It's time to eat cheeseburgers, lotsa cheeseburgers
SEVENTEEN years ago this month, on a sultry night in London in August 1996, I phoned James Toney for the last time. Of course we would speak again in later years but we knew this particular conversation marked the end of a book called Dark Trade. Five years had passed since I began working on a project that had consumed me while I followed fighters like Toney, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr, Chris Eubank, Michael Watson and Naseem Hamed. .
“Damn those British bums,” Toney snorted for old time’s sake as he wondered again why I’d spent so much writing about boxers he loved to dismiss. “Come back to L.A.,” Toney instructed me from his suite in Beverly Hills. “Or meet me in Vegas. Jus’ jump on a plane, man!”
Toney meant more to me than any other fighter and I was tempted to fly back to America for our final interview. But unlike Toney, then a boxing millionaire, I was almost broke. I could no longer justify spending yet more money on flights to and from America, on cheap hotels and small car rentals.
I had just a few thousand words left to write of an obsessive book that would be published in October 1996. And so I reminded Toney instead how anxious I’d been before our first meeting when his reputation as a crack-dealing, gun-toting gangster preceded his subtle skills as a defensive ring master. Toney had been regularly depicted as boxing’s most ferocious character; but I soon discovered he was also one of the most amusing fighters in the business.
We settled into contented nostalgia on the phone, thinking of our time together in Tulsa, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Ann Arbor. “Yeah,” Toney decided, “it’s been good.”
The previous five years, for me, had been more than “good”. They had changed my life forever by giving me the chance to write about boxing. Dark Trade ran so deep inside me it had become a kind of madness as I engaged in seemingly private conversations with my chosen fighters. Yet I had recovered from the blunt dismissal the book had received in the form of a proposal, and sample chapters, a few years before.
When I first tried to sell the idea to ten different publishers in London, nine of them rejected it. The book was apparently un-publishable. Dark Trade had “no obvious market potential” or, more personally, “it’s not quite for us.” Only Mainstream, who had published my first book, and believed in me as a writer, offered a small advance of £8,000 for a desolate subject like boxing. Over five years that would work out to be a princely amount of £1,600 per annum to fund my research trips.
The rejection hurt. But I was young and determined and, instead of immediately signing with Mainstream, I decided to concentrate on the fighters, and the writing, rather than worry about publication. The book was already burning inside me. In truth, it had been waiting to be written for years.
Dark Trade was forged in South Africa – where I grew up during the bleakness of apartheid. It was then, in the 1970s, that I began to understand the power and majesty of boxing. Muhammad Ali, inevitably, was the glittering cornerstone of everything that I loved about the ring. How could you not be fascinated by such a brilliant and funny man when you were 10 years old and saw his impact on everyone around you? I had many wonderful teachers – but I also sat in steaming classrooms and looked at men who vented spleen about “the bloody blacks”. Eventually I was as stunned as I was amused that these same bone-deep racist men were besotted with Ali.
“Boy, he’s so handsome,” one Afrikaans male teacher said in an awe-struck voice when he showed us a photograph of Ali. “He looks a million dollars.”
As a boy I did not understand Ali’s conversion to Islam, or his embrace of black consciousness, but I realized there was something extraordinary in his hold over white South Africans. The closest any of those warped men came to voicing the contradiction at the heart of their love for Ali was when our woodwork teacher, a bruising Afrikaner who regularly beat us with a stick, spoke simply of the world heavyweight champion. After Ali had rumbled George Foremen in deepest Africa in 1974 my teacher said: “He’s not like our blacks, man.”
I was only 13 then but I could recognize the defining difference between Ali and black South Africans. Ali had won his freedom; while most of South Africa remained brutalized by apartheid.
Two great black American fighters, Bob Foster and Emile Griffith actually visited South Africa in the 1970s. Foster was near his peak when, for the second time, he coolly held off our brave white hope, Pierre Fourie, in 1973. Griffith, in contrast, was in the dregs of his career in 1975 when he lost in Soweto to Elijah ‘Tap Tap’ Makhathini. Yet Griffith and his white trainer, Gil Clancy won a more important battle against the South African government which had tried to stop them working together in the ring. It was illegal for Clancy to enter a black township but he and Griffith held firm and the government surrendered – again making me admire the strength and decency of the best men in boxing.
Long after I had been forced to leave South Africa I actually met Ali and Forster. But those encounters stemmed from me being a fan rather than a writer. I only felt ready to begin writing about boxing in 1991 when Dark Trade gathered momentum over a tumultuous few months.
Shortly before I interviewed Tyson in June of that year he had promised his opponent, Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock, that, “I’m gonna make you my girlfriend. Don’t you know that you’re really a transvestite?”
The “girlfriend” jibe was jailhouse slang; and Tyson’s sneering ended with him repeating, “It doesn’t count if he isn’t dead, it doesn’t count if he isn’t dead…”
I was uncertain how Tyson would react when I interviewed him but he turned out to be fiercely lucid. He spoke of his feelings of impending doom and about the fate of some great heavyweight champions who had preceded him – Joe Louis, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. I was transfixed for he was one of the most extraordinary men I had ever met.
A week later, as he strode to the ring behind The Mirage hotel and casino, with the sun sinking over a gleaming Vegas skyline, Tyson wore his usual fight uniform – black shoes and trunks and a white towel, out of which a ragged hole had been cut so that that it could fit crudely over his head. There were no satiny robes or sparkling sequins for Tyson.
The fight against Ruddock was not much prettier. Tyson had lost much of the blurring hand speed and elusive head movement which had once defined him. He could still punch, however, and after 12 rounds Ruddock’s face was grotesquely puffed. His jaw had been broken and Tyson shook his head in admiration of such courage. The fighters embraced as the trainers poured water over their steaming heads. I thought again that no other sport could quite match boxing for its raw appeal.
I left Las Vegas on 30 June 1991, the day Mike Tyson turned 25, and I resolved to write seriously about boxing. I had already met Watson and Eubank and I wrote a feature about two very different fighters preparing for their rematch. The seeds of this book had been planted.
Then, on 7 August 1991 Tyson was indicted in Indiana on four charges of criminal conduct, confinement and the rape of Desiree Washington. It was not exactly shocking – but it still made his graphic desolation in Vegas seem eerily accurate.
Watson, meanwhile, was seething with resentment after their first fight had ended in a controversial win for Eubank. “I’ve never seen another black man try so hard to look and sound white,” Watson said of Eubank. “He very weird and confused. That’s why this fight is so important. Eubank says it’s about money. But it’s about respect – and our futures. Eubank knows this. He’s preparing for a hell of a fight.”
I returned to Hove to see Eubank again. In an attempt to curb his infamous bluster I asked him which five words he would use to describe himself?
Eubank chose his adjectives in alphabetical order: “Approachable…brave…devious…generous…moody…resourceful…”
“But Chris,” I protested, “that’s six words.”
“I’m the fighter,” Eubank said firmly. “I’ll settle on six.”
The six-pack wordsmith then shook his head gravely: “It’s a terrible thing, boxing, a terrible thing…”
On 21 September, 1991, boxing truly did seem a terrible thing. At White Hart Lane that night I had been riveted by a masterclass from Watson, who was one of my favourite fighters, as he outclassed Eubank for nearly eleven rounds. He scored a knockdown near the end of the eleventh – only for Eubank to rise from the canvas and unleash a devastating uppercut that would soon send Watson into a coma.
As I headed for the tunnel leading to the dressing room, I remember seeing Eric Seccombe, Watson’s former trainer, shaking and crying. His pale face twitched as he stared at the stricken figure of Watson on a stretcher. “No Michael, no….,” Seccombe cried.
The next week engulfed this new book in suffocating sadness. I was not sure I would, or even could, write about boxing again. Tyson was in jail but, far worse, Michael Watson was close to death. The idea of even watching another fight seemed hideous. I felt close to giving up on a book I had hardly even begun.
Those doubts uncurled inside me whenever another tragedy blighted this book: Bradley Stone died on 28 April 1994; Gerald McClellan slid into a coma that turned into blindness and dementia on 25 February 1995; Jimmy Garcia died on 19 May 1995, as did James Murray on 15 October 1995.
Each catastrophe had a profound impact on me. I thought of those fighters when I settled on the title of Dark Trade. They were all dedicated professionals, trading blows in the most dangerous business of all, but they suffered the darkest of fates.
I became determined to highlight the way in which fighters like Watson, who somehow survived and slowly began to rebuild his shattered life, still loved boxing. Watson made me feel it was right to continue writing this book to try and honour the courage and resolve of all fighters. My respect for them grew rather than diminished with every year I was “lost in boxing.”
My girlfriend, Alison, who became my wife before this book’s publication, was both a comic foil and moral touchstone for me. Initially, when we met, I almost felt embarrassed to tell her that I was immersed in writing a book about boxers. She was an architect who loved art and fashion and knew nothing about boxing. I wondered if she would think I was deeply troubled to love a business as violent and crooked as boxing. But it did not take Alison long to recognise the compelling nature of the ring and, most of all, to admire the fighters she met in my company. She was also, like me, a sucker for big-time boxing.
And so, in an effort to offset the grim fatalities and injuries I had to document, I included small snippets which explained how Alison also “lost” herself in boxing. It seems hopelessly indulgent now but it was true to the nature of us, and our suddenly shared love of boxing, that a cultured Home Counties girl would fill our flat with rip-roaring imitations of Michael Buffer’s “Let’s Git Ready To Ruummmblleeee!” or step straight out of bath to do nude impersonations of Chris Eubank or Naseem Hamed. We knew each other well enough by then that I’d sometimes have to gently remind her that I was watching a replay of an Arsenal goal and could she, a naked girly Eubank impressionist, shift a little to the left to allow me full sight of the television screen while she did her crazy boxing dance.
Our most amusing times together were in the company of Sherry and James Toney – especially when the fighter’s mother told us how she used to discipline him in the most beautifully profane language. We got so close to the Toneys that Sherry used to Fex-Ex us pastries and cookies from her Speciality Cakes & Pies Shop in Ann Arbor. It was a warning of the way Toney would balloon in weight in later years.
I think the book really began to fly on the night, in Tulsa, in October 1993, when Toney defended his IBF Super-Middleweight world title against Tony Thornton. Toney agreed that I could spend the last few hours with him before the fight. As time drifted past, a stone-cold look settled on Toney’s face in his hotel room on the seventeenth floor. In the room next door, a maniac with a taste for irony played Gene Pitney’s 24 Hours to Tulsa over and over again.
“I hate this shit,” Toney snarled.
Finally, Toney stood up. It was time for him to fight. He wore a hooded tracksuit and heavy boots. A solid gold choker glinted on his muscled neck. He thrust his fists deep into the pockets of his top.
“You ready for this?” he drawled.
I nodded. “OK,” he murmured. “Let’s go….”
The next few hours unfolded in a blur of intensity. I sat with Toney in his dressing room while we listened to Dr Dre’s The Chonic over and over again. We liked it a lot more than Gene Pitney.
I asked Toney how he dealt with the tension. “This is boxing, baby…” he answered quietly.
When the door swung open, a sound man barked “Showtime!” Toney looked straight at me. “Okay,” he said, “let’s go…”
I followed him on the long walk to the ring, with Dr Dre’s High-Powered thudding in our wake, and wondered if many other writers got this lucky.
Afterwards, once Toney had won comfortably, he came over to where I stood, sinking a beer I really needed. “See, man, I’m not so bad,” he crooned as the sweat flew from him. He was on his way to becoming the world’s number one pound-for-pound fighter. “We gonna do this again?”
I nodded, almost in disbelief. “OK,” Toney said. “We got a deal. And now, baby, it’s time to eat cheeseburgers, lotsa cheeseburgers, ‘cos I’m James Toney – champion of the world.”
Toney stuck to his word. He ate so many cheeseburgers that his career soon curdled. I was again with him both before and after his life-crumbling world title unification contest in Las Vegas against Roy Jones Jr when, in October 1994, he suffered his first defeat. He was never the same again, having lost a fight when victory would have guaranteed him $30 million, and we both knew it.
I spent time with Jones, too, but my heart was always in Toney’s corner. I could never shake from my mind his utter desolation at that post-fight “party”. He arrived three hours late and bit his lip as everyone applauded him, their clapping strengthening the longer he stood there in mute silence. You could tell that he had made up his mind that he was not going to cry, at least not in front of us.
“I take my hat off to Roy Jones,” he eventually mumbled. “I gotta also say Jones did a good job of running from my power…”
There were shouts of support; and I smiled helplessly at Toney. What else could I do? My favourite fighter had been exposed.
He took my hand with a wink. “Hey big boy,” he said. “You still here?”
We swapped some sad words and then Toney broke away for some food. Comfort eating was all he had left that night. His mother still kissed him. “I’m proud of you, boy,” she said gravely.
It soon became less dignified. A day later Toney talked about shooting his manager, a middle-aged Jewish woman called Jackie Kallen. Murder, fortunately, was avoided but Toney and Kallen stopped working together. The James Toney bandwagon began to slow under his increasingly bloated weight. I still stayed loyal to him.
When I made the final call to Toney, to end this book, Sherry had just asked me to submit a sharp letter of rebuke to Boxing News. Jim Brady, who was then this magazine’s American correspondent, had reported on Toney’s lackadaisical victory over a journeyman called Charles Oliver in July 1996. In his previous fight, Brady acknowledged, “Toney looked superb battering Earl Butler. But once Toney weighs more than 12 stone 7, his hand-speed diminishes greatly and he loses his sharpness.”
It was an accurate assessment but I agreed to pass on Sherry’s fiercely protective letter to the editor Harry Mullan and it was duly printed in Boxing News under a ‘Leave My Son Alone!’ warning of a headline.
“Those British bums had better watch out for my mom,” Toney said darkly before he lapsed into his familiar growling laugh. “We’re almost done,” he said. “And we had some fun.”
I had a lot of fun writing Dark Trade, despite the darkness, and the book assumed even more meaning to me when it won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in November 1996. The pile of rejection letters no longer mattered. It had turned out all right in the end.
Seventeen years later it keeps on rolling and every time I get a kind email or tweet from someone who has just read Dark Trade, and liked it, I’m reminded of the surreal days that fuelled its writing. Next year it will be relaunched by another publisher, Simon & Schuster, who have just bought the rights from Mainstream.
The 2014 edition of Dark Trade will, I hope, follow Toney’s final retirement from the ring. It is a source of sadness to see him still attempting to fight on – a once brilliant technician of the ring reduced to a beaten-up heavyweight. But there’s still enough wit in Toney for him to probably raise a dubious eyebrow at the notion that some people might still want to read this old book of mine. “Some bums, usually British bums, will read anything,” he once told me with a wise old grin.
Donald McRae’s Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is currently available from Mainstream as both a paperback and ebook. It will be re-released next spring by Simon & Schuster