8

Tyson Fury – Making a sow’s arse

 

(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.)

Fury

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…’

‘Big respect…’

‘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?

 

 

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4

Muhammad Ali – Hero And Villain

muhammad_li

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

1

The Comeback — Chapter 06

Vincent Mortego’s urgent appointment was waiting for him in the basement of the Papua and New Guinean embassy near London Bridge. Robert Angelis was wearing the same suit that he had on fourteen hours earlier when little Clyde had initiated this meeting. He looked tired and stressed but his eyes were alert with fear.

Vincent’s arrival was inauspicious. After leaving Simon Clarke he had driven to his Hackney home and quickly changed into a tracksuit. It had taken him under an hour to leisurely jog the three-and a-half miles to his office. Vincent liked to run whenever he could. He recognised the importance of a fit body and a fit mind.

‘Mr. Angelis,’ he said, casually strolling into the room holding a bunch of keys and what looked like a small plastic sandwich box. ‘A Greek name, yes?’

Robert Angelis was sitting in the only chair of the basement of Vincent’s offices. Some years earlier it had been converted into a gym so that Vincent could work out whenever he felt like it. ‘Yes… that’s right,’ said Robert quietly, almost embarrassed.

The gym was sparse: there were a few weights lying around on the floor; there was a running machine in one corner where a locked metal storage cupboard stood beside it. In the middle of the chamber was a large massage table which was unremarkable except for the leather straps that hung loosely from each corner. There were no windows in the room, which had also been soundproofed.

‘Catch!’ said Vincent, throwing the plastic sandwich box towards Robert. ‘Excellent! Very good reflexes!’

Standing behind Robert was Clyde Grainger. Clyde was a former bantamweight boxer with the build and stature of a jockey. He had close cropped blonde hair and brown eyes like a squirrel. He often accompanied Vincent and always wore a neatly-pressed suit. Most people who met him assumed that he was Vincent’s second-in-command, although the title had never been made official. He let out a high-pitched cackle which made Robert Angelis flinch slightly.

‘Calm down Mr. Angelis,’ said Vincent. ‘You mustn’t let Clyde spook you so easily. I can assure you his bite’s far worse than his bark.’

‘Look…’ Robert began to speak but his voice trailed off.

‘Do you know who I am?’ asked Vincent.

There was a pause. Robert Angelis shook his head.

‘I can’t say I’m surprised. Although I’m sure we have a mutual acquaintance.’

Robert fidgeted in his chair and felt pain in his ribs. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had been leaving the Embassy Club in Mayfair when Clyde had emerged from the shadows holding his favourite weapon of choice. Most people used a pestle for grinding herbs and spices but Clyde found that it fit perfectly into his jacket pocket and could quickly disable even the largest person if employed correctly.

‘I guess I’m what you might call an advisor,’ continued Vincent. ‘I help people… I guide people… And I sort out problems from time to time.’

‘What’s this got to do with me?’ Robert finally found his voice. He sounded a little like a school prefect.

Vincent smiled. His pure white teeth were immaculate. He could easily have passed for a movie star. ‘I have quite a range of clients… Although the majority are athletes. One of my clients, for example, is at West Ham – young but an excellent prospect… Another is rather a big name at Chelsea Football Club, scores a lot of goals… I also have another client who is a very famous central defender who plies his trade with Arsenal. He has more than fifty England caps actually.’

Vincent watched as Robert’s face suddenly reddened.

‘Oh… I see that you might have an idea who I’m talking about,’ said Vincent.

‘Look…’ Robert’s voice trailed off a second time.

‘Look at what?’ asked Vincent sharply.

Robert shuffled about in his chair and groaned a little. He clutched his ribs. ‘Look… I was having a quiet night out with some friends and this man… This man bloody attacked me…’ Robert turned his head in the direction of Clyde. ‘It’s a damned outrage!’

Vincent raised a single eyebrow. ‘Oxbridge?’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Oxbridge? Your accent is public school. Are you Oxbridge educated?’

‘Er… No. Exeter actually. What’s that got…’

‘Interesting… Not quite top of the heap. Second division…’

Robert was still holding the plastic container. He felt its weight in his hands. It seemed to be empty. Although when he looked at it he could just about make out something inside wrapped in tissue paper.

‘My client has a problem. Do you think you might know what it is Mr. Angelis?’

Robert did not reply.

‘Nothing to say? Let me see if I can help you remember.’

‘Look… It’s all a big mistake…’

‘There’s that word again. Look at what?’

‘It’s all an error. It’s silly… We can sort it out. There’s no need for…’

Vincent moved closer to Robert. He leaned over towards him so that the other man was able to smell his breath. ‘I know that we can sort it out. I’m completely sure of that,’ he said. ‘Now take your clothes off.’

The room fell silent. Robert’s mouth gaped open. ‘I’m sorry?’ he said.

‘You heard me correctly. I said take your clothes off.’

Robert set the plastic box on to his lap and gripped the sides of the chair with both hands, unwilling to let go. Vincent shook his head reproachfully. ‘Not playing ball, eh?’ he said. ‘Clyde, would you mind popping out and fetching Tina? I assume that you have the address?’

Robert let out a gasp and now attempted to climb to his feet but was roughly pushed back into position by Clyde standing behind him.

‘No problem, Mister Mortego,’ said Clyde in his market trader accent.

‘Let’s see if Tina minds taking her clothes off,’ said Vincent.

‘Leave her out of this!’ said Robert, his bottom lip quivering.

‘Then please take your clothes off.’

Robert Angelis slowly got to his feet and reluctantly removed his jacket, looking wide-eyed at Vincent as he did so. It dropped to the cold wooden floor. He took off his tie and then his shirt. He undid the laces of his shoes and stepped out of them. Finally he removed his trousers, also letting them fall to the floor.

‘The underwear if you don’t mind,’ said Vincent.

Robert turned to look at Clyde for a moment and then did as instructed. He stood naked before the two men, his body tanned and slim, except for a slight roll of blubber around his stomach. Under his right arm was an angry bruise the size of a grapefruit. Clyde’s smile mocked him.

‘You see, the thing is,’ said Vincent, ‘as an educated man I’m sure you will understand that there is no better way of establishing superiority over another person than the enforced removal of clothing…’

Vincent slowly circled Robert, inspecting every part of his body. ‘…You literally feel naked, don’t you?’

Robert trembled and nodded his head submissively.

‘It also looks like you’ve shit yourself,’ added Vincent, sorting through the bunch of keys and strolling over to the metal cupboard.

‘Some time ago my client came to me with a problem.’ continued Vincent. ‘Namely £175,000 missing from his bank account. He asked if I could help and naturally I told him I could. It cost me a little money I can tell you but I was able to employ the services of a forensic accountant. You do know what a forensic accountant is don’t you Mr. Angelis?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. Being an accountant yourself I assumed that you would. Anyway, it didn’t take long for him to discover a breadcrumb trail and guess where it led?’

‘Look…’

‘There’s that fucking word again…. Clyde?’

‘Yes Mr. Montego.’

‘I’m getting irritated. Strike Mr. Angelis if he says it again. Hard.’

‘Will do, Mr. Montego.’

‘If I can continue: The point is, Mr. Angelis, is that my client wants his money back. Are you in a position to return it. Yes or no?’

‘I… I… Didn’t…’

‘Yes or fucking no?’

There was a pause then: ‘Yes.’

‘Excellent. Very pleased to hear it.’

‘Can you do this by the end of tomorrow?’

‘It’s not going to be…’

‘Yes or no?’

‘Yes… I think… Yes.’

‘Excellent. There’s also the matter of my commission. I’m going to be charging you my usual 15%. In addition to this my client is entitled to the interest that he has lost as a result of your activities. I’ve taken the liberty of rounding off the figure to 200K. Do you have a problem with this?’

Robert Angelis’s face grew pale. A vein throbbed in his forehead. ‘That’s not fucking fair,’ he finally managed to say.

Once again Vincent Mortego grinned. ‘It’s not is it? But what can you do?’

Robert was silent once more.

‘Because I don’t need to say that if you do not comply with my request Clyde here will be very unhappy. And he’s know for his temper. There’s no telling what he might do to you… Or Tina.’

‘You fucking bastard.’

‘Not so Mr. Angelis. Both my parents are alive and flourishing thank you very much. The question remains, however, is what is to be done with you?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What I mean is that it’s obviously not going to be enough for you just to return the money that you stole from my client. You must also be taught a lesson.’

‘I don’t understand…’

‘I think you do, Mr. Angelis. As a matter of fact only recently I was having a similar sort of conversation with another acquaintance of mine. He wasn’t quite so educated as your good self. Take a look inside the box I gave to you earlier.’

Robert looked confused. The box was now at his feet. He picked it up and felt its weight once more.

‘Open it.’

Robert Angelis gasped and dropped the box. Its contents rolled on to the floor. ‘My God!’ he exclaimed.

‘I recall we having a philosophical debate,’ said Vincent. ‘We were talking about what made our species so successful, so efficient. We thought about the wheel… We thought about fire…

‘In the end we decided that it was opposing thumbs that achieved this. Wouldn’t you agree?’

Robert said nothing and nodded his head sadly.

‘Needless to say, the acquaintance in question is fifty per cent as efficient as he once was. Or fifty per cent less efficient, depending on how you look at it…’

‘Look… I don’t…’

There was a flash of movement from behind him. Robert collapsed to the floor in agony clutching his ribs. Vincent waited a few moments before speaking again.

‘I told you to stop saying that fucking word,’ he said, his voice for the first time betraying anger. ‘Now fucking get up and lie face down on that thing.’ Vincent was pointing at the massage table.

‘Do it fucking now!

Robert slowly got to his feet. He was trembling as he climbed on to the massage table. He whimpered a little as he discovered what the leather straps were for. ‘You look ludicrous with your hairy white arse sticking up the air,’ laughed Vincent. ‘Shame I don’t have a camera.’

Robert was now bound firmly to the massage table. The leather straps tight around his wrists and ankles, cutting off the blood supply.

‘You mentioned earlier that you were of Greek origin.’

Robert did not respond.

‘Speak man! Jesus Christ! Fucking speak!’

‘Not… Not really – I’m pretty sure my grandfather was half Greek!’ Robert spoke urgently, his voice muffled.

‘Nevertheless an educated man such as yourself may have heard of falanga.’

‘What?’

‘Falanga. Surely you must be familiar with the word? Let me elaborate: It’s a form of punishment that was used by the Greek Junta during the sixties.’

Vincent fished around in the cupboard and pulled out a stiff wooden walking stick. He walked around to the front of the massage table so that Richard was able to see it clearly.

‘They were a brutal bunch the Greeks. Apparently the technique involved striking the soles of the feet with a stick or a whip… Or a cane.’

Richard made a sound like he was in pain and yelled out something unintelligible.

Vincent continued: ‘From what I’ve read falanga is particularly painful in view of the fact that the feet contain hundreds, perhaps thousands of nerve endings. If that isn’t bad enough the healing process can be very protracted.’

‘Please… I didn’t know…’

‘…Who you were dealing with. Well now you do. I hope you’re a good liar Mr. Angelsis. Because your going to have to explain to Tina – and your business colleagues – why you’ve suddenly developed a limp.’

‘Please…’

Vincent moved behind Robert Angelis. He swished the cane through the air. Robert began to shake violently, as if the temperature in the building had suddenly dropped below zero.

‘Left or right, Mr. Angelis?’

‘Huh?’

‘Left or right? Make your choice or I’ll do both.’

Robert began to sob.

‘Left or right? Last chance.’

‘Left,’ said Robert, his voice weak with terror.

There was a loud swish in the room. This was immediately followed by a scream of agony that would have been heard in the next street were it not for the soundproofing.

Vincent moved around to Richard’s front once more. He lowered himself on to his haunches so that his head was at the same height as the crying man’s.

‘Don’t fuck with me, Mr. Angelis,’ he said calmly. ‘Don’t fuck with me. Because next time I won’t be whipping your feet – I’ll be cutting them off. Do I make myself clear?’

In between his sobs, Robert managed to nod his head. ‘Yes! Yes!’ he cried.

‘I want that money back in my client’s bank account by close of play tomorrow. To repeat: that’s 200K in total. Understand?’

Robert seemed not to hear him.

‘Understand!’

‘Yes… Yes…’

‘And if it’s not there Clyde here will come looking for you and your lovely wife. And then things will get really messy. I can promise you that.’

Vincent scooped up the severed thumb and put it back in its container. Then he moved back over to the cupboard to return the cane. He locked it up and put the bundle of keys in his pocket.

‘One more thing, Mr. Angelis. There’s always one more thing, isn’t there? Clyde over there has had a very busy time because of you. He needs some form of compensation for his trouble. Isn’t that right Clyde?’

‘Yes Mr. Montego.’

‘As I said earlier, I really do hope that you’re a good liar Mr. Angelis. Because as well as that limp of yours, you’re going to have to explain to Tina why your arse is bleeding to fuck. I have every confidence that you can do it. Tell her it’s your haemorrhoids. ‘

Vincent moved to the exit of the gym. From the corner of his eye he could see that the diminutive figure of Clyde had already moved behind Robert Angelis and was unzipping his flies. In a few moments the walls of the gym would reverberate with the sound of more screams.

3

The Comeback — Chapter 05

Chapter 05
Vincent Mortego parked his silver Porsche in the most prominent position that he could find and waited for the crowds to arrive. They drifted in from the shadows of the large metallic waste bins and from the dimly lit stairwells, tiny pinpricks of light that twinkled like stars in the black night.
Vincent smiled to himself as he exited the car and locked the door, his fingers weighed heavy with gold. ‘Good evening gentlemen,’ he said confidently. ‘And how much is it going to cost me for you good people to look after this vehicle?’
There was a delay as the figures in the shadows assimilated the vision before them. And then one of them moved forward and spoke: ‘Fifty, Mr. Mortego.’
Vincent smiled almost indulgently and beckoned to the voice: ‘Come forward so I can see you,’ he said quietly.
A large black youth moved into the light. He was probably about eighteen and wearing a spotted bandana. Partially obscured in his hand was a lit reefer.
‘It’s Lyndon, isn’t it?’ said Vincent. ‘Lyndon Carter.’
‘That’s right Mr. Mortego.’
Vincent knew everybody in the estate. And everybody knew him. ‘How’s your mother?’ he asked.
‘She’s all right.’
‘Is she getting over the operation?’
‘Yeah… She’s all right.’
‘I’m very pleased to hear it. Give her my regards won’t you?’
‘Yeah… I’ll do that.’
As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness Vincent made a few calculations. He counted fifteen figures surrounding the car. He felt no danger but that wasn’t the point. He smiled as one by one the windows in the estate began to light up, interested to see what was happening below, expecting violence. This was the point: Vincent wanted everyone to know he had arrived.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you twenty-five now and another thirty when I’ve finished my visit. How does that arrangement suit you?’
‘That’s sweet, Mr. Mortego… Thanks’
‘Excellent. It’s a pleasure doing business with you gentlemen.’
Vincent reached into his Armani jacket and pulled out his wallet. He peeled off five £5 notes and handed them over. Then he moved to the back of the car and opened the boot. ‘Give us a hand with these, boys,’ he called.
Soon Vincent was climbing the stairs to number 25 Bentham Court, the modest Islington council flat that was home to the boxer Simon Clarke. Behind him strung out like servants attending to royalty Lyndon Carter and his gang struggled with their packages.
With Vincent Mortego it was difficult to disentangle the lies from the truth. Like oil on water the lies usually floated to the top. Most people knew that he was a poor North London boy but his accent seemed to suggest that he came from finer stock. Cursory research would reveal that Mortego had enjoyed no less than three separate spells at Her Majesty’s pleasure and yet Vincent claimed an honours degree in marketing from Harvard, as well as the ability to speak four different languages. It did not matter that nobody had ever been present to hear him demonstrate his polyglottism.
Vincent was a handsome thirty-two with refined coffee coloured features and an elegantly cut goatee. He wore only the best clothes and was seen with only the best people. He had appeared almost from nowhere five years ago when employed as the press agent for leading British boxing promoter Vinny Reilly. In that role he had perplexed and confounded the sporting press with his combination of style, grandiloquence and unrelenting charm.
In under a year Mortego had outgrown his boss and started up his own PR agency. Quickly added to his books was the standard combination of Page Three girls, disgruntled footballers, sub-standard/faded pop stars and even the odd politician. He liked to tell people that he was the black Max Clifford.
What Vincent didn’t have on his books, however, was a boxer. And that was why he was currently ringing the doorbell of number 25.
‘Good evening Mary,’ said Vincent to the large West African woman who answered the door. ‘Is Simon in?’
Mary Clarke was a god-fearing woman for whom her door was always open. She never saw the bad in anybody. ‘Why, it’s Mr. Mortego. Don’t you just look a vision? How have you been keeping?’ she exclaimed. ‘Come in – Simon’s watchin’ the telly.’
‘Oh please,’ smiled Vincent. ‘It’s Vince.’
The Clarke’s council flat was modest and lived in. The furniture well worn but clean and homely. The only thing that set it apart from any of the hundreds of similar flats in the council estate was the silverware. Everywhere you looked there were cups and trophies, testament to Mrs. Clarke’s youngest son’s extraordinary aptitude for controlled violence. The pair moved into the kitchen.
‘Simon – you’ve got a visitor,’ called Mary, through a serving hatch.
It took a few moments for Simon to appear. He seemed irritated to be dragged away from Eastenders. ‘Mr Mortego,’ he exclaimed in surprise.
‘I’ve told you before… It’s Vince… please,’ said Vincent, holding out his hand and shaking Simon’s firmly, his dark eyes exploring the younger man’s.
‘What can I do for you?’ said Simon awkwardly.
‘It’s just a courtesy visit,’ said Vincent. ‘I’ve brought a few things for your mother.’
Vincent gestured towards the front door, where Lyndon Carter and his cronies had deposited their boxes. ‘Please,’ he said.
Simon regarded the boxes warily. ‘What’s this about?’ he asked.
‘Just some gifts,’ said Vincent.
Simon’s mother had a broad smile on her face as she tore open the boxes. ‘Look Simon!,’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s a fur coat! Oh my, it’s beautiful!’ she held the coat against her cheek, luxuriating in its warmth and softness.
Vincent regarded her with genuine happiness in his eyes.
‘Oh my word,’ continued Mrs Clarke. ‘These are beautiful flowers!’
Christmas in the Clarke household continued as a new hat was revealed that was perfect for Sunday morning service, chocolates, a new Walkman and an expensive looking set of ring boots for Simon. There was no present for Mr. Clarke senior. He had flown the coop when Simon was only two months old.
Simon stood impassively in the kitchen, his arms crossed. ‘I’m sorry Mr. Mortego but we can’t accept these,’ he said.
Vincent frowned. He looked hurt. ‘Why ever not?’ he said.
Simon shrugged, looking uncomfortable. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘It just don’t seem right.’
A smile appeared on Vincent’s handsome face. ‘That’s very impressive and not entirely unexpected,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ Simon looked confused.
‘I mean it says a lot about the kind of man you are,’ explained Vincent. ‘It shows that you have intelligence and loyalty and principles. These are qualities that are hard to find nowadays.’
Simon seemed to relax a little.
Vincent continued: ‘Please don’t refuse my gifts. They’re for your mother really and I think she would be very disappointed.’
‘I think I know my own mother better than you do!’ snapped Simon.
‘Of course! Of course!’ said Vincent defensively. ‘Naturally I have no wish to offend you with my last comment. These gifts are merely a token of my appreciation of your tremendous talents. Please take them.’
Mrs Clarke turned to her boy. ‘Don’t offend the gentleman, Simon,’ she said gently. ‘Don’t insult his generosity.’
Simon thought for a moment and the tension seemed to drain from his shoulders. ‘OK… OK…’ he said. And then: ‘Thanks…’
‘You’ve got a fight coming up soon?’ said Vincent, changing the subject.
‘That’s right… Mike Chulumbe.’
‘Chulumbe?’ said Vincent frowning. ‘Surely at this stage in your career you’re ready for a sterner test of your abilities?’
Simon looked angry again. ‘Mr. Andretti’s in charge of who I fight.’
‘Of course he is. And you won’t find a better matchmaker in the whole of the country.’
‘That’s right,’ said Simon, sounding a little unsure of himself.
‘It’s just that…’
‘What?’
Vincent looked around at the flat. ‘It’s just that someone with your talents deserves to be fighting bigger names… And earning bigger purses.’
‘What are you trying to say Mr Mortego?’
‘Vince.’
‘Vince.’
‘I’m not trying to say anything, Simon. I’m merely applauding the decisions you have made. I believe that in Mr. Dino Andretti you have a manager who will always look after the best interests of his fighters. I mean… Look at what he’s doing for Oliver Long.’
Now Simon looked confused again. ‘What do you mean by that?’ he said.
Vincent Mortego pulled back his shoulders and prepared himself for a longer speech. ‘Haven’t you heard,’ he said. ‘Why only this morning Mr. Andretti flew off to Milan with Oliver…’
‘We all know that…’
‘…And I think it’s incredibly commendable that Mr. Andretti is prepared to risk his licence so that his fighter does not forfeit his purse.’
Simon once more looked confused.
‘A little bird tells me that Dino’s doing the old pro’s trick of concealing Oliver’s cut so that the fight can proceed. I think it’s a fantastic thing that he would do that.’
‘Oh… That,’ said Simon, pretending to be party to the subterfuge.
‘One can only hope that everything goes according to plan,’ said Vincent.
‘Huh?’
‘That is to say: Mr. Andretti has to consider himself fortunate that he has a fighter who is able to prevail with only one eye. Oliver Stone is, of course, a genius. One of the most talented fighters to have come out of this country in twenty years. Present company excluded, of course. ‘
The room fell silent as Simon took in Vincent’s words. And then the other man ostentatiously pulled back his sleeve to reveal a gleaming watch that seemed to have been cast from a solid block of gold: ‘Anyway, it’s been a pleasure to spend time with you, Simon. And you too Mary. I shall have to leave you now. I unfortunately have an urgent appointment that I can’t afford to miss. Please accept these gifts with my sincere affection. I just want you to know that you have a friend. Heaven knows we could all do with a friend in these troubled times.’
Vincent reached into a side pocket and pulled out an embossed business card. He handed it to Simon. ‘Here’s my number,’ he said. ‘Call me any time you like. Anything I can do to help, you’re always welcome.’
Vincent left the flat and headed back to his car. Lyndon and his group were sitting on the concrete pavement waiting for him. Vincent smiled at them as he opened the door. ‘Many thanks for your assistance, boys,’ he said. ‘It’s greatly appreciated. ‘
There was a pause and then Lyndon spoke: ‘What about our thirty quid?’ he asked.
Vincent eased himself into the driver’s seat and his smile broadened. ‘Ah…’ he said. ‘It pains me to have to do this but I’m sorry to say that you are about to be the recipients of one of life’s hardest lessons…’
‘What?’ Lyndon grunted.
‘It’s all about market forces,’ explained Vincent. ‘You see, the mistake you made was to accept my offer of half the funds up front and half the funds upon receipt…’
‘Don’t know what you’re talking’ about…’
‘I’m sure you don’t Lyndon. Let me explain: The next time that you find yourself in a similar position be sure to demand that you receive all monies in advance. Because I’m now sitting in my car and you no longer have any control over what I do next. And what I’m doing next is starting up my engine and driving away. I’ll see you later boys. And do be sure to remember me to your mother, Lyndon.’

0

Photos of boxer Frank Buglioni

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14

Five Kings: The majesty of Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Holmes and Norton

My first article on boxing since I retired from writing about the sport in 1998. It’s a tribute of sorts to the great fighter Kenny Norton, who died earlier this month. I’ve written it for http://www.britboxmag.co.uk. It’s a fairly new magazine that you really should take a look at if you’re a boxing fan. It has a very nice design and excellent articles. I hope they won’t mind me putting it here in its 3,500 word entirety. They’re sure to cut it considerably for their mag.

Five Kings

By Ian Probert

It’s a balmy sunny day in August 1970 and former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is sitting in the passenger seat of a gold coloured cadillac convertible. The grill and the hood are smashed in, testament to the ineptitude, recklessness and disregard for money of the vehicle’s driver, current heavyweight champion and sometime nightclub singer Joe Frazier. ‘I make like thirty thousand in less than about four five weeks just singing,’ boasts Frazier, as he drives unsteadily through the streets of New York.

‘Awww, you ain’t got that kind of money, man,’ says Ali, his eyes suddenly widening as the other man opens up his wallet and displays its contents. ‘Wow, you carry that much dough in your wallet?’

Frazier smiles. ‘Four, five hundred,’ he says. ‘Need some?’

‘How about a hundred?’ asks Ali. ‘I may stay overnight.’

‘Yeah, okay.’

‘Pay you next week,’ he says, pocketing the hundred-dollar bill that Frazier has just passed to him and staring into space as if in a daze. ‘I owe Joe Frazier a hundred dollars. Never thought the day would come when I’d owe Joe Frazier one hundred dollars…’

In September this year former WBC heavyweight champion Ken Norton died after a long battle with illness. Norton was an unusual fighter: not so much because of an awkward style that frequently gave technically superior boxers palpitations, but more to do with the fact that he remains the only heavyweight champion of the modern era never to win or defend his title in the ring. It’s an unenviable record and hints perhaps of good fortune or even corruption. But there was more to Kenny Norton than a Trivial Pursuit question. For Norton was an illustrious member of an elite quintet of fighters that lit up boxing in the 1970s in the same way that Duran, Hagler, Hearns and Leonard illuminated the sport in the 1980s.

I’m talking of course about Norton’s distinguished heavyweight contemporaries Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes. In all these five giants of the ring were involved in twelve separate contests. Holmes fought in two of these,  Foreman in four, Norton and Frazier in five, and Ali in eight. It was a rivalry that began with Ali in 1971 and ended with Ali in 1980. And during that nine-year period a worldwide audience of boxing and non-boxing fans were thrilled to be able to bear witness to a series of battles that scaled hitherto unheard of heights of drama and excitement.

Round One – Joe Frazier WPTS 15 Muhammad Ali, 08/03/1971

It was billed as the ‘Fight Of The Century’ and as if to give credence to this exotic claim Frank Sinatra was employed by Life magazine as a slightly starstruck ringside photographer. It took place in Madison Square Gardens and was the first and only time that two undefeated world heavyweight champions were to meet in the ring. It was a battle of contrasts. In one corner was reigning WBC and WBA heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Born in South Carolina in 1944 Frazier looked every inch what a fighter was supposed to look like. With massive shoulders honed from chopping wood and a face that looked like it had come shrink-wrapped with lumps and bruises in anticipation of it’s owner’s chosen career, Frazier presented an intimidating spectacle. In the other corner was Muhammad Ali: handsome, unmarked, brash, arrogant, the dictionary definition of an adonis. The very antithesis of what a boxer was supposed to be.

The background to the fight is well known but still worth repeating: Ali, Olympic Gold medalist in the light-heavyweight division in 1960 was then the most famous boxer on planet earth; later he was to become arguably her most famous person. After a rapid rise to prominence characterised by impossibly fast movement and reflexes in the the ring and an improbably fast mouth out of it, Ali – then known as Cassius Clay – had claimed the heavyweight crown in 1964 with a stoppage win over the brutish Sonny Liston. Immediately after the fight Ali had abandoned his given name and announced his conversion to Islam. This move mystified and frightened much of middle America. Three years later when Ali refused to to be drafted into the army he was stripped of his titles.

In retrospect, this was a terrible loss to the sport of boxing: Ali, who had proven himself peerless in making ten exquisite defences of his title, was at the height of his powers. While others sought to fill the gap left by his absence, Ali’s energies and rapidly dwindling finances were devoted instead to a lengthy legal battle to avoid incarceration.

But Ali’s loss was to be Joe Frazier’s gain. An Olympic gold medalist himself at heavyweight in 1964 Frazier had been on a collision course with Ali since turning pro. Frazier’s most powerful weapon was a juddering left hook, which saw him rattle through the opposition to claim Ali’s vacant title in 1968. And while it would certainly have been interesting to have seen what what would have happened if the pair had met with Ali as Champion and Frazier challenger, the closest we ever got to it was in their 1971 meeting.

Three years out of boxing, Ali had wisely attempted to rid himself of the ring rust with a couple of largely unconvincing tune-up fights. The ex-champion was the favourite but Frazier was buoyed by the confidence of his conviction that he was actually a better fighter than his rival. And in fifteen workmanlike rounds that never quite lived up to the fight’s billing Frazier proved that he had it within him to slow down Ali’s movement with body shots that resembled Stallone hitting a cattle carcass, hurting him in round 11 and finally felling Ali with that vaunted left hook in the final round. Ali had been down before, memorably back in 1963 in England by Henry Cooper, but in managing to regain his feet and complete the remainder of the round Ali had demonstrated that he had bravery enough to match the speed that at 29 was already a rapidly diminishing attribute. It was this bravery which would ultimately cost Ali more than any title.

Round two – George Foreman WTKO2 Joe Frazier 22/01/73

Enter George Foreman.

Born in Texas in 1949, Foreman was the third of the quintet to win the Olympic Gold medal, this time in Mexico 1968. But whereas Joe Frazier at 5’10” was a relatively small heavyweight, Foreman at almost 6’ 4” and weighing 218 pounds was a giant with a knockout punch to match. The jovial punching preacher from the grill commercials that we all know and snigger at today was definitely a thing of the future. In those days Foreman was a devastating puncher full of brooding menace. Since turning pro in 1969 Foreman had knocked out 34 out of 37. It has often been said that Foreman was the Sonny Liston of his day but he was was far more frightening. His movement may have been limited, his boxing skills possibly even more so but his punch made up for any such weaknesses. It truly was the great leveller, as a certain Michael Moorer was to find out 21 years later.

Frazier and Foreman met at the National Stadium in Jamaica with the champion being the bookies’ favourite. In the event the fight proved to be a complete mismatch. The challenger simply walking through whatever Frazier had to offer. Within two minutes Frazier was down from a clubbing uppercut. By the end of the round the champion had been on the canvas three times. Frazier hit the canvas twice more in round two, the final punch literally lifting the Philadelphian off his feet. It was a forbidding performance by the 24-year-old Foreman that redrew the heavyweight map.

Round three – Ken Norton WPTS12 Muhammad Ali

In retrospect the decision to match Muhammad Ali with handsome former marine Ken Norton was at the very least risky. Norton, who came into the fight with a record of 29 wins and one loss was hardly the stuff of journeymen. Even so, Muhammad Ali, on a run of ten straight wins since the Frazier loss was supremely confident, telling onlookers that Norton was an ‘amateur’.

Unfortunately for the ex-champion the ‘Amateur’ managed to throw a punch at a certain point in the fight that fractured Ali’s Jaw. ‘I was taking out the mouthpiece and there was more and more blood on it,’ recalled Ali. ‘My bucket with the water and ice in it became red…’ Ali claimed that the injury occurred in the early rounds but Norton maintained that it happened in the final round.

Whatever the truth, Ali managed to remain competitive while trying to protect his injury. The fact that he lost a split decision nursing such a profound disability is further evidence of his reckless bravery. For Ali, however, the loss was a disaster. If he was ever to fight new heavyweight king George Foreman for the title he now had two men to beat: Norton and leading contender Joe Frazier.

Round four – Muhammad Ali WPTS12 Ken Norton 10/09/73

Muhammad Ali waited six months for his jaw to heal before once more stepping into the ring with the fighting marine. The pair met in California where Ali struggled to achieve a points decision over his conqueror. Norton, it was becoming obvious, was Ali’s bogey-man. His herky-jerky style and habit of throwing the jab from the waist were qualities that Ali could never quite master. There could be no excuses this time: Norton had proven that he had what it took to take to stretch Muhammad Ali to the limit.

Round five – Muhammad Ali WPTS 12 Joe Frazier 28/01/74

Although he would never admit it, Joe Frazier had obviously gotten under Muhammad Ali’s skin. Gone were the days when the two rivals could happily sit together in Frazier’s car; Frazier was hard-pressed to even give ‘The Greatest’ the time of day, let alone lend him money. This was because Ali had unleashed the full weight of the cruelest aspect of his nature on the hapless Frazier. Frazier was not ugly, nor was he stupid, nor was he an ‘Uncle Tom’. But such was the force of Ali’s personality that when he called his opponent those things during the build up to their second meeting people tended to get taken in by his words. Ali later claimed sheepishly that he was only trying to sell the fight but he had to have been aware that this was a fight that sold itself.

The pair met again at Madison Square Gardens but this time the result was different. Another largely uneventful contest saw Ali claim a points decision. The crowd were somewhat underwhelmed, this was not even the fight of the month let alone the fight of the century. They had expected a little more drama – they would get it when the pair met for the third time.

Round six – George Foreman TKO2 Ken Norton 26/03/74

Norton’s unlikely reward for losing to Muhammad Ali was a shot at Foreman’s heavyweight title. The pair met in Venezuela. Surely Norton who had pushed Ali so hard over 24 rounds, reasoned critics, had what to took to push Foreman a little harder than Frazier had? And indeed he did. In fact, Norton managed to stay on his feet for the whole of a forgettable first round. However early in the second, a brain scrambling left hook deposited the challenger on the canvas. After climbing groggily to his feet another attack from the taller man had Norton seeing stars. Was there anybody who could stop George Foreman?

Round seven – Muhammad Ali KO8 George Foreman 30/10/74

‘Foreman turned his back. In the thirty seconds before the fight began, he grasped the ropes in his corner and bent over from the waist so that his big and powerful buttocks were presented to Ali. He flexed in this position so long it took on a kind of derision as though to declare: ‘My farts to you.’’

Normal Mailer, The Fight, 1975.

Muhammad Ali’s finest hour? Possibly. Boxing’s greatest spectacle? Most probably. Ali was thirty-two-years-of-age and could no longer dance. That is to say Ali wasn’t aware that he could no longer dance until he got to the end of a first round in which he had been relentlessly pursued by his 26-year-old opponent. It was at this defining moment that Ali was made aware of the limitations of age and chose to improvise. In the steaming jungle of Kinshasa, Zaire, before a worldwide audience of millions, Muhammad Ali reinvented himself. Choosing to lay back on the ropes and invite the giant behemoth Foreman to aim punches at him, Ali picked away at his opponent as if he was unravelling a particularly stubborn and annoying thread.

At ringside, onlookers were in tears, genuinely believing that George Foreman was about to kill the ex-champion. And on many occasions it appeared that might just be the case: Ali apparently wilting under the constant shower of bombs that fell in his direction. But the monumental effort took its toll on Foreman. By the seventh round he was looking desperately for a second wind. It never came. Foreman seemed almost grateful to be gazing sleepily up at the ring lights as a succession of quick-fire punches felled the giant fighter.

Many of those present at this amazing spectacle failed to realise in all the excitement that they had just witnessed a kind of magic. Boxing’s greatest conjurer had undertaken boxing’s greatest conjuring trick. For a moment boxing ceased to be just a sport.

Round eight – Muhammad Ali TKO 14 Joe Frazier 10/01/75

After the majesty of Zaire everything else just had to be an anti-climax. Surely? So it appeared when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier stepped into a Manila ring for their monumental and now legendary rubber match. After the Foreman fight Ali had been showing signs of age, only managing to defeat Ron Lyle with a desperately late rally and waltzing to a unanimous decision over Joe Bugner. Even so, Frazier was deemed to be easy meat. Not the same fighter after his mauling by Foreman. Well past his sell-by date.

Watch the video and you’ll see that most of this was true. What becomes apparent, however, is that the decline of the two fighters, the erosion of their skills, had more or less matched one another for pace. The core of what remained however, was pride and determination in such abundance that it very nearly killed both men.

There was nothing scientific about this third encounter. Both men choosing to trade blows until there were no more blows to trade. If we saw such an unremittingly brutal spectacle in a movie we would be shaking our heads in mocking skepticism. During the build-up to the contest Ali had humiliatingly dubbed Frazier ‘The Gorilla’; Frazier’s son had even been bullied in the playground. Frazier found extra reserves of energy in an effort to force those insults back down Ali’s throat. And he very nearly did.

By the climax of an epic fourteenth round both men were ready to fall. In actual fact, in the end it came down to an attritional battle of trainers. Would Angelo Dundee or Eddie Futch see sense and draw a close to the carnage? History records that it was Futch who made that fateful decision, seconds before Ali was apparently ready to pull himself out. Whatever the case the fight effectively signalled the end of both mens’ careers. They had literally punched the life force out of each other. There was very little left.

Round Nine –  George Foreman TKO5 Joe Frazier 15/06/76

There may have been very little left but when it came to gameness Joe Frazier could not be faulted. A mere five months after his titanic struggle in Manila Frazier was back in the ring with the only other man to beat him. For his part, the fragile psyche of George Foreman was in the rebuilding stage. After that devastating loss to Ali, Foreman was involved in a crazy up and downer with dangerous slugger Ron Lyle in Ring Magazine’s Fight Of The Year (if you’ve never seen it, folks, YouTube it right now!). He had also travelled to Montreal, where he fought five men in the same night in an exhibition. (Not at the same time, it has to be said).

In their marginally more competitive rematch Frazier, sporting a shaven head and chin, managed to last until round five before succumbing to Foreman’s relentless pressure. After the fight Frazier retired, leaving Foreman to continue his quest for a rematch with Ali. This was never to happen. Four fights later George Foreman was beaten by Jimmy Young and he himself retired after seeing visions in the dressing room afterwards. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have anticipated that 17 years later Foreman would reclaim the linear heavyweight crown.

Round ten – Muhammad Ali WPTS15 Ken Norton 28/09/76

Having spent 39 rounds in the company of Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali could have been forgiven for vowing never to get into the ring with his bête noir ever again. If any more evidence were needed that Ali was incapable of finding a solution to Norton it was provided in their third encounter, this time at Yankee Stadium. Again the fight was by no means a classic. There were no broken jaws and in fact most neutrals had Norton winning by a comfortable margin. Not so the judges, who always favoured Ali in the way that modern time-keepers favoured Fergie. Indeed, retrospective punch stats reveal that Norton connected with 286 total punches to Ali’s 199.

Round eleven – Larry Holmes WPTS15 Ken Norton 09/06/78

After Muhammad Ali unexpectedly surrendered his crown to seven-fight novice Leon Spinks (yet another Olympic heavyweight champion), Norton was named leading contender. But instead of fighting Norton, Spinks opted for a toothless rematch with Ali and thus the WBC title was awarded to Norton without a punch ever being thrown. Punches were duly thrown, however, in Norton’s first defence of his title. Larry Holmes, the last of our quartet of kings, had been one of Ali’s sparring partners and had learned well from his employer. Born in 1949 in Easton, Pennsylvania, Holmes’ development as a fighter had been protracted and without fanfare. Often fighting on the undercards of Ali fights, it was now Holmes’ turn to carry the torch. Just as Ali had done, the cultured ‘Easton Assassin’ struggled to accommodate Norton’s unusual style. And it took an incredible fifteenth round for him to win on the tightest of split decisions. The Larry Holmes era had begun.

Round twelve – Larry Holmes WTKO10 Muhammad Ali 02/10/80

It is one of boxing’s grand traditions that in order to achieve true succession the young lion must first annihilate the memory of his predecessor. So it was that an aged Muhammad Ali returned to the ring after a two-year layoff in order to officially pass the baton to his former protégé. A lot of people wondered what a seventies icon such as Ali was doing in the eighties. But for his part the great conjurer almost convinced onlookers that he had one final miracle left in the gas tank. Ali was thirty-eight-years-of-age but externally looked almost as he had done way back in the first Liston fight. Internally, however, Ali was a sick man. Already suffering from the early onset of Parkinson’s syndrome, taking medication for a thyroid disorder, and his slim torso not honed by dedicated training but by diet pills, Ali was not even a shadow of the shadow of the fighter he once was.

As always Ali took his beating like a man; with Holmes visibly concerned for the well-being of his former employer as he aimed reluctant blows at his immobile foe. Those that were able to watch the slaughter through cupped hands noted that the fight was finally stopped in round 10. In truth, it should have been halted several weeks before the opening bell.

The death of Ken Norton leaves only three of the quintet of kings surviving. Joe Frazier died in 2011, never forgiving or forgetting the taunts that had been aimed at him by his greatest opponent. Larry Holmes and George Foreman both made comebacks that lasted well into their forties. Holmes tried three more times more to regain a version of the world title that he had lost to Michael Spinks, losing on points to Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall and getting knocked out for the only time in his career by Mike Tyson. Foreman was also decisioned by Holyfield before regaining his title with that astonishing knockout of Michael Moorer in 1994.

Muhammad Ali was the only one of the quintet to fight all four rivals. And he bears the wounds of those fights to this day in the most awful way imaginable. The man who was once boxing’s most splendid exponent and finest advertisement is now a shambling wreck, a grim warning for anybody who ever wishes to lace up the gloves.

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In memory of Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson is only a year or so younger than me. When I was coming up as a sports journalist he was coming up as a boxer. We met a couple of times and to this day I’ve never been in the company of anyone who exuded quite so much menace as he did. It was almost tangible. He really was like a crazed pit bull terrier straining at the leash. A distinctly unsettling personality. And yet there was a lot more to him than his physical presence.

Mike Tyson was a multi faceted character: first there was his appearance – handsome, instantly iconic and yet somehow belonging to another era, another epoch, another period of human development. There was the babyish lisp that seemed to endow him with girlish vulnerability and made you somehow feel a little bit sorry for him. There was that neck: brutish, bullish, its muscularity somehow making him different than everybody else who plied their trade in his sport. A giant shock absorber of a neck. There was the physique: smaller in stature than most heavyweight boxers, the same height as myself in fact but with a torso that once again seemed to come from another place. Finally there was the power: the awesome, consciousness sapping punch that was terrible to watch but made him the most exciting fighter of his or probably any other generation.

No boxer in the modern era resembled Mike Tyson. He was a curious hybrid. Although if a genetic engineer had set out to create the perfect boxer it is most likely that Tyson would have been thrown on to the scrap heap. Modern heavyweight boxers are supposed to be towering, on a different scale to most men. But Tyson was merely average, perhaps smaller than most ordinary men. And yet somehow everything worked.

Tyson was special. He was different. As fight trainer Gil Clancy once remarked: Tyson’s punches ‘even sounded different’ to most other fighters. He was different but he was the same. For Tyson was not immune to the numerous and inevitable attractions and distractions that came his way outside the ring. His quick-fire marriage and divorce from TV starlet Robin Givens, allegations of drink and drugs, late night skirmishes in the street, ostentatious displays of wealth (did he really have a tiger?). And finally, dreadfully, the three year cessation of his career due to a rape conviction.

Tyson was a shooting star. His peak came undoubtedly in the 1989 91-second annihilation of previously undefeated ‘linear’ heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Before that fight Tyson’s rage was palpable and it was almost as if he concentrated the frustrations of a life that he simply had no control over into that deadly and devastating minute and a half.

Whatever the case Tyson was never quite the same afterwards. He was never as good as he was in that the fight. There might have been the occasional flashes of brilliance but they were few and far between. And in the end Tyson did exactly the same as the majority of his peers: he wasted his talents. He stopped doing the things that had turned him into a world beater and finished up face down on the canvas. It’s a familiar story.

What he leaves us, however, are the memories: A collection of fights that span the years 1986-1989 in which it is possible that he may have been able to defeat any heavyweight fighter in history. And in these wondrous days of instant information all are available on YouTube.

I spent this morning watching Tyson dismantle the likes of Spinks, Larry Holmes, Frank Bruno, Tyrell Biggs and Pinklon Thomas in truly thrilling fashion.

And if you’re a fan of what has been ludicrously called the Sweet Science I’d heartily recommend that you do the same.