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April 24, 2019
April 24, 2019
Tyson

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Mike Tyson and the ghosts of boxing’s past

Springs Toledo, with a little help from Mike Tyson himself, investigates the myths and legends, the eerie parallels and undeniable truths, that shaped the life of the former heavyweight king. From fatherless beginnings to humble endings, Toledo argues that the eternal underachiever actually accomplished far more than he ever should 

HE’D be upstairs in the dark, pitched forward in a chair, watching ghosts. His face, broadening in adolescence, flickered in light as the projector clicked and hummed. He watched fight films — “all night long,” he said years later. “I’d crank up the volume and the sound would travel through the old house.”

The old house was the headquarters of an old man named Constantine (“Cus”) D’Amato — an eccentric genius of fistiana who had made a lot of enemies 20 years earlier, when he managed heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, when he was relevant. The 14-year-old upstairs grew up in desperate circumstances in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, his father long gone, his mother a barely functional alcoholic who slept with strangers to provide short-lived shelter for her children. There were nights, winter nights, when he was huddled with her and his siblings in abandoned buildings. He was a target for bullies, a misfit with a lisp and bad hygiene who felt most at home on roofs with pigeons. When he was seven he stopped going to school after someone tried to steal his meatballs and dropped his glasses into the gas tank of a truck. Before reaching puberty, he was breaking into people’s homes and blindsiding old ladies to take what little they had.

He was a study in despair masked by anger. The Tryon School for Boys in upstate New York was his last address before a Youth Division Aide and ex-fighter named Bobby Stewart brought him to the old house in the Catskills and introduced him to D’Amato. Tyson became one of many troubled boys under the old man’s wing, but there was something in him, malformed though it was by years of abuse and neglect. D’Amato knew it immediately. The boy didn’t and the man still doesn’t. “I was this useless thorazined-out n***a who was diagnosed as retarded,” Tyson said, “and this old white guy gets ahold of me and gives me an ego.”

D’Amato gave him more than that.

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl addressed despair not with probing questions from a chair to a couch but with a call to action. He understood that life is not the preoccupation with pleasure Freud figured it was but a struggle for meaning; that behind feelings of futility and emptiness is a warning sign easily overlooked — boredom. “Life is a task,” he said. The existential question that asks “what is the meaning of life?” becomes “what is the meaning of your life?” and active listening becomes exhortation: “Learn what you should be from what you are.” Direct your thoughts to climb over your circumstances, identify your mission. See it large. See yourself larger.

I have a feeling that Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was on D’Amato’s bookshelf. “Listen,” he said to the dead-end kid that was Tyson. “You can be something very special. You can be champion of the world. You can devastate the world. You just gotta believe it.” Teddy Atlas was nearby and knew what it meant. “This was a road out,” he said, “a real way to alter the course of his life.”

“In 200 years,” Donald R. Cressey said, “we have done nothing to prevent crime by nonpunitive – positive reinforcement – methods.” Cressey, who spent decades studying the causes and prevention of crime and delinquency, was interviewed by John H. Laub in Criminology in the Making: An Oral History. In 1993 and again in 2003, Laub and Robert Sampson presented a new theory rooted as much in common sense as it is in rigorous methodology. “Life course” theory identifies dysfunctional families and school failure as strong predictors of delinquency, and holds that persistent offenders lack these and other relationships that provide emotional support and restrain anti-social impulses. They also found what Cressey was looking for — a road out, a break in the cycle. The risk factors of growing up with severe disadvantages (and Tyson had all of them) may be overcome by “turning points” that pivot life trajectories away from criminality and likely incarceration.

Tyson’s psyche was being recalibrated in a boxing gym upstairs from the Catskill police station when he found out his mother died. He was 16. D’Amato, who shared the house with his companion Camille Ewald, immediately began the process of legally adopting him. Tyson, his despair unmasked, approached Ewald and asked if it would be all right if he called her mother. “So from that time,” she said, “I became his mother, Cus became his father.”

Mike Tyson

There is no miracle to relate here, however. Even after winning a number of amateur titles, Tyson continued making his way back to Brownsville and went on a crime spree and drug binge after his mother died. Criminologists see this as not atypical. Desistance from crime, Laub and Sampson assert, is understood to be a process, and the process can be fitful when too many childhood risk factors are in play. Still, Tyson’s adolescence bucked expectations. After he became immersed in the strict regimen of the hardest sport – early morning roadwork, constant drills, isometrics, sparring sessions – he had little time left for street crime. At the age when his criminal offending would be expected to peak, it declined. “I started believing in this old man,” Tyson said. “Then I stopped doing all that. I changed my whole life.”

To call it a moral conversion would be an overstatement, but something remarkable happened. He transitioned away from one pattern of behaviours and toward another in a process made easier by the kinship boxing has with street values: Courage in the face of adversity, skill and strategy, strength and power. These are mythologised in the ring and have been idealised in high-crime urban areas since at least the days of ancient Rome.

“We have known for a long time that crime, especially violent crime, is concentrated by place,” Laub said. What is less discussed and no less true, is that those areas where violent crime is concentrated are also where fathers and male role models are not. “It is troubling,” Laub and Sampson assert, “that many sociological explanations of crime ignore the family.” It is more troubling that fatherlessness specifically has been virtually ignored in the social sciences despite its links to a host of pathologies from delinquency and depression to substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and school shootings. The destructive consequences of fatherlessness are particularly acute for boys. Needless to say, the benefits of a strong male role model in the home are immeasurable, as a buffer against every criminogenic variable, as a bulwark against despair.

Tyson had none during his formative years, then he had one, then many.

When D’Amato first began pulling him out of Brownsville, he tossed him a Bible-sized book about the great fighters of boxing’s past. He read it from cover to cover and discussed what he learned for hours on end with D’Amato, who knew many of the personalities on the pages. They shared Tyson’s background; some emerged from worse. “I never looked at myself as in their league,” he says, but he was driven to become “a part of their fraternity.” With D’Amato at his side, he was going to fight his way into not only their fraternity, but into the historical succession of heavyweight kings, a succession that stretches back into the 19th century.

The Bible-sized book, the long discussions, and the access Tyson was given to a library of fight films all had a clear purpose. D’Amato, well into his seventies, sought to accelerate Tyson’s development before mortality beckoned. There seems to have been another, more mercurial purpose. D’Amato was proud and paranoid, perhaps too proud and too paranoid to completely entrust his legacy to anyone — at least anyone alive.

After four years fighting as an amateur and winning damn near every tournament he was brought to, Tyson was turned professional in 1985. He was put on a gruelling schedule that old-time fighters would have applauded.

“I wanted to be like Harry Greb,” he told me.

“Harry Greb?” I said. “He went 45-0 in 1919.

“And he fought in three divisions. Those guys lived to fight back then. I wanted to be like them.”

Tyson fought 15 times in his first 10 months as a professional, which was better than Greb. He was 11 fights in when D’Amato died in November 1985.

Mike Tyson

Only days after the funeral, Tyson stopped Eddie Richardson in Houston and his gestures before and after the carnage confirmed that he was not alone, that he hadn’t been left unattended: When introduced, he extended his gloves in front of him, palms up, which is what Jack Dempsey used to do. After a left hook sent Richardson flying sideways across the ring, Tyson went over and helped him up, like Dempsey used to do. I asked him if that was who he had in mind. “Definitely. Isn’t that crazy?” he said. I told him I don’t see it that way. He was paying tribute to his predecessors on the world stage; “you made history come alive.”

At six-feet-six, Richardson was nearly as tall as Jess Willard, the giant Dempsey toppled to take the heavyweight crown. He was only the first of almost a dozen opponents Tyson would stand literally eyes to chest with. Would it be accurate to say that D’Amato designed him to devastate those towering boxers who had taken over the division? “That’s very accurate,” he laughed.

Tyson’s march to the heavyweight throne was not unlike Joe Louis’ 50 years earlier. Louis cleared the field of former champions Primo Carnera, Max Baer, and Jack Sharkey on his way to challenge then-reigning champion James J. Braddock. Tyson’s era was more confused, though he did the sport a favour by clearing a host of claimants and former claimants before facing Larry Holmes, a man D’Amato demanded he defeat.

Tyson-Holmes was loaded with historical significance. Tyson sought to make good on a promise to avenge Muhammad Ali, whom Holmes had stopped eight years earlier, much like Roberto Duran avenged Ismael Laguna by stopping Ken Buchanan and Sugar Ray Robinson avenged Henry Armstrong against Fritzie Zivic. Ali himself was a witness at ringside when Tyson knocked Holmes down twice in the fourth round. He watched Tyson barrel in as his old foe threw a last desperate uppercut that got caught on the ropes. Holmes recalled a moment of wide-eyed panic when that happened – “I said ‘oh shit’!” Tyson landed a right and Holmes was down on his back when the referee waved the fight off. In the camera-jostling chaos that followed, as handlers and officials streamed through the ropes, Tyson strolled over to centre ring and faced the fallen with his gloves on his hips, hero-style.

It was an intentional pose. “Battling Nelson used to do that,” he said when I pointed it out. “He did it before anyone.” It made me think of another one of his predecessors, namely Jack Johnson. Tyson knows all about Johnson. In 2014, he started a petition to persuade President Obama to posthumously pardon Johnson, who was convicted under the Mann Act in 1913 for transporting his white girlfriend across state lines for “immoral purposes.” “The unjust prosecution ultimately tarnished Jack Johnson’s legacy,” Tyson argued, in vain it turned out. I got him talking about the struggles of history’s first black heavyweight champion.

“Can you imagine fighting in front of all those people who want to see you dead?” he said. “Jack Johnson was told that if he won, he’d be killed, and he won anyway.”

“He was surrounded by lynch mobs – sixteen thousand heads deep at Reno – and he was laughing while he fought,” I said.

“Yeah, and he was all alone. Him against the world.”

When I told him that Jack London’s plea that former champ Jim Jeffries come out of retirement and “wipe that golden smile off Johnson’s face” made me want to throw out my copy of The Call of the Wild, he checked me.

“Nah, don’t do that,” he said. “No one’s perfect and you can’t deny he was a great writer. I loved White Fang.”

I don’t love those White Hopes he set on the march. Jim Jeffries was the first and Johnson smashed him to the canvas just like Tyson did Holmes 78 years later. In fact, Johnson can be seen on the film standing over the fallen with his gloves on his hips, hero-style. A framed photograph of the fight hangs over Tyson’s couch at home.

The Holmes fight stands as a culmination of all those nights Tyson studied films in D’Amato’s attic room. “Watching him fight so many times,” he said during the post-fight interview, “I was expecting everything he done tonight.” Somewhere, D’Amato was laughing.

Tyson-Holmes was billed as a championship bout because by then the sport was routinely raising the middle finger to its own history. It was no more a championship bout than was Joe Louis’ destruction of former champ Max Baer, also in four rounds. Tyson, so the fiction goes, defeated Trevor Berbick in 1986 at age 20 to become “the youngest heavyweight champion” on record. That record is revisionist. The fact is, Tyson was a contender rated by The Ring at No.7 to Berbick’s No.1 going into that fight and was handed Berbick’s bogus WBC belt coming out of it. Tyson did not join the true historical succession until June 27, 1988 when he knocked out Michael Spinks. He was three days shy of 22, which makes him younger than Ali and older than Floyd Patterson.

Tyson’s fairytale narrative combined with the fact that he was a cultural icon at 20 has resulted in collective myopia. Boxing pundits tend to take his accomplishments for granted, as if they were inevitable, and fail to recognise Tyson for what he is — an historical anomaly.

Before him, a heavyweight under six feet tall had not dominated the division since Rocky Marciano. Marciano fought in the 1950s, when heavyweight contenders were about two inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than they were in 1988. Tyson knocked out six fighters who stood at least six-five, which is more than Marciano and Joe Frazier combined ever faced. Tyson’s speed was no less atypical. Juggernauts with bulky arms and thighs should not be able to change their angle of attack so suddenly or fire blinding combinations. D’Amato built a heavyweight Henry Armstrong — a rigorously disciplined, hyper-aggressive champion renowned for overwhelming giants.

“Is that who your style was patterned after? Armstrong?”

His answer surprised me. “Duran,” he said. “The counters, the head movement, aggression.”

Armstrong and Roberto Duran were routinely physically overmatched only after they invaded higher weight divisions. Tyson, by contrast, was outweighed by at least 10 pounds in 36 per cent of his fights and was the shorter man in 90 per cent.

“Even Marciano had a half-inch on you,” I said. “I don’t see it ever happening again—a fighter under six feet dominating the heavyweight division.”

“You never know,” he said. “Maybe someone special will come along.”

“Were you special?”

“I wanted to be the best.”

“I’d say you were, and everyone knew it when you stopped Holmes and Spinks.”

But by then D’Amato was dead and the discipline was dying. “I’m a professional and I don’t get involved emotionally because it inhibits my performance,” he said in 1986. That was before he signed a promotional contract with an electrified pimp and married a gorgon. By the end of 1988, manager Jim Jacobs had died of leukemia, trainer Kevin Rooney was shown the door, and Tyson was street fighting, giving away Bentleys, and turned upside down by a wife who had one leg and a mother-in-law who had the other.

Mike Tyson

“The only safe place for Mike Tyson,” said Larry Merchant in early 1989, “is in the ring.” Rooney told Merchant that “Mike won’t forget everything that Cus taught him and what I’ve been helping to keep teaching.”

Buster Douglas soon proved he’d forgotten enough.

Three years in prison for a rape conviction sapped his body and his spirit, and by the time he faced Evander Holyfield his style had devolved. He was fighting like a brute and was increasingly prone to mayhem in the ring—biting ears, trying to break arms, shoving aside referees.

“I don’t believe I was as good as I could’ve been,” he says now. I told him he was better than he should’ve been.

The more you look the more you see. Tyson’s prime was fated to end early because even if he had maintained his discipline, even if Rooney never left, nature was never going to allow him to retain such speed and explosiveness for long. A brief prime is the red pill of Tyson’s fighting style and that’s to be expected of any style so reliant on fast-twitch fibers and constant aggression.

What is most remarkable about Tyson’s physical decline, then, is not how sudden it was but how subsidiary it seemed to be. For 16 years, he was either rated in the top 10 or at the top of the heap. At 34 he was still capable of knocking out contenders who towered over him and outweighed him by 20 pounds. What was behind this staying power?

Boxing stripped down to its most basic essential is a test of wills. Tyson understood this. As he himself was stripped down both personally and professionally and the powers of youth began to give way, he returned to D’Amato’s attic room. Grainy images of brutal men and brutal fights teemed in his addled mind. A motto, “kill or be killed” fell increasingly from his lips. “I’m Sonny Liston, I’m Jack Dempsey, I’m from their cloth,” he said near the end. It was not off the cuff. Liston used to beat up cops. Dempsey’s shadow was cast in hobo jungles and whorehouses.

Tyson had come a long way since Brownsville, but he travelled in a circle. He had gained the kind of material wealth most only dream of, but had lost more important gains. The mood swings and episodic rage were indications that he was regressing, returning to what may have been his natural state of despair. But his role models never left him. They urged him on, no longer to the glory that was gone, but to the destruction that awaited all great champions who linger too long.

In 2002, his rage and memories of rage finally burned out. Fifteen years had passed since he stood over Holmes like Jack Johnson stood over Jeffries, like a hero under the sun. As history would have it, his career was effectively ended the same way Johnson’s was in 1915 — by a giant.

Lennox Lewis had battered him into exhaustion by the end of the seventh round. His eyes were swollen and smeared with blood when he wobbled back to the corner and slumped on the stool. “You got to stop it,” he said. But the instinct to save himself passed as quickly as it had come. When the bell rang he stood up and charged the giant.

“He just continues because of his character,” he said during an interview in 1985. “That’s the way a fighter should end his job. On his back, until he can’t do nothing no more.” D’Amato sat beaming beside him and added something that sounded like a promise. “If his interest allows, and his will and ambition and his dedication is great, he becomes what he wants to become.” He becomes what he wants to become.

At 2-01 of the eighth round, Tyson hurled a last desperate overhand at Lewis’s head. It missed. That’s when Jack Johnson appeared in the ring with him.

Lewis finished Tyson with a crashing blow from a huge right hand, just as Jess Willard finished Johnson in 1915. From there, the details meld together with startling exactness. Tyson and Johnson can be seen on the film crumbling to the canvas as one, in the southeast corner of the screen, where they lay on their back, legs bent. If you look closely enough, you’ll see Tyson, his mind in a fog, instinctively reach his glove up and rest it on his face, like Johnson did, to block the sun.

The historian who is more than an historian is 51 now. “They’re my heroes. I watched those old fighters all the time,” he told me. “That’s all I did.”

“I think they were watching you too,” I said. “I think there were ghosts in that ring with you.” Greb. Dempsey. Louis. Liston. Battling Nelson. Jack Johnson — especially Jack Johnson.

“I’m glad they were on my side,” he said. And then he went quiet for several seconds. I thought of an 8mm reel whirling backwards and flickering light, a dead-end kid lost in the anger of despair, a hand – many hands – reaching for him, pulling him upwards.

“Mike?”

“Yeah. I’m one of those guys.”

Springs Toledo is the author of Murderers’ Row (Tora, 2017), In the Cheap Seats (Tora, 2016), and The Gods of War (Tora, 2014). All three are available at Amazon and Amazon UK.

April 23, 2019
April 23, 2019
Paul Banke

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PAUL BANKE picks up my video call at 4.45am Los Angeles time. As an insomniac his day is already a couple of hours old. His house is alive with the sound of his nine pet birds along with the three dogs which keep him company. I’d heard about his struggles but had no idea what to expect, no idea how tough times may have taken their toll. But today, looking younger than his 53 years with a bright and healthy appearance, Banke could hardly be used as a gnarled poster boy for anti-drugs campaigns. Bearing no outward signs of years battling addiction and HIV, it’s unmistakeably the good-looking west coast kid who produced fireworks during his life as a boxer. In retirement however, Paul Banke entered a whole new world of pain.

Banke was raised by his aunt and uncle in Asuza, California and as a teenager his amateur career took off. Fighting internationally for the USA saw him in with high calibre opposition, although he was eventually denied at the Olympic trials.

“My dream was to go to the Olympic Games in 1984,” Banke says. “I lost to Steve McCrory who won the gold medal [at flyweight] representing the United States. When you play sports in California you’re lucky to get to the next state over, but I started travelling, I fought in 12 countries and went to New Zealand when I was 17. Boxing brought the discipline out in me, it brought the goodness out in me. I didn’t ever think I would travel like that. I went to Britain and beat Paul Hodkinson.”

Describing a traditional sporting dinner show perfectly, Banke recalls: “I’ll never forget we walked into the arena and everyone was in a tuxedo. And it was all men. No women. The only women were the waitresses!

“We fought in Russia and the whole American team was nervous against the Russians. I was so scared, man. They showed it on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and I was so nervous so I didn’t stop punching. I won my fight because I just kept throwing. It was my best form of defence.”

Despite possessing speed and technique, Banke was always partial to a war. Asked why he changed style as a professional to become more of a pressure fighter, he laughs: “You’re right, I was a boxer – I had 176 amateur fights, I knew how to box. But as a pro it’s more about power so I started banging. I was not a pretty fighter like Oscar De La Hoya or Roy Jones, but I was very exciting to watch.”

Despite some early pro losses, Banke gained a name for himself as an action fighter and entered the Great Western Forum’s super bantamweight tournament in 1988. He walked away as the winner and $100,000 richer, knocking out Carlos Romero in the final. One more stoppage win, in a shootout against Ramiro Adames, earned Paul a chance at the WBC world 122lb strap. Standing in his way was Mexican warrior and fellow southpaw Daniel Zaragoza.

“I fought for the title first time, on June 22 1989. Knocked him down in the ninth round but I lost the fight. He was so tough.” After an excellent 12-round clash, Banke was declared the loser by split decision. His relative inexperience proved costly, as while he was showboating, Zaragoza kept on punching, rallying after the knockdown to capture the victory. His second shot would come the following year.

“I knew I was gonna win this time. I knew it. I felt so good. I was nervous but when you’re nervous the best comes out. I was hungry and I’d trained for it.”

In an astonishing coronation, Banke destroyed Zaragoza in nine rounds. “I accomplished a dream at 26 years old. I felt like something popped in my head. Like a relief. I was world champion, the highlight of my life.

“I was there when Daniel Zaragoza got inducted into the Hall of Fame. His son told me that when he was little his dad used to chase him around the house, he was gonna spank him or something so he’d tell his dad ‘I’m gonna get Paul Banke to beat you up!’ They don’t give him [Zaragoza] the exposure like they do [Julio Cesar] Chavez or [Salvador] Sanchez. But he won the title three times. That’s really something.”

A first defence in South Korea ended with a 12th round knockout of Ki Joon Lee before Banke returned to L.A. against the aggressive but limited Pedro Decima from Argentina. In a nightmare performance, Banke was second best all the way before being floored three times and blasted out in the fourth round. “Decima was around for a while and I really wasn’t that keen on fighting him” he admits. “I didn’t like the way his style was, I knew it would give me trouble. But I’d had three tough fights back-to-back, all three were wars. It caught up with me.”

Drug problems which had blighted his early days as a professional returned. His life began a downward spiral. In his final world title fight in 1991, a rubber match with Zaragoza who had subsequently regained the WBC belt, was arranged. Banke dropped a wide decision. “I was back on drugs by then. I fought Kennedy McKinney and I was on drugs. He said the same thing [McKinney’s substance abuse problems are also well-documented], that he was messed up too but he kicked my butt. For my last fight I lost to somebody whose record was really bad [Juan Francisco Soto, who was 0-8 going in]. I thought I’m not gonna embarrass myself no more.”

But Banke’s descent accelerated away from boxing.

“I did my drugs for 29 years … a needle stuck in me for 29 years, man,” he says, momentarily composing himself, almost as if the gravity of what he’s just said has hit him again. “I’d never go back.”

In his acclaimed protest song Sam Stone, John Prine sang ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes…’  Banke lost everything, including his dignity.

“I made like half-a-million dollars in my boxing career. After the glory I got strung out on dope. I ate out of trash cans. I was homeless for a while, slept on the streets. You know the story of when someone gets on drugs? I went that way. It was hard times.” But unlike Prine’s eponymous Vietnam veteran, Banke survived: “I was in and out of my kids’ lives because of my drug use. I’ve apologised to my kids hundreds of times and they’re cool with me now.”

He remembers the moment he feared he would never see those kids grow up: “July 10, 1995, I got told I was HIV positive. I said I couldn’t be, I got a baby back at home. A month later I went back and I really thought they were gonna tell me I was healthy – that they got the test wrong. They said ‘you got full-blown AIDS’. That scared me. People were dying back then.”

I mention an interview from 20 years ago where an emotional Banke was accepting he wasn’t going to see the age of 40, wasn’t going to see his children grow up: “I came home with the virus in ‘95 and people were still scared of it. They didn’t want to be around me. I went to my family’s house one time at Christmas. Everyone was drinking eggnog out of a glass. Then my grandma gave me mine but it was in a Styrofoam cup… I was like why don’t I get a glass like everybody else? Back then you may have had a year or two [to live]. CNN did a story on me – they thought I was on death row. But it’s different now – look at Magic Johnson.

“I haven’t got sick. I think it’s God, or maybe my boxing conditioning helped me, I don’t know. I feel great. Thank God for HIV medication. I used to take 13 pills, now I take one pill a day. I got some [extra] weight but I’m 53 – my body don’t go like it used to!”

Not so long ago, such positivity was absent.

“I was 50 years old sat drinking beer at 9 o’clock in the morning. I thought ‘you know what, this is not cool’. I got depressed. I had to sober up. I got my house, I got my dogs. I’ve been married three times and I got a girlfriend now. I’m happy when she comes over and I’m happy when she leaves, I like my own space!” he smiles. Banke does a lot of smiling and laughing, testament to the good place he’s now in.

While boxing may not be his panacea exactly, it still provides Banke with positivity and purpose: “I’m not fighting anymore but I got a gym and I got fighters. I’m happy I’m back in my sport.” His gym is in Rialto, California, 45 minutes away from his Pasadena home.

“I go over there three times a week. I’m gonna keep it real – I used to think I might make some money training people. But going in thinking you’ll make money – you’re already screwed. There’s little kids who come and I show them how to throw a punch or how to move their feet. I don’t know exactly what’s going on with them but you can tell they’re bad kids. Tough kids. But they come in the gym and they look at me and listen to me. I can see their eyes get wider and they remember what I told them to do. That is my reward right there. I’m not gonna lie, I’d like to make money… but it can’t be that way. “

Paul Banke has made his real comeback, and like the champion he is, he battles on.

“I’m still here…been clean and sober for three years now. I turned my life around.”

April 22, 2019
April 22, 2019
Harry Mullan

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LIKE many another young man before me, I fell in love in a dance hall … but in my case the object of devotion was not a girl, but a sport, and the affair has endured more than 30 years.

I was eight years old at the time, and like most of my contemporaries in County Derry, I hero-worshipped Billy “Spider” Kelly, the Derry city stylist who held the British and Empire featherweight titles. I was growing obsessed with a sport I had never seen, nor had any realistic prospect of ever seeing, until one happy Wednesday I saw an advertisement in the local paper for an amateur show to be held that weekend in Palais de Danse, a long, low hall at the end of the promenade in my hometown, Portstewart. My pocket money at that time was 6d a week (2.5p). It bought a lot more then than it would now, but it was still a long way short of the admission charge. Until the night of the show I did not know whether or not I would be going, although I had talked of little else in the preceding days.

But that evening my father gave me half a crown (12.5p), a fortune to my eight-year-old eyes, and sent me off to watch the boxing. He cannot have guessed what he was starting. I was instantly captivated by the sport, by its atmosphere, its colour, its excitement, its humour, its passion.

When I was 11 I went to boarding school (St Patrick’s College, Armagh) and my pocket money was increased to one shilling a week (5p). Nine pence of it was invested in Boxing News, which had to be smuggled into school for me by an obliging day pupil called Eddie Smith. I became an authority on the game, in the sort of obsessive detail familiar to schoolboys everywhere. In truth, I knew far more about boxing’s history then than I do now.

After finishing his education, Harry travelled to England and begun work as a civil servant, still refusing to give up the dream. Boxing then, as now, was an expensive sport and my meagre civil service salary did not offer such hope of progressing to a ringside seat. The solution, as ever, was simple.

Gilbert Odd, Britain’s best-known boxing historian and a former Boxing News editor, had encouraged me to launch the British Boxing Supporters Club, a county-wide network of boxing addicts which was designed to put like-minded fans in touch with each other. It was a modestly successful venture, but it took up too much time to run on a voluntary basis and eventually just faded away.

But my friendship with Gilbert lasted, and with his backing and advice I started looking for freelance work. I asked the Irish News whether they would be interested in a ringside report on a fight (of Frank Young’s) at the Albert Hall. They were, and they made the necessary arrangements … and I have never paid for a ticket since.

There has never been a day when I felt that I was going to work in the morning; the number of men who can say that with total honesty are few, and I know just how lucky I am to be one of them.

How can you seriously call it ‘work’ when you are lunching beside the swimming pool at Caesars Palace, or drinking lager in Copenhagen, or sipping boulevard coffee in Paris, or meeting characters like Kevin Finnegan, Don King, Billy Aird, Bruce Strauss and all the other larger than life individuals who populate the sometimes seedy, often immoral, but endlessly fascinating world of professional boxing?

  • WHILE Mullan’s memoir remains unpublished, his 1996 book, Fighting Words, a compilation of his favourite articles, is available to order for £10 (inc P&P). Not available in the shops – Order via email at Siobhan.hamilton@hotmail.co.uk. Payment via PayPal.

April 19, 2019
April 19, 2019
fights

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LIVED UP TO THE HYPE:

JOE FRAZIER vs MUHAMMAD ALI I

Date: March 8, 1971. Venue: Madison Square Garden, New York City. Titles at stake: Frazier’s WBC and WBA heavyweight. Records: Frazier 26-0 (23), Ali 31-0 (25). Result: Frazier w pts 15.

WHEN you bill a contest as Fight Of The Century, you’re under pressure to deliver. Fortunately, the first of what would become a trilogy between these two warriors delivered – and then some.

The match had socio-political ramifications way beyond its sporting significance. Even though Ali held no belt, many considered him the real champion because he had been stripped of his world title for refusing to join the US Army during the Vietnam War.

In Ali’s three-year absence, Frazier had unified the division with a formidable, all-action fighting style; a showdown with the “Louisville Lip” was a natural.

It sold out the famed Garden with 20,455 in attendance including celebrities such as writer Norman Mailer and singer/actor Frank Sinatra (famously on a photographer’s credential). Closed-circuit TV broadcast the match to an estimated 300 million worldwide across 50 nations. They saw a fight that surpassed expectations with the younger, fresher Frazier outworking Ali, who survived a last-round knockdown to hear the final bell, where he was a decisive points loser.

muhammad ali

MARVIN HAGLER VS THOMAS HEARNS

Date: April 15, 1985. Venue: Caesars Palace (outdoor arena), Las Vegas. Title at stake: WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight. Records: Hagler 60-2-2 (50), Hearns 40-1 (34). Result: Hagler w rsf 3.

HALFWAY through the 1980s, with Sugar Ray Leonard retired and the heavyweight division in an uninspiring state – Mike Tyson had only just turned pro – the meeting of Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns was just about the biggest fight that could be made.

Marvelous Marvin had held the 160lbs title since 1980 and was undisputed to boot. Hearns had lost to Leonard at welter but rebounded by winning the 154lbs crown and had destroyed Roberto Duran in two rounds.

Given Hagler could only outpoint Duran, and that at 30 he was the older man by six years, many fancied the elongated 6ft 2 3/4ins Detroit man to outbox the Brockton, Massachusetts southpaw.

Such was the interest that the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace was required, when that was the biggest (and most prestigious) venue Vegas had to offer. Promoter Bob Arum billed it as The War – and it turned out that way, with Hagler surviving a Hearns first-round onslaught to overwhelm him two sessions later.

marvin hagler rematches article

LENNOX LEWIS VS MIKE TYSON

Date: June 8, 2002. Venue: The Pyramid, Memphis. Titles at stake: Lewis’ WBC and IBF heavyweight Records: Lewis 39-2-1 (31), Tyson 49-3 (44). Result: Lewis w ko 8.

SURE, this happened at least half a decade after it should have done, and very near the end of the boxers’ careers: Tyson would fight only three more times, Lewis just the once.

But if, like many British fans, you wanted to see Lewis achieve a crushing knockout of the heavyweight division’s long-time bad boy, you were fully rewarded.

The two had been acquainted in sporting terms since the late 1980s, when Tyson was history’s youngest heavyweight champion and Lewis merely a promising amateur. They would become potential rivals when Lennox ascended to prominence during Tyson’s mid-1990s imprisonment.

“Iron” Mike tried hard to antagonise all and sundry, saying in one post-fight TV interview that he wanted to eat Lewis’ children – Lennox didn’t have any at the time – and then biting the Londoner’s leg in a press conference to announce the fight. That led to the pair being guarded in the ring by their own security details during the pre-fight announcements, but while the action proved one-sided, Lewis settled all differences with a big right in round eight.

AARON PRYOR VS ALEXIS ARGUELLO I

Date: November 12, 1982. Venue: Orange Bowl, Miami. Title at stake: Pryor’s WBA super-lightweight
Records: Pryor 31-0 (29), Arguello 72-5 (60). Result: Pryor w rsf 14.

ARGUELLO had already reigned at featherweight, super-feather and lightweight when matched with whirlwind Pryor in a bid to win a world title in a fourth division – a much harder achievement then than now.

The tall, stylish Nicaraguan had been a mooted superfight opponent for 135lbs king Roberto Duran in the late 1970s, but it never happened. Instead, he had to wait until 17 days past his 30th birthday for the challenge to Pryor, whose high-energy style had made him one of the sport’s most exciting performers.

The Cincinnati boxer, fighting on his 26th birthday, was at his peak and naturally the bigger man, which no doubt helped him survive the numerous gruelling exchanges in a thrilling encounter.

In the end, Pryor simply outlasted Arguello, although a shadow was cast over his victory when it emerged that late in the fight he supped an unknown liquid proffered by cornerman Panama Al Lewis (subsequently found guilty of glove-tampering in another fight).

SUGAR RAY LEONARD VS ROBERTO DURAN I

Date: June 20, 1980. Venue: Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Canada. Title at stake: Leonard’s WBC welterweight. Records: Leonard 27-0 (18), Duran 71-1 (57). Result: Duran w pts 15.

IT was the very definition of a superfight: a supremely talented young American hero against a snarling Panamanian veteran who had once supposedly knocked out a horse.

Everything opposed this pair. Leonard was a stylish 1976 Olympic gold medallist (in Montreal) who developed steadily as a pro before stopping superb Wilfred Benitez to become champion in December 1979. With American boxing booming – quality shows were frequent on free-to-air television – the smiling Leonard raked in the dollars. In contrast, Duran had turned pro at 16 and come up the hard way, holding the world lightweight title for six-and-a-half years before adding weight in search of lucrative opportunities.

He spoke only broken English but managed to insult Leonard with taunts that made him brawl rather than box, playing into Duran’s hands as the older man (by five years) outhustled Ray to win a thriller on cards of 146-144, 148-147 and 145-144.

DIDN’T LIVE UP TO THE HYPE:

FLOYD MAYWEATHER VS MANNY PACQUIAO

Date: May 2, 2015. Venue: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas.  Titles at stake: Mayweather’s WBC and WBA Super, Pacquiao’s WBO welterweight. Records: Mayweather 47-0 (26), Pacquiao 57-5-2 (38). Result: Mayweather w pts 12.

THIS was a classic example of how too much marination can let a superfight turn into an undigestible dish. Instead of an all-time classic, Mayweather v Pacquiao proved a huge letdown with the American comfortably outboxing an unusually subdued Filipino opponent.

If only they had met five years earlier, it could have been so different…

The timing would have been perfect in early 2010: multi-division ruler Mayweather had ended a 21-month retirement by beating Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez the previous September, while two months after that Pacquiao had completed a remarkable rise through the weights by stopping Miguel Cotto for the WBO 147lbs crown.

Yet the two could not reach agreement, arguing over revenue distribution and drug testing procedures. Each went his separate way and a shock knockout loss to Marquez in December 2012 meant Pacquiao was a decided underdog by the time Mayweather finally consented to box him two-and-a-half years later.

floyd mayweather

WILFREDO GOMEZ VS CARLOS ZARATE

Date: October 28, 1978. Venue: Roberto Clemente Coliseum, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Title at stake: Gomez’s WBC super-bantamweight. Records: Gomez 21-0-1 (21), Zarate 52-0 (51). Result: Gomez won rsf 5.

THIS battle of the little big men was huge news back when there were only two sanctioning bodies (WBC and WBA) and many of the sport’s major fights still happened in their natural locale, before Las Vegas monopolised everything.

The ingredients were certainly enticing: unbeatens from bitter rivals Puerto Rico and Mexico who in a combined 74 fights had heard the final bell just twice: a six-round debut draw for Gomez and one points win for Zarate.

Gomez, who would turn 22 the day after the fight, was a former World Amateur champion who since winning his crown in May 1977 had already made five defences (one in Japan).

Zarate, 25, had become WBC 118lbs king in May 1976 and the following year wiped out WBA counterpart Alfonso Zamora in a non-title bout.

Yet it proved a one-sided letdown. A flu-stricken Zarate struggled to make weight and was dropped twice in round four, then a third time in round five, before his corner threw in the towel.

OSCAR DE LA HOYA VS FELIX TRINIDAD

Date: September 18, 1999. Venue: Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas. Titles at stake: De La Hoya’s WBC and Trinidad’s IBF welterweight. Records: De la Hoya 31-0 (25), Trinidad 35-0 (30). Result: Trinidad w pts 12.

IF you like smart technical boxing, then you probably don’t consider this one a disappointment – but when you consider the almost universal predictions of unbridled excitement and an early ending, this contest simply didn’t deliver. After all, it was one of the rare Trinidad fights in which the Puerto Rican puncher did NOT get floored early on. Actually, Boxing News’ prediction was that it was De La Hoya who would taste the canvas early on before rallying to win by stoppage in six.

One can understand the eager anticipation surrounding this unification bout: Olympic gold medallist De La Hoya had earned world titles at four weights, adding power as he filled out, while Trinidad had cut down a string of opponents since winning his belt in 1993.

As it turned out, Oscar boxed cautiously to build a lead only to ease off in the later rounds and allow Trinidad to steal a hotly-contested decision on cards of 115-113, 115-114 and 114-114.

WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO VS DAVID HAYE

Date: July 2, 2011. Venue: Imtech-Arena, Hamburg. Titles at stake: Klitschko’s WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO heavyweight. Records: Klitschko 55-3 (48), Haye 25-1 (23). Result: Klitschko won pts 12 unan.

HOW intense was the hype for this match-up between dominant champion Klitschko and Britain’s cocky, publicity-seeking two-weight king? Well, this publication even produced a special bookazine to accompany the contest, which took place in front of a 50,000 crowd at the home ground of the Hamburg football club.

The huge publicity surrounding the event only made it a bigger let-down when Haye – contrary to pre-fight boasts – took few chances as the giant Ukrainian outboxed him for a wide points victory by 118-108, 117-107, 116-110.

In the immediate aftermath Haye blamed his sluggish showing on an injury to the big toe of his right foot, which prevented him using his smaller man’s speed to leap into range and land big punches.

The Londoner’s performance hardly fitted the aggression he had shown in pursuing the contest, including turning up at Klitschko functions wearing a t-shirt portraying a decapitated Klitschko and Haye holding his severed, bloody head.

David Haye

ROY JONES VS JAMES TONEY

Date: November 18, 1994. Venue: MGM Grand, Las Vegas. Title at stake: Toney’s IBF super-middleweight. Records: Jones 26-0 (23), Toney 44-0-2 (29). Result: Jones won pts 12 (unan).

NOT many remember it now, given how Jones would go on to become the sport’s top fighter for nearly a decade, but Toney actually came into this bout as the favourite.

Not that surprising really – he had ripped the middleweight crown from Michael Nunn before becoming champ up at 168lbs by beating Iran Barkley. Jones had followed as 160lbs belt-holder, also stepping up in weight to pursue bigger opportunities, but many purists decried his flashy, unorthodox style that relied on reflexes and extraordinary hand speed.

Both could punch but the feeling was that Toney’s old-school skills (he could lay on the ropes and deflect blows superbly) would prove the difference. Nothing doing: on the night, Jones put a count on the weight-drained champion in round three and dominated with combinations. The potential classic ended wide for Jones by 119-108, 118-109, 117-110.

RoyJonesJamesToney

April 19, 2019
April 19, 2019
Dwight Muhammad Qawi

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FORMER WBC light-heavyweight and WBA cruiserweight champ Dwight Muhammad Qawi – all 5ft 7ins of him – was a terrific fighter in his day. With no amateur career, Qawi – who had been sentenced to five years in jail for robbery, learning how to box while in Rahway State Prison – made a swift march to the top. Turning pro in 1978, the Maryland native with the incredible workrate and subtle defence went 1-1-1 in his first three fights, before going on to make astonishing progress. Now the Hall of Famer has some career to look back on. Despite being in fine health, he does have his regrets, however. 

Of all the great fights you had, which one do people want to talk to you about the most today?

People talk mostly about two fights: the first fight with Evander Holyfield [l sd 15] and the fight with Michael Spinks [l ud 15]. Just the other day some people were telling me I won both of those fights [smiles]. I had problems with my nose going into the Spinks fight – I had a damaged septum. I couldn’t fight my usual fight – going in on the attack. I had to wait and box. Even a touch to my nose hurt bad. I can’t even describe the pain.

The first Holyfield bout is widely considered as the greatest cruiserweight fight ever.

There was no way I thought he could go the distance – 15 rounds. I had seen Holyfield on TV and he couldn’t even go six rounds [without struggling] with my sparring partner, Lionel Byarm. Holyfield went to hospital for two weeks after our fight – he pushed himself and his body beyond anything! I always thought there was something else going on.

By that, do you mean – as has been written a few times over the years since your fight with him – that Holyfield might have taken some illegal stimulant?

Yes, I do. Because after 15 rounds he was still jumping around [laughs]! I was dead-tired. I had that burn in my stomach, what you get from sheer fatigue. He was still jumping around like it was the first round. Then he went to hospital – I think his body went into shock. I’m very disappointed by how that fight went. It’s the biggest disappointment of my career, let me put it that way.

You were a cruiserweight by then. Were you at your absolute best as a light-heavyweight?

Yes, the second fight I had with Matthew Saad Muhammad [w rsf 6] I was at my peak. Back then, in 1982, everything was going right for me – I was unstoppable. During that time, I went to California and I ran the hills there, and let me tell you, those hills did something to me! I thank them hills! I was so disciplined then, hungry and unstoppable. If I’d stayed so disciplined I’d have been at least a three or four-time champ – not just a two-time champ.

Who gave you your nickname: ‘The Camden Buzzsaw?’

It was Phil Marder – a writer for The Camden Post at the time. It was right after my fight with Mike Rossman [w ko 7]. The next day, I read how he called me “The Camden Buzzsaw”. I was so fast and I fought like I was chopping down trees. I had great stamina too. I was a fireball. I threw a lot of punches and my punches were short; so short you couldn’t even see them!

Dwight Muhammad Qawi

You also had a very good defence.

Right. After my third fight, my trainer Wes Mouzon told me he could teach me what I needed, which was a good, tight defence. It was gonna be a tough, hard career without one! It’s about making a punch just miss you, you make it skim off – that’s the way it’s done. That way, you’re not out of position after the punch misses, and you can throw back.

Up at cruiserweight, were you as fast and powerful?

I wasn’t as fast, but at the same time, I wasn’t sluggish. My team wanted me to go up to heavyweight, but I stopped at cruiserweight first. I sparred heavyweights and I did good with them. One of my regrets is not going up to heavyweight sooner than I did, when I fought George Foreman [l rsf 7].

I wasn’t living the life by then. I was drinking and not training properly. I was beating George, but I got tired, and I knew I needed more time, and more money, for that fight. But I hurt him, and up until the end of the fight he was very conscious of my power.

Boxing politics got to me at that stage of my career. They gave me just two weeks to get ready for Foreman. Sometimes we boxers are too kind for our own good, and we get abused by the people we make money for. I was supposed to get a lot more, but I got only $35,000 for the Holyfield rematch, while he got $1m. Also, I wasn’t as dedicated by then. [Former world heavyweight champion] Jersey Joe Walcott once told me I was burning the candle at both ends! I could have been even greater if I’d maintained the discipline I had in the early ‘80s.

April 17, 2019
April 17, 2019
Kevin Lueshing

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A DIFFICULT upbringing is almost a rite of passage for boxers. Their tough experiences are inextricably linked to the arduous career path they choose, and compel them to push their minds and bodies to the limit in this cruellest of sports.

For Kevin Lueshing, boxing was an escape from the abominable trauma he suffered as a child.

His father, George, regularly beat him, usually with a belt or – sometimes – with heavy-duty jump leads.

At the age of 10, he was groomed and sexually assaulted by a paedophile he refers to as Derek. The abuse lasted for a number of weeks, culminating in Derek attempting to rape Kevin.

Lueshing never spoke about either of those things during his boxing career but now the former British welterweight champion has written a harrowing account of how his childhood was taken from him in the most sickening of ways.

He teamed up with Mike Dunn to write The Belt Boy, the 263-page detailed and brutally honest story of his life so far.

“I’m revisiting places I haven’t for a long time but, having said that, I know what to expect,” he told Boxing News.

“It’s not so much me not wanting to talk about it, it’s just that I find it uncomfortable sometimes. But I know that’s part and parcel of what I’m doing.

“I’m happy it’s out. Talking about my childhood, the abuse, it’s something I’m not ashamed of because I’ve been through counselling. There was a woman in America who worked out of a kind of spiritual shop and she counselled me and told me I shouldn’t be to blame. She took away the dirtiness, the seediness and the guilt I felt. Talking about it [the sexual abuse] isn’t really hard, talking about the beatings I got from my dad is a little bit harder because it’s more personal.”

It took Lueshing roughly a year to finish the book, and while he admits those 12 months were trying, he never lost sight of the necessity of casting light on what he endured.

He found encouragement from other boxers – such as Sugar Ray Leonard, also a victim of sexual abuse – who have written about the appalling contexts they were formed in.

“Having said that, when I was a child I read a lot of books,” he continued.

“I’ve read Mike Tyson’s, Sugar Ray Leonard’s books. They had the same issues and I began to realise that most fighters have some kind of threshold for pain, a familiarity with pain so that it’s normal to them.”

In the book, Lueshing explains that he experienced “no love” and “no compassion” at 101 Clockhouse Road, Beckenham, south-east London; his childhood home.

On a backdrop of racial prejudice, Kevin, who suffers from dyslexia, struggled at school and found himself shunned and punished by his teachers. The other authority figure in his life, his father, is a man he describes as “evil.”

George, a substance abuser, lorded over Kevin and his siblings with an iron fist, handing out vicious beatings whenever someone stepped out of line.

Kevin explains in the book that he only ever called his father ‘dad’ when he was begging for mercy during a beating. It never worked.

When he was nine, Kevin made several attempts to take his life by jumping in front of moving cars, just so he could escape the wrath of his father. He admits that his nine-year-old self had no idea what suicide was, he simply knew that death would release him from George’s clutches. Such gut-wrenching admissions come thick and fast in Belt Boy, and Lueshing hides nothing. His description of one particular beating from his father begins the whole book – the chapter is entitled ‘Blood in the Snow’.

At 10, Lueshing was suspended from school just before the Christmas holidays, but did not tell his parents out of fear of what his father would do. He pretended to go to school each day but instead would hang out at the local park.

When his father eventually found out, Kevin escaped to his grandmother’s house to seek refuge. His father followed, and dragged him back home. He stripped the 10-year-old Kevin to his underwear and forced him into the back garden, where he battered his tiny, defenceless body with jump leads.

“That’s the most horrific thing I’ve ever been through in my life. That’s hard to talk about. I try and visualise it and I think, ‘Did that really happen?’” Lueshing said.

“But it’s printed into my subconsciousness. That can never be erased from my memory, just like me fighting [Felix] Trinidad can never be, or fighting Chris Saunders. It’s a deep scar.

“Talking about the beatings to other people, they think it’s obscene and horrible but as a kid, it was just normal. It was all I knew.”

Lueshing only became aware of the inevitable impact of those beatings in later life, long after he had retired from boxing.

His father, before a beating, would make Kevin go into the bedroom and make the tortuous choice of which belt he was to be struck with.

Now, Lueshing is acutely aware of how the dread which filled him as a child when he made his way up the stairs of 101 Clockhouse Road to select his father’s weapon affected him as a boxer.

“I couldn’t shake off that fear that my dad instilled in me,” he admitted. “I always carried this anxiety, every time I stepped into the ring it was the same fear I felt when my dad told me to go upstairs to get a belt for him to beat me with. I didn’t realise that’s what it was until I retired.

“I’d walk home from school down my road and be scared that my dad was in. Walking to a ring, you know what’s coming. It was the same with my dad when he told me to get a belt, walking up the stairs to get it terrified me.”

Just months after that horrendous beating in the snow, Kevin started doing the local paper round, which is when he met Derek.

Derek helped organise the rounds, and Lueshing writes about how this kind old man took a shine to him, had more interest in him than his own parents.

As he puts it: “Derek’s attention was better than no attention.”

Lueshing’s account of the grooming process, the innocent thoughts that filled his mind as Derek plied him with sweets and comics, is terrifying.

Lueshing had no idea of the depravity of what Derek was doing to him, and so he kept returning to his house. Derek would pay him £2.50 for each visit, during which he would perform sexual acts on Kevin, and the 10-year-old would just think about what he could spend the money on. Chocolate, the latest issue of The Beano, a trip to the cinema. Kids stuff.

Then, during one visit, Derek tried to rape Kevin, all the while whispering into his ear that, “It’s alright, nothing’s going to hurt. Don’t worry, you’ll really like it.”

Lueshing resisted, getting the attention of Val, the old lady who owned the decaying building Derek lived in. As Derek went downstairs to calm her down, Kevin escaped and never saw the man again. He believes he is now dead.

Speaking about his decision to only reveal the story now, Lueshing said: “I was tempted to speak about it earlier, but I spoke more about my father, rather than the sexual abuse. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. Who would want to fight a sexually abused boxer? It’s not a subject of conversation that you start an interview with. It was never going to work.

“I knew it wasn’t the right time to talk. It was for the right reasons. How can you talk about something like that in a macho sport like boxing? I had children as well, it would have been hard to explain it to them and it would have distracted people away from my boxing.”

The section of the book detailing what happened with Derek makes for extremely difficult reading.

It is also essential reading.

According to the NSPCC, 24 per cent of young adults have experienced sexual abuse (contact or non-contact) as a child. One in 20 children are sexually abused (contact), and one in every three children suffering sexual abuse do not report it at the time.

Lueshing’s story is not an uncommon one – indeed, the NSPCC believe that a disrupted home life makes a child more vulnerable to sexual abuse – but it is rare for a victim to be so brave in their admission of what they suffered.

That Lueshing was a prominent boxer, a profession in which not many admit to vulnerability, makes his honesty all the more remarkable.

As he explained: “When I was a kid we were scared to talk to people because no one would believe us. I said to him, ‘Don’t worry Derek, your secret is safe with me. Who would believe me?’”

Society is much more aware of the problem nowadays, something Lueshing is thankful for, and the NSPCC has seen a sharp rise in reports of sexual offences against children in recent years – there were 36,429 in 2013-14.

While that figure is alarming, it also conveys that more people are spotting the issue and speaking out. However, there is still a serious stigma attached to sexual abuse.

Towards the end of our interview, Lueshing revealed that since the release of his book three different men have approached him and spoken about similar experiences. All three made him promise he would not say a word about who they are or what happened to them.

Lueshing’s suffering took its toll, and growing up he went off the rails. He bullied other kids, was expelled from school, stole and didn’t stop selling drugs until he won the British title in 1996.

He began boxing simply as a way to keep himself out of the house and away from his father, but it turned into a love affair which would ultimately give him a reason to keep going.

“It upsets me when people say they’re only in it [boxing] for the money, it’s wrong,” he mused.

“Boxing saved me. I would have boxed for a penny for the British title. Boxing changed my life, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for boxing.”

Kevin Leushing

The NSPCC – who will receive every penny Lueshing makes from his book – do incredible work for vulnerable children.

There are tens of thousands of children suffering abuse in the UK today, be it physical, sexual or over the Internet. Many won’t have an outlet like boxing, but in Lueshing they have an example of how to rise above the horror and speak out.

drugs

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I’LL say what I’m about to say with the sincerity and sensitivity of a parent revealing to their child Santa doesn’t exist: all your favourite fighters are drug cheats.

Okay, not all of them. But certainly some of them. That guy with the world title. That guy who moved through the weights. That guy who scored that highlight-reel knockout you watch again and again. That big guy. That small guy. That guy you loved when he was active and now refer to him as a ‘legend’ and a ‘hero’ and await his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Yeah, all those guys used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) at some point in their career.

To the hardened spectator, this is perhaps no great revelation, nor a big deal. After all, time and time again we forgive those who have failed a drug test and served their sentence because they are still fighters and we still want fights. If they produce good ones, that’s seemingly all that matters, irrespective of past transgressions. But spare a thought for the boxers who have had to actually get in a ring and oppose drug cheats, many of them having entered the sport under the false impression they’d be competing on a level playing field and that the boxer who woke the earliest and ran the furthest and punched the hardest and abstained the longest and downed the most raw eggs would ultimately be victorious. Consider those guys for a moment. For them, the bombshell is all the more jarring; pain and defeat is one thing, occupational hazards no less, but having their illusion shattered, albeit a naïve, fanciful one, means something else entirely.

“The sport I love is being prostituted and tainted,” says Philadelphia’s former two-time IBF cruiserweight titlist Steve “USS” Cunningham. “Everybody knows I’m clean, and me being clean and fighting a guy who isn’t makes me sick.”

This happened in August 2015 when Cunningham faced ex-undisputed world light-heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver. They fought to a draw in New Jersey only for Tarver, a man who popped for the anabolic steroid drostanolone in 2012 (following a draw with Lateef Kayode), to test positive for synthetic testosterone, for which he was banned six months and fined $50,000. It came as no surprise to Cunningham, of course. With the Kayode incident on his mind, he even told Tarver at the pre-fight media workout that he would file a lawsuit against anyone – he purposely kept it vague – who failed a drug test after sharing a ring with him.

Antonio Tarver

“You don’t want to think he’ll cheat because he has already been caught once and there’s a spotlight on him,” says Cunningham. “But that just goes to show you the mindset of Antonio Tarver. He doesn’t care. He knows he has his star power and he knows it will make him money regardless.

“I now believe all his big fights should be in question, especially that 2004 knockout of Roy Jones. But the boxing community don’t really understand the depth and severity of it. When Tarver popped, I went on his Facebook page and his fans were patting him on the back and saying, ‘Oh, we know they’re lying.’ I’m thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, the dude failed a second test! What more proof do you fools need? He’s a cheat.’ It showed me that a guy with his type of star power, a future Hall of Famer, can do basically anything.”

He knocked out Roy Jones. He played Mason “The Line” Dixon in Rocky Balboa. Alas, fight fans find reasons to forgive and forget, much to Cunningham’s chagrin, and the deceit continues. Tarver is still active. He still commentates for television. He remains a personality very much in demand.

“In a perfect world, if you fail one drug test, you need to be stripped of everything and banned for life,” says Cunningham. “I’m a grown man. I’m not going to put anything in my body without knowing exactly what it is. If they give you a pill or powder or shake or needle, why would you take it? All excuses are bulls**t. These guys get desperate and try to find a way out.”

If given the option, heavyweight David Price would have gobbled up the chance to salvage a draw in dirty bouts with Tony Thompson (July 2013) and Erkan Teper (July 2015). Fate, however, conspired to deal the Liverpudlian a much heftier blow. He was stopped twice, outlasted in one fight, knocked out in the other, and only some time later did he discover both his opponents had failed drug tests (Thompson for hydrochlorothiazide, Teper for an entire lab’s worth of unpronounceable PEDs). The results of the fights left Price’s career in turmoil, while the results of the tests spun him into a state of paranoia.

drugs

“I would never dream of doing anything like that for two reasons,” he says. “One, it’s completely wrong on an ethical level. Two, I’d be f*****g terrified of getting caught. It’s my livelihood. If I get caught and banned, it’s over. In my naïve mind, nobody else was risking it for the same reasons. But the truth is, they f*****g are. There’s a lot of unscrupulous people out there who will do anything to get the upper hand. Teper, for example, had been caught before [in June 2014]. If I’d known that, I would have probably refused to fight him. Knowledge is important. You need to know about an opponent’s past. Going forward, it has definitely made me paranoid.”

In the lead-up to their October 2012 fight in Brooklyn, New York, Danny Garcia knew Erik Morales, the great Erik Morales, failed two drug tests for clenbuterol, the PED that saw Alberto Contador stripped of the 2010 Tour de France title, but was also aware that “El Terrible” had supposedly passed a third test during fight week, which is to say he hadn’t officially violated the three-strikes-and-you’re-out drug testing policy of the New York State Athletic Commission. Furthermore, he knew Morales was 38 years of age and long past his best, and he knew he stood to pocket around a million dollars for beating up the leathery Mexican. So that’s why the fight, one shrouded in controversy, went ahead.

Amir Khan, on the other hand, took the opposite approach upon being informed Lamont Peterson had tested positive for a banned substance (the American admitted to testosterone replacement therapy) ahead of their proposed rematch in May 2012. He, unlike Garcia, felt going through with the fight, bumper payday and all, wasn’t worth the risk it now entailed.

“Chris Byrd [the former IBF heavyweight champion] told me he fought guys on the juice – a lot of them – and reassured me by saying you can still beat them,” says Cunningham. “So that was my mindset going into fights where I knew someone was on drugs. You weigh it up.

“In my position, I’m going abroad a lot. I’m up against it. You go to some guy’s hometown and you’re fighting the star of that country. It’s bigger than just a fight. Things get overlooked when there’s that much riding on a guy getting a win.”

In a damning indictment of the state of the game, Cunningham, when pressed to put a figure on the opponents he believes were enhanced by drugs when sharing a ring with him, quickly loses count. “Too many,” says the 16-year professional, chuckling at the absurdity of it all.

“Okay, what about just championship fights?” I say.

He pauses. Mumbles a little. “One, two, three, four, five, maybe six… Yeah, I’d say, in my nine championship fights, five or six of those guys were definitely using performance-enhancing drugs. For sure.”

“How can you be certain?”

He laughs a second time. “Man, fighters talk, coaches talk. When we go to training camp, it’s boring, there’s downtime. Boxing is a very small community and a lot of people know who is using.

“Also, my trips to Europe showed me a lot, and just fighting at a level where titles are at stake has shown me a lot. When there’s big money involved, people do crazy things to get and retain power.”

Cunningham, now 40, has emerged relatively unscathed. He has confronted drug cheats in the ring, taken that risk, and points defeats have been the extent of his suffering. Price, on the other hand, has seen a promising career in the heavyweight division, the division in which big bucks can be made and lives can be changed, cruelly derailed as a result of crucial crossroads fights not going his way. He has been knocked out. He has missed out on paydays. His reputation has unfairly been dented. Chinny. Fragile. Overhyped. He has heard it all. Retirement, they said, was his only option. He split from his trainer. He deconstructed his own character. All because of what he calls “cheating rats”.

David Price

“I’m my own worst critic,” he says. “So, initially, I thought it doesn’t matter if they cheated, I still lost those fights. But then I spoke to people about it and they put me right. The Teper fight, in particular, may as well have been a sparring session in the gym that went wrong and ended up on YouTube. It shouldn’t be classed as a proper fight.

“I’ll never know because I’d never do it, but I’d love to know what it feels like to be on whatever Teper and Thompson were on. If they’ve been breaking records in training, feeling unbeatable, lifting more, running quicker, throwing more punches, recovering quicker, the energy of the fight swings in their favour before the first bell has even rung. They’ve got an edge psychologically. They believe they are invincible. I have to tell myself it made a difference.”

Price, like every other boxer, yearns for this psychological edge each time he sets foot in the ring. He looks for reasons to be confident. He walks tall. He sieves out negativity. He tells himself he is the biggest puncher in the division and that he has the edge over his opponent in all other departments. But now he can never truly be sure.

“I’ve always been accused, and rightly so, of not believing in myself,” he continues. “I get in the ring and hope I’m going to win. I have little doubts. And that night against Teper was no different. The thing is, though, when I knocked out Audley Harrison in one round, I had the same doubts but I got the job done. So I know Erkan Teper had a massive advantage psychologically, emotionally and physically against me. And Tony Thompson may have had the same.”

This is all new to Price, this sudden suspicion and cynicism, but a veteran like Cunningham has been shooting sideways glances for years. “The names I’ve heard using, even from back in the day, just depress me,” he says. “The guys you think are legendary, many of them weren’t clean. And it’s the same today, of course. People don’t understand how rampant this crap is. They don’t understand how many big-name fighters are on something.”

Unshackled and angry, Cunningham finds comfort in disclosing a few of these names. One of them has a title shot coming up. He’ll get away with it, Steve says. They always do. “The tests cost a lot of money and they don’t test for everything,” he adds. “That’s the problem. There are too many illegal enhancements slipping through the net. Guys know what the testers are looking for, so they use some other stuff and time it right.”

Deny the guilty ones further opportunities, Price believes. Ignore them, make them outcasts. For this reason he’ll never again fight Erkan Teper despite a thirst for revenge. It’s also the reason why he recently turned down a bout with Antonio Tarver. “By taking a fight with Tarver, I’d almost be condoning his actions,” he explains.

Cunningham appreciates the support. It’s not exactly forthcoming elsewhere. “I went to file a lawsuit against Tarver and visited a lawyer who basically told me that in order for me to win, even though Tarver failed a test,
I had to incur some other damage aside from what normally happens in a boxing match,” he says.

“That means something other than a cut eye, a bruise, concussion and so on. I had to have either been put in a coma or killed. Only then would they do anything about it. That’s when it really hit me. You can’t sue drug cheats unless you’re disabled or dead.”

In April 1994, Londoner Bradley Stone tragically died at the hands of British super-bantamweight champion Richie Wenton, a mild-mannered Liverpudlian whose aim was to win, not kill.

Stone was stopped in 10 rounds inside Bethnal Green’s York Hall and then collapsed at his fiancee’s flat. He passed away two days later. Wenton, meanwhile, got wind of Stone’s deterioration back in Devon, when in the process of parading his new belt around town, and was hit hard. He was clean, he had won fair and square, he was the underdog-turned-champion, yet all this seemed beside the point when faces in the community suddenly toughened in his presence. No longer joyful and pleased for him, they were instead now inquisitive and judgemental. They questioned his initial exuberance, questioned the ease with which he soaked up the acclaim, questioned the very nature of his sport. Some even held him accountable. His life, let alone career, was never the same.

Six years on, in May 2000, Wenton faced Gary Thornhill in his penultimate fight. He was stopped in eight rounds.

“The dirty little b*****d was on speed,” Richie says years after the fact. [Thornhill did indeed test positive for amphetamines and was stripped of the British featherweight title and banned for six months.]

“I boxed him three times as an amateur and stopped him every time,” Wenton goes on. “So, when [promoter] Frank Warren put a few names to me, I picked Thornhill as an opponent because I thought I’d beat him. Well, he comes to the weigh-in all amped-up and angry and I thought he must be struggling at the weight. He was shouting his mouth off.

“He then gets in the ring, we go eight rounds and I say to my corner, ‘That’s it, pull me out. I’m not going on with him.’ He was like a machine, pushing forward all the time. I was talking to him in the ring and saying, ‘You’re going to get tired. You’ll slow down.’ He wouldn’t talk back to me, though. He just kept coming.”

Wenton stops, shakes his head in disbelief, then continues, “Imagine if he had badly hurt someone in that state. Or killed someone. That’s as good as murder. At least manslaughter. Believe me, I know more than most how dangerous this f*****g game is. It’s me who was once called a ‘killer’, remember. But these drug cheats – whether caught or not – are the ones truly getting away with murder.”