Gary Mason: The Forgotten British Heavyweight
In many ways, Gary Mason was a victim of timing. Mason was overshadowed by another British heavyweight of the time who grabbed the majority of the headlines when they were both climbing up the heavyweight ladder of contenders.
Frank Bruno was the man of the moment, the best chance Britain had in over a century of failure on the world heavyweight scene. Bruno, and his career of heroic failures on the world stage until one famous night at Wembley, grabbed much of the newspaper print, Mason was relegated to an afterthought. Mason and Horace Notice, another forgotten heavyweight from the same camp, suffered as a consequence.
We remember Bruno fondly, Mason is largely remembered for one defeat, his only defeat, to Lennox Lewis in 1991 which effectively ended his career. Boxing a sport of short memories, it soon forgets.
Mason was born in Jamaica in 1962, the son of a carpenter and grew up in Clapham and after a brief 10 fight amateur career, he turned professional with little fanfare in 1984. Terry Lawless guided much of his early career before Mason left Lawless to go with Mickey Duff.
The early opponents formed a queue of familiarity, the usual names, fighters brought in to serve a purpose. Fighters that are the blood and soul of the sport, names that litter the record of any heavyweight prospect of that era, add in a few cruiserweights who had lost any remaining ambition and desire to make their true fighting weight, the picture isn’t hard to imagine.
The usual suspects who were wheeled out week in week out, the sports fall guys, the vital unappreciated cogs boxing takes for granted. Mason did the expected and served his apprenticeship well. Despite the newspaper copy elsewhere, Mason was a serious contender in his own right. There were the occasional boos to go with the odd ponderous display, a constant battle with the scales, but Mason could punch and was slowly starting to carve out his place on the confusing heavyweight picture of the time.
By 1989 Mason was a British heavyweight champion, Hughroy Currie was stopped in 4 rounds and thoughts turned to bigger things. A big win, his best win, over the former Olympic champion and world title challenger Tyrell Biggs in 1989 earned Mason a number 4 ranking with the WBC.
But just when he appeared ready to come out of the shadows, disaster struck. Mason suffered a detached retina, surgery followed, a career seemingly at its peak now very much at risk. The heavyweight hopeful assessed the risks, but boxing was what he did best, he had unfinished business. Boxing an addiction few can let go of, as with all addictions there is a price to pay. Mason returned in late 1990, a win over James Pritchard set up a double-title showdown with Lennox Lewis for the British and European heavyweight titles in early 1991.
Mason went to America to prepare, an appearance on the BBC chat show Wogan helped sell a few more tickets, a possible fight with Mike Tyson or a shot at the world heavyweight title held then by Evander Holyfield was mooted for the winner. A fight of high stakes, Mason could have taken an easier route, Duff admitted he had made a mistake in making the fight. But boxing doesn’t do hindsight, Mason didn’t get a second chance.
Lewis, the 12th ranked world heavyweight contender at the time, was a hard sell despite his amateur pedigree. The former Olympic champion had laboured in 14 fights in the paid ranks, failing to convince the doubting British public or Duff, the Bruno love affair was still strong. Mason had reached 35-0 and started the fight the slight betting favourite. Duff had bid £270,000 to stage the contest, one of the few times in his career he got it wrong. By the 3rd round, Mason was fighting a losing battle, his right eye swelling and closing, his window of opportunity closing with it. Mason was brave, showing courage beyond the call of duty. One of the best jabs in heavyweight history had done its job, the damage to his opponent’s face grotesque and the same opponent marching forward in desperation made it a hard watch, an uncomfortable watch.
The career of Lewis finally came to life as the career of Mason flatlined. By round 6, the right eye was completely shut, a cut over the left eye added to his misery, the end should have come as he walked back to his corner. Mason was hurt early in the 7th, but somehow found something deep within to have one last final desperate go to salvage more than he knew at the time. A sport showing how savage it can be and one that at times is incredibly hard to justify. But Larry O’Connell had seen enough, we all had, the call which should have come much sooner had finally come.
Mason with the damage to his eye would never be allowed to fight in Britain ever again. But in boxing, there is always somewhere else. Three years later Mason returned, still chasing shadows in boxing’s wastelands with little financial reward, the meagre purses a far cry from that pivotal and fateful night at Wembley against Lewis. To the shame of the sport, Mason was somehow granted a licence in America, two wins followed before the road to nowhere finally ended.
Life after boxing was cruel and unrewarding before tragedy cut short his life. A brief spell in rugby league with the London Broncos ended after just three games, Mason tried his hand at promoting amongst other things, and he even dabbled in the arm-wrestling world, but nothing seemed to last or work. A stint as a Sky Sports pundit ended when he inadvertently swore live on TV. Mason drove a taxi, he had a period as a security guard in a hospital. The good times well and truly over, Mason another sad statistic of a sport that leaves so many behind.
Mason enjoyed his money and life itself, probably a little too much. There were also times when he had to sign on, a humiliating experience for anyone, let alone a man who once had ambitions of fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. Being asked for autographs as he stood in line, must have been bittersweet. A painful reminder of what he once had. The fighter he used to be.
Mason was only 48 in 2011 when was he was involved in a collision with a van whilst riding his bike in south London and was pronounced dead at the scene. A tragic end to a life so young.
Around 1,000 mourners attended Mason’s funeral including the fighter who damaged his fighting future beyond repair. Lennox Lewis paid his respects, along with further boxing royalty. Mason, had a career of what might have been, very much a case of being around at the wrong time. In life and in death, Mason deserved better.