Friday 16 October 2015

Boxiana book club: A Man's World

A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith by Donald McRae (Simon and Schuster, September 2015)

Boxiana rating: 5 stars

Close followers of sports-related writing will already be familiar with the trajectory of Donald McRae's career. Since the South African writer's book Dark Trade was published in 1996 to universal acclaim, he has twice been the winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize, and has also carved a reputation as a highly perceptive interviewer for both The Guardian and Boxing News.

McRae is also versatile. Among his other books are studies of the world's first heart transplant, a biography of iconic American lawyer Clarence Darrow and a study of prostitution in London. Indeed, despite his deep association with the sport of boxing, McRae's latest book - A Man's World - is actually only his third 'boxing themed' book, after the aforementioned Dark Trade and In Black and White (which was arguably only 'half' a boxing book, seeing as it was as much about athlete Jesse Owens as boxer Joe Louis).

The near 20-year gap since the publication of Dark Trade means that expectations for McRae’s return to long-form boxing writing in A Man’s World are high - and McRae does not disappoint.

The back story of Emile Griffith's ultimately tragic trilogy of contests with Benny Paret between in the early 1960s is well known to most serious boxing fans, as is Griffiths’ sometimes troubled personal life and his complex attitudes to, and struggles with, his sexuality. For example, an excellent documentary was made about Griffiths entitled Ring of Fire, while the Paret contests and his ‘double life’ also feature at length in Ron Ross’ Nine… Ten .. and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith.

However, no other writer has examined Griffiths’ complex sexuality and private life with as much insight and artistry as McRae. A major feature of the book is McRae’s fastidious research as well as his uncommon and enviable ability to treat the people he writes about with compassion and dignity but also honesty. McRae has the sure stylistic touch and flourishes of a novelist, as well as the factual rigour of a top journalist.

The book that emerges from this formidable skills set is, by turns, fascinating, deeply moving, compelling and, ultimately, inspirational. Like all the best sports books A Man’s World is about so much more than ‘just sport’. It is about prejudice, passion and desire, as well as regret, despair and forgiveness.
It is particularly good to see that McRae devotes a considerable portion of the book to the South African boxer Willie Toweel, whose own encounter with ring tragedy is every bit as moving and interesting as the sections of the book dealing with Griffiths.

In summation, A Man’s World is a must-read. It is a book which touches the heart and focuses the mind. By closing with an examination of the first ‘openly gay’ boxer Orlando Cruz, the book also, despite the many tragedies it deals with, leaves the reader feeling uplifted and thankful for the many ways in which the world has changed for the better since the 1960s.

Luke G. Williams

Friday 12 June 2015

Naseem Hamed and the unfailing sense of being young

It was with a shudder that I realised today, as his induction – at last – into the International Boxing Hall of Fame approaches this weekend - that Naseem Hamed, the eternal enfant terrible of British boxing, is now man in his forties, complete with substantial paunch and double chin.

This realisation made me feel like crying – for my own lost youth, as much as for his, for the inexorable march of time and the inevitable decay of everything that was once beautiful and thrilling into something far more mundane and middle-aged.

There was always something so youthful about Hamed in his pomp – perhaps it was the inherent cheekiness in his eyes and his cocksure smile, or perhaps it was the hyperbolic absurdity of his outrageous post-fight pronouncements, but his persona reeked of a preening youngster, a strutting peacock of the playground.

“I’m just too good!”

“Boom! He didn’t want no more after that!”

I might be paraphrasing or mis-remembering, but I think it was Steve Bunce who once said that watching Hamed was a joy precisely because of the “youthful feeling of chaos” he brought to the ring. It’s an image that perfectly captures Hamed’s unique genius – for throughout his career he managed, sometimes within the same fight or even within the same round, to look both graceful and graceless, technically brilliant and technically deficient, and unbeatable as well as terminally vulnerable.

Of course, when we’re young, we think we’re indestructible and can conquer the world, and Hamed was no different. As early as his debut professional fight the Prince was declaring in the programme notes that he as “as good as Ali”. It was this confidence and ambition that secured for Hamed the rapt attention of the younger generation, and the opprobrium of stick-in-the mud oldsters.

My school friends and I were obsessed with Hamed from his first appearance on ITV onwards. When it was finally time for his coronation as 'world champion' we gathered at Chris Watkinson's flat in Crystal Palace (he was the only one of our group of friends who had SKY TV) to watch the Prince's destruction of Steve Robinson. As a collective we savoured every punch, every piece of showboating and every ridiculous wiggle of Hamed's leopardskin-tassled rump. When the fight ended we swallowed Hamed's rhetoric hook, line and sinker and were convinced we had just seen the greatest fighter who ever lived, or would ever live.

Having borrowed Chris' recording of the fight I made my mum watch it back with me the next day. “You’ve got to watch this!” I told her. “This Prince Naseem is amazing!”

As the fight unfolded my mum’s expression oscillated between bemusement and disgust. “What are you talking about?” she said. “He’s vile!”

My mum may have rejected Hamed pretty quickly, but I never did. Along with millions of other youngsters I followed his rollercoaster career, with its intoxicating highs – the destruction of longstanding feather king Tom Johnson, the breathtaking seesaw battle with Kevin Kelley – and occasional lows – the McCullough promotion debacle, complete with a ring entrance that was alarmingly crass even by Hamed’s standards, and the body-slam of Cesar Soto – until the ignominious finale against Marco Antonio Barrera and the relaunch that never was versus Manuel Calvo.

In the end, perhaps, Hamed should be seen as boxing’s Prometheus. An ambitious over-reacher who flew too close to the sun and came crashing to earth. But while he was flying, what a ride it was.

I remain convinced that Hamed was the greatest British talent to ever lace up a pair of gloves, which is why, simultaneously, his surreal career can also be viewed as a huge waste of talent. More charitably, perhaps, I should savour those 31 stunning knockouts, the several years Hamed spent as the world’s number one featherweight, and the fact that, even now, whenever I watch one of his fights on youtube what poet Philip Larkin once called “the unfailing sense of being young” overcomes my own middle-aged and paunchy frame.

BoxRec ranks Hamed as the 14th greatest featherweight of all time. Traditionalists might scoff at that, but to me, when he was at his best, that feels about right. Hamed's supernatural punch power and the defensive elusiveness that he abandoned later in his career would have given any feather who ever walked the face of the earth problems. In the end though, does it really matter where he ranks? The stack of thrilling memories Hamed has left us with us more than satisfy me, and I suspect the Prince feels much the same. 

Ever the maverick, Naz won’t be at Canastota this weekend for his induction – a family medical issue having kept him away.

He’s confidently declared he will take to the stage next year and upstage the 2016 inductees, but part of me wants him to remain in the shadows forever – as he has largely done ever since a retirement that was never formally announced.

In the shadows, I can’t see his wrinkles or his paunch, you see, and I can kid myself that maybe there are still more knockouts to come.

Wednesday 14 January 2015

A New Hope: Boxiana meets the Bomb Squad

This article is from Boxiana: Volume 1, which is available NOW through Troubador PublishingAmazon in the UKAmazon in the USA and all good traditional and online booksellers. Paperback book (RRP £9.99) Ebook (RRP £3.99).
A NEW HOPE By Luke G., Williams
EXCLUSIVE: The full 6,000 word article online for the first time
Last year Luke G. Williams was given extensive access to America’s great heavyweight hope Deontay Wilder and the team surrounding him. As Deontay faces his moment of destiny against Bermane Stiverne for the WBC Heavyweight Championship on Saturday night, Boxiana brings you Luke’s full and extensive feature on Deontay’s career so far and the team surrounding him.
They say that you can measure the state of professional boxing by the strength and profile of the heavyweight division. If that’s true, then the sport is currently on life support. Wladimir Klitschko, in all his robotic glory, bestrides the division - master of all he surveys, with a series of increasingly hapless victims having prostrated themselves at his feet. Klitschko has made noises about trying to extend his reign until the age of 50 but, Eastern Europe and the boxing cognoscenti apart, no one really cares - he may be a master at winning, as a decade-long unbeaten streak proves; he may even be a master pugilist, as his incredible determination to maximise his strengths and neutralise his weaknesses illustrates, but his inability to engage or excite the casual sports fan or wider public, particularly in America, has left heavyweight boxing in desperate need of a new face to re-establish the pre-eminence of the Heavyweight Championship as the most coveted and valuable honour in sport.
Deontay Leshun Wilder could be that new face. The saviour. The new hope. The next ‘big thing’. His professional record as of July 2014 certainly evokes excitement and infers a propensity for violence; in 31 bouts, Wilder has never been past four rounds, and every single opponent he has faced has been knocked out, many of them savagely so, left in a heap with their limbs twitching and bodies convulsing and contorting in concussive pain. Now that he is on the verge of challenging for a world title, Wilder is in the unenviable position of carrying the burden of America’s heavyweight hopes on his broad, tattooed shoulders.  If a charismatic, photogenic and engaging man like Wilder can become World Heavyweight Champion … if he can buck the recent dominance of eastern European heavyweights … if he can unify the belts in an exciting style, sending the top contenders sprawling to the canvas ... then maybe, just maybe, he could revitalise boxing’s popularity, which has been under siege from a confluence of factors already too well-rehearsed and discussed to recite again. A series of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ aren’t much to hang the future of a sport on, but sometimes boxing fans have to cling to whatever hope they can find.
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The Appalachians are a vast series of mountains, ridgelines and valleys, that stretch a majestic 1,500 miles through the east of North America, from the island of Newfoundland in the north to the heart of the southern state of Alabama. The vast swathes of broad and needle-leaf trees that characterise the flora of much of the region have borne silent witness to centuries of bloodshed, struggle and violence; from the cultural clashes between the first European colonists and the native Americans, to the American War of Independence, American Civil War and the Civil Rights struggle.
Tuscaloosa, the fifth largest city in the state of Alabama, is located in the foothills of the Appalachians. Like many towns and cities across America, its history sums up many of the maddening contradictions of the American dream. It was in Tuscaloosa, on 11 June 1963, that Governor George Wallace stood in front of the entrance to the University of Alabama in an attempt to maintain segregation at the University by blocking the entry and enrolment of black students Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood. It was also near to the site of the modern-day city that, in 1540, the Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto was ambushed by members of the Mobilian tribe, led by one Chief Tuskaloosa, a fearsome warrior who was said to be so much taller than the Spanish that “he seemed a giant”. After a bitter and bloody battle lasting nine hours, the Spanish emerged triumphant, although Chief Tuskaloosa’s bravery was not forgotten, with later settlers naming the town in his honour, as well as the river that ran through it, which was termed the ‘Black Warrior’ river, a nod to the meaning of the chief’s name when translated from Choctaw. Interestingly enough, the Gentleman of Elvas’ description of chief Tuskaloosa in 1557 pretty neatly summarises the qualities of a great heavyweight champion: “Full of dignity … tall of person, muscular lean and symmetrical … Equally feared by his vassals and the neighbouring nations.”
It somehow seems appropriate that Tuscaloosa is the birthplace and home of Deontay Wilder, for the heavyweight division has long been looking for a ‘black warrior’ to curb the Klitschko brother’s monotonous dominance. After the false dawns represented by the likes of Michael Grant, Seth Mitchell et al, and given Wilder’s untested chin and occasionally wild style, many sceptics scoff at the notion that he is the warrior the sport has been waiting for. But, interviewing Deontay himself and the team who surround him, a compelling case emerges that Wilder is the real deal, and that the Heavyweight Championship of the World isn’t merely his dream, but his destiny.
*                                  *                                  *
Although Wilder has admitted that he possessed a youthful tendency to get involved in street scraps, it would be inaccurate to characterise his upbringing as misspent or dysfunctional, in the way that, say, Mike Tyson’s was. “My childhood was good,” he confesses, an unusual but refreshing admission to elicit from a boxer, given how regularly the sport’s participants proudly parade their stories of a misspent or deprived youth. “I had good teachers in school who cared; I was taught right from wrong. I learned to respect people and to expect people to respect me. I learned to not to be a fool. Alabama is a great place to raise a family; you can live here and not worry about too much.  I still live here and would recommend it to anyone.  I've had opportunities to move but I don't want to; this is home.”

To paraphrase the classic plot device from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, there was a ‘Rosebud’ moment for Wilder – in other words, a moment that explains and puts into context everything that he has achieved, strived for and focused on since. For Wilder, that moment was the birth of his daughter Naieya on 20 March 2005. X-rays soon after her birth revealed a hole in Naieya’s spine and she was subsequently diagnosed with the developmental disorder spina bifida. “Naieya is my inspiration,” Wilder stresses. “After she was born with spina bifida, the doctors said she wouldn't do this or that but she is now doing all the things they said she wouldn't. I never would've gotten into boxing without her.” After Naieya’s birth Wilder, then just 19, was fuelled by a steely determination to provide for and support his daughter the best he possibly could. He dropped out of college and was soon driving a beer delivery truck to earn a living as well as working at a branch of Red Lobster, a seafood restaurant chain. A sports enthusiast, Wilder had never given a boxing career a second thought, however desired careers in American football and basketball had not materialised, so he decided to consider other options. And that’s when he discovered the Skyy gym.
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It’s not exactly where you’d expect a top-class heavyweight to be training. To find the Skyy Gym you need to keep a sharp eye out for the A-n-M ‘Family Food Mart’ on the outskirts of the quiet suburban sprawl of Northport, a small city adjacent to Tuscaloosa. After taking a sharp left past the ‘A-n-M’ and negotiating a trio of speed bumps, a long, tan metal building eventually comes into sight. Within this unprepossessing exterior lurks trainer and Skyy gym owner Jay Deas; entrepreneurial, passionate and committed, Deas possesses a youthful air at odds with the grizzled, aged boxing trainer of popular legend. Deas combines sharp intelligence, honed by his former career as a television crime reporter and his passion for writing, with affability. He also lives and breathes boxing, a passion which was originally fed by his brother Tommy. My brother was a boxing writer,” Jay recalls. “Even as far back as high school, I grew up with boxing.  In fact, I remember being the only 3rd grader who could tell you the top 10 in every weight class!”
In 1995 Tommy and Jay opened the Skyy, and he has never looked back since. “I was a sparring partner for all the guys,” Jay explains. “I also compiled a video library of some 3,000 to 4,000 fights. I would sell copies of bouts to managers and promoters including Don King and Butch Lewis. I was probably the only high schooler talking on the phone to Butch Lewis! When my brother got out of boxing in 2005 I took over the training duties.” In a relatively short space of time, Jay has already built a formidable reputation for himself as an astute and successful trainer with a keen intellect, being named the Developmental Coach of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee in 2007. Despite his relative inexperience, he has already trained 16 fighters who have won an impressive 28 Golden Gloves titles between them.
“You have to coach to your personality or it will come off as fake,” Deas replies when asked to define his coaching philosophy. “Whatever type of person you are needs to come out in your coaching. Not every coach is right for every boxer. The chemistry has to be there. You also have to be open to continue learning because you’ll never know it all. There is always so much to learn. Finally, you have to be flexible. The training plan can change based on circumstances and you have to be ready for that and able to adjust.”
Despite the fact that Joe Louis and Evander Holyfield were born there, Alabama is hardly renowned as one of the great boxing heartlands. In fact both these legendary champions only learnt to box after their families left the state for Detroit, Michigan and Atlanta, Georgia respectively. Had it not been for a fateful occurrence in 2005, it’s likely that Deas would have continued to plough a successful furrow, doing worthwhile but low-profile work in his home state, accumulating awards, plaudits and Golden Gloves success, but going unnoticed on the world stage. However, that one day in 2005 changed everything. Because on that day Deontay Wilder walked into the Skyy gym – and suddenly it became possible that the Heavyweight Championship of the World might come to little old Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And that the champion might be trained by Jay Deas, the local kid whose fanaticism for boxing had led him to open his own gym.
*                                  *                                  *

From the moment he walked into the Skyy gym, Wilder felt at home. Scratch that – such a description doesn’t do his feelings justice; it’s more accurate to say that from the moment he walked into the Skyy Gym Wilder felt that he had arrived at a place which would become inexorably linked with his destiny – and that destiny was to become World Heavyweight Champion. “I walked in and heard the speed bag,” he explains, with no sense of exaggeration or hyperbole. “And a feeling came over me.  I just knew I was in the right place.  I had never seen boxing in person and I knew this was my last resort to become a famous athlete.  It was an overwhelming feeling, I was in love from that first moment.”
Deas also remembers Wilder’s first visit vividly. “He walked in and I thought: ‘wow! He's tall!’” he jokes. “He told me he wanted to be a boxer but, of course, I hear that every day. I showed him a few basics and then left him alone. I wanted to see what he would do when he thought I wasn't watching and he actually worked even harder when he didn't know I was watching. That's very unusual, so I thought I may have something here.”
From first walking into the gym in 2005, Wilder advanced, inside just three years, to winning the National Golden Gloves, the National Amateur title, the Olympic trials and a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – all within the space of only 30 amateur bouts. It was an astonishingly meteoric rise that owed much to Wilder’s natural athleticism, strength and size, but also to Deas’ ability to install confidence and technique within his raw charge. Most of all, though, it was a testament to Wilder’s capacity for, and willingness to engage in, hard work. Indeed, the subject of Wilder’s work ethic is something Deas returns to again and again: “Deontay is very athletic and very strong, and he obviously hits hard but people don't give him enough credit for how hard he works. Nobody wakes up and decides they want to win an Olympic medal and then just does it. There’s a ton of sweat and work from the ‘idea’ to the medal ceremony … and he put in that work. He has a great work ethic.”
Deas cites a couple of telling anecdotal examples to back up his point. “Once we were in Memphis, which is a four-hour drive from home, to watch a fight,” he explains. “At this time Deontay was working for a beer company driving and stocking shelves. We stopped at a convenience store to get a Pepsi and I saw him get really angry. I wondered what was wrong and it turned out he was upset that the beer guys didn't stock the beer correctly! Apparently all the labels on the beer should face forward and they had neglected to do this, so Deontay re-stocked the cooler! This wasn't in his town or even his state but to him ‘right is right’ and it wasn't right, so he made it right! That's Deontay! Another time, the week after the Olympics, I came to the gym to find Deontay on his hands and knees re-tiling the bathroom floor. I said: ‘Deontay, you're the only medal winner for the United States in boxing, you don't have to do that.”  His reply was that it needed doing.  I said: ‘Deontay, really you don't have to…’ And he cut me off.  It needed doing, he repeated.  So I left him alone and by the end of the day we had a re-tiled floor!”
As well as a formidable work ethic, Wilder also possesses another key component in any sporting champion - seemingly limitless ambition. When asked to assess his own strengths and weaknesses, his response is instructive: “My strengths? I want to achieve more than anyone has ever done and I never quit. My goals are so high the naked eye can't see them! My weakness is not knowing when to stop, give up or quit … so I guess that’s not a weakness.”
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After winning the Olympic bronze medal, Wilder swiftly turned pro, signing with Golden Boy promotions and making his professional debut in November 2008 with a two-round destruction of anonymous trial horse Ethan Cox. Since then, he has attracted plenty of criticism for the largely limited opposition he has faced. However, another member of Wilder’s support team, the highly respected Canadian trainer and expert cutman Russ Anber, makes a valid point concerning Wilder’s gradual development as a professional. “Simply put I would have to say that Deontay may be the best heavyweight I have ever seen with the least amount of experience,” explains Anber, a passionate and relentlessly enthusiastic figure, who has been in the fight game for over 35 years. “I think this is the one thing that the armchair experts and media fail to realise; yet it may be the single most important factor in Deontay becoming champion of the world. Generally fans and media forget that Deontay’s amateur experience was so little. He won the Olympic Bronze medal with about 20 fights to his credit. Compare that to Lennox Lewis, who I worked with as an amateur, and who took part in two Olympic Games before becoming multiple champion of the world, and had well over 100 amateur fights. That is a huge difference. Couple that with the fact that Deontay has knocked out every pro opponent he has faced and we are still dealing with the same problem. That’s why Deontay needs to continue to develop and garnish the necessary ring experience if he is not only going to win the title, but to hold on to it for years to come and become the dominant champion we all think he can be.”
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Wilder repeats his list of professional ambitions as though they are a mantra: “To be heavyweight champ of world. Undisputed.  Defend the belts, hold them for a while, retire and go into acting. I have God-given talent.  I was born a leader. I was born to do it.  It is inside of me.” It also doesn’t matter to him who he faces, who he has to beat. “Whoever says they are the best,” he shrugs. “Whoever has the belts.”

His recent opponents, Audley Harrison, Siarhei Liakhovich, Nicolai Firtha and Malik Scott, didn’t have “the belts” that Wilder so hungrily covets, but they did have a somewhat higher pedigree than most of his 27 previous victims. That pedigree didn’t stop them from being knocked out as well though, as Wilder advanced his career record to 31 fights and 31 knockouts. For Jay Deas, these performances also demonstrated Deontay’s continued technical improvements. “
Every fight can be improved upon, but I felt really proud of the Liakhovich fight because he was patient and picked his shots,” Deas admits. “I also liked the Audley Harrison fight, which surprises some because he got wild, but if you watch that fight closely you'll see something we worked on. We wanted Deontay to get his front foot around southpaw Audley's front foot, which we felt was closed too far inward, and then throw a left hook / right hand. If done correctly and in the right position, it should hit Audley on the right side of his face. Under normal circumstances a right-hander throwing a right at a southpaw would land the punch in the middle or the left side of the face. We worked on this specific move and only this move in the final five minutes before heading to the ring and Deontay executed it perfectly! Watch the video on youtube and you'll see Deontay trying to get his foot in the correct position.  Once he hurt him, all bets were off, but at that moment I was very proud of how he executed just what we worked on.”
Wilder himself is keenly aware of how much he owes his rapid rise to the team around him which Deas has painstakingly assembled. When I ask him to pinpoint the most important factor in his career so far he is adamant it’s “having a great team … That's the most important thing because with this team I have the opportunities to do everything I want to in boxing and make a great living.”
It’s left to Deas to guide me through the personnel who make up the ‘Bomb Squad’, the team of men who guide Wilder’s career and training. “Here’s the rundown,” he announces. “Shelly Finkel was involved from the start. It was me and Shelly as managers. Shelly got out of the game for a couple of years during which I assumed all managerial duties. When he returned to boxing we welcomed him back. Recently Al Haymon [also] came on board. Al has had tremendous success with his fighters and has a good relationship with television. The time was right to work with Al and I can tell you first hand I really like the guy; he's funny and smart, very smart, and I enjoy talking to him. So the managers are Al, Shelly and me. As for training, I work with Mark Breland and Russ Anber. Both have input into Deontay's training; Mark is the lead in the corner and warms Deontay up; Russ is the best hand wrapper in boxing, even Wlad Klitschko calls Russ the best he's ever seen. Russ is also our cut man. I’m the most versatile of the bunch in that I can lead in the corner, wrap, do cuts, so I’m the utility player, filling in if and where needed. Coach Cuz Hill is my assistant and also on Team Wilder as camp coordinator. The chemistry is just what I want; firstly, you’ve got a loud obnoxious Canadian in Russ. Watch him on youtube at the end of [Dereck] Chisora versus [Malik] Scott when Russ was with Scott and they stopped the fight early. It's hilarious; Russ goes nuts. We gave him a lot of grief over it! Mixed in with that you’ve got a quiet New Yorker, gold medalist and two-time world champ in Mark who talks in whispers but may be the funniest guy you'll ever meet, but also has a wealth of knowledge and experience. Plus there’s me; an Alabama guy who has been with Deontay since day one and knows him better than anyone, as he does me. Then there’s Cuz Hill who is quiet but full of youthful energy. So you see, everyone is there for a reason. Egos are not permitted, it's all about helping Deontay; if that's not your goal, you've gotta go!”
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I don’t have the heart to tell Mark Breland this, but as a child, I was a huge fan of Jamaican-born Lloyd Honeyghan and vividly remember my disappointment when Breland ended Lloyd’s hopes of a third stint as World Champion with a devastating six-knockdown, three-round victory against the ‘Ragamuffin’ at Wembley Arena in 1990. Re-watching this fight on youtube it’s evident what a skilled boxer Breland was – freakishly tall for a welterweight at 6’2”, elegant and hard-hitting, with swift hands and a rapier like left jab. With 110 wins in 111 amateur fights, an Olympic Gold medal and two worlds titles, Breland certainly knows a thing or two about the boxing trader. Impressively, the now 50-year-old Breland barely looks any heavier than the welterweight limit of 10 stone 7 pounds that he used to fight at; with his softly spoken voice and black-rimmed spectacles, he also possesses a professorial air that forms quite a contrast with the beautiful destruction his fists once wrought. As Deas claimed, Breland also has a wicked sense of humour. “Here’s a good story,” he says. “I was in Alabama training Deontay and it snowed. That never happens in Alabama!  It was only a couple of inches but it shut the whole city down.  I live in New York, so this was nothing to me. Anyway, I was driving and a policeman pulled me over.  He said: ‘you're going too fast.  Don't you see all this snow?’  I said, ‘Man, I'm from Brooklyn!’  He looked at me, said, ‘have a nice day,’ and walked away! Ha ha!”
Breland assumes a more matter of fact tone as takes up the story of his association with Wilder: “My former manager Shelly Finkel called me and asked me if I wanted to work with Deontay.  He and Jay had been talking. I met Jay during the Olympic trials in Houston and saw Deontay win the trials.  I think he and Shelly saw that my height and reach for my weight was similar to what Deontay has for his.  So we had a lot in common, me and Deontay. I thought he had pure raw strength and good leverage on his punches.  He could punch really well.  I saw things to correct but they were minor things that were the result of being a young fighter.  He didn't have much experience so we got right to work.”
When asked to assess Deontay’s strengths, Breland picks his words carefully, but precisely. “His jab is better than people think.  Good reach.  Great power.  His left is better than he gets credit for; everybody sees the right but if you fight Deontay and focus on the right, you've got a surprise coming with that left! He's dedicated, so he learns fast.  He's actually come along faster than I thought he would at this point.  I knew he'd come along fast but he's done what he's done and learned what he's learned a little faster than I anticipated. He's gotten out of some bad habits and there is still a lot to learn.  There always is.  If you quit learning you need to quit boxing.”
Understandably, Breland is a little vague and cagey when assessing what areas Wilder still needs to work on. “Keeping his hands up, using his jab more, calming down.  Minor things.  He has the tools, so just minor things.” He also echoes Deas’ and Anber’s emphasis on patience and gradual development. “He's still one of the youngest heavyweights in boxing to be in the top 10. Most of the top guys are in their 30s and even 40s, but he's just 28 and only had a handful of amateur fights. He's good now but if he keeps learning and working hard he'll be off the charts as he goes. He has a ton of potential and now we're to the point where he's getting the chance to show it. He's still a few years from his prime! Once he gets used to his length and range it will be scary.”
Like the rest of the team, Breland exudes a real sense of joy to be part of the ‘Bomb Squad’: “We have a great team,” he enthuses. “I'd put our team against anybody's team. I've been a part of a lot of coaching teams and this is not only the best but my favourite to be on. We're on the same page; if someone is going to say something we all know where they're going with it before they say it. We know each other really well and work hard but have a lot of fun too.  I call Jay all the time and say: ‘when are we going to camp?’”
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A vital part of Deontay Wilder’s boxing education has been his willingness to work as a sparring partner for more experienced heavyweights, and Jay Deas’ enthusiasm for him to do so, in order to expand his boxing education. “We try to bring in the best sparring partners and we still send Deontay to camps to spar as well,” Deas explains. “He's sparred with Malik Scott, Audley Harrison, Mike Perez, David Haye, Wlad Klitschko, Kevin Johnson, Tony Thompson, Tomas Adamek, Owen Beck, Alonzo Butler, Ray Austin, Jameel McCline, Jarrell Miller, Nate Heaven, Walt Harris, Brian Ezell and so on.”
Wilder himself is also enthusiastic about this process. “I’ve learned a lot from each camp, and took something from each camp. World-class sparring can only help you.  You hear people say: ‘why are you working as a sparring partner when you are unbeaten?’ But Klitschko worked as a sparring partner for Holyfield when he was an undefeated up-and-comer too.  People that say things like I shouldn't be sparring these guys don't know anything about boxing.  I'm working with people who have been where I want to go. Working with them you learn, and for me it confirms what I know already - that I can do this at the top level.  It also improves my muscle memory.”
Wilder’s training timetable is deliberately flexible, as Deas explains. “His schedule changes day to day based on what he needs to do to get better. He may go to strength training, then rest and eat, then work out in the evening. Or the day may call for him to swim or play basketball before coming to the gym.” For a heavyweight, maintaining a fine balance between speed and physical bulk is a fine art and a desire to keep Wilder both strong but also mobile also underpins his training. “We have a strength coach that we like,” Deas explains. “This guy, Peter Khourey from Boston, understands we're not making a bodybuilder, we're making a heavyweight. So Deontay lifts, stretches, runs hills, swims and plays a lot of basketball which mimics the ‘stop-go-up-down’ pace of boxing. Roy Jones did the same. A lot of Europeans play tennis or soccer for the same reason but I don't see Deontay on the tennis court!”

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It’s the responsibility of
Cuz Hill, the youngest member of the ‘Bomb Squad’, to look after many of the day-to-day specifics and logistics of Wilder’s training. “I'm there to help Deontay in any way I can,” he stresses. “Whether it be mitt work or to coordinate the training camp. I want to be helpful and on point at all times. I don't want Deontay to worry about little things. Little things can become big things when they aren't taken care of.  The water? I got it.  The timer? I got it.  Vaseline? Got it.  Towel? Got it and so on.  Camp should run like clockwork.”
Hill is a perfect example of the power of boxing to inspire and create opportunities for youngsters who might otherwise lack direction. “I never took to anything like I did to boxing,” he admits. “A friend of mine who was a boxer got me into it. I started out just learning to box and I loved the workout. I feel like I got good and the trainers told me I had a real high skill level. As I learned more about it I just fell in love with it.  I found myself thinking about it all the time and watching fights and youtube constantly. Even though I had good skills as a boxer a childhood injury to my head kept me from competing, but I loved it so much I wanted to be part of it. I decided I wanted to learn to coach so I talked to Jay and he started working with me. I've been doing it ever since.  It’s not easy and it's a lot of work but I'm there every day all day because I want to make my name in this game.”
Hill admits that boxing in general, and Deas in particular, have given him opportunities - for travel, for a career in the world of professional sport - that he would never otherwise have had. “Jay will be the first to tell you all he gave me was an opportunity,” he emphasises. “But it was up to me to do something with it and I never forget that. I know I'm part of a team that almost every coach in America and even the World would want to be on. But again, I earned it. It's a blessing to be in this situation. I never would've thought I'd be traveling the world with boxing.  I had never been on a plane until I started coaching and now I've been to California, Texas, all over the southeast [of the USA] and even to England.  I love everything about it. The press conferences, the meals, the hotels, the fight, the dressing room, the coaches’ meetings, the glove selection, you name it.  I love it all and I hope to spend my whole life in boxing.”
At the opposite end of the experience scale to Hill, is seasoned veteran Russ Anber, who still maintains a schoolboy-like enthusiasm for boxing, despite over 35 years in the business. “I got my start with Team Wilder, when Jay Deas was kind enough to ask me to help him out in the corner when Deontay fought in Cincinnati a couple of years back,” Anber explains. “We basically hit it off from the start and I have been part of ‘The Bomb Squad’ ever since.”
Anber is recognised as one of the premier cutmen in the world, an art which is often underrated and yet so crucial to the outcome of so many fights. “When I first started in boxing, trainers and cutmen were my heroes,” he recalls. “I often say that when I was 18, my friends idolised the great champions or athletes of that era. For me, my heroes had a towel slung over their shoulder and a cotton swab in their mouth! I was so fortunate to get my start in the game when the legendary trainers and cutmen dotted the landscape. My heroes and those I looked up to included guys like Angelo Dundee, Ray Arcel, Freddie Brown, Eddie Futch, Roger Larivee, George Benton and, of course, Ralph Citro. I studied and learned from the best the game has ever seen. I used to watch the difference they made in a corner. I hope that I too can have the same impact they had.”
Although on fight night Anber acts as cutman and hand wrapper for what he believes “might be the most destructive right hand in all of boxing”, his experience and expertise are also crucial in other areas. “I have numerous roles in my work with Deontay, but I think the role in which I take the most pride, is being involved with a great support team made up of Jay, Mark and Cuz. Between the four of us we have come up with strategies, decisions, training and aiding in the development of Deontay. In my opinion, we’re four very different people with contrasting personalities who all have a passion for what they do and who bring so much to the table.”
There’s little that Anber hasn’t seen in his long career in boxing, and as such he seems well placed to judge Wilder’s potential. His assessment chimes with my own gut feeling, after hours spent watching Wilder’s previous fights, researching his career and getting to know the team who surround him. “I think that as long as Deontay continues to be willing to learn and continues to strive to improve himself as a fighter, then the sky is the limit. The greatest athletes in history, in any sport, have all had one thing in common. Not only do they have the desire to be the best, they understand the work that is needed to achieve that greatness. I think the most relevant comparison right now is Floyd Mayweather. The greatest fighter in the game today is also the hardest working fighter, and the one who continually wants to learn. That is true greatness. As long as Deontay keeps those big feet grounded and continues to use his mind to absorb as much boxing information as he can, he can become a dominant champion. Deontay is still green as far as boxing goes. He is nowhere near his prime. If people think he is good now, wait and see how good he will be once he reaches boxing maturity.”
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Those who still doubt Deontay Wilder’s ability to become World, Heavyweight Champion, or scoff at his achievements thus far, might do well to consider this: there has already been one against-the-odds triumph in his family. When his daughter Naieya was diagnosed with spina bifida, various doctors told Deontay she was destined for life in a wheelchair. It was a fate and a destiny which he, and she, refused to accept. Nine years later, Naieya is walking, participating in gymnastics at her school and has astonished the medical profession with her determination and strength. Like her father, she’s a fighter, and you should never underestimate or write off a fighter.
If the Heavyweight Championship of the World does end up in quiet old, sleepy old Tuscaloosa, Alabama - 1,800 miles from the glitz and glamour of boxing’s heartland of Las Vegas - it will serve as the ultimate vindication of Deontay’s decision, all those years ago, to enter the boxing ring as a means to support his daughter. It will also vindicate the quiet determination and obsessive love of the sport embodied by Jay Deas. “It would mean everything to me,” Deas admits. “Deontay has a body full of tattoos and I don't have any, so I told him that when he wins the title I'll get one to celebrate!  It'll be huge because we came from nothing, with no perks.  And we did it brick by brick, day by day.”
And with that, Deas, Deontay and the rest of the team are back to work. Working - methodically, tirelessly, perhaps even inexorably - towards their shared goal. And you know what? I wouldn’t bet against them.
Deontay Wilder faces Bermane Stiverne for the WBC Heavyweight Championship. You can follow the progress of the fight on twitter @boxianajournal
 An anthology of new boxing writing Boxiana: Volume 1 is now available in both paperback and eBook formats. Boxiana editor Luke G. Williams said: “In a world dominated by 140 character limits and the 24-hour news cycle, brevity and superficiality have become de rigueur. Boxiana takes a different approach; by using long-form journalism to take an in-depth look at boxing’s past, present and future, we are hoping that Boxiana will become a vital new voice in sports writing.”
In Volume 1:Trevor Von Eeden, author of graphic novel The Original Johnson, analyses the significance of Jack Johnson; Mario Mungia tries his hand at amateur boxing; Ben Williams uncovers his grandfather’s bare-knuckle career; James Hernandez catches up with Jon Thaxton; Matthew Ogborn ponders boxers and retirement; rising light heavyweight Chris Hobbs recounts his life in the military and the ring; Rowland Stone recalls a heady night in 1992; Corey Quincy attempts to solve the Wladimir Klitschko conundrum and Luke G. Williams examines the meteoric rise of Deontay Wilder and the under-rated career of Chris Byrd.
Enquiries / review copies: +44 7958 319765 /
Previews of Volume 1 content and photos for media use are available through the Boxiana blog:

Monday 22 December 2014


Bill Richmond: Illustration by Trevor Von Eeden

After the success of my previous books Masters of the Baize and Boxiana: Volume 1I’m pleased to announce my third book. RICHMOND UNCHAINED: The biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar, which will be published by one of the UK’s leading publishers of historical books, Amberley Publishing, in August 2015.

The publication of the book will be accompanied by a series of Bill Richmond related events as well as exclusive extra content and features relating to the book which will be published on my new blog 

A synopsis of the project is included below:

The biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar
By Luke G. Williams

As one of the first black men to survive and thrive in white-dominated English society, Richmond is long overdue recognition as one of the key figures in sporting as well as social history. Born into slavery in Staten Island, New York during colonial rule, Richmond escaped from a life of servitude by winning his freedom as a young boy and carved a new life for himself in England as a cabinet-maker and then a renowned and widely respected prize-fighter and trainer.

Today the name of the bare-knuckle boxer Bill Richmond is largely unknown to the wider public, but he is one of the most significant sportsmen in history and was one of the most celebrated celebrities of the Georgian era. The fact no biography has ever been devoted to Richmond is startling, for the story of his life and career is a compelling and thrilling tale, played out against the backdrop of a series of significant historical events.

From his humble origins, Richmond, through force of will and personality, fought his way to the top table of British society, ultimately fulfilling an official role at the coronation celebrations of King George IV in 1821. Richmond’s amazing life encompassed encounters and relationships with some of the most prominent men of the age, including the progressive Earl Percy, the writer William Hazlitt, the dissolute Prince Regent and the wild and untameable Lord Camelford.

The story of Bill Richmond is not only an incredible tale of personal advancement and triumph, but also the story of a life which was shaped, informed and influenced by a series of turbulent historical events – including the American War of Independence, the fight for black emancipation and Britain’s long-running conflict with the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Luke G. Williams’ biography, the first full-length account of Richmond's life, utilises over a decade of research on both sides of the Atlantic, revealing details, sources and new facts about Richmond’s life that have never before been published. In separating myth from fact and legend from reality, for the first time, the full story of Bill Richmond’s life and times is brought gloriously to life.

Richmond Unchained will feature illustrated material from the Georgian period, as well as new and exclusive illustrations by acclaimed American artist Trevor Von Eeden.