MY October of 1997 it seemed that the natural order of the heavyweight division had been restored. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield were champions again. They had beaten Oliver McCall, Mike Tyson and Michael Moorer between them to emerge as the world’s dominant heavyweights. The only real remaining threat to their supremacy was Riddick Bowe, and he had been fortunate to escape with two disqualification victories against Andrew Golota the year before. “Big Daddy” looked completely shot in the rematch, being pummelled throughout and sustaining permanent damage. He wouldn’t fight again for another 18 years.
But what of Golota? His reward for his two moral ‘wins’ was a shot at Lewis and the tantalising prospect of heavyweight superstardom. In August 1997 I received a call from Lou Duva’s representatives to explore whether I would be interested in helping Golota prepare for his showdown with Lewis. I was 32 years old and had been resisting the early calls of retirement, but certainly didn’t see myself as a sparring partner for hire.
Ironically, I had spent the summer of 1997 getting into the best condition of my life, preparing for a career resurrection. Taking the chance to spar Golota represented new relevance in the top 15 for me, not an assignment or a paycheque. I answered the call!
By the time I joined Golota’s camp in Vero Beach, Florida, he was already being marketed as the natural successor to Lewis and Holyfield. The allure of a white European, six-feet-four-inch heavyweight who could really compete with his elite black counterparts, with little to no aversion for the darker arts of the sport, was too juicy a package not to give the big sell. There was an element of Ivan Drago in the marketing of Golota: The destructive Eastern European monster with the crew cut, coming to America to cause chaos and rip the heavyweight title away from its mecca. Golota appeared to be a fight or two away from the big time.
We had world class company in the camp in the shape of the fearsome, David Tua. He had just lost an incredible fight to Ike Ibeabuchi, in which they combined to throw the most punches ever recorded in a heavyweight fight. He was there to get right back in the mix of things and sparring a highly-ranked rival like Golota was probably akin to him having an actual fight at that point. I understood early on that we were all there to spar one another, as rivals. There was no pay master-employee relationship, just straight war. Every sparring session was a contest of skill, will and brawn.
I was christened with the nickname “Pressure Cooker” by onlookers of our sparring sessions, apparently because of the ‘heat’ I brought to each session with Golota. I was more aggressive than normal in those sessions as I really didn’t take to Golota. His energy was dark and detached. He would often be cordoned away in sections of the gym, only interacting with a gang of guys from Poland. He communicated mainly through nods and grunts. I actively tried to soften him up for Lewis, who needed no help in derailing the Golota hype train within a single, brutal round.
My reward for this camp was knowing that I could still hang with world class competition and being signed by the late, great, Lou Duva.
Afterwards, I reflected that I had taken my talents on the road for a large part of my career. I boxed in America nine times and spent years preparing there. I really believed that the level of sparring and learning a boxer could glean over there was unobtainable in the UK. It also helped me to close the gap on some of my domestic rivals, who had enjoyed greater promotional opportunities than me, but hadn’t been exposed to the sometimes merciless environment and competitiveness of American boxing gyms. It was all about gaining an edge.
Each trip was different. Another location, new cultures to learn, a new gym, new team, sparring partners and trainers. To succeed out there required constantly tweaking your psychological and physical approach. For example: I sparred Gerry Cooney for his fight against George Foreman. I held advantages in youth, athleticism and fight readiness, as Gerry had been out of the ring for over two years, and it played out like that throughout much of the camp with me having his measure. Gerry was so courteous and humble that my respect for the process and him was absolute. It also ensured that there was no tension during our sessions. I was learning, not proving myself.
On the other hand, working with someone like Mike Tyson, who I had sparred with a few months prior to Cooney, was the polar opposite. It was more like organised street fighting, a battle to not have your spirit broken. I was in his camp for his title defence against Carl “The Truth” Williams and it was like something I had never seen before. Tyson was at the tail end of his savage 1986-89 run that had captivated the world. Intimidation was as much a tool for him as his speed and power. Once he activated it in that gym in The Trump Plaza, New Jersey, he seemed to hypnotise his sparring partners, trainers and the watching public alike.
Many of the sparring partners were just hoping for their survival or not to get seriously hurt. On the contrary, I was actually excited at the chance to prove myself taking on the very best in the world and against the monster of all monsters. I wouldn’t usually call a gym violent even if boxing often verges on being just that, but Tyson carried out acts of violence against most of the men who came to spar. At the end of five weeks and a revolving door of fallen sparring partners, only Greg Page and I were left. We didn’t just survive; we had gained Tyson’s respect. Violence begets violence.
Sparring Tyson gave me the taste to want to travel and train with fighters who were potential rivals and some of the best heavyweights in the world. There were personal sacrifices made every time I flew to these places, but I learned constantly, taking bits of their strengths and weaknesses on to the next one.
There weren’t many boxers from the UK that ventured abroad to train and fight in the 1980s and 90s like there are now. Joe Egan joined Tyson’s training camp in the Catskill mountains and Glenn McCrory had several fights in the States, rebuilding his reputation there and sparred Tyson before I did. But the often-heard criticism was that British boxers were too soft and protected; they were stiff and upright like amateurs, essentially easy pickings for the more skilled and relaxed ‘American style’. Of course, there were better fighters in America, but I put that down to the proliferation of boxers out there and the competitiveness of their amateur system. Not forgetting, for some there was a primal need to fight: Survival. The sport was indeed a way out and it cannot be disputed that rock bottom has built many more champions than privilege ever could.
When I sparred in American gyms, it was always satisfying to see initial expressions of self-assuredness and derision turn into those of shock and confusion, as they slowly realised there were British fighters who could relax, use timing, slip and slide, and get the better of their own. I recall that a very young Errol Christie was Thomas Hearn’s chief sparring partner for his fight against Roberto Duran in 1984 and pushed him hard despite his inexperience. Hearns’ trainer, Emanuel Steward effused how ‘natural and relaxed’ Christie was and called him the most gifted boxer he had ever worked with – until that point – which is some observation when considering what Hearns had achieved under his tutelage. Steward’s admiration led to Christie filling a spot on the undercard of the Hearns-Duran show and wearing the Kronk’s famous red and gold colours.
Sometimes in boxing, turning promotional frustrations in your home country into an opportunity to go far away and grind your way to success is the only real option on the table. It’s not the road most would choose to travel, but it is a sign of naked ambition, the ultimate in self-confidence. You bet on yourself!