AL MALCOLM, the former Birmingham heavyweight who died last week aged 62 years old, used to say he was inches away from rewriting boxing history. Malcolm was chosen as Lennox Lewis’ opponent for his professional debut at the Royal Albert Hall in June, 1989.
The promise of promoter Frank Maloney on the posters was The Birth of the Champion but that wasn’t how Malcolm saw his six-rounder against the 1988 Olympic super-heavyweight champion.
He was coming off a win over former European title challenger Andre van den Oetelaar in the Netherlands and had exposed another former Olympian, Bobby Wells, who won bronze in Los Angeles in 1984. Malcolm burst his bubble with a sixth-round stoppage in his second professional fight.
“Pro boxing is a lot tougher than the amateurs,” said Al. “That was how I looked at it.”
As it turned out, Lewis was rather better suited to the paid ranks than Wells. In the final minute of the opening round, both threw left hooks and Malcolm ended up on the floor.
“I saw the round through, got back to the corner and [trainer] Bobby [Neill] said: ‘What are you doing? You have to let him have it. You’ve got to land that right hand,’” said Malcolm when I visited him a few years ago. “I always had that shot.”
Malcolm wanted to be able to punch like Earnie Shavers and said he would smash his right fist into tree trunks and punch bags for hours to boost his power.
“Once I landed that right hand it was as all over,” he said. “One shot was all I needed. You could be beating me, then I would land that right hand…
“I went out there at the start of the second round to throw it and it was a bad mistake. I should have danced around and looked for the opening. Boom! He hit me smack in the eye. He landed his left hand just before I landed my right hand and my opportunity was lost. I had thrown it away. I was so close.”
A decade later, Malcolm – who also lost twice to Gary Mason – missed Lewis again.
By then, Lennox was the world champion and after hearing Malcolm was training boxers at a gym in Birmingham, he went there to visit him.
“I had gone to work on the doors,” said Malcolm. “But I spoke to him on the phone and told him he was lucky!”
Malcolm wasn’t lucky. He had to quit boxing after pulling off the best win of his career. He headed to Sicily in August, 1991 to meet unbeaten Italian Salvatore Inserra in a ring placed on a football pitch. Mafia members were rumoured to be at ringside and after Malcolm wiped out the local favourite inside a round with a right hand, trainer Len Woodhall shouted: “What have you done? You’re going to get us killed!”
Malcolm was on the brink of a big fight, but it never happened. An eye problem meant the former Midlands Area champion had to retire with a record of 12-19-2 in 1991.
He went on to run a gym – on the top floor of a battered and bruised old building opposite Winson Green Prison in Birmingham (beneath it was a smoky pool hall frequented by somewhat shady clientele). In the gym, Malcolm was known for his jovial character and would let those training pound a body belt he would wear in the tired old ring at the back of the room.
“You’re not quite as good as Lennox,” he chuckled as he educated wannabe boxers on the finer points of the noble art.
But he would often complain of pain in his back as he limped through the ropes at the end of sessions. It would later turn out he suffered from spondylosis, a spinal condition, that restricted his mobility and kept him in hospital for the last few years of his life where he was cared for by his daughter.
Malcolm was described on Facebook “the smiling face of boxing” and “a well-respected man.” We’ll second that.