CARL THOMPSON is on time. Old habits die hard, especially those which brought success. Be on time, give your all, and believe. I’m late. Manchester’s Friday afternoon traffic turning a 20-minute trip around the M60 ring-road into an hour-long slog.
Thompson has trimmed down since his fighting days finished 14 years ago but the former WBO cruiserweight champion is still instantly recognisable as he patrols the car park of a Bolton gym, waiting for me to arrive. “You ok, mate?” Thompson said as we made our way inside. “I’m not training professionals at the moment, you know. I’m not sure how interesting I am.”
Thompson could be as ruthless as he was vulnerable. He could appear both immovable and fragile. He would teeter on the brink of disaster but emerge in triumph. And all of this could happen within the same three-minute round. I first met Thompson five years ago and have always found it difficult to square the man I have got to know with the boxer who was involved in some of the most brutal and dramatic fights in British boxing history.
The fighter who would bare his soul to the world in a series of ferocious battles was private and quietly spoken. A man who fought tooth and nail to reach the summit of the sport was modest and unassuming. Thompson was forged in the furnace at Moss Side’s Champs Camp but he overcame chronic shyness and even changed his name to sound tougher.
“My real name is Adrian. Adrian isn’t a hard enough name is it? I needed to be Carl. I was the same person, I just changed my name.” Thompson told Boxing News as he relaxed on a sofa whilst the gym was prepared for the evening’s group sessions.
Now 55 years old, his demeanour is so far removed from the intense, determined character who would routinely force himself through hell that it makes you wonder if he adopted ‘Carl’ as an alter-ego to steel himself for the challenges to come. A persona that only existed when the gym door closed or the bell rang and was put to bed when he retired.
“No, no. There was none of that [adopting an alter ego]. It all came around because switched my initials around one day and there it was, ‘Cat’ [his ring nickname]. I didn’t make it up because of that, it just fell like that.
“I was very shy when I was younger. You only had to say ‘boo’ to me and I would have ran away. My mum had to send us over to Jamaica for a few years when I was young and I came back when I was seven or eight. As I came back over as a child to a strange country, I just couldn’t adapt. It was very hard for me. That led right into my adult life.
“I wasn’t a confident fighter. I wouldn’t say I 100 per cent believed in myself but I always believed I was going to win. It’s daft isn’t it? Each fight, I approached it as if I was going to win but I wasn’t confident that I would. I don’t know how you work that out.”
He may not have been a born fighter in the traditional sense yet early signs of Thompson’s mental strength began to emerge as the skinny youngster threw himself into sport. Life would have been far from easy for a quiet, young, black amateur footballer in the early 1980s but Thompson flourished on the windswept, uncompromising pitches of North Manchester and he thrived as a talented long distance runner: another sport that forced him to reach down deep inside and wage a private war against pain and discomfort. Almost inevitably he found his way into combat sports and knocked on the door of Master Sken, one of the most respected names on the British Muay Thai circuit.
“I’m very competitive,” Thompson said. “I always wanted to win. I used to play football as a kid and always liked to be on the winning side. I could play anywhere. I was multi-talented. I had skill and desire. I just had that winning mentality.
“I was hoping I’d be a footballer. I think I was good enough. I was 16 years old and because there weren’t many black players around at the time, my careers officer talked me out of it. I didn’t pursue it. I was very easily influenced at that age.
“I loved Bruce Lee. I used to sneak into the pictures to watch him. In my day you could get away with that. When me and my friends used to get home from watching the films we’d be kicking each other to death. I thought I was Bruce Lee when I went to Master Sken’s but he quickly brought me back down to earth. He beat me up a bit. I loved Thai boxing. It was hard. I became a world champion but there are too many world champions in that sport so you don’t get the credit.
“I actually went to boxing first. I sparred against a guy called Danny Lawson. I didn’t know who he was but I was just a kid and got thrown in at the deep end. I held my own but decided that I wasn’t going to do boxing because it was just too hard. I decided to go and do Thai instead. That’s dumb isn’t it? Boxing’s too hard so now I’m going to get kicked, elbowed and kneed too.”
A competitive spirit and skill may help you succeed in the local amateur football league but it won’t prevent you from crumbling the first time a shin bone sinks into your thigh and it won’t help you to repack your bag and go back to the boxing gym the day after having your heart broken.
Most fighters struggle to accurately define exactly what it is that keeps them going in the face of pain, fear, and disappointment so somebody who has never experienced those situations has almost no chance of finding the words but whatever ‘It’ is — stubbornness, a refusal to accept defeat, determination, a combination of them all — Thompson had more than his fair share.
‘It’ helped Thompson to maintain his belief after losing three of his first 12 fights. ‘It’ helped him to get over the disappointment of his first world title tilt being ended by a dislocated shoulder when leading Ralf Rocchigiani on all scorecards in 1995 and he packed ‘It’ with him when he travelled to Germany to beat Rocchigiani in the rematch two years later.
Akim Tafer, Sebastiaan Rothmann, Chris Eubank and David Haye were among the fighters who found themselves a punch or two from putting Thompson away but instead found themselves in quiet dressing rooms coming to terms with defeat and wondering what ‘it’ was that kept Thompson going.
“It must have always been inside me to some degree. I liked to win,” Thompson said. “When you walked into Champs Camp, it’s hard to describe. Everybody was hungry. You could feel the hunger and everybody wanted to make it. There were a lot of fighters there. A lot of them dropped off and a lot of us kept on going. You had to hold your own. I remember sparring guys like Maurice Core and one or two others and you have to toughen up quickly. Everybody wants to be the king. You might not always win the sparring but you learn what your strengths are. Mine was to wear you down and break you.
“It takes a hell of a fighter to beat me. My mind and my heart are so strong. You really have to keep me down to stop me from coming at you. I wanted to win. I didn’t leave my job to box full-time and never make something of myself. I wanted to win and become a champion and I would do whatever it took. That just helped me to dig deep even when I was having a hard time. I would make it back to the corner and reassess things. I always had the desire. Even when I was behind, I used to be certain I would win.”
Thompson’s back catalogue contains more heroic deeds than the latest Avengers film but he receives a fraction of the adulation that some of his contemporaries do. With a little prompting, Thompson will matter-of-factly relive his famous victories and recount the lengths he went to to achieve them but the stories are told without a hint of exaggeration or self-aggrandisement. Instead, he paints a picture of shy, quiet boy who was simply determined to win a personal battle with himself. In Carl Thompson’s case, maybe that’s what ‘It’ is.
“I just treated boxing as a job,” he said. “It paid the bills. I didn’t look for pats on the back and I don’t take compliments very easily. I didn’t think my job was any more important than the bloke who lived next door.
“I used to duck and dive because I didn’t want anybody to know who I was. It probably had an effect on my selling point because I used to hide way from people because I was so shy. It was my job, that’s all. I didn’t want the attention that came with it. I was getting paid for the job I was doing and as a bonus I became a world champion. Even then I didn’t think I was better than anybody. It was just a title. It just meant my wage packet got bigger. It wasn’t important. As long as I fought and got paid it was fantastic.
“I would hide from publicity and shy away from people. I needed to be out there more. It is a bit of a regret because despite all my titles, I didn’t make life changing money. There’s no point in becoming a world champion if you don’t make the money.”
Thompson looks at home in the bright but basic gym, hidden away in the arches of an industrial estate. It is the type of place where results are achieved through sheer hard work. Many top level sportsmen find it difficult to move into coaching as the qualities that made them so special came so naturally. Thompson is open to working with professionals but has found that heart and commitment are impossible to teach. These days, personal clients help to pay the wages although some of them have absolutely no idea who is putting them through their paces.
“I have come across one or two people [who didn’t know]. I recently had a young lady come in and she asked me what credentials I had to teach her boxing. I said: ‘Well, I was a world champion.’ I don’t think it meant anything to her. I told her to have a look on the internet and they were my credentials.
“I’d train the fighters at Champs Camp with Ensley Bingham and Maurice Core. Any fighters I take on will have a very strong mind and a heart. I want them to be willing to listen. What I find is that people aren’t as easy as me to train. I feel like I have to hold their hands. I didn’t get my hand held. I have to tell them to do this and do that whereas I just used to get on with it.”
As we wander back out into the car park, Thompson’s 3pm client arrives and hurries past us with a nod. “Get warmed up,” Thompson told him. “I’ll give him a good workout and we do a bit of sparring. He’s a smaller guy but I’ll give him credit, he does have a go. I’ll walk him down and use my longer arms and make him work. I tell him that the Boxing Board wouldn’t sanction it.”
That competitiveness kicks in once again. “He wouldn’t stand a chance.”