The ring of truth

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Wincobank gym, Sheffield

BOXING never seems far from controversy, particularly when following a fatality. The recent death of British boxer Mike Towell from injuries sustained in the ring highlighted again the darker side of his sport.

He’s not the first. He won’t be the last. It’s a hazardous sport and there is no escaping that harsh fact.

While I don’t follow boxing too closely nowadays, for over 30 years – from spectator to participant to journalist – it played a huge part in my life. Argue as much as you like that more fatalities happen in other sports, but it doesn’t make boxing less dangerous. The fact that the aim and intention is to strike with force, using your fists, at your opponent’s body and head makes it fairly unique. The concern is as much the wear on the central nervous system and the long-term and irreversible damage to the brain as it is the number of men who have died.

I’m not an advocate for its abolition and I don’t know how much stricter medical regulations can become without devaluing the essence of the sport or taking away from the visual attraction which makes it popular and keeps it alive.

But if I had my time again, I am not sure I would choose to box, even though the sport taught and gave me so much.

However, if overcoming and confronting adversity is a fundamental part of our path to growth and self-discovery, boxing is an activity which can certainly accelerate the process. Had it not been for boxing – and what it demanded of me – I possibly wouldn’t now have the self-motivation and focus that has benefited me in many areas of life.

Sparring Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham at Carnaby Street

Boxing developed in me the ability to pull back the sheets early in the morning, roll out of bed and get on with what I need to do. Boxing taught me to practice things over and over to get better and to be patient for results. It instilled in me a purpose for maintaining my fitness and health. It helped me to confront fear.

There is no hiding place in that ring. I can’t think of any experience I’ve had in 50 years that compares with boxing for exposing your true colours. When the bell rings it’s you and your opponent. There’s no-one to help. Fight or flight?

It’s a lonely place. But that’s why you train – to fight. You have to learn to rely on and trust yourself or else…

To risk being exposed and possibly humiliated and badly hurt in such a public arena requires bravery and nerve. As a boxer you can learn to shield some of your fears from onlookers, but never from yourself.

It is an art and a skill and practice. It’s also brutal and punishing. The better you get, the greater the risks become.

Through boxing I had some unforgettable experiences, met many incredible people and saw extraordinary events. The photo at the top was taken in 1995, after I’d sparred in Sheffield with Naseem Hamed. The one below it was taken much earlier, when I shared a ring with Herol Graham, another outstanding champion of his day. Those two achieved greatly, but in boxing it’s nearly always at a cost. Few emerge from this sport unscarred.

I saw lives turned around and many left broken. I witnessed amazing joy, but also much tragedy and despair.

That chapter in my life is now closed. It served its purpose. I’ve now moved on. I survived. I feel relatively unscathed. I learned (a lot).

As a strength and conditioning coach, I would recommend boxing from the perspective of physical activity, which is why classes such as Boxercise have become so popular.

Boxing is a stress-release for many, improves the cardiovascular system, co-ordination, speed and elasticity in the muscles.

img_8264The type of training boxers typically do for conditioning, like skipping rope, calisthenics, hitting the bag and striking the pads, are also highly effective ways to keep our bodies active and healthy. But I would add that quality needs to precede quantity and that, while these classes are fun and invigorating, some level of aptitude in the basics is imperative before participants become overloaded with the demand for more repetitions.

As for competing, I’d reserve that for those who are serious. As they  say, you don’t play boxing.

What advice would I give any aspiring boxer?

1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – even if you are supremely talented. Think beyond boxing. The career span is short and can end in a blink. Be prepared for that reality. Have an idea what you want to do afterwards.

2. Give it your all or else you will pay a price. Don’t cut corners. Boxing is not a sport that rewards complacency.

3. There’s more to life than fame, glory and money. Much more. If you’re going to box, do it for the right reasons and, most importantly, understand the risks.

4. Surround yourself with people who care more about you and your well-being than your success.

10 things I learned from Muhammad Ali


I NEVER tire of watching or listening to Muhammad Ali. There is something uniquely captivating about him.

In case you hadn’t noticed or realised, there’s been a big exhibition at the O2 Arena in London celebrating the life and career of the former world heavyweight boxing champion.


I grew up during the time when Ali reigned supreme. His face was everywhere, as was his voice. I recall watching him on TV doing double-decker hamburger commercials, being interviewed by Michael Parkinson on the BBC and, of course, watching his fights.


His contest with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 – ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’ – is one of the first I can recall.

Now Ali, who has Parkinson’s Syndrome, is a shadow of the man I used to see. He has lived longer with Parkinson’s than he has without it.

The exhibition at the O2 goes through the full spectrum of his existence – the good and the bad. It does a superb job painting Ali’s character, brilliance and contribution to sport and humanity. That’s why I urge anyone who hasn’t been, to make the effort to see it.

Ali played a major part in my life. I’m sure it’s partly because of him that I became interested in boxing and why boxing for many years (as a participant and then a journalist) was an integral part of my being.

But Ali, the man, meant more to me than just what he delivered in the ring. Here’s my list of the 10 lessons this great, extraordinary and beautiful individual gave me.


1. Boxing is a dangerous and unforgiving sport

ALTHOUGH Ali has Parkinson’s, I have no doubt boxing – and competing for too long in it – contributed in a major way to his condition. Sure, people from other walks of life have Parkinson’s and have never boxed or been hit in the head repeatedly. But we are all so different. What will break one man won’t affect another and what we are talking about here is damage to nerve and brain cells. Ali fought for too long and in boxing it’s the brave who usually get hurt. It’s a twisted irony that a man with such a pretty face, brilliant reflexes and the greatest profile the sport has known would suffer such a fate. Ali, though, didn’t know when or how to quit. He wasn’t the first or last in that respect. “I will return”, was his great tagline. His speech, however, had started to slur noticeably around 1976 and yet he boxed on until 1980. Don’t forget that boxers suffer punishment in the gym as well as in their contests. It is accumulated damage. Overstay your welcome and boxing will make you pay.

Cooper floors Clay

2. Back up your boasts

IF you want to make bold predictions, talk aloud, tell everyone what you can and will do and how good you are, then be prepared to back it up with something of substance. Ali, of course, talked the talk. He was, though, incredibly gifted, flamboyant, charismatic and outstandingly brave. Ali also had a way of bragging that came across as entertaining rather than annoyingly arrogant, although great rival Joe Frazier and many others didn’t often think so. He knew how, through the power of the spoken word, to stir interest, create excitement and captivate an audience.


3. Stand up for what you believe in

I don’t believe there are too many men of Ali’s stature who would have dared take the stance Ali chose during the Vietnam War and become a conscientious objector. He risked everything for what he believed in. That took immense courage. Ali was outspoken and challenged the status quo. He dared to be different. We ARE all different, but not all of us dare to be. He had the courage to face the world when his physical condition so obviously and harshly deteriorated. Ali never believed in hiding.


4. Be a giver, not a taker

NO-ONE personifies this more than Ali. I don’t know of a more generous sporting figure. You can argue he was wealthy and therefore giving came more easily. But I’m not really talking about money. Ali gave himself. He gave his time. And time is our most precious commodity. Even though he was the greatest personality in sport, Ali kept no barriers between himself and his fans, who came from all religious backgrounds, social sectors and corners of the globe. I know many people who took the journey to visit him when he was in training and they were always welcomed. You wouldn’t find that with today’s heroes. Ali loved it. I know stories about Ali and his generosity that would leave you astonished. He was a great man not only because of what he achieved, but because of how he treated people and bridged the gap between superstardom and the starstruck admirer.

5. Be humble

THIS may sound like a weird one. Ali and humble don’t obviously go together. But I think Ali was incredibly humble. He had many friends who were “common people”. In fact, he went out of his way to be with them. He didn’t sit himself on a pedestal, even though he often declared himself “The Greatest”. If Ali of all people refused to look down on others, then none of us ever should.


6. It’s not over until it’s over

ALI rose from the ashes and did the seemingly impossible. Twice – against Sonny Liston and then George Foreman – he won the world heavyweight championship as a massive underdog when many genuinely feared for his life. Those fights were 10 years apart. Ali’s spirit  – in the ring, in his battle with Parkinson’s, in his political and racial views – was unquenchable. He is a fighter in every sense of the word. The lesson here is to keep going – despite your setbacks and what others may think and say – until you achieve your goals.


7. Spend more time with your children

WHILE Ali loved children and being around them, what’s interesting is that it was often at the expense of his own family. His kids love and adore him. But during Ali’s career, when he was away training and travelling, they didn’t get to see much of him. The movie I Am Ali depicts his relationship with his children. The insightful film reminded me of just how important time spent with your children is and how fast it passes.


8. Don’t take health for granted

ALI doesn’t wallow in self-pity and never has. But he is clearly unwell and has been for many years. This has impacted significantly on his life and those around him. That he was an athlete and a magnificent physical specimen and still succumbed to poor health shows that no-one is invincible. By fighting too long, Ali abused his body and brain. It came at a cost that money could never replenish.

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9. Being smart comes in many guises

WHEN we think of smartness, often academia comes to mind. Ali was incredibly smart, but not if passing intelligence tests is the criteria. For example, he flunked the army induction exam – probably deliberately. But listen to any of his interviews and you’ll see a marvellously engaging personality with a razor-sharp mind and wit. The truth is that everyone is good at something. Find what you are good at and enjoy most and then work at it.


10. Strive to be The Greatest…version of yourself

DON’T settle for mediocrity. Success starts with a mere thought or dream and becomes a reality when we turn it into a goal and then apply desire, drive and focus. Ali always had a vision. I was fortunate to discover early in life what my passion was and went for it. Ali inspired me – and generations of others – to stick to their chosen path and never give up.

The Ali Exhibition at the O2, dedicated to the life of the former three-time world champ, runs daily until August 31, 2016. 

Ali died on June 4, 2016, several weeks after this post was first published

Las Vegas And The Ragamuffin


LLOYD HONEYGHAN was the first British boxer I went to the US to write about during my time as a journalist, when I was sent to Las Vegas in February 1989 for his world title fight with Marlon Starling.

Honeyghan, who called himself the “Ragamuffin”, got well beaten. I had a front row seat. Mike Tyson, then world champ, was commentating ringside.

That week it actually snowed in Vegas. I also recall walking through a sandstorm to get to Johnny Tocco’s gym near downtown in order to watch Tyson prepare for his first fight with Frank Bruno.

Honeyghan and I would talk a lot in later years, right up to when I finished with boxing and journalism. But he probably doesn’t recall the first time we chatted.

As a teenager, I used to travel each week to south London to train and spar at the famous Thomas A’ Becket pub above which was a gym steeped in history.

I used to watch Honeyghan box Michael Watson and Kirkland Laing amongst others. The gym at that time was buzzing with talent and characters – Errol Christie, Glenn McCrory, Clinton McKenzie and Gary Stretch, now a Hollywood actor, to name a few.

One morning, close to what must have been exactly 30 years ago, I had finished training at the Becket and was getting changed. Lying face down on the massage table was Honeyghan, but I didn’t realise it at the time.

We were the only ones there and got chatting casually about Honeyghan’s impending fight with Sylvester Mittee.

“Who’s going to win?” he asked.

“Mittee,” I told him after some thought.

Then, as he got up, not saying a thing, I recognised who he was.

I never did tell Lloyd this story and he never did hold it against me when he next saw me.


Of course, Honeyghan took care of business against Mittee and, less than a year later (1986), went on to become world champion, famously defeating American Donald Curry (above).

School of hard knocks


My first visit to the Kronk Gym in Detroit (1999), for me the most famous gym in the world of boxing. I was with Naseem Hamed. I dug out this picture I took of him being trained by Emanuel Steward.

I remember on the trip to the gym talking to Naz about Juan Manuel Marquez, a Mexican he was accused of avoiding and who would later prove to be worth avoiding.

I was supposed to go and train at the Kronk when I was 19. It had a brutal reputation. Survival of the fittest.

Instead, I went to Orlando, Florida and a gym run by Joe Clough. That’s another story.

I met Duane Thomas, a former world champion, that day at the Kronk. I barely recognised him. He’d piled on weight. He seemed genuinely overjoyed that someone from overseas knew about him, even though he’d been successful.

Several years later Thomas was dead. Shot in a drug-related incident. Harsh place.

I met and interviewed William “Caveman” Lee (pictured right) many years later. He lost in one round to Marvin Hagler for the ‘world’ middleweight title and also came off the Kronk production line.

When I met him, he’d not long been out of jail (armed robbery). I gave him a ride back to his apartment. It was a seriously grim, rainy day. We cruised past the Kronk, then all boarded up and closed. He invited me in to his apartment. I remember for a few moments feeling anxious about it.

But all he wanted was to share memories.

Boxing’s a tough sport. People don’t realise it is often tougher outside the ring than in it for these guys.

Hanging with Lennox


I AM fortunate to have rubbed shoulders with some highly successful people. I knew Lennox Lewis before he became a professional boxer. I was the first journalist in the UK to write a long, deep article about him. I still remember Lennox coming up to me (in Cardiff of all places) after it was published and telling me how surprised he was by how thorough I’d been in my research. I’d unearthed a knockout defeat he’d had as an amateur that few people knew about.

I was literally on the road with Lewis from the start of his pro career. I followed him nearly everywhere. This picture was taken in Atlantic City in 1989. Muhammad Ali’s brother, Rahman, is between us.

Lennox was having his second fight a few days later. Mike Tyson had top billing. One day on that trip I got up at the crack of dawn to go running with Lewis in the Catskills in New York, where he trained. I conducted most of my interview with Lewis in the back of a van en route to A. City. Lennox and I hung out a bit while there. We did ordinary things like shopping and grab a bite to eat and just stroll around chatting. He was like anyone else…except he had an Olympic gold medal and stood out a bit at 6ft 5in.

As he became more successful, he still always had time to say hello, even when he was in his pomp as world champ and in demand. We bumped into each other in various and random locations. Once I shared a commentary job with him for Channel Five in Las Vegas when Evander Holyfield fought Michael Moorer. I have Reg Gutteridge to thank for that opportunity. Good memories for me.

Lewis was/is a good guy. He gave me exclusive privileges and, I trust, respected that I’d always be honest and fair. As a writer, I was never one for playing I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine. Integrity meant everything.

I respect Lennox, especially for how he ended his career on a high. That’s the toughest part of being a successful professional boxer.

I look at Lennox now, having watched him up close from start to finish, and always think, ‘he did really well for himself’.

Sharing the ring with a master


TOP sportsmen often make what they do look easy. Sometimes it’s only when you see them up close – I mean really close – that you fully appreciate their talent.

I got close with this jab, but not close enough. This was me trying to hit Herol Graham, former British, European and Commonwealth middleweight champion and considered by many to be the best British boxer never to be crowned world champion.

I can’t even remember when this took place, but am fairly certain it was around 1982 or 1983. At the time Herol was undefeated and, almost literally, untouchable because his defensive skills were so brilliant. I was a mere teenager.

The spar took place at what was then the Lonsdale Gym in Carnaby Street, London. It’s not there anymore.

Graham’s manager Brendan Ingle used to take Herol around working men’s clubs in Yorkshire offering money to anyone who could knock him out. No-one ever did. Herol wouldn’t even throw any punches back. It was a way to drum up publicity and give Graham some extra practice.

When I heard Herol was doing something similar in London, I went down to try my luck.

“Bomber”, as he was nicknamed, had incredible reflexes and an uncanny instinct for dodging punches. I think I caught him with one jab. I always had great admiration for him, but even more after seeing and feeling his brilliance up close. But what impressed me even more was his strength and how he so easily could throw you off balance.

I got to know Herol much better in later years. Always found him to be a real gent and still don’t believe he got the recognition he deserved.