BOXING came into my life as early as eight or nine years old but didn’t become a thing until I was 21. There’s a massive disparity between the day I knew about it and the day I took it seriously. I always grew up with people saying to me, “Are you going to box like your dad?” But our dad never spoke about us being boxers and never pushed us into becoming boxers.
We were brought up in a country that did not like or welcome black people and I was getting it (abuse) left, right and centre. Whether I was walking down the street or sitting in class, it didn’t matter. Grownups, teachers, people I didn’t know. It didn’t matter whether it was because of hatred or because of ignorance, I got it. That was what it was like growing up and I think my dad realised the importance of us knowing how to take care of ourselves.
That’s what my dad placed into my spirit from a very early age and it wasn’t done softly-softly, either. It was pretty tough. I had him to be punching with and I had my older brother. I didn’t have anyone breaking me in or telling me to take my time. I did it daily. I’d come home from school and start skipping, shadowboxing, or hitting the bag. We sparred each other as well. That was what growing up was like for us.
Boxing then became a ‘thing’ for me when I one day looked in the mirror after spending the previous night sucking on a crack pipe with my friends. I had woken up having missed the whole day. I got back about seven in the morning, slept the whole day, and woke up again and it was nighttime. I thought, Is this what your life has become? I just felt like what they call a ‘wasteman’. What have I accomplished? I have two children. I had been providing for them but even that was through criminal activity. I didn’t feel I had achieved anything to be proud of.
I was suddenly engulfed by this sense of change and my displeasure with myself far exceeded the pleasure of doing what I wanted when I wanted. I felt this weight of disappointment. Why was I living this life? Had I even tried to do better? Why do you believe without trying you can’t make it or become a success or a role model? Why do you believe you can’t earn whatever it is you want to earn just because you’re from Tottenham and you didn’t leave school with great results? It was just the wrong way to think, so I decided to do something about it.
I thought I could go to uni. I had gone to college and tried to do electrical engineering. But I ended up smashing this guy up, who was about six or seven years older than me, and a lot taller than me. He did something that I thought was a violation and I ended up having to run out of the college because the police came and I was going to get nicked. He was in a mess. There was blood everywhere. One of the teachers thought I’d used a knife but I didn’t carry knives. I just smashed him up, basically.
It was out of fear as well. He was so big and he had a big name behind him. My violence came from the fear of what he could do to me. I feared he could smash me up and make me look like a t**t in front of everyone.
So, I messed up that education plan and, although I thought about trying again, knew it would take a long time. I thought, Okay, what do I have that I can do and it can lead to quick financial change? I thought maybe boxing could be it. When I thought about boxing, it just felt right.
It was then all about remembering what my dad had done. My dad had always been asking me, “What are you doing?” But obviously I couldn’t tell him, because I was making money illegally. He would say, “Why don’t you come running with me?” I’d think to myself, Mate, I’m in no state to go running. I drink too much, smoke too much and take too many drugs. But obviously I couldn’t tell him that, either.
That was the reason I never took up my dad’s offer before that. But I now didn’t let anything get in the way – even my lifestyle. I thought I could reverse it. I was 21 and thought if I began training and got rid of this lifestyle I could do something greater.
I had nine amateur fights in total. Eight wins, seven knockouts. I was a novice. I did not want to waste time getting punched in the face for free. I had to provide for my children. It wasn’t about representing my country. It was about representing my family.
One of the best fights I had as a pro was against Michael Gale (in February 1997). I knew that I wasn’t ready for that fight. I hadn’t prepared my body right. I forgot what was going on in my personal life and just thought, I need this win and I have to take the fight, but God help me. I just knew I’d have to go through stuff to get the win. I didn’t feel right and wasn’t my normal self. All I had was grit and determination.
I even looked different. My body didn’t look rich and strong. My muscles didn’t look the same. There’s a difference between just making weight and doing the process properly. My body looked different from when I built it up with a lot of strength training and stuff like that.
I realised by round five I was really weak and weary. When he put me through that tough (sixth) round I was finished. There could never have been a round seven. It had to be the last round. Something had to go down. Either he had to go down or I had to go down.
Thank God it was him and not me. His corner sent him out and said he was going to be stopped on cuts if he didn’t go out there and stop me. He was determined to do that and I felt that determination. He wouldn’t let me hold. He wouldn’t let me do anything. I remember thinking, I’ve got to knock this guy out while he’s coming for me.
I remember him coming in and thinking I was finished. I was going back and he must have thought, Yes, I’ve got him! But he didn’t realise I’m like a sleeping dog.
I remember Glen McCrory saying, “He wasn’t even looking.” But I didn’t need to look. It’s like knowing where the ropes are when you’re going back. This is what you do. I just dropped a straight right hand down the pipe and then he dropped. It was very well-planned. Even the left hook that I nailed him with to finish it, which was worrying because he banged his head on the canvas when he dropped, was the result of me throwing a jab, a tired and a lazy one, which he slipped but my hand was still there for a split second and I thought, He hasn’t blocked. I could just turn this into a left hook. He didn’t get back up.
As for my WBO title fight with Dariusz Michalczewski (in September 1998), I was so inexperienced, in so many areas, that it allowed me to take that fight. On one hand I had big kahunas, because you need those to accept a fight against a guy like Dariusz, but to go from not even fighting for the British title to fighting a world champion of that stature was huge.
I didn’t care by then. Certain things happened in my personal life that made me make a decision. I kind of lost faith in some of the people around me and I just thought I’d make the decision myself. When Frank (Warren, promoter) offered me it, I knew I shouldn’t have taken it. But I was like, I don’t give a s**t, I’m taking the fight.
What I should have done was taken the (Chris) Eubank fight. That was more exciting to me. But I was advised to not take Mickey Mouse money, which is what scrapped that Eubank fight. In my heart, though, I really wanted to take it. That would have made me a household name.
I remember being in there against Dariusz and thinking, What the hell, can this guy see everything I’m about to throw? He just seemed so formidable. I was boxing out of my skin and most people say it was my best fight. But Dariusz was a consummate professional. He read punches and even if he got hit – I was probably hitting him one out of four – he would somehow ride it really well.
I learnt so much from fighting him. It made me a better fighter. Defence started becoming something I realised was my offence. Staying on top of a fighter without doing anything puts pressure on them. They have to punch. That’s what Dariusz’s secret was. He stayed in range, he stayed in the pocket, and he made you feel like you’ve got to try to get rid of this guy. You are then fighting at his pace.
I cried after the fight. My family had come to Germany and I was gutted I had lost. That was what I had climbed the mountain for. But I knew in my heart of hearts I’d gone all this way and met someone at the top of the mountain and it shouldn’t have gone like that. It went all wrong. There were too many mistakes made and I don’t think my mind was on it the way it should have been.
I wanted to fight more, and was begging Frank, but just couldn’t get the fight. The last thing I needed was 14 months out of the ring. That’s 14 months away from how I felt when I lost and the way I felt when I lost was wow, you were in the ring with a guy who was probably among the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world. You gave a good account of yourself for the time you were in there. If you get it right next time, think about what you could do. I should’ve been getting back in the ring immediately and demonstrating what I’d learnt from that loss. But it didn’t happen like that.
Fourteen months later, I was offered a Johnny Nelson fight and thought, No, that doesn’t make sense. Johnny is a bit of a runner. How does it make sense to jump in the ring with a runner and a spoiler 14 months after losing to Dariusz? He was ring fit – Frank kept him fighting like once a month – and I thought that’s not a clever fight. I’ll knock this guy out but I need to be ring fit as well. I needed a few fights first.
That didn’t seem to fit into Frank’s plan, so I called it quits. I left Frank at that point and we left on good terms. He said, “Any time you change your mind, let me know.” I was never a pain to work with. I had a lot of love for Frank.
I had contact with Jackie Kallen, Don King, and even Roy Jones’ people regarding a fight against him. But I then injured my knee – it popped out of its socket – and that put paid to any conversation with any promoter and any chance of me getting back in the ring anytime soon. That’s when my whole life changed.
The consultant said it was one of the worst knee injuries he’d ever seen. All my ligaments had been ripped up. He described it as an elastic band with no elastic in it. He said they had to put a bolt in the side and use someone else’s tendon to get it stronger. He said I couldn’t fight at world level anymore.
That was his opinion. I didn’t need to take his opinion. It wasn’t the truth. It wasn’t gospel. But I didn’t understand that at the time and it broke my heart. It tore my world up.
I watched myself healing for the next three years – my knee was crap most of the time – and in 2002 I got surgery. You then take another year to heal up from that and your knee starts to go back to some sort of normality. It was a tough, tough time. You get depressed. My marriage was falling apart. There was no money coming in. What am I going to do to reinvent myself now? I was a boxer. If I’m no longer that guy, who am I?
When I returned to the ring at 45, I was a completely different person. Even all my fears I had when fighting previously had gone. Fighting was now a pleasure whereas before it had always been a battle for me. I had a love-hate relationship with it. I had to do it, it gave me some significance, but I battled with the anxiety and the adrenaline and the fears and doubts. There was always that going on. Also, you’ve got the pressure of trying to protect your zero. What would happen if I lost? But the only thing that happened when I lost was that I became better.
What was amazing was how I processed every adversity that came about in my life the way I processed a loss in boxing. Whatever I lost, even the loss of my own flesh and blood, my son, I was still holding on to the same thread. What could I learn? How could I become better? What do I do now? How does this affect my purpose? What impact does it have on my future?
The same strategy was being used in every situation. It didn’t matter whether it was a boxing arena or a grieving arena or a depression arena or an injury arena, and whatever audience was there watching, I never changed. I kept growing and becoming better as a person. I might have had to reframe the story and recreate myself and what I was doing, but the core strategy I used never changed. I always asked questions of myself and gave myself the space and time to sit down alone.