A Boxing Memory: Herol Graham
At some point in 1990, Herol Graham looked around the familiar surroundings of the Ingle Gym in Sheffield and realised he was now the past and not the future. Graham saw the likes of Prince Naseem Hamed and others strutting their stuff, younger fighters with their careers very much ahead of them. Fighters from that same Wincobank Gym would beg, borrow and steal his patented style, Graham paved the way for the rest. But he knew his time was coming to an end.
It wasn’t long after one brutal devastating right hand from Julian Jackson changed everything. That one punch changed the course of his life. If that punched had missed like so many had previously on that fateful night, the Herol Graham story would have had a very different ending.
It was his second attempt at becoming a world middleweight champion, his best chance, in a split-second, had gone.
Graham sensing the old guard were making away for the next generation, knew that he was now part of the old and not the new. There were no thoughts of retirement, there rarely is, but he probably knew somewhere deep within that he would never be able to call himself a middleweight champion of the world. A fighter is the first to know it’s over, but the last to admit it.
That one punch robbed Graham of plenty. It took away what was left of his prime, although his best years were already probably behind him. Graham told Tris Dixon he felt he wasn’t all there after that painful night in Spain. The Brendan Ingle prodigy had lost before, but never like that. Thoughts of it happening that way again left mental scars and so much more.
Dixon was speaking to Graham for a chapter in his gut-wrenching thought-provoking book Damage, the interview was conducted in a London physiatrist unit. A former champion with a life behind locked doors with voices inside and out. It shouldn’t have been like this, but all too often that’s exactly how it ends. Years of research and the all too familiar signs of decay ignored, boxing’s dark secret that the money men want to keep hidden.
Graham was there for his own safety. Too many bad days with depression and suicidal thoughts, battles with alcohol and the savage effects of a long career in boxing has left Graham struggling from within facing a fight he has no chance of winning.
For Graham to be suffering so badly from a life in boxing should be enough of a warning to those that run the sport to make changes and take some responsibility. Graham in his pomp was almost impossible to hit, the famous Ingle body sparring would have restricted the shots taken to the head to an absolute minimum. But still, Graham suffers, a forgotten genius who is almost certainly the best British fighter never to win a world title.
But even before Jackson, the fights were getting tougher, his prime years spent in the wilderness. Graham had cleaned out domestically and in Europe at light-middleweight and middleweight, good fighters like Mark Kaylor, Ayub Kalule and others sat impressively on his resume. But with Marvelous Marvin Hagler sitting as the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, chances to be crowned a world champion were limited at best.
A fight with Graham wasn’t lucrative enough to tempt Hagler. Offers were made and not so politely rejected. Graham was high risk, very high risk, with little reward. A chase for a fight with Tony Sibson was a fruitless one. Graham badly wanted that fight. A big-money fight with Thomas Hearns in Sheffield was even mooted at one point, a dream fight that sadly was just that. Make no mistake Graham was ignored and avoided by many. Trust me he was that good.
By 1987 Hagler’s reign was over, sugar isn’t always sweet, the titles were now split, Graham at 38-0, was finally on the brink of that long-awaited title shot. But there were tensions from within. Barney Eastwood had come on board, Eastwood and Brendan Ingle never got on, and Graham and Ingle started to see cracks in their relationship, a temporary parting of the ways was inevitable.
Graham took a fight against a tough Italian Sumbu Kalambay in May of 1987 and lost. Problems in his personal life, no Ingle and mixed messages in his ear, the new team tried to change a winning style. A conflicted Graham lost a fight he should have won.
Ingle returned and Graham eventually earned that world title fight in 1989 against an elite fighter in Mike McCallum. But the tensions hadn’t gone away, Ingle was back in his corner, but so was Eastwood. Graham talked about disagreements in his corner during the fight, he needed unity, he got anything but. It was close, too close. Graham lost on a split-decision. Another moment lost in time, another fight he should have won.
Graham ploughed on, talks of a fight with Nigel Benn came to nothing, but eventually, he earned the fight with Jackson in 1990. Graham never came closer to becoming a world champion. Jackson had eye problems that were so bad he couldn’t get a licence to fight in Britain. Both eyes had been operated on to repair detached retinas, Graham’s punches for 9 minutes would do further damage.
After three brilliantly executed one-sided rounds, Jackson was reduced to a one-eyed fighter and close to defeat. He was given one more round by the ringside physician, then he would have been pulled out. But even practically blinded Jackson had power, frightening power. He only needed one chance. Graham gave him what he desperately needed.
Graham was told to stay away, the corner referred to it like an open goal in football. The reality was Graham didn’t have to land another punch, his task in the next 180 seconds was to avoid being hit by one hard enough to put him to sleep. For a defensive maestro like Graham, it should have been a simple task. A walk in the park.
But Graham, labelled by some as just a limbo dancer, wanted to win by knockout. He wanted to prove a point. All he had to do was dance and win.
How that 4th round ended has been told a million times. Graham spent the night in hospital, he woke the next day and immediately asked if he had won. When the nod of defeat came, out of a fighter’s instinct he asked for a rematch. But in many ways, the damage was irreversible.
Chasing shadows Graham fought three more times after his nightmare in Spain, he lost two of those three fights and retired in 1992, Graham was 33 when the final punch in anger was thrown, or so we hoped. A fighter without purpose and a bank balance that lacked what it deserved and needed, will nearly always return to the fold.
The return worried many, passing tests to be allowed to box again shouldn’t always lead to a new beginning with the same old sad predictable end. Even the British Board of Control had doubts, the process to let Graham fight again was a long one, it looked and felt like a decision of reluctance but Graham was eventually granted his licence back in 1996.
A few wins with mixed messages earned Graham one final shot at a world title. Charles Brewer the IBF super-middleweight champion needed a fight, Graham obliged.
It was another night of near misses. Brewer took two counts in the 3rd round and was behind on one card and only even on another when Graham was stopped in the 10th round. It looked premature, Graham agreed as did I. Brewer had injured his ankle in the fight and left in a wheelchair. Cruelly denied again but this time even he knew that was the definitive end. The final chapter in his boxing career had finally been written. Graham was 38, and even well into his decline, he had left a message of what might have been.
Life after boxing has been cruel for Graham. The mind is fragile, his life equally so but no less precious. There has been personal tragedy. Graham’s long-time partner Karen died after a long brave battle with cancer, and with the battles with his own demons, Graham has been hit harder than most.
Graham was sexually abused when he was just 8 and was a tortured soul for much of his life. When the light is switched off the darkness hits hardest. In his autobiography Graham said:
“All my self-belief had gone. I was financially on my knees. Mentally I was in torment. I just wanted out. So I sharpened a knife, took a bottle of brandy and went into the bedroom, made a couple of calls and said a few prayers before beginning to slash my wrists.”
Thankfully Graham survived but the suffering lingers long and hard.
There are many similar stories of an unforgiving sport, but Graham’s is one of the saddest. For sheer talent alone, Graham deserved better, he was almost certainly too good for his own career. Graham didn’t win that world title, but it was hardly a career of failure. It was anything but.
The road didn’t glitter with gold like it should have, too many wrong turns in a sport that twists, turns and denies what should be a given right.
Fighters like Graham are often forgotten and abandoned after they have no further use in a sport that takes more than it gives. How many stories like Graham’s are left untold, fighters that have long ago left the public consciousness.
There is talk of a retirement home for struggling old fighters like Graham. It might be a dream that will likely be extinguished by the millions it will undoubtedly cost. But it’s an idea that needs to be explored as far as possible, the sports unofficial pension scheme needs to happen. Boxing owes its past stars that at the very least. The recent past hasn’t been kind, the immediate future needs to be as kind as possible. Life isn’t going to get any easier, Graham will need all the help he can get.