FEWER than 200 people showed for Errol Christie’s boxing wake at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in March 1993. There were considerably more at his funeral 24 years later and at both events I cried.
Christie fought for the 41st and last time as a professional on a show promoted by Phil Martin. The golden boy was long gone before that night, the man chosen to change British boxing had been beaten, hurt, ignored and forgotten long before the fight in Manchester. Dropped to “the bottom of the barrel”, as Manny Steward said.
There were only distant memories left of the days spent as Steward’s pupil at the Kronk, the night he owned the Granada television studios for a live show, the nights he cut down his victims with style and arrogance. He was promoted brilliantly. And then came the defeats, the end of days for Errol. The night in Manchester that March was a silent affair, but nobody present will ever forget it.
“I made a terrible mistake,” said Christie about his last fight. “I came, I saw and I was slaughtered.” He did and he was.
The dressing room on the night was packed early with Martin’s fighters; Eric Noi, Tony Ekubia and Steve Walker were on the bill. There were the usual nerves, the short visits from men not fighting, messages from the crowd. The usual pre-fight rituals. Christie was calm, relaxed. Andy his brother was there. Frank Grant, Maurice Core and a dozen others from Martin’s gym were also there. Billy Graham was working as assistant to Martin. They were the unit, a real unified unit at that time.
“I wish I had him from the start,” Martin told me late that night. “He could and should have been a world champion. I wish I could have great amateurs like that from the start.” And Christie was a great amateur. Christie won 10 British amateur titles and the European under-19 championship in East Germany in 1982 before turning professional. No other British boxer has ever done that. That night at the Free Trade Hall his glory was lost to history.
Trevor Ambrose from Leicester was the opponent. He was hard, awkward, a kickboxer and the type of man that Errol would have danced over once upon a time. That was then, this was now and it finished in the second round. The first was quiet, Christie not quite smooth in his gold shorts. In round two, Christie was caught, his legs betrayed him, he held and was bundled to the canvas. It was ruled a slip. It was over, we all knew. A right and left hook and he was down again. He was somehow up at ‘eight’. Ambrose – as I wrote at the time – “steamed in” and Christie kept his boxing career alive for 60 more seconds by holding, gripping, refusing to quit. What was he fighting for? Pride, those moments of glory, the fading glamour? Take your pick, but he was fighting. Then Ambrose found some space and a left hook with a chopping right sent Errol Christie down for the final time in a ring.
It was not quite over – the end is never quick in the real life final moments of careers like Christie’s. Every terrible moment lasts forever.
He was still for a second, then he moved, his eyes adjusting to the strange position. At ringside, Andy, his brother, was still throwing the absurd punches that would salvage the fight. Belief is never short in our game, it’s often right next to delusion. And that is next to disaster. Christie almost sat up at ‘three’ and ‘four’, but then he fell heavily onto his side. The count was stopped at about ‘seven’. Phil and Billy got in the ring, Andy followed. They went to their man, their fighter, their brother. The doctor joined them in their protective huddle, Ambrose reached through the gathering with a destructive glove to tenderly pat Christie on the head.
On the floor, in that cruel ring, Christie told Phil and Billy: “It’s over.” And it most certainly was.
In the dressing room, his head and bruised face hidden behind a green towel, Christie sat for our questions – I was with the Daily Sport‘s Steve Lillis, the only two writers there. We had none, we just listened.
“What round was it?” Christie asked and Grant told him that it was the second. “I never felt like I was in the fight and that’s it now. I’m ending it all now. Fighting is my thing, but it is over now. It’s the end of the road for me. I’ve had enough.” That was met with silence.
Andy tried to persuade him to fight on. That never went down too well with Martin and his blunt boys.
Martin pulled me to one side, just out of earshot: “He’s gone and he knows he’s gone. There’s no physical deterioration, but his punch resistance has gone.”
Martin seldom avoided the harsh truths and a few seconds later Christie said the same thing.
“I don’t know what it is?” Christie continued. “I have been boxing for so long and my punch resistance is gone. I just get caught and then I’m gone. I’m out, my boxing life is over.” And then, as we shuffled in silence and started to leave with just lame words as our exit, he looked up: “I was the original you know, before Benn, Watson and Eubank, it was me: I was meant to be the star.”
We did know, that is why we were there for the end of Errol Christie’s boxing life. It never got a lot easier for Christie. He went to schools to talk about knife crime, he taught white-collar warriors, he sold children’s clothes on a market, he tried comedy, he wrote a book and he remained the nicest man. It ended in a south London hospice and that’s where I saw him smile for the last time.