KIRKLAND LAING obituaries have been taking shape for a long time. On two occasions in the last 10 years I can remember rumours of his death spreading quickly in boxing circles. Both were unfounded. But on Tuesday morning (June 8), after struggling with his breathing the night before at his care home, the former British and European welterweight king was found lifeless in his room. He was 66.
Laing has often been called the best British boxer to never win a world title. It’s easy to understand why. At his best – though ‘Kirkland Laing at his best’ is something of a paradox – the “Gifted One” was a joy to watch and almost impossible to fight. But his devotion to booze, drugs and smoky pool halls defines him every bit as much as his fighting prowess.
Despite having the beating of brilliant Welshman Colin Jones in two memorable British title fights in 1980 and 1981, Laing would grow careless and twice get knocked out in the ninth round. Six years after the rematch he told The Star he had been under the influence for each defeat.
“As soon as we had the weigh-in for both [Jones] fights, I slipped off to some pals of mine in Deptford to buy the best stuff,” Laing told the newspaper in 1987. “Then I took it back to my auntie’s house in Stoke Newington where I was living at the time, sneaked upstairs to my bedroom, put it in a pipe and smoked it. I used to kid myself I needed it to make me sleep. My auntie never knew what was going on upstairs. She’d have gone mad if she had.”
According to Oliver Jarrett’s brilliant (but now out of print) Laing biography, The Gifted One, Kirkland’s oft-reported ‘lifelong’ drug habit may have been exaggerated. He was dedicated to the sport in the early days, particularly during his amateur career which peaked with an ABA featherweight title in 1972. Later that year, Laing missed out on a place at the Olympics following a chaotic process that saw Vernon Sollas selected, only for the popular but limited Billy Taylor – ranked 10th in the country by Boxing News – to step in when Sollas’ out-of-the-ring misdemeanours caught up with him. Though it has often been said that Laing was cruelly overlooked it’s perhaps Tommy Wright who should have been the most aggrieved, considering he defeated Kirkland in a close bout months before the Games.
But Laing’s extra-curricular activities are the stuff of legend for good reason. By the time he was living in London in the 80s, temptation was difficult for the Jamaican-born gentleman, and he really was the gentlest of men outside the ring, to resist. Former WBC flyweight titlist Charlie Magri, a stablemate of Laing’s, told Jarrett: “Kirk was always late for training! One day, he was so late that I’d finished my session and was just getting changed. Kirk came into the changing room, and I said to him, ‘You probably shouldn’t go out there straight away, you know, because they know you smoke the gear’. Kirk smiled broadly and said ‘No, man, I’ve never touched the stuff in my life!’ The problem was he had a spliff tucked behind his ear, which he’d forgotten all about. When I pointed it out, he laughed and thanked me for telling him.”
Boxing men like Terry Lawless and Joe Ryan grew tired of trying to keep Laing in check. During his foggiest times they were infuriated with Laing, not only for his lack of dedication but at the outrageous talent he was apparently wasting in the process.
Laing famously beat Roberto Duran in 1982 a week after BN editor Harry Mullan had poured scorn on the bout, stating it was mismatch in Duran’s favour. But Laing was majestic that night inside Detroit’s Cobo Hall, winning on points over 10 rounds. Laing would often say that was the only fight he truly trained for. With the Upset of the Year in the bag, a few quid in his pocket, and the rigours of a gruelling camp fresh in his mind, Laing disappeared from boxing at precisely the time it was there for his taking. He would later claim he stayed fit for eight weeks after the victory. His promoter, Mickey Duff, disagreed and said he couldn’t get in touch with Laing for four months. Offers to fight the likes of Milton McCrory were turned down. It was a shame because against Duran, albeit an out-of-shape Duran, Laing had boxed beautifully.
That was not the case when Laing eventually re-emerged in 1983. Against the capable Fred Hutchings, with Muhammad Ali at ringside in Atlantic City, Kirkland was knocked out in the 10th and final round. It was a horrible fall that culminated with Laing’s head bouncing off the canvas. A four-day stay in hospital followed. Duran, meanwhile, had rebounded to win a world title at 154lbs.
Laing’s continued to frustrate his coaches and his promoter. Three wins were followed by a fifth round surrender to Brian Janssen in Australia. That defeat seemed to trigger some urgency in Laing and – the Duran triumph aside – some of the best form of his career came in the next few years.
Victories over Mike Piccioti and excellent countrymen Sylvester Mittee and Rocky Kelly – for whom he prepared while sparring a young Michael Watson – again put Laing on the brink of a shot at a world title. Names like Mark Breland, Marlon Starling, Jorge Vaca and Lloyd Honeyghan were all rumoured at different times. His failure to land the big fight was not always his fault; even the very best knew that fighting Laing at this time was a horrible proposition. Behind the scenes Ambrose Mendy, then a young and ambitious advisor, was soon involved – to Duff’s annoyance – and worked hard to keep Laing clean and focused. But Kirkland continued to do as he pleased and would find himself in the papers for the wrong reasons; his partying led to womanising and worse.
There was a points loss in Italy to Nino La Rocca, the product of some kamikaze matchmaking in which he never really stood a chance unless he could find the knockout punch. Laing, though still too good for fighters like George Collins at domestic level, grew ever more despondent. His demons – or friends, as he liked to view them – were never far from his shoulders.
The first year of the new decade was typical of Laing’s entire career. He was again knocked cold in a bout he should have won when American Buck Smith cleaned him out with a solitary well-placed whack in round seven before he rebounded to win the European title with an exceptionally impressive two-round victory over Antoine Fernandez. When on his game, capable boxers like Fernandez never stood a chance.
But that would be the last we saw of Laing looking anything like world class. Another badly judged trip to Italy, and a points loss to Patrizio Olivia, closed out both 1990 and his top-flight career. Defeats to Del Bryan and Donovan Boucher (another nasty KO) in 1991 all but convinced him to retire.
Laing would of course return. That comeback, which was devoid of any real highlights, ended in 1994 when Glenn Catley brushed away the remnants of Kirkland Laing in five rounds. “There is nothing left of the extraordinary skills and reflexes which made him so entertaining in his prime,” Harry Mullan somberly but accurately reported in the aftermath.
The boxing journey was over for Kirkland, a boxer of beguiling ability on occasion, but the inevitable freefall followed in retirement. It’s perhaps too easy to be hard on Laing for failing to fulfil his potential. He was a young and beautifully mischievous man who could not be tamed by anything, let alone the most brutal sport of them all.
Laing lived his life exactly the way he wanted to, not the way he was expected to, and that, frankly, is the only epitaph The Gifted One ever wanted.