THE two most frustrating words in the English language are ‘what if’. These words allow us to escape reality and reflect on what could have been rather than what is. They can make us appreciate just how lucky we are or send us into a downward spiral from which we might never recover.
On the weekend in June that Julian Jackson was being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the Daily Mail ran a story about his old rival, Herol Graham, and how Graham’s knockout loss to the Virgin Islander wrecked him emotionally, having subsequently been hospitalised various times due to depression. “I felt like a horse had knocked me out,” said Graham. “I was out before I hit the floor.”
Over the years, Graham has tortured himself reliving the fight, one he had dominated and was totally in control of in the fourth round. He had closed Jackson’s right eye and was tantalisingly close to having the referee or ringside physician stop the contest. Graham just had to play it safe and the WBC middleweight title would have been his, if not in that round, then likely one soon after.
There have been greater boxers than Graham who, for various reasons, were deprived of becoming a world champion, but none as cruelly. Jackson, backed up to the ropes and getting pummeled, swung a desperation right hand at Graham’s chin. The Brit’s body became suspended and he fell like a high-rise building would, seemingly in slow motion. It was arguably the most devastating one-punch knockout in boxing history.
Jackson’s plaque inside the IBHOF museum in Canastota is inscribed with the following: “One of pound-for-pound hardest punchers of his fistic generation. Won vacant WBA 154-pound crown, stopping In Chul Baek, Nov 21, 1987. Successfully defended title thrice. Won vacant WBC middleweight title by knocking out Herol Graham in fourth round, Nov 24, 1990. Successfully defended title four times. Won vacant WBC middleweight title again by stopping Agostino Cardamone in second round, March 17, 1995. Pro record: 55-6 with 49 knockouts.” The words tell us that Jackson was a three-time world champion, having never dethroned an existing title-holder. But there were signature wins throughout his career, none bigger than the one against Graham.
What if Jackson had not landed that right against Graham? Without that he probably falls short of making it into the IBHOF. As for Graham, he becomes a world champion and perhaps makes some successful defences, putting him in a much better place than he currently is. The ‘what if?’ has haunted Graham every day since that fateful night. As for Jackson, he has moved on. Unfortunately, Graham, although enjoying some success post-Jackson and working his way back to another world title shot, has had his career, if not life, defined by the punch.
Jackson, 58, is a lovely man to be around. His bright smile belies the destruction his fists once caused. He says that he can relate to Graham, having once been in a very dark place himself, contemplating suicide, but now the only power he preaches is that from above, much to the consternation of those listening to him giving a ringside lecture in Canastota. People want to know about the particulars of “The Hawk’s” past fights. He’d rather speak about how his religious beliefs made a difference in them, rather than what actually took place in the ring.
Jackson goes from the ringside lecture to a private one-on-one interview with me. When he hears that I will be doing the story on his induction for his hometown paper, the Virgin Island Daily News, a bond is formed. I can get him to open up a little about his fighting days, but it is still tough work. He repeats much of what he had just said to the crowd, only when prodded does he say more.
“The Virgin Islands is an amazing place” says Jackson. “It is 32 square miles and only a dot on the map, but we pack a big punch. People from the Virgin Islands are the most prideful people anywhere.
“I was a natural junior-middleweight [super-welterweight], but moved up a division to box Graham. He was a tremendous boxer and a southpaw. We fought in Spain because I had a detached retina and couldn’t get licensed in England. Graham caught me with a punch in the first round and my eye swelled up. Graham was so confident and was coming in for the finish, but I had switched to southpaw and caught him with a right hook.”
But what if that punch had not landed? Would defeat have been imminent? The competitor in Jackson refuses to allow himself to answer in the affirmative. “I would then have had to go after him harder,” he answers. “Graham was dominating the fight and was probably a bit overconfident, feeling he could do to me whatever he wanted. His awkwardness made me uncomfortable.”
Some say that Jackson was a born-puncher. He does not disagree, but says there was more to his knockouts than that. “My punching power was because of my timing and accuracy” he says. “I worked on my speed, and as a teenager I used to lift pots of fish. That increased my power.”
Jackson turned pro in 1981 and proceeded to win his first 29 contests, earning him a shot at Mike McCallum’s WBA super-welterweight title on August 23, 1986 at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Although Jackson rocked McCallum, it was in this fight where his limitations were exposed when his power was unable to bail him out. McCallum matched Jackson’s firepower with his own, forcing him to the ropes in the second round and then unleashing a sustained attack. When Jackson failed to respond, it was stopped. A spiritual person, Jackson says that a witch doctor told him beforehand he would lose. This, he says, cushioned the blow of not becoming a world champion in his first try. Now he says it was a blessing in disguise.
“Mike McCallum was a tremendous fighter – one of the best I ever faced. It was the beginning of my career and that loss made me. If you can deal with a loss it is a road to being successful.”
But of all of Jackson’s fights, he says the toughest was against a fighter named Milton Leaks at the Hartford Civic Center, fought eight months after the McCallum loss. What makes this claim astonishing is that Leaks would close out his career by losing 19 in a row after being defeated by Jackson.
“He knocked me down in the sixth round and we went at it all fight before I stopped him in the 10th,” remembers Jackson. “We then became friends.”
In Jackson’s next fight he would beat Baek to become a world champion, but says that it nearly didn’t happen: “When I got to Las Vegas, I felt terrible and in no condition to fight, but then had an encounter with God, asking to give me back my power and speed. The next morning, I was lapping everyone on the track and told my manager, Carl King, it would be my easiest fight. I stopped Baek in the third round.”
Of the three title defences that followed, two were particularly impressive – those being a third-round stoppage of former world champion Buster Drayton and the annihilation of Terry Norris in two. Norris would go on to forge a Hall of Fame career of his own, but his chin could not stand up to Jackson’s power.
The knockout of Graham would come the following year, after Jackson voluntarily relinquished his super-welterweight belt. After successfully defending his middleweight title three times, Jackson was taken the full 12 rounds by Thomas Tate. No disgrace there, being that Tate was only stopped once in his career – against Roy Jones Jnr. In Jackson’s next defence, he was dethroned in a slugfest with Gerald McClellan on May 8, 1993 in Las Vegas. McClellan, a big banger in his own right, was hurt by Jackson at various stages, but survived before scoring a spectacular stoppage in the fifth round.
“I definitely felt I would knock him out,” says Jackson, “but he was a tremendous puncher also.” The rematch a year later was not competitive. Jackson was dropped twice and knocked out in one.
Jackson proved resilient. Within a year, his promoter, Don King, had him boxing unbeaten Italian southpaw Cardamone for his old WBC title. It looked like it would end disastrously when Jackson was cut and wobbled in the opening round and was getting pounded in the second. But then Jackson’s lightning-bolt right hand struck, dropping Cardamone who staggered back to his feet, but was defenceless. It was soon stopped. This would be the last hurrah of Jackson’s career. Five months later he was dethroned in six rounds by Quincy Taylor in Las Vegas. Later on, it was revealed that Jackson had suffered a serious shoulder injury during the fight, which required surgery. Jackson never boxed for a major version of a world title again, retiring in May 1998 after getting stopped in eight rounds by Anthony Jones.
The Hall of Fame is reserved for all-time great fighters, something some say Jackson was not. He had been eligible for 15 years before getting the call. It was a year in which the ballot of potential inductees was not as strong as in previous ones.
“The wait never bothered me and I’m not disappointed it took so long,” states Jackson. “I am blessed and feel grateful to get in.” Regardless of what one thinks of Jackson’s Hall-of-Fame credentials, what is indisputable is that he was the most devastating puncher of his generation and inarguably one of the hardest ever.
‘If you can deal with a loss it is a road to being successful’
“In the Virgin Islands, me getting into the Hall of Fame is epic,” he says. “People are celebrating this. So many things went through my head when [IBHOF Director] Ed Brophy called and told me I had got in. I thought of all the times I worked my butt off in the gym and all the running I did.”
On that sunny afternoon on June 9, Jackson became the third boxer from the Virgin Islands to be enshrined – the others having been Peter Jackson and Emile Griffith. Jackson gave a glowing speech, giving credit to his four sons, two daughters and wife. Although he trains amateurs in his homeland, Jackson says he no longer devotes his life to boxing. Helping youngsters is what motivates him the most.
“Young people should understand that there is a life without violence,” he says. “We took gang members from the Virgin Islands and helped them turn their lives around. Nothing in life is worth anything if you don’t take a chance, take a risk. In order to get something we’ve never had, we have to do something we’ve never done.”