A Boxing Memory: Kirkland Laing
When the discussion starts over who was the best British boxer never to win a world title, two names often form the majority of any such discussion.
Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham despite numerous attempts on the world stage never did manage to win the big one. Arguably those chances came too late or at the wrong time for Graham, but another fighter never had one single opportunity to fight for world honours.
Kirkland Laing didn’t manage to land a shot at the world title, it was in many ways, self-inflicted. Laing was talented beyond a level few could ever hope for, but he was wayward, difficult and at times, he was trouble.
Laing was born in Jamaica, ended up in Nottingham as a child and found boxing. At 17, he won the ABA featherweight title in 1972, a time long forgotten, the talents of Laing equally so. Only the politics of his sport stopped him going to the Munich Olympics.
Turning professional with Terry Lawless by his side, Laing was one of the most naturally gifted fighters Britain has ever produced, with skills you just can’t teach, but a temperament that couldn’t be tamed. By 1979 he was still unbeaten and the British welterweight champion, Henry Rhiney was floored 9 times and dispatched in 10 rounds and Laing looked set for much bigger things.
The hands-down style wasn’t conventional, neither were his instinctive reflexes or the speed of his punches. Laing was a special talent, a rare commodity. But his dedication didn’t match the talent, he would often go missing from training. Laing found the necessary daily requirement boring and it got in the way of his other life.
Nicknamed ‘The Gifted One’ the impossible one would have been more fitting. The hide and seek lifestyle never a good mix in boxing. Drink, drugs, women and gambling the downfall of many. Laing tried but he couldn’t beat the trend, he did better than most. The addictions were one fight Laing could never win, he probably didn’t want to.
Watch one of his fights with the hard-punching Welshman Colin Jones, you have seen them both. Ahead on points in the first meeting in 1980, Laing was seemingly coasting to victory. Jones, patient and powerful found the punches he needed to eradicate the previous 8 rounds.
The rematch the following year was virtually identical. Behind on points heading into the 9th, Jones once again had an equaliser. Laing had apparently prepared with diligence, it was a hard loss for him to take. The fights with Jones epitomised much of Laing’s career. The skills very much on display, but they didn’t quite reach the end goal.
That’s not to say the career of Laing was a total failure, it wasn’t, but it was to a certain degree, disappointing to what it could have been. Ever the enigma, false dawns, hopes raised temporarily before another fall. A pugilistic game of snakes and ladders.
Laing did have success, two reigns as the British welterweight champion, including winning a Lonsdale belt outright. Laing had a short stint as the champion of Europe, glimpses of potential that never quite materialised on the world stage. The win over the Frenchman Antoine Fernandez in 1990 to win the European title when he was nearly 36, was some performance. Another sign of the talent he had in abundance, Laing lacked many things but talent wasn’t one of them.
In 1982 Laing had his best ever night. He went to America as the opponent to a living legend. The sacrificial lamb to a fighter on the road to redemption. Roberto Duran needed wins to push his ‘No Mas’ humiliation away from public consciousness, and to earn a multi-million dollar fight with the new sensation of the times, Tony Ayala Jr. Make no mistake Laing was brought over to Detroit to lose, he didn’t read the script, he rarely did.
A rare camp of dedication driven by fear of his opponent saw Laing turn up physically and mentally ready. Duran at 31, was hardly washed up and still had more world titles to win down the line, but Laing well beat him over 10 rounds. A win that gets lost in the conversation of great British wins on foreign soil.
It was named The Ring magazine’s Upset of the Year. Laing boxed brilliantly, with confidence and belief, he said the fight with Duran was the only fight he gave up drugs for. After the win over Duran Laing said “I can beat anybody if I put my mind to it,” too many times he didn’t.
Duran would earn millions after losing to Laing, the winner just went missing. The British fighter denied he went AWOL, he said he was waiting for the fights to materialise, but where was he waiting.
Big money offers including one to fight for a vacant world title went begging. This should have been his moment, his time, Laing decided other things were more important. The window of opportunity was wide open for Laing, it never quite opened again.
When he did finally resurface over a year later, he got knocked out by Fred Hutchings on a return trip to America, by which time that moment had passed. The Hutchings knockout was a horrible one, his head bouncing off the canvas as he fell. Laing spent time in hospital, it was a bad night in many ways for him.
Laing disappeared again, but inevitably he returned, still chasing, still hoping but never changing. The talent and the skills kept his career alive, the demons stopped it morphing into anything more.
More wins followed by defeats at the wrong time when he appeared on the brink of something more. An impressive win at domestic level over Sylvester Mittee in 1987 when he was 32 to once again become the British champion was a particular highlight of the later years. Laing looked especially good in beating Mittee, Lawless who had long since departed the frustration, said it was the best he had ever seen him. It wasn’t but it was close and there was renewed hope.
Only a failed bid for European glory ruined a four-year Indian Summer renaissance in his career and when he beat George Collins in 1989 Laing seemed ready for the biggest stage, but he would fall yet again.
In 1990 an unheralded American Buck Smith turned a fight around he was heavily losing with one punch. We had been here before. Laing rebounded to beat Fernandez for the European title later that year but lost it 6 months later and he began that drift to the inevitable.
Failed attempts at Commonwealth and European titles and losing his British title in a fight he should have won to Del Bryan in 1991, resulted in 3 defeats on the bounce and Laing was sliding into another role in his career. Most former champions end up becoming the opponent, the sight never gets easier to watch.
Laing continued until he was 40, a stoppage loss to Glenn Catley, a future world champion, in 1994 was the last roll of the dice. Even in those twilight years, you could see what might have been. The final resume was 43-12-1, it looked average, look a little deeper Laing was anything but.
Post-retirement wasn’t kind, stories of living on the street, crack dens, the booze, falling or pushed off a balcony made for depressing reading. But Laing survived even that fall, not for the first time he was given another chance.
After his time in Nottingham had ended early in his life Laing ended up in Hackney, but the place didn’t matter. Every town, every city has dark seedy corners where the ‘shop’ never closes, if the body craves something it is always in stock.
Laing probably won’t have any regrets or bitterness, maybe he felt he that special talent was all he needed, or maybe boxing was just there to feed his alter ego. We could have had more, but what he gave us was enough.
When Steve Bunce tracked him down long after the final bell had sounded for a BBC documentary in 2003, Laing met him in a park, the thick beard, the unkempt dishevelled appearance emphasising further the premature ageing process. The meeting cost Bunce money, the price of cigarettes and a few cans of Special Brew. On that park bench Laing told Bunce:
“I was a good fighter, but I could have been a great fighter.” He wasn’t wrong.
The life of Kirkland Laing ended in the early hours of June 9th 2021. Laing had developed dementia, and had been moved to a care home in Nottingham to be closer to his family. Laing was just 66 at the time of his death. One of the most gifted fighters Britain has ever seen.