THIRTY-three years ago today, at The Royal Albert Hall in the heart of London, heavyweight Gary Mason boxed for the first time as a pro. Stopping Al Malcolm – whom Mason would also beat in his second bout – in the first round Mason would go on to become a hugely popular fighter in the U.K – enjoying crossover appeal to rival that of Frank Bruno.
A thickset, physically strong man, Mason overcame his lack of foot speed with his raw strength and power, at times bludgeoning opponents to defeat. This is not to suggest Gary was incapable of scoring impressive knockouts, however, and at times the Jamaican-born slugger put together some very nice displays of punching prowess. By 1988, then aged 25, Mason was matched with capable and durable US opposition such as Alonzo Ratliff, Ricky Parkey and James “Quick” Tillis. Mason halted all three men, and by January of the following year he was ready to fight for the British heavyweight crown.
Mason had struggled and looked ponderous and lacking in stamina in some of his fights on the way up, yet he had kept a clean sheet in reaching a 28-0 ledger, and his team, which included the knowledgeable duo of Mickey Duff and Terry Lawless, felt he was more than capable of beating Hughroy Currie for the vacant British title. This was proven correct and after scoring a stoppage inside four-rounds, Mason looked set for even bigger triumphs. Again he was put in with American fighters, by this time being matched with fringe world contenders Tyrell Biggs (Mason scoring a come-from-behind KO in the seventh-round, after having looked, as commentator Harry Carpenter put it, “sold out”) and the colourfully nicknamed Everett “Big Foot” Martin (Gary winning a wide ten-round points verdict).
By now world ranked himself and being talked of as a possible challenger for the all conquering Mike Tyson, Mason instead wound up taking a lucrative fight with unbeaten Lennox Lewis just over a year after Tyson’s stunning upset loss to Buster Douglas. Lewis had won Olympic gold in 1988 and by 1990 he was the European heavyweight ruler. Mason was guaranteed a huge purse of close to £300,000 and he was a slight betting favourite to have too much experience for Lewis, who was perceived as being just a little too green at pro level. But Mason carried into the ring with him a handicap. Less than a year earlier, he had undergone surgery for a detached retina and against Lewis, in March of 1991, the right eye was again badly damaged. Pounded shut by a remorseless Lewis, Mason’s eye made for a ghastly image.
Showing real fighting heart when all was lost, Mason literally bit down on his mouth-piece in the seventh-round and gave it all he had in one last effort to get rid of his tormentor. Lewis rode out the brief storm and then, thankfully, the fight was stopped, with Gary still on his feet but in a world of pain. Mason would later say the pain of being punched in his battered right eye was like “being jammed in the eye with a red-hot poker.”
And, just like that, 28-year-old Mason’s once promising career was all but over (he did make a short-lived comeback, winning on two occasions, with both fights taking place out in the U.S, as he was unable to get a licence to box in Britain). His career over earlier than it should have been, Gary tried his hand at a number of things after exiting the ring: he was a would-be shop owner, opening doomed jewellery store “Punch ’n’ Jewellery, he had a go at pro rugby, he tried promoting arm wrestling and, most successfully, Gary popped up as a regular pundit on Sky Sport’s Ringside show with Gary Norman. Unfortunately, a slip of the tongue that occurred when the cameras were still rolling cost Gary his job (he made the mistake of using foul language).
Gary all but disappeared from view after his Sky Sports mishap and it wasn’t until his untimely death in January of 2011, when aged just 48, that Mason made the headlines once again. Knocked off his cycle by a van driver, Gary lost his life in a most tragic and sad way.
Despite not achieving what was at one time within the realms of possibility, Gary should be remembered as a solid, brave and reliably-chinned heavyweight. Only Lewis defeated him, and years later the all-time great declared how Mason was one of the hardest hitters he ever went in with.
Mason’s final ring record reads a more than respectable 37-1(34).