KIRKLAND LAING in all his pure fighting glory was a beautiful sight in any boxing ring. Laing was the night, a man of brilliance, frustration, desperation and his life and times in and out of the ring were extreme; he beat a great, he lost to a nobody, he fell from highs, he landed in lows and he kept on fighting and fighting. At the end of another night, another win or loss, there would be more laughter as he vanished from the streets outside a venue, the doors closing on a car and the dark night waiting for him to arrive. He might be gone a day, a week or, most famously, a whole year.
He was once thrown out of the Royal Oak gym, arguably the greatest gym in British boxing history, because he had been smoking dope. He insisted that he had not, but it was pointed out that he had a spliff behind his ear, buried in his locks. Kirk smiled; Kirk always smiled. It doesn’t really matter if the spliff-behind-the-ear is true or false, it is undeniably a Kirk story. He was back at the gym the next day.
“I’ve never had a more talented fighter in the gym,” insisted Lawless, who was his manager inside the cartel. Back then, before Kirk become a gym nomad, there were tales of ugly sparring sessions, especially between Laing and Jimmy Batten. “People talk about how good that gym was, and it was, but we were never a team. I had to be dragged off Laing a few times,” Batten told me. It’s a very mean and angry side of Laing, the man from the ring, the other Kirk.
Up close at different ringsides and at odd moments in Kirk’s career, I was privileged to be a spectator trying to make sense of the carnage he so often created. Fights he won with ease that were difficult and fights he lost with the same ease that were easy; boxing lessons delivered and knockouts suffered. And still that smile was there and so were the fighting gifts. Laing had to just watch as doors opened and closed, dreams were shifted.
In 2003, I went to Hackney in east London to find Kirk, it was a simple mission, made nearly impossible by his lifestyle. I found him in the end and we sat on a park bench, the interview was part intervention and part awe. Kirk was in fine form, Kirk was damaged beyond repair, the Gifted One a shadow – take your pick. He still stood and shadow-boxed at one point, his baggy coat floating wide as he moved, switched and let punches go. It was religious watching that man, that sad day in the park.
During the search, I tracked down Brian Lawrence, friend and trainer to Kirk over the years. He smiled; everybody smiles when asked about Kirk. “I don’t feel sorry for Kirk,” Lawrence explained to me in 2003. “He had the opportunities, he had the biggest promoter in the business behind him and he backed him, backed him, backed him, but Kirk kept messing up.” Mickey Duff was the promoter, the pair often putting on a comic sideshow when discussing an issue. There is also a very funny exchange, filmed in a traffic jam, between Kirk and Joe Ryan, his trainer, about the right way and the Kirk way to finish a fight. Ryan is urging Kirk to finish guys if he can. Kirk is laughing, shaking his head and dismissing Ryan’s arguments. Kirk is 36 at the time.
The talk with Ryan was eight years after Kirk beat Roberto Duran one night in Detroit. Perhaps, you should forget some of things you have read and heard about that fight. Perhaps you heard Duran was fat, not fit, had no motivation. Forget it. Duran talks about how hard he trained and how hard he tried. Kirk was simply brilliant. It’s a great fight, Kirk chasing Duran and Duran having to really fight. It’s old-fashioned drama. The rest of what you heard is probably true: in the 12 months after the fight, Duran makes millions, wins a world title in front of 19,000 at Madison Square Garden, signs for about 10-million dollars to fight Marvin Hagler and Kirkland Laing simply vanishes.
Laing has always insisted he was ready for a fight during the lost year. Duff always insisted that Laing went missing. The truth is a mixture, it always is in boxing. Exactly 12 months after beating Duran, Laing returns on a show in Atlantic City and is viciously knocked out and, according to Ryan, spends four days in hospital recovering. He has his licence suspended. Kirk then has another year away from the ring. The Duran win is gone forever. Laing will fight another 27 times during the last 11-years of his career. It is too easy to forget about Laing’s guts, his bravery.
He held the British welterweight title on and off for a dozen years, had memorable European title fights, had shock losses, great wins and still never got near a world title fight. He finished his career in 1994 with a loss to Glenn Catley in Bristol; it was not a night for the squeamish. Laing was fighting on lost memories that night, a man battling ring angels and demons for the last time. He drifted away, age 40, promising a return and falling deeper into the darkness. Laing was long gone when I set out to find him in 2003 and chase down some of the myths and truths and lies.
Laing had his boxing heart broken long before the end in the first fight with Colin Jones, long before Buck Smith found something at the Royal Albert Hall one night in 1990. And long, long before he got to watch Duran make millions. I was told he cried in frustration, loss and pain when Duran was on ITV one night earning zillions, snarling and winning. I believe the story. No, Laing had his giant heart broken in the early summer of 1972, an Olympic year. He really believed he would get sent to the Munich Games; it was his new dream, he was sweet 17, the ABA champion and he had no chance. It was politics, boxing mayhem. Laing could do nothing but watch; he was a true innocent, a spectator from the sidelines.
“That was my dream then, the Olympics,” he said. He told me that in the park, a tale revisited, a pain still fresh over 30 years later.
Laing was not selected, the men in charge picked Vernon Sollas, also 17, who Laing beat in the ABA featherweight final. Sollas had to have a box-off at the Double Diamond Club in Caerphilly against Billy Taylor, the London champion at bantamweight from the year before. Sollas won, but then missed two squad sessions and was dropped, Taylor was drafted in; Sollas was then selected again, but he ruined his own Olympic ambition when he broke into a parked car, nicked a few items, was arrested, sent to court, fined 40 quid and dropped for good. Taylor was back in and when he was sent his blazer he found, stitched in the label: “Vernon Sollas”. There was no label for poor Kirk. It was wrong, simply wrong.
Sollas also won a British title as a professional, but was done with the sport by the time he was just 22. He was brilliant, but broken and he was left unconscious for 20-minutes in the ring after his last fight one night in 1977 at the Civic Hall, Wolverhampton; it was a simple reminder of the damage done. At that point, Kirk was unbeaten in 13 as a professional and two-stone heavier. I regret never asking Kirk about Vernon.
Incidentally, Vernon was angry about that decision for a long, long time.
“I had the talent, I did, didn’t I?” Kirk asked and said when we relaxed that early summer in the Hackney park. He was asking and telling, desperate to grab back the lost memories, the gone glories. He held that heavy European belt, that blue ribbon of quality on his lap. He also had a gold-framed picture of him smiling and holding the belt up in a distant ring. They were like his last possessions, his magical items from his former life, gripped in a plastic bag, his remaining proof of greatness. Don’t talk to me about broken hearts, I was there with him.
“I wasn’t mature enough back then, I never knew enough,” Kirk added that day. “I came too quick; it was just natural skill – imagine if I was disciplined?” Yep, we can only imagine.
There is a story, told not long before he fell from the roof, about a cameo at the Peacock gym. He arrived, no kit, just Kirk. Smiling, held court and starting hitting bags and skipping. He was in his late 40s, probably just a few pounds above his weight. He looked great, impossible to believe, but he did. He had no stamina, he was a bit wild, but he let the punches go. He buzzed a couple of people for a fiver, had a cup of tea in the old cafe at the front, smiled and left. “I’m coming back, you know,” he warned everybody as he left. He never did, the fall was a couple of months later. It was the Peacock story that sent me on his trail, a mission to find Kirk and with my stab-vest for a midnight vigil or two, beers, dossers, dogs, dealers, fiends and broken lifts I sought the Gifted One. “You found me, man, you found me,” Kirk howled when he appeared.
And that long ago day on the park bench, now as ancient as the night in Detroit with Duran, is part of a haunting, part of something that is gone forever, but still feels like it happened yesterday. Watch and listen to any of Kirk’s introductions and I defy you not to drift back to an innocent, three-roped ring, smoke swirling, a high beam, men in suits and the kid from Nottingham bouncing and ready to go at a private club, a big hall or a faraway lost location.
“You know,” Kirk continued. “People take softness for weakness. The older you get; the harder life gets. I’m a man of my own destiny.” He was and he lived it full, make no mistake. Remember, regrets in boxing are like a terminal illness, they never go away.
Kirkland Laing did vanish soon after that day in the park. He survived a coma at Whitechapel’s Royal London hospital, he survived the loneliest of his own dark nights, appeared in a crooked bow-tie once at a function, he was relaxed and smiling with his grandchildren in beautiful pictures and he was left alone with his memories in that plastic bag he held close to his chest in the park, a broken chain of true greatness. But, keep your pity hidden, Laing is not interested in that; he lived, make no mistake. And, man, could he fight.
Anybody can see Kirk now, smiling, holding that belt, tossing those locks and promising to return. He was the endless dreamer in a sport of harsh times, our man, Kirkland Laing. With upmost respect.