THE first time I met and interviewed Herbie Hide we were in Spitalfields market on a weekday and he somehow managed to force a stranger to stub out his cigarette without so much as looking in the stranger’s direction.
It was 2003, early October. Hide, back then, was still a heavyweight, not yet a cruiserweight, and was preparing to fight a Russian called Alexander Vasilev over 10 rounds a few days later. He wasn’t that week having to cut weight, yet any freedom this gifted him had no bearing on his levels of agitation, nor did it make Hide any more thrilled to be attending a public workout on a wet Wednesday.
Too young and naïve to sense this, of course, when I got to asking Hide how he was feeling with just days to go, he said something to the effect of, “I’m doing all right, but I’d feel a lot better if I wasn’t smelling cigarette smoke,” and it was then, almost immediately, with the smoking man standing twenty yards to his left, a cigarette was put out and the smell of smoke no longer an issue.
I couldn’t believe it. Without even turning his head, much less addressing the smoker, Hide had changed the mood and smell around him and, as far as sheepish looks go, the one the smoker offered me, not Hide, upon putting out the cigarette was one, clearly, I have struggled to forget.
Indeed, such is the Hide mystique, most encounters with him tended to be memorable. In boxing terms, his was a voice quite distinctive, with the things he said largely different from the insipid and uninspired soundbites of his peers. Get him to talk, which, I’ll confess, was no easy task, and you typically got something interesting, or at least something worth listening to. You also then had to carefully concentrate on what he was saying, perhaps harder than you normally would with someone else, for fear of either upsetting or misunderstanding him. He was, it’s true, the dangerous dog of the boxing world. Some days he was content to be petted. Others days he seemed eager to rip an arm off.
In a sport like boxing, characters like Hide are hardly rare, let alone anomalies. For some, being on edge and outwardly hostile is in fact viewed as a character trait conducive to intimidation and a successful career. It can be used as a weapon, a way of instilling fear in an opponent. It is sometimes also the kind of personality defect that attracts a man or woman to the sport in the first place; something a promoter or manager then tries to push to raise the level of intrigue surrounding this fighter.
Today at heavyweight, for example, we are being told Saturday’s headliners Dereck Chisora and Kubrat Pulev will, together, carry this questionable weapon of volatility into battle at the O2 Arena. It is almost being sold, in this instance, as something appealing, something to sell tickets and subscriptions, rather than something to maybe worry about, dissuade, or want to contain. Words like chaos and crazy and carnage have been frequently used in reference to this heavyweight fight – again, not uncommon in a sport like boxing – and seemingly the idea, or hope, is that one of the two, or both, will do something a little out of the ordinary either before the fight (say, at the press conference or weigh-in) or on fight night itself to disguise the fact the fight is an otherwise futile exercise in recycling.
All it has done for me, however, this promotional tool, is remind me of Herbie Hide and a time when unpredictability in the British heavyweight division was something spooky, not something to be sexed up and sold in a sanitised form. Two kittens by comparison, Chisora and Pulev, rest assured, would have appeared suddenly and curiously ‘normal’ in the presence of the ‘Dancing Destroyer’, with any thought of antagonising him for clicks or clout deemed the very apex of stupidity; almost as stupid as standing in front of him on fight night.
He was a fighter both dangerous and vulnerable, Hide, not unlike the middleweight Julian Jackson, or perhaps the men found in the comments sections of female boxers’ social media posts. Stand in front of him too long and more often than not you paid the price, as indicated by his 43 knockouts from 49 pro wins. His was a strange power, too, the kind that could only be natural in light of his lack of heavyweight size and, at times, technique. Regardless, every shot he would throw, whether a jab, a hook or a right cross, carried with it fight-ending power and the impact seemed never to change, no matter whether Hide was coming forward, moving sideways, or travelling backward. Nor did it seem to matter whether he was loading up or simply pecking at his opponent, with what appeared to be arm punches, from afar. Every shot he landed would invariably change the expression on his opponent’s face, if not their entire outlook on life.
“That guy had unbelievable, beyond unbelievable, punching power, and I don’t know where he got it from,” said Michael Bentt, from whom Hide wrested the WBO heavyweight title in 1994. “I was at this heavyweight reunion in 2016 in Florida and I mentioned Herbie Hide’s name and Riddick Bowe, a dear friend of mine, started laughing. He said to me, ‘That dude was the hardest puncher I ever faced in a boxing ring.’ He got it as well (in 1995, though Bowe stopped Hide in six). You only got it if you tasted it. He had frightening power. He defied the laws of physics. Joe Louis’ power came from physics: planting your feet, foundations, technique. Herbie Hide? S**t. He broke every damn rule.”
In truth, if anyone is qualified to judge and properly diagnose Herbie Hide, it’s probably Michael Bentt. For he not only spent just shy of seven rounds in Hide’s company in what was Bentt’s final fight, but he also experienced infamy alongside the Norwich man when brawling with him on the rooftop of a London hotel following a pre-fight press conference.
“When I first met Herbie, it was maybe a year before the fight,” said Bentt, born in East Dulwich but raised in New York. “I was invited over to the UK to take part in this sports awards show – I forget the actual name – and prior to it starting I see this guy at the back of the room leaning up against the wall. I thought, You know what, let me go say ‘hi’ to this brother.
“Anyway, we start talking and I notice pretty quickly that he has a stammer. I said, ‘Oh, my man, we’ve got something in common. We both stutter.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m not putting you on blast (by pointing it out). If you think about it, we all stammer. If someone pulls a gun on you, you’ll learn to stammer and it won’t take long.’
“So, we had this nice back and forth, and he was a really sweet cat, man. I then find out it was Herbie Hide.”
It would be too easy and obvious at this point to shoehorn into the story some kind of clunky reference to Jekyll and Hyde, so I won’t even bother. But, if you want it, it’s there now and Michael Bentt, for one, wouldn’t begrudge anyone namechecking that particular gothic novella in the context of Herbie Hide.
“Cut to it being announced that I’m defending my quote-unquote championship against him in my first defence,” he said, “only the next time I meet him at the press conference he isn’t the same person. Or maybe I wasn’t the same person. Oh, I don’t know. When you have that spotlight on you, and all these expectations, you feel like you have to ratchet up the whole invincibility thing. Who knows? Maybe I was an asshole as well. Either way, the dynamic was not the same as before.
“That scuffle at the press conference was then all about egos. As fighters, you can’t press each other’s buttons and expect nothing to happen. At the time, I had no idea Herbie’s little brother, Alan, had leukaemia. Had I known that, I would’ve suppressed my ego. I wouldn’t have smacked Herbie at the press conference.”
Of the eventual fight, the one for which they were actually paid, Bentt remembers very little. Dethroned in the seventh round, all he was left with, in fact, was an all-too-vivid memory of Hide’s power and the name of his neurosurgeon. “The only thing I remember from that period was the name Dr John Sutcliffe,” confirmed Bentt, who sadly ended up in a 96-hour coma as a result of Hide’s punches. “That’s it.”
Twenty-eight years on and Bentt is doing just fine. Known as much now for his stellar acting work as his title-winning boxing career, he is as loquacious and thoughtful an ex-fighter as you are ever likely to encounter and seems to have somehow won the battle to which the majority of his peers unfortunately succumb: that is, life beyond boxing. He is, unlike so many, apparently happy, busy, content. He has managed to apply the work ethic he developed in the gym to other pursuits and, moreover, has been willing to humble himself and adapt to civilian life, rather than think, because of his exploits in the ring, the world now owes him something. He has also, against all odds, reconnected with Herbie Hide.
“After the fight there was still some animosity,” Bentt admitted, “but maybe three years ago his son left me a message asking if I knew of any boxing trainers in New York. I didn’t know it was his son at that point, so I called the guy and we had a conversation and I asked him how he got my number. He said, ‘Well, my father, Herbie, said to me if I’m ever in New York to give Michael Bentt a call to help get a boxing trainer.’ I mean, for his father to think of me to that degree, I had to help him out.
“Maybe four or five months later I called Herbie and we spoke about doing a documentary based on our relationship. That’s how we connected.
“We met as fighters in ’94 but connected much later as human beings. We never should have been brawling in the street like that. That’s not how human beings behave. In a lot of ways, it represented that ugly side of boxing some people love. But it’s when boxers get away from that side of the sport that people can see that they aren’t animals, they’re not crazy, they’re just human beings. They’re sensitive and they feel things and they want to express appreciation and love for each other. It’s only boxing and the nature of boxing that suppresses all that stuff.”
Two months after I met Hide for the first time in 2003, he was attacked by a group of men inside a Norwich nightclub, which resulted in his subsequent arrest and conviction for ‘possession of an offensive weapon’. The weapon in question was a 10-inch kitchen knife and his fine for possessing it £750.
In 2011, meanwhile, Hide appeared at Norwich Crown Court charged with rape, only to be found not guilty on July 20 when “the prosecution offered no evidence”. It was then on March 18, 2012, that a man in his 20s was fatally stabbed at Hide’s home in Bawburgh, which led to a suspect being arrested for murder, with Hide not home at the time of the incident. Finally, on November 29, 2013, Hide was sentenced to 22 months in prison for conspiracy to supply cocaine, having been targeted by the ‘fake sheikh’ Mazher Mahmood, an undercover reporter for the News of the World.
“Boxers are extremists in every sense,” said Bentt. “I remember after I fought Herbie I bought this expensive, A-list car and I would go on the highway at night in this thing and drink-drive well beyond the speed limit. Whether I was trying to hurt myself or not, I don’t know, but I’m sure a psychologist would say, ‘Well, Mike, you were clearly trying to damage yourself.’”
Some are in the end driven to it, whereas others are instead born with it. But however it ultimately gets there, never should damage, whether psychological or physical, be used as a selling point and never should anyone glorifying chaos claim to then be surprised when later in life that same chaos leads to a fighter, in retirement, coming apart at the seams.