THERE was a stab vest, an address, three useless numbers and a corner of old-fashioned dossers in my search for Kirkland Laing in the early summer of 2003.
The short film made by the BBC was 9 minutes and 52 seconds long, much shorter than Laing’s 10 rounds of glory in 1982 when he beat Roberto Duran. However, the film was not about Laing the fighter, it was about where Laing the man had finished after a life in boxing.
We started – Paul Middleton, the producer, and cameraman Martin Bobbin – at 9am. We drove to the Downs Estate in Hackney, east London. We parked, I put on the mandatory vest under a jumper. It was ordered for safety, but we had refused the security.
A dozen years earlier I had interviewed Laing in the flat I was going to. That had been chaotic, Laing smoking weed and laughing. The buzzer on the block was broken and I made my way up the stairs, stepping over prams and bikes. Bobbin was behind me. I had already called all of the mobile numbers and they were dead.
I knocked and shouted at his battered door. It was the first of five or six visits to that door at the end of the landing. Neighbours stopped coming out and peering through windows by about the third time; we were no longer news. Laing was not in, nobody could be certain when they had last seen him.
I called local fighter Ian Napa and he told me about the short parade of shops opposite the flats and told me Kirk often drank there. I had seen the men outside one of the stores on an earlier sweep. I went and casually bought some beer, nodded at the three or four men on the way in, shared the beers on the way out. I never stayed long, never asked too many questions the first time. By about five I was a regular outside that shop and we filmed it from across the road through the window of our small van. I was a different type of cornerman that afternoon.
My new friends had different stories to tell about Kirk. “Does he still look good?” I had asked. A man earlier on his landing had said he was in decent shape. My new buddies looked at me like I was crazy. “He’s f**ked, man. He looks like a black Santa. He’s in a bad way.” Not good, I needed Kirk’s friends.
At the Lion gym I spoke to with Brian Lawrence, desperate for leads; Lawrence and Joe Ryan had worked with Laing in rings across the globe. Lawrence had no idea where Laing was: “You will find him on a street corner or in a drug den.” I knew that.
At about seven after a long day, I went to Hackney Downs Park, next to Laing’s flat and a place where he had been seen. I was reading a sign and noticed a name at the bottom of the list of rules and regulations for park users. The man to contact for all enquiries about the park was called John Zeraschi. I knew a John Zeraschi, he had won the ABA light-welterweight title in 1975 boxing for the Fitzroy Lodge, one of my first boxing idols. It had to be the same John. I called the number, it was the same John, and ten minutes later we were sitting in a chicken shop.
Zeraschi knew how to get Laing. He could find him for us. We would have to give Laing “a few quid” (we settled on £250) and probably get him a beer. Zeraschi took my number and asked that we try and find his ABA final win as his payment. “It was the only final not shown on the BBC,” he told me. I did try and find that fight, but had no luck.
At midnight I was back outside Kirkland Laing’s door. He was not home, but when we left Hackney that night we believed in Zeraschi’s ability to find him. We were going back the next day, make no mistake.
At 3am Laing left a message on my phone. He wanted to meet at 10am outside the school on the Downs. Zeraschi had worked his magic.
The next morning I put my black hat on and waited. And waited. At noon, we left the spot and drove away. It was then I spotted Laing in the distance in the park, walking with a woman and a dog. His arms swinging, his coat flapping and his beard clear from 100 metres away. We had found Kirkland Laing.
We got beers, cigarettes and I gave him the cash. We sat and talked on a bench of our own for a couple of hours. Laing shadow-boxed between beers. We got more beers. He had his European belt with him and a gold-framed picture of him in his pride. There were dark stories we never used in the film, personal tragedies and heartbreak. “Too much antagonists.” Kirk was a giant on that bench that day, and it was an honour to take testimony.
We left Kirk with his picture, belt, old dog, two beers and twenty snouts. He walked away with his girlfriend.
Three weeks later I had a call early in the morning from his girlfriend. Kirk was in hospital, intensive care and close to death. He had fallen from a fourth floor landing in the flats. I found out he was pushed.
A few months later he had recovered enough to be transferred to Nottingham, his hometown. That was in 2004 and he is still there now – our Kirk, a fighting man and Hackney’s black Santa.
Watch the film here: