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Whatever happened to Kirkland Laing?

Kirkland Laing
REUTERS/Action Images
Once upon a time, boxing writer Ian Probert got to know Kirkland Laing as well as almost anyone got to know Kirkland Laing. They would meet several times over the next few years, share spliffs and sink plenty of beer before Laing disappeared from view

SO often life seems to be defined, even, one might suspect, moulded by coincidences which sometimes promise to take on a divine quality. Well this one probably doesn’t fall even close to that category. I’m not going to make that claim. Nevertheless it managed to set my heart racing in a way that it hasn’t done for quite some time. When I checked out Facebook this morning I was presented with a memory from four years ago and prompted to share it. This one wasn’t a picture of a bubbling snotty child, or a cheesy pizza I had snapped before consuming eons ago. It was a photograph that I had posted showing a very much younger me posing alongside a boxer named Kirkland Laing. The image is standard fare in boxing nowadays: a sort of prototype selfie in which a mock-glaring Kirkland holds a polished glove to my chin; I’m smiling, of course, trying to hide the fact that I’m a little overawed to be in the close vicinity of somebody who was (and remains) one of my all-time boxing heroes. The picture was taken some time in the pre-camera phone days of 1989 when Kirk was in training for a European title shot in Italy against Nino La Rocca (unsuccessful (of course)). 

If I close my eyes I can almost smell that memory: I’m in the Kings Cross gym run by the late and inestimably generous of spirit boxing manager, trainer and treasured cutsman Dennie Mancini, situated not in Kings Cross but beneath a bric-à-brac shop selling dildoes, Bros posters and jumping beans in London’s Carnaby Street. Kirk is sparring with somebody, possibly a young middleweight named Ray Webb but I could be wrong. He’s swearing at nobody in particular as he throws a bewildering array of punches that you will find in no textbook.

Kirk’s Asian or half-Asian girlfriend Paula Chan is standing by like a bluestone scrutinising events, one eye on what’s happening in the ring, the other eye affixed suspiciously on me, an unwrinkled young journalist (if you can call him that) currently employed to do the boxing for the tits and buses-on-moon pornopaper the Sunday Sport.

Flip to a coffee shop in Soho an hour or so later and the three of us – me, Paula and Kirk – are sipping coke, sizing each other up; the other two wondering what is safe for them to say, me wondering what is safe for me to hear.

Slide over to a shanty town council flat in Hackney nine years later and I’m squatting on bare floorboards with Kirk (there is very little in the way of what can be described as furniture, most of it having been sold, swapped or burned as winter fuel) sharing a spliff. Him scarcely coherent, me less so. 

Cut to the back room of a pub and Kirkland Laing is smashing the balls down in a way that only Kirkland Laing possibly could; wielding the pool cue like a medieval lance as I stand at the bar getting another round. Kirk using those extraordinary natural attributes of his – the timing, the uncanny appreciation of space, the innate almost mystical understanding of angles – to pocket balls in a manner that would make Alex Higgins choke on his cocoa. Kirkland, it goes without saying, is skint but it never even comes up in conversation that I’ll be the one putting my hand in my pocket. To do so would somehow besmirch that sense of elegance that always accompanied Kirkland Laing as much as the odour of sweet sensimilla that clung to his clothing like aftershave. Later, without any awkwardness he’ll ask me for money and I’ll pass him a couple of quid. (This was one of Kirk’s more endearing qualities: Mancini once told me that Kirkland was the only fighter he knew who, when asking for an advance for the weekend, would invariably tap him up for a fiver.)

Kirkland Laing
Kirkland Laing boxing Newton Barnett in 1992 Action Images

Kirk turning up to my 30th. Broke. As usual.

Isolated scenes that fade into another with no connection. Flickering images that melt away into nothing. This is what it was like to know Kirkland Laing. I say ‘know’, of course, in the loosest possible sense because I believe that very few people in this world actually knew this unique specimen of humanity; By this I mean really knew him. Just as I am convinced that there was very little chance that he really knew who he was. 

More than anything my impression of Kirkland then and now was that he was a traveller, not of the Romany variety, but a traveller in the sense that he was somebody on an endless Odyssey. As such it made no real logic for him to understand the mechanics of his selected mode of transport, just as it would for me to understand how the airplane that I might be sitting in manages to leave the ground when it is obviously far too heavy ever to defy gravity. Kirk was simply travelling to another destination. Always travelling. Ephemeral. A figure eternally in transit.

It was when that journey came to an end that the problems inevitably kicked in.

Among the many people who didn’t know Kirkland Laing was his manager Mickey Duff, although he would have claimed that he didn’t know Kirk a lot less than many others didn’t know him. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘long-suffering’ in connection with Mickey, because Mickey would have been the first to admit that such an epithet would always be ill-fitting with regard to himself. Mickey, whom I got to know to a degree in which we once sat in his office and seriously discussed my writing his biography (the far superior and deserving Bob Mee got the gig), was wont to reassemble his features and produce a passable estimation of fatherly exasperation combined with mock anger whenever Kirks’s name came up in conversation. Kirk, it must be stressed, was not like a son to Mickey – nothing so sentimental as that; this was not a Rocky film we were all inhabiting – the boxer was, however, a potential source of income that was destined never to repay Duff’s intermittent investment. Kirk was probably king of the could-have-been-a-contenders; an extravagantly gifted mongrel of a boxer, whose disregard for the natural talents that had been bestowed upon him was only matched by the manner in which he chose to abuse them.

Kirkland Laing
Kirkland Laing relaxing in London Fields Action Images

Another who would have been well-advised to have known Kirkland a little better was the all-time great Panamanian legend Roberto Duran. Duran remains the dragon to Kirkland Laing’s St. George: handed the habitually unappreciated dreadlocked Jamaican back in 1982 as a dust shaker after an unprecedented two-fight losing streak that included the infamous No Mas debacle and a points loss to the fabulous Wilfred Benitez. It is that fight – available, of course, for all to see on YouTube – that largely cemented the legend of Kirkland Laing. If you have not seen it, it is worth spending half an hour or so watching the look on Duran’s face change from arrogant confidence, to surprise, to exasperation, to frustration and finally to downright incomprehension as Laing’s unconventional deportment ultimately proved too much to tame for a man who still had a handful of great fights left in him.

It is also a performance that made people like me form an in-orderly posse as they sought in vain to lay chase to this strange enigma from Nottingham and put down words about him. For there is little doubt that for anybody who has ever been captured enough by the charm of boxing to want to compile sentences about the sport that isn’t a sport, a fighter such as Kirkland Laing represented source material that was plated in pure gold.

But back to this morning, and a little background to events: The last time that I saw Kirkland Laing was sometime in the late-1990s when I was walking down Upper Street in Islington and suddenly there he was. Altered, of course, transmuted, no longer the man he had been. A pot belly had replaced the superbly defined stomach muscles that seemed to have been forged from alabaster, and a long white beard now clung to his chin, giving him the appearance of a strange hybrid of Methuselah and eternal child.

But Kirk never really knew who he was talking to. As always on the day in question he gave a passable impression of pretending to know me. Naturally, I had to repeat my name several times, and naturally I had to remind him of the occasions when we had spent time together. But as always it was enough for him that I claimed to know him, enough for Kirk to accompany me to the nearest pub and sink a few – at my expense. Naturally. 

And then there were stories. There was that brief documentary hosted by Steve Bunce, in which the boxing writer and pundit trawled the streets of Hackney doing what we’ve all done – trying to find Kirkland Laing. And there were tales of him falling from the balcony of his council flat, badly injuring himself in the process. And finally there were rumours of him hanging around the gates of a mental institution somewhere up north, clutching a bottle of cider in his hands. Who knows the truth of these tales? Because in Kirk’s case fact so often blurred into fiction. Apocrypha and reality in relation to Kirkland Laing were almost surgically intertwined.

Just over a year ago, while putting together the chapters for a book that ultimately became Dangerous I made another stab at trying to find Kirkland. I don’t know why I wanted to see him again, because I knew that such an ambition was always likely to be thwarted. With a little help from Boxing News I even managed to locate the mental institution which had allegedly become home to the former British and European welterweight champion. And so I wrote to them; I wrote to them five or six times, I rang them six or seven times before, reluctantly, a faceless voice at the end of as telephone line finally confirmed that the great Kirkland Laing was indeed an inmate. And then once again the trail ran dry.

I could not see Kirk in person, I was told, unless I was given permission from a family member. And so it was that my next search began. Kirk, I remembered, had a brother, Tony, himself also an ex-fighter. But as expected Tony proved equally elusive. As did Paula Chan, the former girlfriend with suspicion in her eyes from all those years ago. With deadlines looming I abandoned my chase.

I gave up until this morning when that picture appeared on Facebook inviting me to share it. For share it I did: I was secretly proud that somewhere from my past an image existed which proved that I had at one point managed to touch Kirkland Laing in some small way; that provided pictorial evidence that I had been able to get just a little bit closer to him that many ever did. I shared it on Facebook and I shared it on Instagram. I wanted people to see it. For whatever reason I coveted the ‘likes’ that would inevitably be earned from such an image.

Imagine my surprise when one of the ‘likes’ was accompanied by a comment. ‘#Dad’ it read, ‘I wish I could remember him like this…’

And then there was an exchange of messages. The last time I had seen her was when she was a toddler cradled in her father’s arms. She had visited him on a number of occasions at the hospital, she explained, but he didn’t really know who she was. Could I, I asked, was it at all possible that she might give me permission to visit Kirk? Not her, she replied, but her sister might. 

And so now there’s a chance that I could finally get to be face to face once again with Kirkland Laing. As stories go, the fact that an ex-boxing writer might have the opportunity to spend a little time with an ex-boxer from another era is something of a non-event. But it’s enough to set me off tapping away at this keyboard and it’s enough for me to want to share it with anybody out there willing to read.

Call it Part One of episode 30 of Chasing Kirkland. I very much hope that I’ll be able to bring you Part II.

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  • I remember seeing Kirkland Laing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990, I think. Dennis Andries was topping the bill, defending his world title against Sergio Merani. Laing stopped an overmatched Rocky “Ice” Berg in two rounds. It was one of the first professional boxing shows that I went to see and a great night. It’s so sad to hear how things have turned out. I hope you are able to get to see Kirkland and look forward to hearing any updates.

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