowns or grimaces or coughs. It’s nothing at all that you can put your finger on. This courteous, quietly spoken manboy is just different. There’s no other way of describing it. Different.
Sofia has now been out of that hospital for more than three weeks. As soon as she spots the back of boxer Frank Buglioni’s head she scampers off to hide in her room. Frank, you may remember, was at the gym earlier this year when I met with Steve Collins. Since then we’ve exchanged a few messages and the young fighter has very kindly sent words of support for Sofia. She doesn’t know that, of course. She’s just a thirteen-year-old girl and as far as she’s concerned a very good looking stranger has just walked into our house; he mustn’t be allowed to see her blushes.
A little while ago Frank asked a favour of me. He told me he was having his website redesigned and asked if I would mind writing a piece about his last fight: his WBA world championship loss to a Russian named Fedor Chudinov in September 2015. I told Frank it would be an honour. However, if we were going to do this it had to be different to the standard “So-and-so threw a left hook… Whatsisname threw a jab…” sort of fight report.
For this reason our plan is to watch the Chudinov fight together and talk about what might have been in possible excruciating detail. I’ve never done this with a boxer before and I can’t say I’ve heard of anybody else doing it. I believe it’s a particularly brave thing for Frank to agree to. After all, not many would want to rake over the coals of what must be one of the undoubted low points of their life. It would be the equivalent of you or I being forced to relive the minutiae of a particularly cringeworthy date in which you loudly belched as you reached over for that first tender kiss. Or an embarrassing job interview that you undertook not knowing that you had a piece of cabbage wedged between your teeth. I understand, of course, that such comparisons are a trifle egregious – for since when was a boxer ever anything but brave?
Thankfully the Frank Buglioni who takes a seat next to me today is nothing like the figure of the latter rounds of the Chudinov fight that will remain eternally searchable on YouTube. Remorseless pressure and relentless punching from the Russian WBA belt holder had reduced that Frank Buglioni to an exhausted caricature of himself. The person sitting beside me is, however, unmarked by his ordeal. A sickeningly fresh-faced picture of youthful vitality that makes me feel like punching him myself right now.
A little small talk: Frank tells me more details about his split with promoter Frank Warren. As before I find it difficult to hide my concern. Then Frank drops the bombshell that he has also parted company with Steve Collins and my worries are instantly amplified tenfold. Being a boxer in the digital era is rather like being a contestant on the X-Factor: unless you get that number one hit in double-quick time you’re pretty soon humped and dumped. Only five months earlier Frank had been fighting for the WBA world super-middleweight title – the very pinnacle of a prizefighter’s ambitions – and now his future, to put it mildly, seems uncertain. Or at least this is my initial impression.
But I’m wrong: Frank’s disarming honesty and common-sense approach convinces me so. With a nonchalance that belies his tender years Frank explains that these decisions were his, and that he made them purely in the name of good business practice. ‘I was prepared to work with Frank Warren again,’ Frank tells me. ‘But I thought let’s see what else is out there. I don’t want to do anything behind anybody’s back. I want to do things properly…’
I’ve heard boxers attempt to deal with disappointment before. And I’ve been present when blatant untruths have been issued with an audacity that would put to shame any government dossier ever compiled on WMD. But Frank is earnestly and eminently believable: he’s had to stop working with Steve Collins purely for financial reasons and he’s keen to manage himself, which is a very bold step that few few boxers ever take. This means that he will have to personally barter with promoters for the best price he can get whenever he fights. He’s going to have to learn to fight outside the ring as well as in it.
I click the YouTube ‘play’ button and tell Frank to prepare himself for some fairly dopey questions. The blocky image on my iPad reveals his Russian opponent Chudinov climbing through the ropes. Small. Clean limbed. Ape-like. Hairless torso. Muscled. A good head shorter than Frank. Watching the Russian immediately brings to mind an issue that is perennially debated on social media.
I halt the playback and ask Frank whether he genuinely considers the title he fought for to be a true ‘world’ title. It’s an awkward question and his answer is not entirely unexpected: ‘It’s 100 per cent a world title,’ he says firmly, as if used to and bored of answering this question. ‘The WBA, the IBF, the WBC, WBO – if you’re a world champion of any of them you’re a world champion. People on social media don’t know how hard it is being a professional boxer and getting to that world title level.’
We restart the video and watch the figures onscreen warm-up in their respective corners. ‘What were you thinking about at that moment?’ I ask. ‘Were you thinking about your dad… About when you were a kid dreaming of being a world champion…?’
‘The fight was the only thing on my mind,’ he says. ‘I was just visualising myself lifting the belt. It was something that I’d been preparing for for the last year, and then very intensely for the last ten weeks.’
‘Did you have any doubts in your mind at all as to the result?’
‘No. None at all. Prior to the fight I was actually full of confidence. The way that I fought in the gym was better than ever before. I pushed it that extra level…’
Had he spoken to his opponent in press conferences leading up to the fight?
‘Not really,’ says Frank. ‘His English wasn’t great but we’d shaken hands when we first met. Obviously I didn’t shake his hand at the weigh-in because I was in the zone. People saw that as disrespectful and some had things to say about it but I’d like to challenge them to be in my situation. To prepare their mind and body the way I did and then shake someone’s hand you’re about to fight to the death…’
We stop talking for a moment and watch the introductions to the fight unfurl. The onscreen Frank looks pensive as he prowls the ring, the Russian unperturbed, all business.
‘I presume you had a fight plan?’ I ask as the action kicks off.
‘Yes, it was to box, move, draw him on to the shots, make him use his legs because in his last fight every time he used his legs he needed to take a breather. Obviously it didn’t work the way we thought it would do…
‘It must be so hard when you’re doing everything you can but the other person is still beating you,’ I say. ‘Surely no amount of money can compensate you for this sort of punishment.’
‘You wouldn’t be fighting for a world championship unless you didn’t love boxing,’ replies Frank. And I think it’s hard to love a business the same way as you love a sport.’
As the sentence leaves his lips there is a cheer from the YouTube crowd. Frank has just enjoyed his first success of the fight: he connects with a couple of right hands but they scarcely make a dent in the perpetually advancing Chudinov. The Russian moves forward like an automaton, throwing punch after punch at the retreating Buglioni.
‘He had a great jab,’ says Frank. ‘And he’s thick set and strong. I wasn’t expecting the jab to be as good as it was. In fact, I’ve never come across anyone with a jab as good as his.’
‘How did that affect you?’ I ask. ‘If I’m hit by one punch it’s more than I can take. But he was throwing dozens and many of them were connecting…’
‘I would say after the seventh round I started to feel the pace,’ admits Frank. ‘It was getting tougher and tougher and he wasn’t tiring.’
So tough in fact that with no more than two minutes on the clock Frank is already running out of places in which to retreat. He rests his back on the ropes and attempts to use them to leverage his own punches.
‘Did you plan to do that?’ I ask, already knowing the answer.
‘Once my back was on the ropes the plan was to try to move away,’ says Frank. ‘But he was very good at cutting off the ring and reserving energy.’
I find myself wincing as Frank tries to fend off the first-round barrage. I tell him I don’t like to watch him fight. He ignores the comment.
‘Did you work on your jab?’ I say.
‘Yes. I’ve been using the jab.’
‘So why weren’t you using it here?’
‘I was trying to keep him at range and when he comes in, throw the flurry and move away again. But I shouldn’t have been away so quickly. I should have thrown a second phase of punches…’
I tell Frank that perhaps he should have stood his ground more. Although I’m all too aware that it’s easy for me to say.
‘If I fought him again I would hold my ground and go to war with him,’ he replies. ‘He’s so good coming forward I’d like to put him on the back foot and see what happens.’
As the round comes to a close Frank reveals to me that prior to the fight he had perforated an ear drum.
‘Jesus!’ I exclaim.
‘The other thing is that making super-middleweight was just taking a little too much out of me,’ he adds.
‘You really shouldn’t have been fighting at all,’ I say.
‘Yeah but world titles don’t come along too often. My dad wanted to pull me out but I said: “I don’t care if I’ve got two broken hands!” It was the biggest opportunity of my life…’
‘I suppose that in reality it’s rare for a boxer to ever be 100 per cent fit.’
‘Yeah… If you push yourself to the limit you’re inevitably going to have an injury or illness. It’s as simple as that.’
We watch as the second round carries on from where the previous left off: Chudinov stalking, Buglioni retreating. Chudinov metronomically launching punch after punch, Buglioni trying in vain to pick off his opponent. It’s painful viewing.
‘But this was the best I could have performed,’ insists Frank. ‘The actual best. That’s why I’m not disappointed by the result. He was the better man on the night.’
I ask the boxer about his opponent’s power. What did it feel like being continually hit by the champion’s punches?
‘They weren’t concussive but every one was solid,’ says Frank. ‘And he had very fast hands. But I’ve been working on crossing my arms on the inside so I didn’t take too many uppercuts. I was rolling with a lot of the punches. Even though he was winning most rounds I was having flashes of success. So I was still positive…’
‘But I just want you to stop and use your jab,’ I say. ‘I think it could be a phenomenal weapon…’
‘Yes, my jab’s good when it lands,’ agrees Frank. ‘It’s very solid…’
As we look on it suddenly becomes apparent that Chudinov appears to be slowing down for the first time.
‘He’s taking a breather,’ observes Frank, as he finally begins to force his way into the fight.
‘See… that’s nice,’ I say, pointing out a body shot that Frank delivers.
‘Yes I was having a little bit of success working to the body. I think he felt a few of my shots.’
‘How quickly does time go when you’re in the ring?’ I ask.
‘The minute break in the corner was going very quick,’ says Frank. ‘But the three minutes were definitely three minutes long.’
‘When you’re exhausted I expect it seems like six minutes?’
‘Yes, of course. When he catches you with a good body shot or in your face it seems longer…’
‘Now all of a sudden you’re planting your feet and throwing punches,’ I say.
‘Yes I’m going back to my instincts.’
‘And your instinct is to fight him, not to back away?’
Round four begins and Frank makes another confession: ‘I think it was about then that the other eardrum went…’ he reveals.
‘Oh no! What did that feel like?’
‘It’s like a ringing in your ear, a very, very bad headache. It didn’t really affect my balance.’
‘I take it you didn’t mention it in the post fight interviews?’
‘No. You can’t do that. But I had a lot of injuries in that fight. When I took the drug test afterwards my body wasn’t absorbing any water and I was vomiting from exhaustion. And the urine I passed was just blood.’
‘Do you ever wonder why you do it?’
‘The next day I was pretty sore when the adrenalin had worn off. But I thought it was a great night and a great experience. I loved every minute.’
‘Are you starting to feel the pace now?
‘Yes but I was having a little success and occasionally hurting him so it gave me the incentive to carry on.’
‘Had he hurt you yet?’
‘Only with the shot that burst the ear drum.’
‘What does your mother think of you fighting?’
‘She was actually there that night. She didn’t want to miss my world title shot. I think she took the defeat quite hard…’
‘It must be difficult to watch somebody hitting your child.’
‘I suppose so. The only thing that was going through my mind was: I need to beat this man and I can do it! I know that when I hit someone I can hurt them. And I tend to be quite a good finisher…’
‘His punches don’t look particularly hurtful, I say. ‘Although I’m obviously not the one taking them…’
‘Yes but it’s the cumulative effect. The gloves are important here. He wears Rival gloves and they’re very compact. And I usually wear Grant gloves which are a puncher’s glove and slightly bigger so that you can get more wrapping around your hands. Sometimes when a glove is too tight it can make your hand go numb.’
We watch as Chudinov continues to up the tempo. Frank is visibly tiring now. His face is marking up and more of his opponent’s punches are getting through Frank’s guard.
‘That’s looks painful,’ I say.
‘Not really. You take a shot and you deal with it. You try to have your chin down so you take them all on the forehead. If you take an uppercut to the nose you can feel that a little bit more. Body shots can hurt and sometimes you get a thumb in the eye.’
‘But he wasn’t dirty?’
‘No, not at all. Just businesslike. I’m kind of the same really. I just get on with the job. I don’t really enjoy gamesmanship…’
‘It seems like you’re suddenly getting a second wind…’
We look on as Frank finally gets his turn to land a few punches. Then, as the bell to end the round sounds, Frank suddenly connects with a booming right hand and the Russian hits the canvas hard. The crowd are screaming as the referee steps in to separate the fighters. A moment or two later he indicates to the ringside judges that two points are to be deducted from Frank’s score. The referee clearly believes that Frank landed his punch after the bell.
I rewind the YouTube video. Frank and I review the action meticulously. It’s arguable but fairly clear to me that Frank’s knockout punch landed exactly on the bell. The sound of bell could still be heard as the punch connected. Deducting two points from his score was extremely harsh, bordering on unfair.
‘Towards the end of this I landed a few shots and it spurred me on,’ says Frank. ‘It would have been nice if I’d landed 20 or 30 seconds before the bell. We might be sitting down having a different conversation right now…’
‘His recovery was superhuman…’ I say, as Chudinov springs to his feet, apparently fresh as a daisy.
‘He bounced back didn’t he?’ says Frank. ‘And I thought it was a bit unfair taking two points off me because it was on the bell. And it was only because I dropped him. It shouldn’t make a difference…’
‘I agree – it’s very, very harsh.’
‘So you know with two points gone it’s Goodnight Vienna,’ says Frank. ‘If the referee hadn’t have done that it would have been a 10-8 round to me. Instead it’s a 10-7 round to him – that’s a 5-point swing…’
Now it’s Frank’s turn to attack. With Chudinov still shaky on his feet Frank throws punch after punch at his opponent in an effort to end the fight.
‘You’re obviously tiring,’ I say. ‘But the adrenaline is keeping you going…’
‘Yeah. I’m thinking if I’m going to win it I better go out and do it now.’
‘And you’ve maybe only got about half a minute before the exhaustion takes over?’
‘Yeah. I was kind of winging the hooks in…’
‘It’s a terrible thing that this half a minute is so crucial to your entire career…’
And even as we speak Frank’s punches are becoming slower. His arms suddenly look as if they have lead weights tied to them. Conversely, Chudinov seems to finding a new lease of life. The pendulum has swung.
‘I put so much into that first 30 seconds to try and hurt him and tired myself out,’ explains Frank. ‘That’s when his shots start to really tell.’
‘At this point in the fight was there any strategy left at all?’
‘Yes, I was trying to fight in bursts but they weren’t frequent enough or long enough to have any telling effect. And Chudinov tended to win the rounds because he was consistently on me all the time. In order to win I had to put my level above his and I couldn’t do that.’
As the bell for round 8 sounds I leave the room for a few moments and Sofia conveniently appears from nowhere.
‘Hi you OK? Recovered now?’ I hear Frank ask. ‘What a terrible incident!’
I return and put my arms around her shoulders before introducing the pair.
‘She’s tall now,’ I say. ‘She going to be a big one.’
‘That’s probably what caused the illness,’ says Frank. ‘When you’ve had a growth spurt your immune system is weak. All your energy goes into growing.’
‘I didn’t think about that,’ I say.
‘A lot of young athletes get injuries and illnesses because they’re training all the time and it’s too much stress.’
‘That’s an interesting theory.’
‘When I was about 12 or 13 I had bouts of glandular fever every time I got taller. The specialist said that it was because I weak. But there’s a few things you can do to boost it: Carrot and ginger juices… Manuka honey… Echinacea… Garlic…’
I point Sofia’s head towards the iPad screen: ‘We’re watching Frank fight,’ I softly say. ‘Wanna see?’
‘Getting banged up,’ says Frank grimly.
‘Frank is fighting for the world title – can you believe that?’ I tell Sofia. ‘I don’t know if you like boxing, do you?’
‘I don’t know,’ Sofia dryly replies.
It’s more of the same for Frank now. Monotonously more of the same. The Russian’s piston-like punches never stopping. Frank retreating, attempting to connect but never quite managing it with any real authority. I feel guilty for putting Frank through this.
‘I remember at the end of the 9th coming back to the corner and Steve saying: ‘Only three more rounds!’ recalls Frank. ‘And I was thinking: “Three more rounds? It seems like a lifetime!”‘
‘He can’t win it on the cards now,’ says the commentator. ‘He’s got to knock him out!’
Round ten begins and the pattern of the preceding rounds continues. It’s barely worth mentioning what’s happening on screen right now so we talk about Frank’s training methods instead.
Frank asks me if I’ve ever heard of the Chimp Paradox and proceeds to give me a detailed explanation of the training model that he adheres to. In this model the brain is made up of three parts: The Computer, which governs automatic functions; The Chimp, which controls ego and emotions; and The Human, which concerns the logical functions of the brain.
‘When you’re training obviously you do things over and over again,’ says Frank. ‘These are Computer thoughts and actions. When you go into a fight you want to run off your Computer, your instinct, because it’s so much quicker. It’s something like ten, twenty times faster than human thought.
‘If someone throws a jab and you think to yourself: “Ok jab coming, catch it, block it, throw a counter!” then you’ve already been hit three or four times. But if you don’t even think about it and just react instinctively – that’s your Computer at work.’
‘That’s very interesting,’ I say. ‘Do you think all boxers do this?’
‘Yes. To get to the top level of any sport you need to rely more and more on your Computer. And to have a good functioning Computer you need to do the practise.’
‘But are other fighters consciously aware of this? Do they think about this like you do?’
‘Maybe not. They probably just do it automatically. When your Chimp kicks in you’ll be thinking: “I’m under pressure here! It’s getting too hard! Let’s quit! Let’s quit!” So it’s down to your Human to override it, to say “No, I’ve trained too hard for this!” And then your reason and logic will kick in…’
Frank tells me about how he visited a psychologist prior to the fight, about how he uses hypnosis and visualisation techniques.
‘Because of this I went into the trenches a hundred times before I fought Chudinov,’ he says. ‘In my head I’d already beaten him so many times. When I was in the ring this is what drove me on.’
‘Unfortunately I guess all of this must cost you money…’ I say.
‘Of course – it cost a small fortune,’ says Frank. ‘But what I learned leading up to this fight is an education for life. Everything I’ve learned about how to fight and deal with copious amounts of stress and pressure. After a fight like this everything else is a walk in their park…’
‘We’re having a trade off,’ says Frank to Sofia as the three of us grimly watch him continue to lose the fight. ‘And he seems to be getting the better of it…’
‘You’re really tired, aren’t you…’ I say.
‘Yes, I am but I’m still thinking about trying to land and hurt him.’
‘Did you think by this stage that you’d lost the fight?’
‘No. I still thought there was a chance.’
‘How do you feel about seeing yourself looking so tired onscreen?’ I ask.
‘It’s not a shock really. I was exhausted.’
We watch as Chudinov connects with a hard looking uppercut.
‘That looked like it might have hurt,’ I groan.
‘Yeah,’ smiles Frank.
‘It’s good that you’re laughing about these things…’
The bell rings for the final round and it’s no use pretending that the fight was even close. Even Sofia standing quietly beside us can see that.
‘At this stage you must have known that you’d lost,’ I say.
‘Yes. I was a little bit spaced out. That’s a good description,’ says Frank. ‘It was an exhausting fight and you don’t always think clearly afterwards. There was a lot of things jumping around my head: I was disappointed with the two-point deduction, although it wouldn’t have made any difference to the result of the fight…’
‘You don’t seem to be angry about that decision,’ I say. ‘A lot of people would be very bitter about it…’
‘No. Anger doesn’t really come into it. It’s not in my emotions,’ says Frank. ‘It was an honour to be fighting for the world title. A great experience. A great achievement. I just want to move on to better things.’
‘What do you think was the main difference between you and Chudinov?’ I ask.
‘Well he just didn’t expend any unnecessary energy,’ says Frank. ‘He’d obviously trained so long on the bags that his muscle memory could punch all day. He just let them flow naturally.
‘I’ve learned a lot from him. Rather than fighting in bursts that use 100% of your energy I’m going to drop it right down to about 87%, which is still going to do a lot of damage, but is more sustainable.’
Frank talks about his plan to fight at a heavier weight and how it’s going to help him. ‘Give me another four years…’ he says.
I offer him an unprovoked suggestion: ‘My feeling is that what needs to happen…’
‘…Is that somebody gives me an iron bar?’
‘…Is that a big name is fighting and his opponent pulls out and they bring you in at the last minute.
‘You need a big name,’ I tell him. ‘You need a big win. You must have thought that yourself?’
‘Yes. But I’m happy to take my time. Rebuild. Go and do some very high quality sparring.’
I thank Frank for his generosity. I tell him that hopefully there will come a time when he can return to my kitchen and together we can watch him win that elusive world title.
‘That’s why I’m here and why I speak to you so often because I respect what you do,’ says Frank. ‘And I’ve got a lot of trust in you…’
‘Well that’s very nice of you.’
‘If not I’ll have to send someone round.…’
‘Do you see that Sofia?’ I say. ‘Somebody who finally respects what I do…’
Dangerous is available on Amazon and in all good book shops.
Finally out today. The sequel to my 1998 book ‘Rope Burns’. Available initially in paperback.
Here’s the first review: http://www.boxingnewsonline.net/review-dangerous-an-intimate-journey-into-the-heart-of-boxing/
And a link to purchase: https://goo.gl/4UAnqr
The birth of Dangerous
I was never close to my father. In fact, to call our relationship ambivalent would be like suggesting that Tom and Jerry had the occasional spat. Indeed, if one single act sums up our relationship it is probably his refusal to see or speak on the phone to me as he lay in bed at home in the months before he died of Motor Neuron Disease. Others may have been able to offer an opinion as to why he didn’t want to see me at the end of his life; but I believe that he and I both knew the reason. It undoubtedly had something to do with his lack of confidence in my ability to keep quiet about a family secret that I’m sure he would have preferred to take to his grave with him.
He died in 2014 and even though I’d only seen him a handful of times in the preceding decades I did my fair share of crying. I didn’t expect to but I did. Initially it was a song entitled Call Me A Rainbow by a relatively obscure Brighton-based band called The Mummers that would set me off. Every time I played this song, which was a lot, I just couldn’t stop the tears from coming. It got to the point where even thinking about it was enough to make the waterworks begin. Eventually I had to just keep away from the song.
I didn’t know why I was crying. I still don’t. Even though it’s no great revelation that the death of a parent is supposed to be an unhappy event I was seriously surprised that it hit me this way. I was even more taken aback when the frequency of my tears began to escalate. Being home alone a lot because of what I do for a living I found that scarcely a day went by when I did not break down. Sometimes I cried on my own, two, three, four times’ a day. Sometimes I would cry in front of family members, sometimes in front of friends.
Being a big hairy bloke, this behavior began to trouble me. Eventually, some six or seven months after his death I went to the doctor. He told me I was probably suffering from depression and immediately put me on something called Citalopram, a commonly prescribed anti-depressant. Unusually for me I actually began ingesting these little white pills without researching their side effects or questioning my GP’s decision. I guess I was desperate.
Amazingly Citalopram made a difference. I no longer felt like crying. In fact, I no longer felt like anything: I couldn’t be happy and I couldn’t be sad. I was just stuck in the middle: a zombie-like hinterland with senses dulled and blunted. Unfortunately, there were also other effects: my arms and legs would periodically tremor to a degree in which I thought I was displaying the early signs of Parkinson’s. I could also no longer have sex. It just wasn’t working for me down there.
So I stopped the pills and paid another visit to the doctor. This time he suggested I see a therapist.
Being a big hairy bloke, the idea of therapy made me uncomfortable; in my mind it seemed like something that other people did. I also saw it as a sign of weakness, which I’m aware makes no logical sense. But I went.
My therapist turned out to be Chinese with, shall we say, not the most fluent grasp of the English language. This meant that speaking to her was a painfully slow exercise. The meaning of every other word had to be explained and she simply refused to laugh at any of my jokes. It was a frustrating experience. However, in the middle of it all something unexpected happened.
One day for no apparent reason I started talking to my Chinese therapist about boxing. More than two decades ago I was a boxing writer for a number of magazines and newspapers. I even edited a boxing trade magazine. I was in my mid-twenties and it was a very exciting time for me. However, I gave it all up, I explained to my therapist, when a friend of mine, the boxer Michael Watson, was almost fatally injured during a world title fight. Before I withdrew from the sport for good, however, I wrote a book entitled ‘Rope Burns’ which sought to explain why I was never going to write about boxing again.
For almost 25 years I had almost nothing to do with boxing. All of the many contacts I had made in the sport, some of them good friends, were forgotten about. I gave up reading about the sport and I gave up watching it. My experience with boxing was, I thought, very much consigned to my past.
However, not long after my father died I had read about the death of Boxing Monthly editor Glyn Leach at only 54. Glyn was only a couple of years older than me and we had worked together on the magazine that he ended up editing for over two decades. Out of respect I had attended his funeral and bumped into dozens of faces from my past, some ex-boxers, some boxing writers whom I had known years earlier. It was a bittersweet experience for someone who was still raw and disturbed by the death of his father. In the pub afterwards, however, people were coming up to me that I had never met and shaking my hand. They seemed to know me even though I didn’t know them. Some of them told me that they were writers and had read and admired ‘Rope Burns’ in their younger days. Needless to say this was good for the ego. Whatever the case I felt a lot of love directed towards me that night.
Perhaps in retrospect that was why I had brought up the subject of boxing with my therapist. And perhaps that’s why in the weeks that followed my conversation with her I began to take her suggestion that I consider writing about boxing again a little more seriously.
And so I began making contact with people whom I used to know in the boxing world a quarter of a century earlier. I had no idea why I was doing this and I hadn’t a clue where it would take me. All I knew is that I felt an urge inside me to talk. To talk to someone. And it ended up being boxers whom I offloaded on to.
My interviews, if you can call them that, we unconventional to say the least. Most of the time I ended up talking about myself, which must have struck my subjects as being a little peculiar. However, their kindness and patience shone through. Before long I began to understand what it was that had attracted me to the world of boxing in the first place. Almost to a man, these so-called hard men of the ring proved themselves to be sensitive, generous human beings. Somehow they seemed to understand and sympathize with what I was going through.
Then in February after meeting up with a handful of names such as transgender boxing manager Kellie Maloney, former world champions Steve Collins and Colin McMillan, my progress hit a rather substantial bump in the road when my daughter fell gravely ill. I ended up abandoning my little writing project and spending the majority of my time at her bedside as she fought to overcome a hole in her lung and pneumonia. She was in hospital for almost three weeks but just as she was discharged fate played a rather unexpected card.
Literally the day after she left hospital I discovered that the ex-boxer Herol Graham was in the ward next to her, also gravely ill. And for a reason that it took me a long time to work out I ended up spending a lot of time at his bedside. There seemed to me to be an element of fate at play: back in 1991 I had not been there for Michael Watson as he lay gravely ill in hospital. Now, here was I attending to the needs of a boxer from my past who had mysteriously dropped in to my lap.
The period I spent with Herol I would almost describe as life transforming. As he got better so did I. And as I got better it seemed to me as if a dam had burst. For eight months I ended up meeting people from my past and sharing incredibly emotional experiences with them. Tears were shed and laughter was enjoyed with these so-called hard men of the ring. Due to these experiences I also ended up confronting my mother about that secret I shared with my father that I mentioned earlier.
The result of this is ‘Dangerous’, my unlikely sequel to ‘Rope Burns’, due out on 15 September 2016.
I could say a lot about the book but truth be told I’m not sure of its value. I’m hoping that I’ve managed to come up with something emotionally moving, important even. However, a part of me suspects that what I might actually have created is something that takes self-indulgence to a whole new level.
I’d rather leave it to Andrew Fairley, another writer and the only person except myself to have read the book in its entirety. This is what he emailed to me the day after he started it:
You don’t hold back do you? I’ve rarely come across a text that comes straight from the heart as this. You may disagree but I think it’s truly brilliant mate, and I’m not just saying that.
Some of the prose is beautiful – ‘a world where black men fought and white men thought’ – and what you’ve written grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. It has that rare quality of staying in your mind even though you’ve stopped reading.
I’m on page 80 (thanks for that, I’ve barely done a stroke at work!!) and will finish it tonight or tomorrow morning and let you know what I think once I’ve finished.
It’s remarkable. I think you’ve written another classic and if this doesn’t win awards, I don’t know what will.
Blimey mate. Many thanks for the privilege of reading this — you can rely on me for publicity. Average writers like me come along every day of the week , but you really do have a very special talent indeed.
Of course, it’s always nice to get a good review. But I’m sure that others will not be quite so positive. I’m already stealing myself for this statistical certainty.
This is another little taster from my forthcoming book Dangerous. The book will be launched on 15 September and is the sequel to my 1998 book Rope Burns.
When I arrive at the hospital next day Herol Graham is howling in pain. Howling. Really howling. It’s a frightening sound that echoes around the ward and startles the other inhabitants. A sound I doubt that Herol ever made when he was inside the ropes, no matter how hard anybody struck him. If it’s at all possible there are even more tubes attached to his body. He has them coming from his arms, from his nose and even from the tip of his penis. No medieval inquisitor ever devised such an elaborate torture apparatus. The tube in his penis is currently inducing an agonising burning sensation and Herol can’t control himself. He howls. And he howls. And then he howls some more.
It’s difficult to know what to do when another person in your close vicinity is in such obvious discomfort. It’s easier, of course, if it’s a child. Your child. What you do then is simply pick them up in your arms and hug them for all you are worth. Such an act can sometimes make you feel better about yourself and there is a chance that the child might also gain some solace. In Herol’s case I can’t really do that. I should be able to but I somehow can’t bring myself to hug another man. Instead I walk over to him and mumble words in his direction in the softest voice I can muster. And I take hold of his hand and clutch it in my own. I gently stroke the fist that was once an instrument of violence and I stare deep into his dark brown eyes.
Herol Graham returns my gaze and for several long moments we say nothing at all. We remain holding hands, oblivious to the rest of the world. When I think about it later I am hard pressed to recall a time when I shared such an intimate moment with a member of the same sex. Herol, of course, may think differently; after all, is not the pre-fight ‘stare-down’ part and parcel of the boxing ritual? We stare at each other for a very long time, until I begin to feel uncomfortable. Eventually to break the spell I declare in mock outrage: ‘I’m going to have to stop holding your hand. It’s getting a bit gay!’
There is the faintest trace of a smile on Herol’s face and he weakly offers a Kenneth Williams’ ‘Ooh matron…’-type retort. At his side, as ever, are Karen and Sedat. I kiss Karen on the cheek and embrace Sedat.
The doctor who previously spoke the other day to myself and Herol’s daughter Natasha had obviously been a little over-optimistic. Those scars that he mentioned then did not go away of their own accord as he had suggested they might. In fact, even more scars have formed, creating the very real risk that the ex-fighter’s bowel will have to be removed. Prior to arriving at the hospital I’d done the obligatory bit of Googling and discovered that the unwelcome scars have a name: they are called abdominal adhesions. I tell Karen everything I have learned about them and she confirms that this is what the doctors have been calling Herol’s condition. In fact, there are eight of the deadly little buggers in total and they are effectively strangling his bowel. The next few hours, she has been told, are crucial. It is imperative that Herol undergoes a bowel movement. If he does not do so the bowel will effectively die and have to be removed. To spend the rest of your life without a bowel is a grim prospect.
The surgeon arrives with two or three doctors and tells us all that he suspects that Herol might be suffering from Chrohn’s disease. Before he has a chance to explain the condition I find myself vociferously disagreeing with him. In his eyes it is plain to see that I am the worst kind of visitor – someone with a little knowledge aided and abetted by Google. I tell him I know all about auto-immune diseases and that Herol is definitely not suffering from Chrohn’s. The surgeon keeps his patience, although it’s fairly obvious that he does not appreciate my unwelcome interjection.
When the group finally leave Herol turns to me and says: ‘I could hear what they were saying about you when they were walking away. One of the said: “That guy is crazy!”‘.
We are advised it is imperative that Herol takes a walk at least once every couple of hours and with this in mind the three of us slowly attempt to haul him out of his bed. It’s slow work: Herol is a dead weight now and the tangle of wires coming from him could easily be dislodged with the slightest mistake. I put my hands under one armpit and Sedat takes the other. Herol climbs shakily to his feet, his head a limp object hanging towards the floor, lacking the strength to straighten his neck.
The former boxer walks on the spot for about a minute but it’s clear that even a limited activity such as this is far too much for him. I suggest that perhaps we should help Herol back into a chair but we struggle to do so. As Sedat and I gently lower him we become entangled in the wires that encircle his body. There is a very real danger that we might pull them out. When we finally have him back in his seat, Herol is sweating like he’s just returned from a ten-kilometre run.
We try to encourage the ex-boxer to drink but he’s not interested. Eventually, however, I manage to get him to take a few sips of a fruit drink that I’ve brought with me and it has an instant effect upon him. Herol tells us that he needs the toilet. I have to admit that this is the first time in my life that a grown man has indicated any desire to defecate in my presence. Ordinarily, such a request would naturally be greeted with less than enthusiasm but now the three of us, Karen, Sedat and I, look into each other’s eyes with a mixture of joy and hope.
Once again we help Herol climb gingerly to his feet, me with one arm, Sedat with the other. It takes five or ten minutes to complete this difficult procedure. Curtains are drawn around his bed and a commode is wheeled into view. A young looking doctor pokes her head around the curtain and sees this happening before quickly beating a hasty retreat. Herol Graham’s surgical gown is loosened and he is lowered on to the commode. Even though he is desperately unwell, the ex-boxer is embarrassed by his predicament. He mumbles an apology, and then another. I tell him he has nothing whatsoever to apologise for.
The stench, of course, is appalling; although I’m having a slightly better time of it than the others on account of my diminished sense of smell, yet another symptom of hypothyroidism. I don’t have time to reflect but later I will ponder upon the course that my decision to return to the world of boxing has taken me on. Would I have been quite so eager to revisit long forgotten memories had I known that the climax to such an undertaking would result in me sitting inches away from a one-time championship boxer while he had a poo? Probably not. It takes a certain type of person to harbour such an ambition.
Curiously though, this particular poo is greeted with celebration from all present. We hold our noses and make stupid jokes and laugh and, I think, instantly develop a closeness, a kinship, that can really only be understood by those who have shared such an experience. And this toilet session is no minor affair: It goes on for a very long time; Herol continues to mumble his embarrassed apologies and we continue to giggle. We can hear other people quietly complaining in the ward. Visitors are suddenly finding excuses to leave the building and inmates attempt to miraculously rise from their sickbeds. I very much doubt that Jesus ever considered using such a technique when he was busy resurrecting Lazarus. In the bed immediately next to Herol is a terminally ill patient who has been given five days to live (this news was whispered to me earlier on in the evening). If he has a god he must be wondering what on earth he’s done to deserve this final indignity
Forgive me for reblogging this article I wrote two years ago. It’s just that today I finished writing the sequel to my 1998 book ‘Rope Burns’ and I think that this piece goes some way to explaining why my new book ‘Dangerous’ has turned out the way it has.
The sun is hotter than a George Foreman grill set to 11. But no amount of dazzling June sunlight which creeps incongruously over the pile of discarded fast food packaging that decorates the entrance to the TKO Gym in London’s Canning Town will ever make it look attractive. It’s here – via a comedy detour courtesy of Apple’s seriously fucked up Maps app – that I find myself preparing for one of those fork in the road moments that we all have to deal with at certain times in our lives. This is how I describe my thoughts when I enter that gym and come face to face with a young super-middleweight prize fighter named Frank Buglioni. And we both know exactly what I’m talking about.
“We knew it was the biggest step up in my career to date. We knew he was a very good opponent but knew that he falls apart after about six or seven rounds,” an eloquent, focused Buglioni tells me. “He’s 39 years old so I had the youth on him but I didn’t box to my strengths. I think I could have put the pressure on earlier, settled him down a little bit, made him wary rather than trying to lull him into a false sense of security and catch him with counters.”
A quick recap for the untold billions out there in Twitter land there who quite justifiably couldn’t give a flying tweet about either one of us, me and Frank that is: earlier this year the then unbeaten WBO European Super-Middleweight champion had the dubious privilege of being the subject of the first interview I had conducted with a boxer for more than two largely empty decades. One for the future, intimated my shimmering purple prose to a ringing fanfare of trumpets. Going places, I gushed. A genuine contender.
That Frank promptly suffered his first professional defeat in the ring should not have come as a surprise to someone like me, who considers himself unfeasibly fortunate to have drawn Australia in the World Cup sweepstake. But lose he did. Unequivocally so. Taught a lesson in manners by a wily old coyote named Sergey Khomitsky. An OAP in boxing terms, the have-gloves-will-travel Belarusian could easily qualify for the boxing equivalent of a free bus pass (although perhaps not in these days of Foreman and Hopkins et al). Someone whom Frank should have been able to speedily return to his mobility chair if our would-be contender is to be taken as seriously as he wants to be.
But since when did anything really ever go according to plan? Certainly not for Frank and certainly not for the likes of you and me. Which neatly brings me to that fork in the road I mentioned earlier.
It’s fork in the road time for Frank because he’s GOT to win his next fight, preferably in a manner that can erase those YouTube images of our hero taking far too many punches for his own good before being pulled out of the fight by his wholly sensible and merciful trainer Mark Tibbs. Buglioni MUST win this fight – to lose would set his career in an unpalatable direction, along a pathway that anybody who happens to be 24 and harbouring ambitions to be a world champion will want to avoid at all costs.
And it’s fork in the road time for me because my father is just about to die. Just over a week away from dying, in fact. And I don’t know what to do with myself other than to sit here at four in the morning and write about boxers. Which is kind of ironic really because I have a strong suspicion that on a subconscious level I only write about – have only ever written about – boxers to try to impress my father. And although he’ll never read this one – I can’t actually say for certain that he’s ever read much of what I’ve written – I’ve got to do it.
Fortunately for Frank Buglioni when it comes to getting back on to the yellow brick road the odds are heavily stacked in his favour. Charged with the responsibility of rehabilitating chipped chins and bruised egos is one Sam Couzens. Even Herodotus himself would have trouble bigging up the qualifications of Mr. Couzens. Nobody is pretending that the Hampshire-based fighter is anything more than a ‘W’ to sit atop the ‘L TKO 6’ that currently besmirches Buglioni’s ring record. Nevertheless, when people are throwing punches at each other’s heads for hard cash it’s never a good idea to start counting chickens.
Unfortunately for my father the odds are rather heavily stacked against him being in a position to watch Frank Buglioni climb into the ring on 16 July at London’s York Hall ready to put the hurt on Couzens. Life for him is 24 hours of concentrated misery followed by another 24 hours of the same followed by another. And at the risk of intruding upon what is supposed to be an article about people who punch each other for a living, I’m not there and won’t be there to try to lessen that misery. He doesn’t want to see me and I don’t want to see him. And it’s at times like this, inevitably, that one is forced to wonder how things ever managed to turn out this way.
It is my father who is responsible for this love/hate relationship I have with boxing. It was his enthusiasm for the sport which I am reluctant to call a sport that long ago compelled me to consider that there might be magic lurking behind the blood and sweat and snot. It was his excitement that carried me along through the long, hot, mainly miserable summers of my youth. It was probably the one thing that we ever really had in common other than the battles we waged against one another.
“You just know in their eyes. I hit him with a shot and his back leg gave way a little bit. And I went in and threw a few shots and he held.” In a distinctly unglamorous back-room Frank Buglioni tucks into a home-made pasta salad and reflects on what went wrong that night in April. “When I was hurt I didn’t have that experience. I didn’t hold. I didn’t tie him up. I tried to fight when my coordination and timing wasn’t there. And that’s what happened in the sixth round. He caught me with a good shot and I went with him a little bit. And then he caught me with exactly the same left hook round the side and on the chin again.”
There is no animosity in Buglioni’s words. He doesn’t hate the man who bespoiled his unblemished record. There is a refreshing absence of hostility. But then why shouldn’t there be? We sometimes tend to overlook the fact that boxing is nine-tenths business and nine-tenths artifice. But then who’s counting? And without wishing to dial in the clichés Frank Buglioni seems to view that night as little more than a bad day at the office. He’s simply relieved to live to fight another day.
“It didn’t hurt,” he insists. “Obviously my legs went, my coordination went and the ropes probably kept me up but I didn’t go down. In the corner of my eye I saw the referee and I thought, ‘don’t jump in! Don’t jump in!’. I was still thinking, although obviously I couldn’t defend myself.”
A couple of weeks earlier Frank had contacted me via Facebook asking if I’d like to come back and conduct a follow-up interview with him. The strange thing was that at exactly the same time I’d been contacting him through Facebook to suggest the same. Perhaps deep down both of us knew we had unfinished business. Back in the 1990s when two men shared the same experience – generally physically it has to be said – they might have called it an ‘Ulrika’ moment.
“My trainer stopped the fight because he knew that fella could have finished me and done more damage,” Frank continues. “I’m not naive – I know he could have done that. I was in no position to continue at that time. He said: ‘it’s over. We’ll come again’. And I remember him saying ‘walk back to the corner – you’re walking out.’ And that’s probably why I’m so confident and I’ve come back so strong. Because I walked out of that ring. I wasn’t put on my arse.”
I watch Buglioni work on the pads. There is a marked difference between the man I see now and the man who was training for the Khomitsky defence. On that earlier occasion it was notable – even to my uncultured eye – that Buglioni seemed to lack aggression. Nothing too discernible – one certainly could not have accused him of going through the motions – but there was a sense that the boxer might just have temporarily forgotten about the life and death nature of the world that he inhabits. There is none of that now. There is a meanness to Buglioni’s punches that occasionally makes me wince from the sidelines as he throws them.
“My mindset has changed,” he explains. “When I train now, I train to hurt people. I wasn’t doing that previously. I was boxing nice, I was landing good shots but if I hurt anyone I would take a step back.
“Things have changed now. If I hurt someone I jump on them. If they’re in the ring with me they’re getting it. I’m in there to hurt people. And if I get beat so be it but they’ll know they’ve been in a fight. There’s no way there’re coming out unscathed against me. They’ll have to kill me to beat me.”
Such time honoured boxing rhetoric inevitably draws me back to my father and I struggle to concentrate as images flash by of the two of us perched in front of the TV yelling at Alan Minter as Marvin Hagler brutally exposes the British middleweight champion before being showered with bottles and cans. The perennial abuse that my father was wont to hurl at that great underachiever Joe Bugner as he pranced his way to yet another points loss against yet another American. There are so many moments that we shared together at the shrine of that fuzzy analogue screen: Stracey’s win over Napoles. Stracey’s loss to Dave ‘Boy’ Green. Green’s shocking one-punch KO at the fists of Ray Leonard; Kenny Norton’s frankly outrageous loss to Ali in their third fight. Some of those men have gone now but the memories are indelible.
Boxing was one of the very few things on which my father and I grudgingly walked a common ground. He was a soldier and then a copper and then a white collar worker at a local factory. Latterly he was a Labour councillor. My brother was a soldier and is still a copper. I was the black sheep. I liked to see myself as an artist but never the twain and all that. He didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand him. It was as if we both spoke a different language, with boxing being an occasional but all too fleeting translator.
The rest of the time we were at it like two heavyweight rivals. Him hurling the blows, both verbal and otherwise. Me ducking under their slipstream. Me erecting an impregnable defence that left him pondering and no doubt regretting the mistakes that we all make when we are young men.
“I still live with my parents. Me and my brother are still at home and my sister lives around the corner. We’re a close family.” Frank Buglioni’s relationship with his own father is thankfully somewhat less destructive. “We didn’t sleep that night. Me and my dad sat and watched the fight back. We came to the conclusion that I need to rectify this loss and come back a better fighter and that this could be the making of me. I said if I could fight that fella right now I would.”
I’m full of big ideas, me. I tell Frank that he needs to have an iconic image. That an iconic image is what will get people talking about him. As if I know anything at all.
And for reasons that will become all too obvious I have it in my mind to get him to recreate that famous Esquire cover shot of Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian. And Frank is just so nice, so accommodating, that he agrees to my scheme without hesitation. I warn him that he might look a prat in front of his fellow fighters but he doesn’t care. And this is just one of the very many reasons that I am reminded how lucky, how fortunate I am to spend even a little time with one of these extraordinary people; this curious species who risk their lives and their future health looking for some sort of gold at the end of the rainbow. About how, almost to a man, you will seldom come across a nicer breed of person.
This is the incredible dichotomy inherent in boxing: that these individuals, who choose to express themselves through bouts of controlled violence that is so often frightening to behold, that is frequently way beyond the boundaries of what our society deems to be acceptable behaviour, are generally more at peace with themselves than many of us will ever be. A small part of me wishes that my father was standing beside me to witness at first hand the tangible aura of tranquility that glows from Frank Buglioni. And yet another part of me is probably aware that I’m taking no small advantage of somebody who is slowly, I think, becoming a friend. Because actually it’s me who should be standing there looking a prat in front of the other boxers. It’s my flabby body that those arrows should really be aimed at.
There I go again. All too often in the past people have accused me of using boxing as a device to allow me to harp on about myself. But it’s Frank Buglioni who clearly deserves the last word before heading towards his own fork in the road to destiny:
“I take a lot of positives from the defeat: My chin is decent. He caught me with two absolute peaches and I was on the ropes and he was throwing right hands at will. And I was still on my feet. And I see that as a good sign,” he looks me in the eye earnestly as he tells me this. “Since turning pro I’ve never been the underdog. And I’m a dangerous underdog. I like to be at the back of the pack chasing. This has brought out another side of me and I’m spiteful. Everything I hit I’m hitting to hurt. I’m not going through the motions with anything. I’m in there to end careers.”
I began writing this less than a week before my father died. A part of me is, of course, already deeply regretting that I wasn’t there to to support him as his body withered away and succumbed to the truly awful and incurable condition known as Motor Neurone Disease. I hadn’t seen him for maybe two years after what in retrospect was always bound to be a frankly silly falling out that isn’t worth going into here. Over the years there had been many such trivial arguments and long periods in which we studiously avoided seeing each other. I think both of us realised that our superficial bickering masked a deeper chasm that often threatened to rend our father/son relationship into shreds. I believe it’s not that uncommon.
One of the many things I’ve taken from him is boxing, another is music, which I guess aren’t such bad gifts to receive from anybody. And it is to boxing – and you – that I must apologise. On too many occasions I’ve found myself hijacking the sport as a means of exorcising inner demons. And I’m doing it again right now. I hope you’ll understand.