MICHAEL GOMEZ hasn’t lost his famous stare. The glare isn’t as intense or intimidating as it once was but it still manages to pierce through the fog that has begun to descend.
“Has Robin Reid told you about when we caught the burglar?” Gomez says, his eyes never leaving mine. “We were training late one night when he was getting ready to fight Vincenzo Nardiello. We got changed, I said, ‘See you later, Rob’ and went. I was walking out and there were bits falling down from the ceiling. I looked up and there was a foot coming though. They were breaking into the gym to rob the Co-op underneath. I creeped back into the changing rooms and went ‘Ssshhh’ to Rob. We got sweeping brushes and mops and we stood either side of the hole in the roof. The fella landed on his feet and I just turned around and went, ‘F**k off.’ They got arrested.”
The “F**k off” is accompanied by a slow but deliberate headbutt and a laugh. It is a relief to see Gomez happy.
Apart from the odd fleeting appearance at a book signing or gym opening, one of the country’s most unpredictable and popular fighters is rarely seen and unsettling stories about his welfare have begun to circulate. His absence has fuelled the gossip. Gomez has always been prone to disappearing but he has never been quiet.
A short but shocking telephone conversation with a sleepy Gomez seemed to add credence to some of the more upsetting rumours but his partner, Debi, suggested that he is happier with face-to-face encounters and invited me to the tidy semi-detached house they share in Urmston in south-west Manchester.
The famous nose – flattened by a pair of nunchucks in a street fight – seems straighter. “The glasses hide it,” a now-bearded Gomez smiles as he settles into his corner of the settee alongside Debi. His nasal north Mancunian accent is thicker than ever and the words that used to fly out in scattergun bursts now stumble out in staccato sentences. Dates, venues, incidents and purses still come to mind quickly, but these days, one of the sport’s most animated characters is more of a still life. Importantly, though, he seems at peace.
“Life’s quiet now and I prefer it. I’ve had a mad life but that’s all gone. I just chill out now and try to enjoy life.
“I loved it. I loved being mad but I was out of control and I had nobody to hold me back.
“Boxing saved me. Then I became famous. When I became famous, that’s when the drugs and alcohol really ruined me. That’s why my speech is knackered – all the drugs.”
“It’s the punches too, Mike,” Debi adds.
The wide, leafy avenues of Urmston provide a much calmer environment than the red brick terraces and estates of Moston that Gomez used to inhabit. Moston is the type of area that can swallow up natural talent. Scores of sharp minds, skilful boxers and gifted footballers have been lost in the maze of streets that branch off Moston Lane. Gomez retired in 2009, the same year that councillors dubbed the road “alcohol alley” due to the number of off licences and pubs that have sprung up along it. More recently, there was a crackdown on illegal drinking dens. Debi is a horse owner who spends much of her spare time at a local farm and the way Gomez was living when they met was alien to her.
“Mike has punch-drunk syndrome [Dementia Pugilistica]. We’ve had it all confirmed and diagnosed correctly. I take him for all his appointments. He’s well taken care of. He doesn’t want for anything, do you?” she says grasping his thigh.
“We’ve been together for four years. I met him years before that but only briefly.
“He was in Moston. I used to go and drive down to meet him in the early days. I’d think, ‘He’s such a legend,’ and it used to make me so sad seeing him. It used to break my heart. I decided Mike was worth more than that and I worked and worked with him. I promoted him everywhere and got him out and about because I believed he was worth more than just drinking on street corners.
“When I met him – I don’t want to sound bad because he’s sitting beside me – but he was totally different. He was drinking every day and typically he wasn’t somebody I would ever have got with. His life was so far away from mine and we’re totally different. Somehow it just worked. Gradually he started to find interest in other things rather than going out drinking and getting wasted all the time.
“He says that I saved him.”
“I don’t really know. Looking back on it all, you know, it doesn’t seem that bad.” Gomez cuts in with a slight but definite smile.
Every time Gomez enters his living room, he comes face to face with the yellow Cleto Reyes gloves he wore during his signature victory over Alex Arthur. The gloves from his favourite night – a spectacular British super-featherweight title victory over Gary Thornhill – are proudly framed upstairs.
“We have drawers under the bed. One of them is his belt drawer,” Debi says before disappearing upstairs and returning with his beautiful Lonsdale Belt. “His belts are all stored in there, right underneath his head so nobody can get them. He treasures them. When I say he guards them with his life, he literally sleeps with them under his pillow.”
Being able to see and hold the relics of his career seems important to Gomez. He sits noticeably straighter and speaks with genuine pride when he has his Lonsdale Belt draped across his shoulder. It is when the trophies are put away and the drawer closes that his mind begins to wander. With more time than ever before to sit and think, he is troubled by what ifs and regret.
“The boozing and the drugs didn’t start heavily until I killed the guy. The kid I hit,” he sighs.
Gomez’s story has been told and retold but still bears recapping. Born in a car crash and christened Michael Armstrong, he was brought up in a series of children’s homes and became an accomplished petty thief. Gomez became a father at 17, was stabbed and declared clinically dead in 2001 and stabbed again in 2004. There have been periods spent in mental hospitals, a broken marriage and a thousand street fights. It was one of those altercations which ended up having the longest lasting effect.
On a night out in 1996, his reputation got him pushed to the front of a confrontation and the resulting scuffle led to a man called Sam Powell hitting his head on the pavement and losing his life. Originally charged with murder, he was found to have acted in self-defence and eventually cleared of manslaughter.
Gomez is now 42 and half his life has passed since the incident. He may not have been handed a jail term but the altercation handed him a different type of life sentence. Gomez’s method of self medication set him on a path which would damage him physically and leave him with indelible mental scars.
“I was drinking and taking drugs to block things out,” he says. “I still feel guilty about it to this day. My 21st birthday was the day the judge and jury went out. That was the day I got cleared.”
“He punishes himself every day about it,” Debi adds with a hint of helplessness.
“He always says to me, ‘Imagine how good I could have been if I’d taken it seriously or not done all that partying. Imagine what I could have been?’ I always tell him that he was so good anyway.”
Apart from ‘mad’ the word that crops up most often when discussing Gomez with those who spent the most time with him is ‘loveable’, but he could also be menacing, funny, moody and erratic. The persona wasn’t an act – Gomez was a product of his environment. Already a combustible character, when guilt and, a couple of years later, fame were added to the mix the fire burned out of control for years.
“It was every day. Every single day of my life was mad,” he remembers. “I was addicted to going out and partying and being a bad boy. I’m not too bad now but in the past I used to hate sitting about.
“I crashed a car badly about four weeks before one fight. I was in hospital with a bad concussion and a few weeks later I was fighting. I was young, mad and had nobody who could help me. Because of the way I was brought up, I was born to be out of control.
“When I first started off I used to live in the gym. When the fights got bigger, the less time I spent in the gym. It was so much easier to spend my time in a nightclub and to go partying.
“[Even after a fight] I’d get into the changing rooms, take a couple of Es and snort some cocaine. I’d put all my stuff away and the next step was straight to the boozer. We’d be drinking Guinness, cider, drinking madly, taking everything. We’d drink right through to the next day and then we’d stay in the pub right through the next day.
“For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I never took it seriously. All the boozing, all the shagging, all the f**king about. Imagine if I’d been dedicated?
“I think I underachieved. Massively. I don’t dream. It’s gone now. It’s over.
“It was all worth it. I had the time of my life.”
In 2006 after a year long lay-off, Gomez turned his back on Peter McDonagh and retired from the sport mid-fight. He simply didn’t want to fight anymore. There was a brief investigation into the nature of the fight’s outcome but rather than bearing witness to some kind of heist, we were watching the final embers of the flame petering out.
For lots of fighters, the consequences of fighting on for too long pale into insignificance compared to the fear of being forgotten. Inevitably, Gomez forced himself through a comeback but he had to force what had previously come naturally and he was stopped by Carl Johanneson, Amir Khan and Ricky Burns. He eventually retired with a record of 38-10 (25).
It is impossible to say if Gomez’s life would be different had he walked away from the sport after losing his WBU title back in 2005, but after sitting opposite him for a couple of hours, what is undeniable is that the additional four years he tacked on to the end of his career took a significant toll on his wellbeing. The need for fame and attention has cost him almost everything but, even now, the way he is remembered means more to him than anything.
“I still get recognised now. I love it. It means a lot to me. It makes me proud,” he says.
“I had an addiction to the sport. I should have retired before the McDonagh fight. I should never have fought him. I should have never come back. Once I retired I never should have gone back.
“My speech was going. Everything was slow. Everything was twice as hard. Training was twice as hard. Running, doing pads, sparring. It was all twice as hard but I still wanted the fame. That’s why I carried on.
“It’s good that people remember. The people make it all worthwhile. I fought for the glory and I loved to hear people screaming my name. I knew it was over before it was done but I didn’t want to walk away from the fame.
“I came back to fight guys who wouldn’t have lived with me before. That absolutely breaks my heart.”
In the past, constantly searching for answers to all the ‘what ifs’ would have built up self-destructive forces inside Gomez, but at least these days he is much better positioned to cope with the past and the troubles that his future almost certainly holds.
“He’s hard work, but in a nice way,” Debi says. “Mike is what he is but I wouldn’t change him and I’m willing to stand by him. I do a lot for him but he does a lot for me, too. I’m very happy. We have a good relationship and we’re happy aren’t we? We have a nice life.”
“I don’t feel any remorse about any of it,” Gomez adds. “I’m happy with the way it all turned out.”
As the afternoon winds down, Gomez warms up. Unsurprisingly, after initially throwing himself into it he is no longer too keen on mucking out Debi’s horses and talk about the apparent benefits of CBD oil and how it may help his disrupted sleep pattern draws a puzzled look of scepticism. It is too good an opportunity to resist. “Come on, Mike. You’ve taken much worse than that.”
“You’re right,” he says.
And with that, Michael Gomez stands to walk me out, Lonsdale Belt still slung proudly over his shoulder. As the door closes behind me, I’m filled with much more hope than when I arrived. The man who survived and thrived despite his surroundings now seems well placed to face his most difficult battle because of them.