Got a little distracted by the election and didn’t paint anything at all. Finally got back into it on Friday night. This took 6 ½ hours from start to finish. It’s Harry, my former clarinet teacher.
It’s about Action Men.
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.
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 a little taster for a book I’m currently writing, which I’m not going to reveal the title of at the moment. Should anyone be at all interested it’ll be published towards the end of the year.)
I’m at my third press conference in a fortnight and feel no less an outsider. The boxing promoter Frank Warren mills around cheerfully massaging shoulders but even though we met long ago when I had hair and he didn’t have circular scars on his chest from the bullets that almost killed him he doesn’t have a clue who I am. He looks through me and I’m pleased that he does.
My third press conference in a quarter of a century and already there are faces that I am beginning to recognise as regulars. The silver-haired Colin Hart, erstwhile of The Sun newspaper is again prowling the boards, eternally shaking hands, boxing’s own Methuselah, but unlike last time around I choose to avoid him. Also present once more is a tall dark-skinned man with a digital camera permanently strapped to his wrist, whom I’m told is called Kugan Cassius, something of a name in the boxing world but most probably anonymous in civvy street. He apparently conducts regular interviews for a YouTube channel he started a few years ago that has quickly grown to attract over one million hits. Boxers and managers and promoters are understandably anxious to court his attention. In the old days newspaper men ruled the roost and could potentially make or break a fighter but nowadays the balance of power has shifted towards young black men toting iPhones, Nokias and Galaxies who film every second of any event that happens to make the slightest mention of boxing and then upload it on to different branches of social media while they still have battery power remaining.
I’ve come here today to kill several birds with one stone. Having contacted Frank Warren’s press office I am grateful to have been invited along to observe three prominent boxing figures strut their stuff. Two of them, Naseem Hamed and Ricky Hatton, are former world champion boxers at feather and light-welterweight respectively. The other is currently the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a controversial figure known as Tyson Fury. Fury is probably the real reason I am here. For even in the modern era of boxing, possibly the most cynical, financially polluted epoch in boxing history, a chance to see the real, bona fide heavyweight champion of the world in the flesh is an opportunity that even then most dilettante of boxing observers would be unwilling to turn down.
The press conference is being held in a large room called The Empire Suite in London’s drippingly opulent Landmark Hotel. By coincidence I’d been here only a few months earlier after a former employer died and left a sum of money that was to be spent on a lavish bash in her memory. Unlike that night I stand innocently sipping mineral water and quietly watch as events unfold. Ricky Hatton, noticeably heavier than in his fighting days, is being interviewed on film by a heavy-browed young man whom I recognise from the last press conference I attended. More film crews congregate around other fighters, discernible to me only by the stoop of the shoulders and their calcified fists. My eyes stalk Frank Warren, impressed to witness him in action: silky smooth, effortlessly charming, a veteran of more of these type of events than his relatively youthful exterior would tend to suggest.
I think back to meeting Ambrose Mendy at the end of last year. And remember him telling me misty-eyed how he and Warren discovered boxing together in the early 1980s and were entranced by the brutal spectacle. I also recollect him intimating on more than one occasion how the pair of them were close enough for the promoter to be nominated best man at his wedding. As always, however, there is more than one side to any tale in boxing. With even cursory background reading such blissful memoirs of friendship lost and found suggest themselves not to be taken at face value. In Ben Dirs’ 2013 book The Hate Game Warren claims not to have even invited Mendy to his own wedding three week’s earlier and to have regretted agreeing to being Mendy’s best man. The truth? Irrelevant. As always there is no truth in boxing. And there are no lies.
But I digress… The room is now filling up and people are starting to take their positions in the row of seats that have been placed before a large table at the back of the room, on which rest name plates corresponding to the main protagonists of this occasion. One each for Frank Warren, Ricky Hatton, Naseem Hamed, promoter Mick Hennessey, Tyson fury and his father ‘Big’ John Fury.
I take a seat and find myself sitting close to Steve Lillis. Back in the day Steve was the racing correspondent of The Sunday Sport and I was that venerable organ’s boxing writer. Among the nipples and haunted fish fingers we tried our best to keep a straight face. If my memory serves me right, we’ve seen each other on two occasions since then and he greets me warmly, which I’m grateful for. He’s older, as are we all, but slimmer and fitter than he used to be. When I left the Sport he effortlessly slipped into my moccasins and has been working in boxing ever since. Unlike many of the people he writes about Steve is completely without pretension and has done well for himself in the sport. He is now employed by Box Nation, the television channel that Frank Warren set up in 2012, and spends his time interviewing figures from the boxing world in an honest and unthreatening manner that has won him many friends.
I find myself genuinely happy to be back in Steve’s company, if only for a few brief moments. It’s also something of a relief to be recognised by someone, to not be a complete stranger in a room full of people who all seem to know each other. As you would expect we swap anecdotes about the past and promise to meet up for a drink, which will very probably never happen.
There is a sudden commotion in the room and a looming figure descends on the table. Tyson Fury is a staggering 6 ‘ 9″ in height but somehow seems shorter. He also looks a lot slimmer than I imagined him to be, a fact that is in direct contrast to stories of him being six stones overweight that are currently doing the rounds on social media. He issues a terse ‘good afternoon gentlemen’ before lowering himself into a seat, where he is joined by the rest of the boxing ensemble with the perhaps inevitable exception of Naseem Hamed. Frank Warren makes a joke about ‘Naz’ never changing; that he’s still late after all these years.
The press conference kicks off in pedestrian fashion. Also present at the table is Hughie Fury, cousin of Tyson and also a heavyweight boxer; the first part of the proceedings concerns his upcoming fight. But the watching press fidget as they wait for the real meat to be served. A few questions are gently aimed at Hughie, more through politeness than any real intent, and then it’s on to the main event.
Tyson Fury has an adrenaline infused smile on his face as he speaks. A glint of madness in his eyes and the confrontational comportment of the habitually pursued. He murmurs something about being a gypsy and as such being used to ruining people’s gardens. It’s a throwaway remark that is greeted with a smattering of embarrassed laughter from the watching press. But there is also an unmistakable element of menace about his tone.
Like many people I have seen the headlines about Tyson Fury since he unexpectedly relieved longstanding heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko of his belts in Germany last year. Although he refutes the accusations of racism, homophobia and sexism that have blighted his reputation since that night, Fury’s words and demeanour do nothing to underpin his claims of innocence. An ill-fitting armour of belligerent indignation is worn by Fury and his brethren. They are angry: angry that Tyson is apparently gaining no respect from the press; angry that in their opinion travellers are universally viewed with contempt by the general public; angry with the questions that the press are not asking; angry that they have had to endure a five-hour drive from Manchester to get to this location when rightfully they should have been sitting in a chauffeur-driven Limousine. They are angry with the whole world when in fact Tyson Fury should be having the time of his life. Furious Tyson Fury is the heavyweight champion of the world, one of a very select breed of athlete who can trace his championship lineage back through the decades, through Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey all the way back to John L Sullivan in the late nineteenth century. Fury is the man who beat the man who beat the man. He deserves to be a little pleased with himself. For surely this considerable achievement is more than the boxer could ever have dreamed of?
Today Tyson Fury’s anger is specifically related to the fact that one of the belts he won, the IBF belt, has recently been unceremoniously and patently unfairly snatched away from him after refusing to fight a nominated opponent. He is enraged that his former property is now strapped to the svelte waist of housewives’ favourite Anthony Joshua, who won the title in a comedically one-sided performance the weekend before. Fury calls Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn a ‘bitch’ and a ‘pussy’. He tells the press that Hearn is a ‘daddy’s boy’ and promises to ‘give him a slap’ when they next meet. Veterans of the press conference genre will understand that such talk is usually best placed into the context for which it is intended: that of a vehicle by which to put buttocks on arena seats. Yet there is more than a touch of reality about Fury’s performance. It appears to me that there is little apparent pretence contained within his outburst. Fury really does seem to mean what he says. His fixed smile is more a grimace of self-righteous indignation. And when Fury grunts ‘next question!’ after yet another abusive tirade it is not an invitation but an admonishment.
Because of this there are few in the press section willing to speak. Or perhaps there are other reasons: the fact that a Daily Mail journalist named Oliver Holt was threatened with physical violence for publishing a taped interview with Tyson Fury. Or the fact that Tyson’s father has been to prison for gouging out a man’s eye. Or the fact that Tyson’s uncle, Peter Fury, manager and trainer of the heavyweight champion, is a convicted drugs baron who, according to The Daily Mirror, allegedly ran a lucrative amphetamine distribution business from behind bars. Whatever the case there seems to be plenty of reasons for the attendant press to keep the heads firmly beneath the parapet. Their silence is more than a little awkward. And when questions do occasionally appear they are uncontroversial, vapid affairs that draw further scorn from the Fury ranks.
Although it is fully a quarter of a century since I last spoke at a press conference I decide to throw my hat into the ring.
I ask Fury about his assertion that a rematch of the fight in Germany will result in the loss of his belts. Although we are all fully aware that boxers who fight in an opponent’s home territory traditionally run the very real risk of falling victim to outrageous mathematical errors in judges’ scoring, Tyson’s performance in Düsseldorf last July clearly did not elicit any such arithmetical aberrations. I am interested to hear in Tyson’s own words why things might be different this time round.
‘Listen,’ he says, ‘don’t try and tempt fate twice. One’s good enough and I’m happy with that. Let him come here.’
‘But you’ve not heard anything to suggest that that would happen?’ I ask.
‘I’ve not heard anything. But let him come here, the German prick…’ he replies in his thick Mancunian accent, immediately getting testy.
At this point Frank Warren interjects.
‘It’s very, very rare to get a win out there,’ say the promoter diplomatically. ‘Very few British fighters have done it. Why tempt fate?’
Although in terms of ring deportment, any comparisons with Muhammad Ali end before they begin, when it comes to talking there are obvious similarities between boxing’s greatest exponent and his most recent descendent. Despite the acrid mood that permeates all corners of the room I find myself chuckling at Tyson Fury’s circus act. He’s clearly intelligent. He’s certainly articulate. And he does have charisma. Surely with only a few cosmetic tweaks he would stand a very real chance of gaining the respect from the press that he claims to covet?
‘The only man who could beat Klitschko was me,’ proclaims Fury, embarking upon a long and entertaining rap. ‘I done it through unorthodox positions. That’s how you beat them men. How you beat robots is do unorthodox things. Touch the floor – punch them in the face. Spin around in a circle, kick your leg up and hit him a one-two. What I’ve got can’t be learned. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Him back there will tell you that!”
Heads in the room swivel to discover that Naseem Hamed has finally entered the building. It’s the first time I have seen him in the flesh since he turned pro back in 1992 and the difference in his physical appearance is astonishing. Back then he was a talented skinny kid from Sheffield with a cocky attitude. Several world titles, worldwide fame, a spell in prison and countless millions later he is unrecognisable as that person. I’ve seen pictures in the papers, of course, but nothing prepares me for the transformation.
Hamed is wearing a loose fitting white shirt and is simply ENORMOUS. The peevish part of me is reminded of that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer purposefully gains weight as a means of avoiding work and ends up wearing a blouse in the style of Demis Roussos. It is as if the new Naseem Hamed has swallowed the old. And it is no exaggeration to say that Hamed could easily campaign at heavyweight these days if he were to consider a comeback. But then who am I to talk? Who is anybody?
(I can’t help but think back to a day earlier, when I spoke on the telephone to the still recuperating Herol Graham and we mentioned his long-time friend. ‘Next time I see Naz,’ he had innocently announced. ‘I’m going to have a word with him about his weight…’)
‘Come on Naz,’ calls Fury. ‘Don’t be quiet at the back.’
‘It’s all right,’ grins Hamed. ‘You’re doing really well.’
‘Forget Anthony Joshua,’ laughs Fury, casting an eye over Hamed’s bulk. ‘I’ll give you a first defence.’
‘I’d come unstuck,’ says Hamed.
‘This ain’t the Prince show, this is the King show,’ replies Fury. ‘My son’s called Prince. I named him after you because you’re my favourite fighter, from England anyway…’
‘I used to watch you. Try and do the things you do but about ten stone heavier. It might look a bit more awkward but it’s effective still.’
The interchange provides welcome relief for everyone in the room. The toxic atmosphere begins to dissipate and shoulders noticeably relax. But then Tyson Fury’s father begins to speak.
‘Big’ John Fury is an ex-fighter himself. His Twitter feed contains the undeniably factual boast: ‘My bollocks produce heavyweight champions’. The facial resemblance he shares with his son is striking. Moreover, the vocal similarities are uncanny. You only have to listen to him speak for a few moments to understand the origins of Tyson Fury’s scattergun tirades.
‘He’s just toyed will all of ya,’ says Fury senior, in the sandpaper tones of an erstwhile Bernard Manning. ‘He’s got about as much respect for you lot as you have for him…
‘Looking at all off youse laughing at bullshit, I’m astounded. You’re supposed to be businessmen but you’re playing games like school kids. Get real.
‘I’ll tell you what, people, show a bit more respect. I’ve done time back in my life and I know real people. Not paper, plastic people. You’ll have to pull your socks up, all of you. All these interviews here are pointless because the paying public don’t want bullshit like what’s going on here. I was shocked when I come here today four hours in a car to watch this ping pong game. Ask some serious questions, show some serious respect and you’ll get some back.’
The elder Fury’s unfocused diatribe is endless and lacking in any punctuation. I once again find myself wondering why nobody from the press ranks is offering up any objections. Fury addresses the room in the manner of a headmaster reprimanding his assembly for spraying graffiti in the wrong colour paint.
‘I don’t think he is undervalued at all,’ I pipe up, trying to reason with him. ‘I think everyone here does respect him.’
‘No they don’t, mate,’ says Fury senior dismissively. ‘You’re having a laugh.’
‘I think you’re talking about the mainstream press…’
‘You’re having a laugh! You know, there was not one genuine question asked today.’
‘Well I certainly respect him,’ I add. ‘I think he’s a great fighter.’
‘Show it then!’ demands Fury. ‘Show the rest of the world. Cause I’m telling you now it’s a joke from where I’m sitting!’
Therein follows a five-minute diatribe designed to illustrate the injustice and indignities that are gratuitously heaped upon his son. Even if it were possible to compete with the volume of the microphone, there is no point at all in trying to reason with this man. He only hears what he wants to hear; and that predominantly appears to be the sound of his own voice.
‘I’m not fucking happy with that!’ grumbles the white-haired journo seated next to me in a voice not so loud as to carry.
I spend a fitful night mulling things over and decide to try to continue my discussion with ‘Big’ John Fury. I Tweet to him but get no response. Finally, I contact the press agent of his promoter Hennessey Sports, who gives me the number of Tyson Fury’s manager, Peter, he of that alleged indoor candy floss business.
I call Peter Fury and tell him that if John’s willing I’d like to come up to Manchester and sit down with him for a cup of tea. I tell him that I’d be interested in speaking further with his brother because I think John’s wrong and needs to be told so. Peter Fury is friendly and laughs a lot. He tells me that John’s opinions are not shared by the rest of the family. That John can sometimes get ‘a bit carried away’, and that the family’s relationship with the boxing press is generally a good one.
We talk about Tyson’s fight with Klitschko: I tell him that what impressed me most about his nephew’s performance was not how he threw his punches, but more the way he threw the feint. We talk about what it’s like living in the north and he laughs some more. And I tell him what a pity it is that Tyson Fury’s confrontational attitude yesterday ended up alienating people who are actually fans of boxing. My fear is that he runs the very real risk of making a sow’s arse out of a silk purse.
We talk for about a quarter of an hour and as always I’m struck by how friendly and welcoming the boxing fraternity can often be, even to strangers. Peter Fury’s attitude towards me compared to what I experienced yesterday are as chalk is to cheese. As bacon is to eggs. How could the man I have just spoken to be in any way related to the angry apparition that confronted the press yesterday?
By now you should not be remotely surprised to learn that one fine evening back in 1980 I somehow conspired to find myself perched on a stool in front of a small television set in my local pub watching a delayed ITV transmission of Muhammad Ali’s foolhardy attempt to win a fourth world title. Of course, it did not matter to me at the time that I had already learned the result of the fight in the newspapers and, were it not for the fact that I, like too many others, was what can only be described as bewitched by Ali’s enormous charisma, it should have been no particular revelation to discover that The Greatest turned out to be just as mortal as the rest of us. Apparently, he was human after all: as capable of bleeding, of bruising, and of succumbing to the debilitating effects of Father Time as the man who had served me the beer that I was having great difficulty swallowing.
Naturally, the benefit of hindsight allows me to contemplate the dismemberment of the Ali legend with a sense of reluctant and undeserved smugness. One does not have to be a boxing expert in order to be able to look back at the circumstances surrounding this invidious spectacle and conclude that Ali had no possible chance of winning the fight. He was thirty-eight-years-of-age by then and for the past couple of years newspaper picture editors had been taking an almost puerile delight in regularly demonstrating to their readers that the body beautiful was not what it used to be. Like those pictures of Elvis taken in the months leading up to his death, in which the bloated singer, with vacant George A Romero stare, slouches onto stage wrapped in sequins and rolls of blubber, photographs of the new – enhanced – Ali were appearing in the tabloids on an almost weekly basis. There was New Ali sitting at the ring apron of some title fight or other, accompanied by a dwindling entourage and a stomach that could have belonged to a pregnant woman. There was New Ali at the dinner table, filling his cheeks with food in the way that Satchmo would once fill his own with air. It was clear that the Ali we were all familiar with was no more; the person who was once described as the most beautiful man in the world had mutated into something else. Ali had become Fat Ali.
No longer forced to endure the endless torture of early morning runs, gym callisthenics and constant sparring sessions, in two years out of the ring Ali had developed rather too much of a liking for the burgers that he had taken to endorsing on television. In horticultural terms, he had gone to seed. However, unlike his former victim George Foreman, whose unexpectedly successful ring comeback in the late-eighties was, if we are to believe the boxer, fuelled by a mountain of Big Macs, it was apparent that Ali’s extra weight would provide no additional advantages when the lure of the ring – as it inevitably would – became too much for his ego to bear.
This is not to say that Ali did not do a good job in extending his own rather extravagant interpretation of reality. Indeed, even the most qualified of observers – Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee amongst them – found themselves rubbing their eyes in wonderment when he began training for his doomed attempt to wrench the heavyweight title from his accomplished successor Larry Holmes. As the extra poundage was sweated away and the Fat Ali persona was exposed as an apparent impostor, fans and critics alike found themselves drawn inexorably into the dream. The rebirth of Ali may have been achieved, as we were to learn later, with the help of prescribed diet pills that left him dangerously dehydrated, not to mention the odd flask or two of black hair dye, but it seemed at the time as if the Master Conjuror had somehow managed to transform himself back into the beautiful, dazzling young athlete whose streamlined features had made his the most recognisable face on planet earth. By the time that he was ready to climb back into the ring and receive the hiding of a lifetime, Ali’s weight was exactly as it had been when he had first fought Sonny Liston back in 1964. More than the Rope-a-Dope in Zaire, more than the Ali Shuffle or the ‘Butterfly’ punch that put down Liston in their second fight, this astonishing re-attainment of youth was the fighter’s greatest feat of illusion.
Personally, I had no doubts at the time as to who would win the fight: even though I was not naïve enough to consider broadcasting my ill-conceived loyalties to the illusion, deep down I was sure that Ali would prevail. There was no logical reasoning behind this conclusion; it was not as though one could run an eye down the statistics for the fight and pinpoint any particular flaw in Holmes’ not inconsiderable armoury. Although he was by no means The Greatest, Holmes was set to become one of history’s more distinguished heavyweight champions. At thirty-years-of-age he was in his prime and, were it not for the fact that it was his misfortune to have been appointed the impossible task of filling the tasselled boots of the man who had once employed him as a sparring partner, Holmes would certainly have become one of the premier stars of the eighties. Yet somehow it seemed to me that Ali would find a way to beat his protégé; it might take a miracle, but then Ali always seemed to have first refusal whenever anybody up there was doling out miracles.
Almost two decades on from that dreadful evening there are several memories that stubbornly refuse to fade. For any trivia fans out there I can inform you that the beer I was endeavouring to drink as the massacre ensued cost the princely sum of thirty-seven new pence a pint. Similarly, I can divulge that a packet of twenty cigarettes was available at the bar for under 50p. Even more trainspotterrishly, I can reveal that the pub’s solitary arcade machine was one of those table-top versions of Galaxians, featuring the usual collection of badly rendered sprites descending through a beer-clouded space and accompanied by an assortment of pings, whistles, fizzes and pops, at a cost to your pocket of ten new pence a game. If you are wondering why I appear determined to waddle in this paddling pool of consumerist nostalgia I need merely point out that Muhammad Ali, in payment for what was, admittedly, to be the worst night of his life, was collecting a fee of $8 million. In modern day terms Ali’s purse for the fight was in excess of $30 million, a truly staggering amount of money for a portly middle-aged ex-champ whose talents had been in steady decline since the early seventies. Another reminder, for those of you out there who weren’t around when Ali was busy putting us all under his spell, of just how enormous a name his was. Ali was the superstars’ superstar: bigger, bolder, brasher, louder, prettier and better paid than any athlete or entertainer in history.
The evening was also memorable in that it was the first occasion I can recall someone using the word ‘fuck’ during a televised prime time sporting event. At the beginning of round ten, as Muhammad Ali slumps into his stool and prepares to drag his heaving body back into the centre of the ring to be used as target practise by a saddened and visibly embarrassed Larry Holmes, the diminutive figure of Angelo Dundee could clearly be heard telling Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown ‘Fuck you! No! I’m stopping it!’ as the other man implores Ali to resume participation in the beating that is placing the boxer’s life in considerable jeopardy. It was also the first (and only) time that I can recall a television boxing commentator actually pleading for a fighter to hit the canvas: “Come on Ali… Either throw a punch or go down! He really can’t linger like this… It’s quite pathetic!” cried the weary voice of Reg Gutteridge who, like the rest of us, was clearly not enjoying the spectacle of Ali’s public execution.
Boxing completists will already be aware that the only stoppage defeat of Ali’s long career was not, in fact, his last fight. The dubious honour of being the last man to defeat the Greatest belongs to Canada’s Trevor Berbick, Commonwealth Champion at the time but himself a future holder of the WBC heavyweight title (Indeed, as well as Larry Holmes, it is Berbick who provides a precarious link between the Ali era and the Mike Tyson era, being in the opposite corner on that night in 1987 in which Tyson became boxing’s youngest ever heavyweight champion). In real terms, however, the Holmes fight was the last hurrah. It was the final full stop at the end of the last sentence of the closing Chapter of a story that had managed to both illuminate and transcend boxing.
At the risk of appearing overly sentimental, those images of Ali’s public pain and humiliation were enough to send me scurrying into the toilets with tears welling up in my eyes. I was a skinny eighteen-year-old by then and to this day I cannot find any rational justification for my reaction. Although it was true that Ali had been around in both the background and foreground of much of my life, it has to be said that he was well down on the list of what I considered important at the time. He wasn’t female, he didn’t come in a glass and there were certainly no portraits of Queen Elizabeth II printed about his torso. However, in common with countless people in every corner of the globe, whatever special quality or combination of special qualities it was that Ali possessed was somehow able to touch some deeper part of me; a part of me which the usual mixture of instinct and social conditioning ensured was usually happily hidden away.
Some twenty years after the horrors of Ali’s final curtain call, the fighter still has a kind of hold over me that I cannot really explain. I am not alone in this, of course: even the most cynical and world-weary of those who follow, write about or indulge in the sport of boxing tend to come over all misty-eyed whenever Ali’s name happens to crop up in conversation. Yet whilst it is certain that Ali as a twentieth century icon seems to exemplify the more positive and heroic aspects of boxing, there have been many fighters – some of whom I have known personally – who have completely failed to move me in circumstances which should have had even the most stony-faced of us reaching for the Kleenex.
Yet Ali was not without his flaws. The occasional unforgivable cruelty that he bestowed upon his ring opponents is often buried away in the hyperbole surrounding his battles with the US government and his human rights campaigning. Moreover, not only did Ali sometimes appear to take pleasure in humiliating and, one might even argue, actually physically torturing opponents who were patently inferior athletes (his contests against Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell are particularly brutal examples of this spiteful and malicious aspect of Ali’s personality) but the personal insults that he meted out to rival Joe Frazier were apparently sufficient to reduce the great heavyweight champion’s children to tears.
Ali’s ambiguous treatment of women also left much to be desired: during his infamous 1974 appearance on the BBC’s Parkinson show, for example, the newly-recrowned heavyweight champion arranged for a group of Muslim women to sit out in the audience as an example of how the female form should be, in his words, ‘properly dressed’. Clad in simple cotton gowns designed to hide the contours of the figure, and wearing head scarves that left only the hands and face exposed, these women were the focus for a startlingly incoherent lecture on Muslim ideology by a frenzied Muhammad Ali.
Not, one might say, entirely unexpected behaviour from a man who had attached himself so securely to the Moslem movement that he had been prepared to make the ultimate statement of reinvention and actually change his name. However, his actions take on an entirely different complexion when we realise that Ali, by then married to Belinda Boyd (having divorced his first wife, Sonji Roi, when she refused to discard her Western clothing in favour of her husband’s preferred attire) was involved at the time in an extra-marital affair with the decidedly un-Muslimesque Veronica Porche (Amazingly, whilst in the Philippines in 1975 for his third fight with Joe Frazier, Ali would actually introduce Veronica to President Ferdinand Marcos as his wife). Although Miss Porch would go on to become Ali’s third wife, such extra-curricular canoodlings were in direct contravention of the guidelines set down by the Nation of Islam.
The breaking of rules, however, was a distinctive and important feature of the Muhammad Ali mystique. After all, are we not talking about the man who literally rewrote the boxing rulebook? Was Ali not the fighter who eschewed boxing’s conventions and chose to dance around the ring with arms dangling and chin exposed rather than adopt the forward guard demanded by tradition? Similarly, was he not the self-styled poet whose charm and intelligence reduced us all to tears of laughter whilst simultaneously being classified ‘not up to current standards’ by the US draft board, after an aptitude test in 1966 which revealed Ali’s IQ to be only 78.
It is for reasons such as these that we, perhaps, should not be surprised if Ali’s interpretation of the doctrine of Elijah Muhammad was occasionally subject to a little surreptitious adjustment. Indeed, it would appear that Ali was actively encouraged to do so. The media coverage that was ensured by his involvement in the Muslim movement was apparently sufficient to enable its leaders to turn a blind eye to even the most fundamental of Ali’s behavioural transgressions. The Muslim decree which expressly forbids one man to commit violence on another could, it appears, be conveniently overlooked when you had Ali as a frontman.
Yet despite everything I – we – cannot stop loving him. I – we cannot help but shield our eyes in the radiant glow of the man’s achievements. Ali may have been the man who proclaimed that the white man was the ‘Devil’ whilst surrounding himself with a coterie of pale-faced acolytes; he may also have been the pacifist who was prepared to sacrifice both career and personal liberty for a principle whilst continuing to earn a living in the most brutal and deadly of occupations; he may have been the womaniser who refused to view his women as equals; and he may have been the spokesman of a generation whose words were all too often not his own, but somehow none of these things seem to matter.
Except, of course, that they do.
The luxury of time has permitted me to conclude that in order to enjoy the vicarious friendship of Muhammad Ali you have to be prepared to compromise; you have to be able to turn away from his more baser indiscretions. In the end, you must to come to realise that even one such as he, so perfect in so many respects, was not, in fact, perfect.
It’s a similar predicament that one faces when one finds oneself in a situation in which a friend or work colleague suddenly comes out with a racist or sexist statement that appears totally at odds with the person you had imagined them to be. On such occasions you have to very quickly decide how you are going to react. There are, I believe, two basic alternatives: you can either do the right thing and tell the other person that you find their comments offensive and would they mind very much not repeating them again. Or you can do the more cowardly thing and pretend that you haven’t heard them call a black man a nigger or smile uncomfortably and attempt to change the subject. In my case – if I am honest – I can tell you that on those instances in which I have found myself in such a circumstance I have been known to offer both reactions – I have been both righteous and a coward. Yet not forgetting more obvious considerations such as how much bigger and how much stronger the offending person is than you, the deciding factor in such an dilemma is usually not solely determined by whatever value you place on your moral being, it is more to do with how much you are prepared to put up with in order to remain in the company of the offending person.
In the case of Muhammad Ali I am willing and able to put up with everything that he is prepared to throw at me. If I was, for example, to pick up a newspaper tomorrow morning and discover that Ali is a mass murderer with a propensity for fucking Teddy bears I doubt that the news would in any way dim my blind, dumb admiration for the man. He’s inside me, I’m afraid. When I talk about him and I talk about his deeds, I’m talking about that little part of me I mentioned earlier. The one that is a subconscious contributor to Ali’s many achievements. The little piece that is lodged under my flesh like shrapnel. And however much it itches and threatens to come to the surface, I know that it will never leave me.
This was is excerpt from my 1999 book Rope Burns, published by Headline