Kirkland Laing: Remembering The Gifted One
The news of the passing of Kirkland Laing had, an even more, sadder ring to it. Like many fighters from yesteryear, they are too easily forgotten once their sell-by date has long since expired.
Boxers have a shelf life, a time when they are useful to the money men who sit on the safe side of the ropes. But even with the fans who fighters bleed for, they all too easily become out of sight and out of mind.
Laing, in the manner of so many, had become a recluse in public consciousness, the forgotten old champion assigned to boxing’s great scrap heap. We know very little about Laing’s life since he last graced a boxing ring in 1994, the loss to Glen Catley the final chapter in a career of great frustration and what might have been.
The number of days and nights lost in the various crack dens he undoubtedly would have frequented are unknown, the time spent surviving on London’s streets without pity or hope, is also a thing of mystery, or how long he allegedly spent in a mental institution will perhaps never be told. The stories that no doubt would have been legendary, forever lost in time. But we can imagine. We’ll never know the depths his black hole of a life had become. Some questions are probably better left unanswered.
To some degree, there was also doubt about Laing’s boxing career, specifically, just how good he could have been. On his best day, he could have beaten anybody, on his worst day, anybody could have beaten him. It’s not that the ‘Gifted One’ didn’t care, he just didn’t care enough. Laing cared about other things more.
Twelve defeats on his record hints of mediocrity, Laing was many things, mediocre he most certainly wasn’t. Most of those defeats were avoidable in many ways. Laing was wayward, inconsistent, but on his day he was world-class. Incredibly gifted, maybe too gifted.
“I can beat anybody if I put my mind to it,” Laing once said. Too many times he didn’t.
Laing was an ABA champion at 17, a British and European welterweight champion, and on his best night, he beat Roberto Duran, the 1982 Ring Magazine Upset of the Year. Duran might not have been the snarling warrior of old, but he still had many good nights left in him. The win over Duran was as good as any by a British fighter on American soil. It really was that good, and Duran wasn’t as bad as some would let you believe. Duran was good on the night, Laing was just better.
The Panamanian legend would go onto win two more world titles, Laing just went missing. That was his career-long problem. After the shock win over Duran, Laing had a window of opportunity to capitalise on his famous win. Big money offers, a fight for the vacant welterweight championship of the world were all there for the taking. But Laing couldn’t be found, and when he was, his moment had gone.
With more dedication to his craft, Laing would have done more, much more. Probably the greatest regret in British boxing history.
Laing had spent the last part of his life in a nursing home in Nottingham, battling bravely with dementia. His final fight and one he couldn’t run or hide from, and one he had no chance of winning. Boxing will likely give us many more similar stories.
Many years previous Laing survived a fall from a balcony in Hackney. Different versions of the same incident. Pushed or fell, he was lucky to survive. Did that fall bring the dementia on, or was it boxing that accelerated life’s silent killer. Either way, Laing likely suffered in silence in his final days.
Laing was just 66 when all the life and fight finally left his body in the early hours of that Wednesday morning on 9th June in 2021. Too young to die for sure, but he packed everything into those 66 years. Laing enjoyed life.
I always wonder if fighters who leave much of their primes in bars and needles would change anything with the benefit of hindsight. With Laing, I doubt he would have changed anything, he lived his life the way he wanted to. Boxing just helped him pay for it.
Many will choose to remember Kirkland Laing for different reasons, but however you do it, he just needs to be remembered.
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