IN GUYANA, his homeland, they prefer to call him ‘Boxer’ and he likes it this way. By choosing to address him by his profession, rather than using his given name, the locals show their respect for Howard Eastman’s past achievements while also granting him the one thing he has been craving for at least 15 years: anonymity.
“One of the reasons why I ran away from London is because of all the memories of my life,” Eastman said from his home. “Sometimes I just want to turn a new page. But I can’t run away from Howard Eastman because I then get guys like you chasing me.
“I don’t talk to anybody. Nobody can reach me. They can’t find me out here. You’re the only one who did. Once I knew who was chasing me, I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to talk to him.’”
The first time I interviewed Howard Eastman it was July 2003 and he was sitting inside one of the changing rooms of the Norwich Sports Village having just stopped Frenchman Hacine Cherifi in defence of his European middleweight title. Still in character, most of the answers he offered me that night were brief and ambiguous, owing either to post-fight fatigue or, more likely, a need to live up to the eccentric, truculent weirdo reputation he had throughout the years created for himself as a means of protection. But, at 16, I knew no better and didn’t really mind.
Eighteen years on, Eastman, now 50, is even more reluctant to be interviewed. He has fled from journalists and from himself, or at least that version of himself, and today views London, our only common ground, through a different lens than he did when he called it home.
Back then, London was, to Eastman, many things. It was where Howard and his brothers, Gilbert and Nigel, moved with their parents a week before Howard turned 15; it was where he learned to box, having been assured by his father that there would, in London, be greater opportunities to exercise; it was where he also once slept on the streets, for a time seeking and, most nights, finding warmth on the underground.
“London was very trying for me,” he said. “I had a dream and I knew that London was where the dream was possible. But in order to get to the dream I had to overcome certain obstacles. London is a beautiful place but underneath the beauty there is something else. In life, sometimes you have to go through the ugly to get to the beauty. I had to go through some stuff.
“It was all partly building Howard Eastman’s character, though, so I wouldn’t want to change it. If it wasn’t for the rough times I had on the street, I don’t think I would have been so tough in the ring. Pound-for-pound, I took the best punches from all of them and I never fell down. It was London that made me hard and strong like that. I went through a lot of difficulties and that was part of training me for the ring.”
The Eastman training programme, as demanding and unorthodox as any, saw him start in Carey Gardens, Battersea, before later leaving his breadcrumb trail in Elephant and Castle and Deptford. Sometimes he would find shelter in these places and other times he would have to create his own. “We had to do a lot of walking and then we got to know the underground,” he said. “I spent a few nights in the underground, dodging the guy who comes to see if anyone’s hiding, because it’s warm in there when it’s cold upstairs. I’ve been locked down there with the trains just to keep warm. The inspectors never saw me.
“Believe it or not, I was never scared of the dark. I was just scared of people. I just prayed I could get a hot meal from somewhere. You have to beg sometimes and it’s not easy. People in London don’t really want to give you something when you’re begging. They don’t tolerate the homeless.”
Eastman’s voyage through the streets of London led him to Centrepoint, Stockwell, where he was helped by the YMCA and where he first met the mother of one of his sons. Without the YMCA, Eastman says he would be “six feet under” and would certainly never have been able to thrive as a professional boxer, which, against the odds, is precisely what he did.
It is when listening to men like Eastman, 49-13 (38), you begin to realise that the fighters who speak of hardship and pain solely in the context of what happened to them inside a boxing ring are the lucky ones. “When I was on the streets of London, homeless, I remember walking in the snow,” he said. “I had never experienced snow before but my body got so cold, then it got frozen, and then it got warm again. I will never understand how that happened. It was like I had some kind of heater in the body and it just switched on. It was something inside of me I can’t explain. But I think that’s why when people hit me, I didn’t fall down. I was born with something inside me to overcome all of that. I want to know what it is myself. I ask myself why all the time. I’m still trying to find out who I am, too.”
Both enigma and chameleon, Eastman would be the first to say he was an amalgamation of many influences and experiences. Along the way he absorbed the spirit of the people he encountered as a child in Guyana, as well as the people he encountered as an adult on the streets of London, and he later combined and manifested all the lessons taught to him by boxers like Jack Johnson, Roberto Duran, and Mike Tyson, each of whom he studied growing up. Even his blonde beard, as iconic as any in boxing, was something borrowed.
“I’m in Deptford and I’m thinking one day I’m going to be famous,” Eastman said. “I look in the mirror and decide that I need to create a style. What shall I do?
“I used to watch a lot of kung-fu movies and tried to learn from these movies to develop Howard Eastman. The beard that you saw came from Silverfox. I thought to myself, ‘They don’t know me for kicking people but I’m going to take the beard off this guy and take it into boxing.’”
Opponents also left their mark on Eastman, with one, in particular, responsible for teaching him during three different phases of his fighting life: sparring partner, opponent, coach. “When I fought Robert McCracken, that was, for me, a step up,” Eastman said of his British, Commonwealth and European title fight in April 2001. “People didn’t believe Howard Eastman had the qualities to beat Robert McCracken and I could understand why. Robert was not a normal fighter. He was a very special guy. He was already a top fighter in London. He was well-schooled. He was the bee’s knees.
“I met him at a younger age, when I didn’t have much experience in the game, and I was a sparring partner for Robert. Tony Mancini (Eastman’s mentor and coach) wanted me to get work with Robert McCracken as often as possible. I never knew at the time what he saw but now I understand what he was doing. He was giving me the experience and figured I could learn from Robert. Robert was teaching me a lot when I was sparring with him. He trained me even when we were sparring.
“When it came to fight, he thought he could do the things to me he used to do in sparring, but I was learning all the time. I remember your weaknesses. I adapt.
“People were very shocked by the outcome but I knew I had it in me to beat him. I had to step up my game, though. If I didn’t, he would have dealt with me. It takes a good guy to beat him.”
After being stopped inside 10 rounds by Eastman, McCracken elected to retire from boxing at the relatively young age of 32. “I knew how much Robert loved boxing and said to myself, ‘I’ve got to bring him in as a trainer to train me,’” Eastman recalled. “A lot of people close to me said I was mad. M-A-D. They said it was mad to bring in someone I had defeated to train me. But the people saying these things did not know Howard Eastman. Robert was like a friend to me. He was helping me and training me when I was coming up. He was teaching me before he even knew it. He taught me to beat him without even knowing it.
“I called him one day and said he had to train me. I said, ‘Where you’re at is not where you need to be. You need to be in the boxing circle.’
“He was a very good trainer. If it wasn’t for Robert McCracken, I wouldn’t have been Howard Eastman. He helped build me.”
If all Eastman’s influences and experiences were leading up to something, that something appeared to be a shot at William Joppy, the WBA belt-holder, in November 2001. That was meant to be his coronation night; the night one of the 160-pound division’s most feared and avoided contenders finally came of age and received his first taste of popularity. But, alas, it didn’t work out like that. “I can tell you why I didn’t win the fight now,” said Eastman, beaten on a majority decision by Joppy that night. “I never signed with Don King.”
Long before King watched Joppy, his fighter, defeat Eastman, the self-managed maverick, he had flown to London to set up a meeting with Britain’s number one middleweight. “He persuaded me to sit with him in a Chinese restaurant and gave me a lot of talk about future plans and what he had up his sleeve,” Eastman said. “Basically, he tried to pimp me. He wanted me to sign the document in front of him. I said, ‘With all due respect, I admire you, and I want to be like you, and that is one of the reasons I am self-managed.’ That didn’t go down very well. Don King liked to look around and see the potential bad boys coming up and he then wanted to control you. People don’t know all this because I am so private.”
Don King left London frustrated, which was the exact same emotion Eastman then experienced the night he faced Joppy in Las Vegas. “I beat Joppy pretty much every single round,” he said. “The whole world saw that.
“But I was fighting Don King and he is not one person. He is a much bigger entity. The judges around ringside are all Don King.
“In a way I was a fool for not signing with him. Things could have been different if I had. I said to myself later, ‘Shucks, if only I had signed with him, I would have been a world champion.’
“But it shouldn’t be like that. A man should be able to willingly go where he feels comfortable and not be forced to do something they don’t want to do. That’s the problem with the boxing game, all the tricks involved.
“I had to knock Joppy out to win and I tried my best to do this. But he’s a very skilled guy and it was not easy. I put him down in the last round and he got up real quick.
“I saw him in the hotel lobby afterwards and his face was all swollen and looked like a big ball. I said, ‘Did you win the fight?’ He just shrugged. He had no control over what happened. He knew Don King won the fight for him.”
It’s only right that a man with nine lives gets a second chance and Eastman’s came some four years after the Joppy defeat. He had, by that stage, reigned as European champion again, retaining the belt three times, and would, to fulfil his world title dream, have to conquer the meanest champion of them all: Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins.
Few fights have contained as much combined toughness as Hopkins vs Eastman on February 19, 2005, but the guile of Hopkins was, in the end, the key difference between the two. “I haven’t told anybody what happened with the Hopkins fight,” said Eastman, outpointed once more on his big night. “It took me a long time to speak with anyone about anything. I’ve just stayed away from it all. I had to leave everything. The way I was mentally, I had to get away.
“But, basically, Bernard was a very lucky guy. The night before the fight I had something happen to me that should have never happened.
“One of my problems was that because I was self-managed I believed I could take care of everything. But I’m my own worst enemy. I really needed people around me. Sometimes in life people are so determined to get to you, they get to you. They will do anything.
“I had a visitor the night before the Hopkins fight and they should never have been there. It was so close to me, so dear to me. If I had a manager, they would have made sure no one had access to me until after the fight. But I gave access to an individual and this created a major distraction for me. Hopkins was no problem for me at all. I could have knocked him out easily.”
Only with hindsight has Eastman come to accept that the things that made the “Battersea Bomber” such a formidable force were also, in a cruel twist of fate, the things that were detrimental to his progress at the elite level – namely, stubbornness, a lack of trust, and single-mindedness.
“When I was in Hollywood, I saw Evander Holyfield fight,” he said. “I was in his changing room and he said to me, ‘Eastman, I saw your fight [against Joppy],’ and he was lecturing me, but positively. I could see in Holyfield’s camp this team working for him. I said to myself, ‘Shucks, that’s what I was lacking.’ I couldn’t see it until I saw Holyfield’s situation. I learned a lot from him. He educated me so much about life that night.
“One of my downfalls as a fighter, in terms of not getting the world title, was never having a management team. Because teamwork is so important. Without teamwork, you can never be a world champion. Being a lone wolf messed me up. You’ve got to have a team that is connected to make it easier for the fighter to do what they have to do.”
After the Hopkins fight, Eastman flew from Los Angeles to London and before the week was over had then flown to Guyana, his country of birth. “I was just so vexed and upset with everything that happened,” he said. “I told myself I was going to be a world champion and it never happened.
“It took me a few years to deal with it all. The distance between London and Guyana, and the time that has passed, has given me the chance to reflect and get over it all.”
Though he split his life between Guyana and the UK in that testing period post-Hopkins, the last time Eastman visited England was in December, when he returned to London to celebrate his 50th birthday. Having now spent ample time away, he admits to missing the following: his family, including his brother, Gilbert, a former pro, and his son, Troy; the warmth and honesty of the British people; ice apples; his African grey cockatoos.
“Hear this,” he said. “When I came back to Guyana, I had parrots, but the parrots we’ve got here I got them when they were baby parrots, so they had no feathers on their skin. These parrots, they’re loose. They can fly. Once they hear my voice, no matter where they are, they come land on me. I jump on my bike, and I’m riding my bike, and these guys are flying alongside me on this 1000cc bike. They’re Caribbean macaws, blue and yellow and white and black, and it’s beautiful seeing these boys fly with me. As soon as I stop and talk, they fly up and away. Then when I’m ready to go I call them down and they land on top of me. People want to know how I do it. I don’t even know. I’ve just got a way with birds.”
In Guyana, Eastman is now busy working with the government to implement boxing in schools, all the while hoping one of his three sons will follow in his footsteps and attempt to become a champion. He has not given up the ghost of returning to the ring himself, either, admitting he thinks about it every day and that his aim is to train for two or three more professional fights.
“Here’s what happened the other day,” he said. “I’m in the yard and one of my sons said to me, ‘Dad, someone has come to see you.’ I said, ‘Okay, who is it?’ He said, ‘There’s a guy outside with gloves on and he wants to spar with you.’ I said, ‘Are you sure it’s me he wants to spar?’ He said, ‘Yes.’
“So I went to see this guy and it was a guy who turned up from the town – I’m living in the suburbs – and he had ran with his gloves and boxing boots on to challenge me. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. I said, ‘Boy, are you sure you want to spar with me?’ I called my son and said, ‘Why don’t you spar with him?’ But he didn’t want to. So I told him to bring me my gloves. I then told him to go and get my boots for me.
“I did some time with this kid and he was very talented – strong as an ox. But he just didn’t have the technical ability like me. Despite my age, they can’t touch me. I deal with them. But I was impressed by the mindset of this individual. He ran about six miles to reach me.”
Perseverance. It’s something Eastman himself often demonstrated throughout his fighting life and it’s something, in retirement, he has come to appreciate in others. Were that not the case, we never would have spoken. ‘Boxer’ would not have allowed himself to be found.