It’s being coughed up and he doesn’t know why. All he knows is it’s somewhere in his chest, then in his throat, then on his tongue, and that he hasn’t yet learnt how to stop or control it. All he knows is this is not supposed to be happening. Not now, at 18 years of age. Not when training. Not when fit and healthy. Not before a fight has even broken out.
“I was lucky to have found out I had TB (tuberculosis) through boxing,” said Mick Williamson. “I was training and having chest pains and coughing up blood.
“In those days they would put you up in Switzerland and wait for you to die. I went to the doctors and they said it was a strain. I stayed in Grove Park [hospital] for six weeks and after that I was allowed home for weekends. I was the oldest of seven [children], so I was a bit worried about the rest of the family.”
Williamson would never have been a good boxer, or so he says. But he shone in the school championships and even when tuberculosis tried wrecking his dream was determined to get back in the ring and pick up where he left off.
“I was driving people mad,” he said. “All they heard was, ‘When can I start boxing? When can I start boxing?’ But TB leaves a scar on your lung and you’ve got to wait for that to heal.
“All of a sudden I was 20 and booze, birds and God knows what else entered the equation. I forgot to ask when I could start boxing again.”
He’s 23 now, blindsided by booze and birds, and somewhere inside the Stork Club in Streatham. His days of fighting in a ring are over but that doesn’t mean Mick Williamson’s fists have necessarily retired. Ungloved, they are currently clenched in the middle of a melee, all broken glass and faces, as that unwelcome taste returns to his tongue.
“I never got cut from boxing, but I suffered one from a bottle that had to have 36 stitches,” he said. “There was a big scuffle, and somebody must have whacked me with a bottle.
“My friend called an ambulance and next thing I know I’m back in the hospital I was born in, St James’ in Balham. They then went to work on my eyelids. Thirty-six stitches all told. I didn’t count them. I just asked.”
Even more blood.
This time it pours down the face of Ricky Hatton as he sits on a corner stool. The boxer asks no questions for he knows time is of the essence and that this is not the time to be inquisitive. But still his concerns are written on his face. One of them: How bad is it? Another: Will it hold up? One more: How many rounds do I have left?
Now it’s the job of Mick Williamson, the cut man standing over him, to possess the answers and do the reassuring. It’s October 2000 and blood is his business. If ‘The Rub’ can’t cope with the cut, Jon Thaxton, Hatton’s opponent, wins the fight. If ‘The Rub’ can’t stem the blood flow, nobody can.
“What’s strange with Ricky is that the biggest fight he ever had was against Kostya Tszyu and he never got cut. It makes no sense,” Williamson said. “And the worst cuts he ever suffered were against a British title-level opponent.
“Thaxton was a bit clever with his gloves. But they weren’t there to dance, were they? I remember Jon coming up to me afterwards and saying, ‘F**k me, Mick, when I saw that cut, I thought I had my mortgage paid.’”
Back then, around the time he was simultaneously saving Hatton’s career and ruining Thaxton’s plans, Williamson tended to smoke a lot. He smoked to relax, he smoked to calm his nerves, and often, in changing rooms before fights, the cigarette breaks of Mick Williamson were as common a sight as the nervous yawns of the boxer. He would be there one moment, gone the next. And when he was there, he was quiet, preferring to go unseen.
It was a stance at odds with the look-at-me-look-at-me approach of many in boxing today, yet Williamson seemed only ever there – in the changing room, in boxing – to do a job. There to get paid, not seen. There because of his love of the game, not the limelight.
“I do love it and always have,” Williamson said. “Even before I was working in boxing, I loved it. I came out of Bermondsey, so it was a regular thing. It wasn’t a case of, ‘Who is boxing?’ It was, ‘When’s the boxing?’ It was everywhere.”
Though his own boxing career fell away, Williamson, like so many, stuck around. He stayed close to the late matchmaker Ernie Fossey – someone he describes as a “very blunt man who didn’t suffer fools” – and progressed from doing house second work to cuts for undercard boxers. Even now he doesn’t really know how he ended up doing cuts, nor when it all officially begun, but he does know a Billy Schwer title fight was his first big assignment.
“After that I got the phone call from Ricky’s dad or Billy Graham,” he said. “They asked if I would do cuts for Ricky. The first fight I did for Ricky was Bernard Paul.”
That was back in 1999. In the 20 years since, Williamson has earned a reputation as Britain’s finest cut man.
Remind him of this and he will say it’s not about him. He will suggest the focus should be on the two boxers in the ring, which, to some degree, is true. But, equally, there are occasions when the blood starts to run, a fight is in jeopardy and a fighter requires help. It’s then Williamson finds himself beneath the one thing he has spent all night trying to avoid: the spotlight.
“What goes through my mind before a fight? Nothing,” he said. “Normally I’m just sitting there chatting to someone or having a wander about. That’s it. It’s not my scene. I haven’t got any advice to offer.
“Once you’ve greased them in the changing room or in the corner before the fight, you go and sit there, nice and calm.
“I always wear a wristband. On that wristband I’ll have my three (swab) sticks and then I’ll have my gauze tucked the other side of the wristband.
“Virtually every round you’re dipping the sticks. After so long you chuck the stick away and use the next one. You’ll have that and a bit of grease on the back of your hand. With all that you’ve got everything you need on one hand.”
Like any expert, Williamson has a way of making an important job seem unimportant and a difficult skill seem easy, something we could all do. In his hands, it’s the humblest of skills, one to do not describe.
“Normally I don’t like getting in the ring,” he said. “You can do both sides of the cut without getting in the ring. If you try getting in the ring, your foot can get tangled on the rope in a panic, which has happened to me before, and you end up lurching in the ring.
“You can do everything so long as you don’t get somebody who wants to be on the telly who starts interfering while you’re doing the cut. You do get a few like that in boxing, but most are fine.
“When you’re working with people like Joe Gallagher and Billy Graham, and plenty of others, your job is easy. Sometimes they say to me, ‘Do you want to get in?’ I say, ‘No, there’s no need. I can do it from here.’”
Once in position, Williamson will then watch what he can of the fight. Often his view will amount to not much more than “Joe Gallagher’s arse” but sometimes he gets lucky.
Some nights, too, there will be no need for Williamson to intervene. Some nights the boxer will also get lucky, which is to say, leave the ring blood-free.
“A good night for me has nothing to do with whether a boxer gets cut or not,” he said. “A good night for me is getting paid on the night.
“If they’re not cut, they’ve done all right. The only issue is when they don’t get cut and ask for a discount. I then have to explain to them I’m here in case they cut. I’ve had that before: ‘Can I pay you this amount because I didn’t cut?’”
The unlucky ones, meanwhile, will feel it before they see it and gauge the severity of the cut from the faces of their cornermen, one of whom, Williamson, is well versed in giving nothing away. He will have assessed the cut, perhaps even foreseen it, and will be ready to act accordingly.
“It’s weird,” he said. “When you see a cut, you don’t get stressed as much because you’re no longer waiting for it to happen. It has happened.
“You’re tense in the corner, of course you are, but you’ve just got a one-track mind at that point. You’ve got everything ready. You were expecting this.”
Forget, at this point, any notion of good and bad cuts. There are no good ones, Williamson will stress, but the very worst, based on experience, are the cuts located just beneath a boxer’s brow. Those ones are on the bone, there is little room to work, and blood has a habit of running into the eye. The temptation then is to panic. The coach panics and the boxer, in turn, starts to panic.
Williamson, on the other hand, must apply pressure, not feel it.
“You just want the corner to shut up and let you get on with it,” he said. “In the words of Ernie Fossey, ‘What are you worried about? Running out of blood?’ If you come at it from that angle, it more or less takes a little bit of the pressure off.
“So long as you haven’t got a clown in the corner, you’re okay. The worst thing is when you’re putting adrenaline in and the trainer is washing it out with water because he’s panicking or wants to get on telly.”
Williamson often recites another Ernie Fossey quote – “good referees make good cut men” – and finds comfort in the knowledge that if a fight is meant to continue, the fighter’s cut can and will be stopped. If it isn’t, if the cut is too bad, common sense will hopefully prevail and either the referee or trainer will be responsible for ending the fight.
“Some people have just got that type of skin, haven’t they?” he said. “Bone structure is the thing. Ricky [Hatton], God bless him, had those high cheekbones and they never helped.
“His cuts against Thaxton would be up there with the worst I’ve had to deal with. So would the [Tony] Bellew fight [against Roberto Bolonti]. The rest of them I would consider run of the mill.
“I’ve seen some terrible ones where I’ve not even bothered. As the referee walks him over, I just go, ‘No, not happening.’”
Unfortunately, not all cut men know what they’re doing and not all referees know when to make the right call.
“When you get a cut, you put pressure on it, which means you’ve got your fingers either side of the cut,” Williamson said. “You’re not squeezing it shut, you’re putting pressure on either side of the cut. But some people just get the towel and squeeze it shut. How do you then get the stick in?
“You also get the other ones who get the swab stick and press it in like mad. What have you got in the cut? A piece of cotton wool. And you’ve got the adrenaline running down his cheeks. That makes it even worse because as it’s running down it’s bloody, isn’t it? So that makes it look like even more of a mess. It’s all common sense, isn’t it?”
He paused to laugh. “I just like moaning.”
Williamson also likes earning. Lucky for him, as Britain’s best he is often in demand.
“For world title fights you can get a lot of money,” he said. “Sometimes you have a bond with a fighter and they look after you. But the money more or less stays the same. Some are a bit more thankful, cash-wise, than others, but you tell them what you want and you’ll either get it or you won’t.
“Other fighters give me money without me having to ask. They just give me money and I’ve kept my mouth shut. I have had some where I’ve thought, That was a bit over the top.”
Though the jobs continued, one day the blood stopped.
Eighteen months ago, in fact, the supply of blood running to Mick Williamson’s heart was blocked, leading to a myocardial infarction, otherwise known as a heart attack.
Since then the 72-year-old has stopped smoking and given up his day job as a black cab driver. But one thing he won’t stop doing is lingering in corners and cleaning up the blood of boxers. It keeps them – and him – going.
“I had another mild heart attack recently, but these things happen now,” he said. “I’m getting old. Things start breaking down. People ask me, ‘How do you manage? Why do you keep doing the cuts?’ I tell them greed keeps me going.”
You also sense boxing is in the blood.