Riches to Rags: Cautionary Tales from the World of Boxing
On 10th September at the impressive 02 Arena in London (where from ) Kell Brook has a date with destiny when he faces the undefeated WBA, WBC and IBF Middleweight champion in the shape of Gennady ‘GGG’ Golovkin. It’s a chance to prove he belongs in the elite category in World Boxing and can live up to his ‘special one’ moniker. Over the years many supremely promising talents have faced a similar situation to the one Brook finds himself in, where victory can propel them into the pantheon of greats, and failure, well that can take them somewhere altogether more unpleasant. The MALESTROM’s resident boxing writer David Jarvis describes the roller coaster journey many boxing careers endure.
ON a mild April night in 1972 at the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton the career of a gifted welterweight called Jackie Turpin Jr came screeching to a slow and painful standstill in a tangle of bewilderment and confusion.
When he entered the ring that night the young nephew of former middleweight world champion Randolph Turpin had the promotional muscle of Jack Solomons behind him and at the opening bell of his ten-rounder against unsung Spaniard Antonio Torres there was stardust in the air.
But what happened next was not so much a boxing train wreck as a slow, agonising derailment, a dismantling that left Turpin broken, humiliated and, at the age of just 23, at the end of his boxing journey.
He suffered 17 knockdowns, yes….17, losing a wide points decision and only making it to the final bell because somehow he kept hauling himself up and throwing punches.
He stayed away from the ring for three and half years after that, only returning in 1975 with a quick KO win before calling it a day 19 days later when he was knocked out in the third round of his last fight.
Turpin’s story is not unique. All the hype, glitter, column inches and Twitter followers in the world cannot rescue a fighter when he finds himself in trouble in the ring, beset by misfortune outside it, or he becomes, as the veteran boxing writer Colin Harts so succinctly puts it, “a victim of a flaw in his own make-up”.
We know their stories well. David Price, Kirkland Laing, Tommy Morrison, Mike Tyson, Tony Ayala Jr, Edwin Valero, Johnny Tapia and Kelly Pavlik, to name a few, have all witnessed their own career, or life, come off the rails and crash and burn into boxing’s wastelands. Some scramble from the destruction and come again. Most don’t. Price at least may yet harbour hopes he will disentangle himself from the wreckage but nobody is putting money on it.
One minute traveling at 100 miles an hour all the way to the top… the next, powerless to move or do anything other than look back through the haze and ask: “What the hell happened?”
No other sport delivers that crushing finality.
Hart was ringside that night in Wolverhampton to see Turpin collide with his own fate.
And when he hears talk of fighters on the rise, and particularly the current hype surrounding Anthony Joshua, he remembers with vivid clarity just what the sport can do to those whose talent cannot match the hype.
“Turpin was highly touted and a beautiful boxer. It made what happened that night all the more crushing.
“There had been a few mutterings about his chin earlier in his career. A seventh round TKO defeat in 1969 and and KO defeat in his previous bout 1972 had cast doubts but nothing could have prepared him, or us at ringside, for what was to come.
“In those days the press was right up on the ring apron and I recall the old Daily Mail reporter Peter Moss talking on the ringside phone to the sports desk in London.
“Turpin of course was a name and Moss reported to his desk as we watched: ‘We’ve got quite a story here… Turpin has been down 13 times’.
“As Moss spoke there was a thump and Turpin went down again and Moss quipped: ‘Make that 14’.
“It was a funny footnote to a very sad night.
“Turpin had a fatal flaw. He didn’t have a chin.”
Hart, who lived through and covered the greatest era in heavyweight boxing, rubbing shoulders with Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Holmes, Norton, Cooper and a host of others, knows better than most that the Joshua express is not unstoppable.
“Now don’t get me wrong because I am a huge fan and Joshua has not put a foot wrong so far. And I like the lad, but nobody has hit him on the chin yet.
“He has a good temperament and he can bang but other questions have yet to be answered.
“Does he have the chin to take a shot?
“And if he does, and he can suck it up, does he have the heart to dig in and and fight back when he is hurt?
“Even better, can he avoid showing an opponent he has been hurt?
“My word I hope he does have those qualities because like everybody else I am tremendously excited by him.
“He is totally dedicated. He reminds me of Bruno, though he is much looser than Bruno. But he reminds me how Bruno started….wreaking havoc.
“But we didn’t really know about Bruno until Jumbo Cummings hit him on the chin in 1983 and he wobbled all over the place until he then stopped Cummings in the seventh.
“Then of course against James Bonecrusher Smith he won nine out of nine rounds and got knocked out in the tenth.
“Frank faced Cummings in his 19th pro bout, and Smith in his 22nd. And so far Joshua has had just 14 fights.
“Lets see if he is okay in the chin and heart departments.
“I’ve seen the wheels come off before and I’m sure I will again.
“For the fighter on the rise it is the loneliest place in boxing. Just ask David Price.”
The Liverpool heavyweight is officially contemplating his future after two stoppage defeats to American Tony Thompson and then being badly knocked out in the second by Erkan Teper in a European heavyweight title bout.
But like Turpin before him, deep down he must know boxing has taken him to a place from which there is no return ticket.
“I have huge respect for any man who steps in the ring because to do that you have to be a brave man,” says Hart.
“But David Price it has to be said is a man with a flaw in his make up.
“Getting hit on the chin is not for him. Something happens. “He can box, he is an athlete, he is great guy, but his chin just isn’t going along with the script.
“I hope he is getting some good advice from those around him.
“I recall a wonderful fighter called Vernon Sollas back in the 70s. He had a tremendous talent and was British featherweight champion.
“He was extremely talented but his career was over at 23.
“He lost seven fights, six by knockout.
“He turned pro at 19 but he realised he wasn’t going to make it.
“He knew there was a flaw in his physical make-up. He was a brave guy but he just couldn’t take a shot and that happens.
“The defeats were interspersed with wins but every time he stepped up a level he got hit on the chin and that was it.
“It was over after four years for him but I’m glad to say he has a very successful building company today.”
But of course train wrecks happen outside the ring too.
Earnest Hemingway’s famous line “Life is the best left hooker I ever saw,” could have been written for Tommy “The Duke” Morrison, the former WBO heavyweight champion, whose life spiraled to a tragic end in 2013 aged just 44.
Aged just 27 he was diagnosed with HIV and already a former champion, his career, despite having just signed a new multi-million contract, was over when his licence was immediately suspended.
His status as one of boxing’s top attractions as the grand nephew of John Wayne combined with his starring role in Rocky V playing heavyweight Tommy Gunn, could not save him.
Tough and with a knockout punch, he went to his grave publicly denying he ever had HIV.
He never recovered from his shattering diagnosis, either as a man or as a fighter, and spent the last 15 years of his life in and out of jail for offences including drink driving and assault charges.
“Who could have seen that coming?” says Hart.
“He was limited in the ring but he was very tough and a lot of the men he faced said he was one of the hardest punchers they had met.
“But how does someone in his position handle an HIV diagnosis? It’s a tragic tale.”
The mercurial and infuriating welterweight Kirkland Laing was known as The Gifted One.
And who could argue with that after he outpointed Roberto Duran over ten rounds in Detroit in 1982.
But then, with the world at his feet, he went missing, some say to New York, some to Jamaica. Nobody was ever really sure. What is sure is that Micky Duff, his manager could not track him down for a year.
Hart takes up the story.
“Now there was a man with a fatal flaw as a fighter. No discipline. Tales of his drug taking and wild lifestyle were legendary.
“All the talent in the world but something was missing.
“One story had him furiously denying he was high on drugs – but the evidence was wedged behind his ear in the form of a giant spliff.
“Ultimately it was very sad though because he never capitalised on the night he beat a living legend and no one other than the man himself really knows why.
“It was a great disappointment.
“But leopards don’t change their spots. He was what he was. A laid back guy who blew his talent away.”
Boxing journalist Steve Bunce came closest to understanding back in 2003 when he tracked the ex fighter down and found him in a sad state, a life time of wild living having taken their toll.
“I beat Roberto and then I was meant to fight for the title,” a disheveled Laing told Bunce somewhere on a Hackney estate in east London, while throwing punches at the air.
“I was in the gym waiting for fights, but they never happened. It was just a case of mistakes. I never vanished.”
There was no spliff behind his ear this time and one has the sense that the encounter left Bunce marveling at how this unique fighter, whose extraordinary boxing journey is part of folklore, had travelled so far and yet gone nowhere at all.
The last anyone heard Laing had had moved to his native Nottingham where he was living as a recluse.
From the tormented journey of Johnny Tapia through boxing and life to the double tragedy of Edwin Valero, who took his own life after killing his wife, the sport does not deal in half measures.
More recently the career of the middleweight world champion Kelly Pavlik only shows two defeats.
But the bars and clubs of his hometown Youngstown,
Ohio, proved to be his toughest opponent with drink and a number of drink-related arrests triggering his decline.
“He just went wild. He was a hometown hero in Yougstown and maybe that was his downfall. Everybody loved him and wanted to buy him a drink, says Hart.
“At one point he looked like he would be middleweight champion for years.
“He took a year off to sort himself out and get off the drink but it didn’t work out. He never got back to where he was and retired.”
If the definition of a boxing train wreck is great success, or expectation, followed by a dramatic and public downfall, then the Mike Tyson story is a multiple pile up.
From being the youngest heavyweight champ in history to that knockout defeat against Buster Douglas in Tokyo, to the rape conviction and jail, biting Holyfield’s ear and a very public divorce from his first wife Robin Givens, Tyson has probably emerged as boxing’s great survivor.
“You know what, he went inside and came out and won the title back. That is something,” says Hart.
“No doubt he is a flawed character. But an interesting, intelligent man and a great man to interview.
“Yes, a train wreck of a career but there was so much more than just that.
“I’d say if all the great fighters I have been fortunate enough to cover had been educated to their potential, and I include Tyson, the world would never have heard of them because they would have been doctors, lawyers or politicians. Intelligent men. They had something.
“There are exceptions of course, not all were intelligent, but all were going somewhere in a hurry and as we know that’s when accidents happen.
“If Joshua can fulfill his potential and win the world title then there will be a host of other issues he will have to deal with outside the ring.
“That word temptation will loom large. I’m sure it has already. Nothing can prepare anyone for becoming the heavyweight champion, but he has got a good head on his shoulders by the looks of it.
“If there is one bit of advice I would give him I would tell him it is not how you start, its how you finish that counts. For the time being the journey is only just beginning.”
David has been writing about boxing since 1995 starting for Boxing Monthly as their reporter doing British, European, Commonwealth and World title fights. He says it was a privilege to be their York Hall man covering fights there and others on the domestic scene. After a move to Scotland he became The Scotsman’s boxing writer (as well as news editor). He now contributes to Boxing Monthly, doing features.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org