IT wasn’t just what happened in the ring that made my victory over Carl Thompson so special, it was the build-up to the fight, and what was at stake. It was life-changing, and so important for the legacy of Brendan Ingle’s gym. People see what happens when the bell goes but they don’t see what happens behind the scenes.
Naseem Hamed had recently left our gym, and he had sponsored Thompson’s camp. Naz and I had grown up together, trained together, we were mates and then he sponsors my opponent? They were wearing Naz t-shirts, and it was no secret that he had backed Thompson and his team to do a job on me. It made me so determined not to lose that fight.
The other thing in my mind was the gym. I wanted to win for Brendan. I’d had two attempts at the world title; I’d drew with Carlos DeLeon in 1990, and failed miserably against James Warring two years later and they were both disgusting fights. I felt those two performances gave people an excuse to mock our gym, to mock our style of fighting. I felt responsible for that. If I won the fight it would make people respect Brendan’s methods, and respect what he had created from nothing. I wanted people to see that he had turned me – a born loser – into a world champion. I had lost before and losing again wasn’t an issue for me, but I was determined to make people realise what a genius Brendan Ingle is.
In the build-up to the fight it was all about the tricks we were taught in the gym; how to talk to people, how to wind people up, how to get under their skin and get in their minds. The assessment of Carl was that he wears his heart on his sleeve. We had to make it seem personal even though it wasn’t, we had to make him angry. We had to get him to the point where he hates me and just wants to rip my head off. Brendan told me if I got him angry, his game plan will go out of the window, he will not be thinking properly, all he’s going to be thinking about is smashing me to pieces.
I had always admired Carl, I loved watching him fight, I knew his character, and I knew the clubs and bars he used to go to. I found out the name of his wife, and I located a club that was near where they lived, then I concocted a story that I had seen his wife in this club, and we were talking about Carl. I never said anything disrespectful about her but I was planting seeds. He would have been thinking, ‘My wife never told me she saw him in a club. That club is near us. How does he know my wife’s name? He must have seen her. It must be true.’ Straight away I’ve mashed his brain, and he’s going to go and speak to his woman about it, and all the time he’s getting angrier and angrier with me. It was all choreographed, it was all rehearsed, it was all planned, and I knew I had got to him.
Then my job was to ensure he retained that rage, for the first few rounds of the fight. So we said that we would knock him out in round five. That was just a number we plucked out of the air. We didn’t really believe we were going to do that. Thompson is mentally all over the place. He wants to knock me out before the fifth round, or wait until after the fifth because maybe I’ll be tired then. All these things we were doing were stopping him from thinking naturally. He was more concerned about what I might do, than concentrating on what he could do. By the time the fight had started, I’d already won.
Round one, he’s coming towards me, same in rounds two, and three, and then bang. I drop in him round four and it wasn’t even a hard shot. It was a sharp shot. When he got up I kind of smiled, because I said to him at the press conference: “When I put you down, I’m going to do the Ali shuffle above you, I’m going to put my hands up in the air, and when you look up at me, you’ll be thinking of this moment that I told you so.” And that’s exactly what I did. I put him down, I did the shuffle and I looked down at him as the referee pushed me back. He looked up at me and I knew he remembered that moment. I now agree with Carl – it was stopped too early. I was robbed of the chance to finish it conclusively. But he was in trouble, he was hurt, and he was staggering all over the place. The referee is in there to do a job, to watch the fighters closely, to notice when their heads are rocking. I wasn’t satisfied because I wanted to clean him out, whereas Carl said he could have survived because he’s been beaten up before and won. That’s unhealthy.
Before the fight I said to myself that when I win, I must be cool. Just be cool. Just act like I was expecting it. Stand tall and push my chest out like Eric Cantona after he scored a goal. Then when I did win the fight, I dropped to my knees, and I’m rolling around crying. All of
a sudden I think, ‘S**t! S**t! I was supposed to be cool!’ It’s so hard to explain to people the feeling I had. It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders at that moment by some angels. I was crying, I didn’t want to, but I was so relieved. It was that day that I realised the thin line between success and failure, and I knew, at that moment, that I would never lose my title in the ring.
Carl and I didn’t speak for many years after the fight. He kind of ignored me. When we did eventually talk I said it wasn’t really personal, that it wasn’t my fault the fight got stopped early, and it wasn’t my fault we didn’t fight again.
But he still gets upset about that fight and I know it still burns him deep, he still gets emotional about it, he’s too honest for his own good, and that was always his weakness, and that will always be his weakness – he wears his heart on his sleeve.