By Elliot Worsell

WHENEVER Carl Thompson winced in pain, so did the audience, as one. Whenever he then drunkenly swayed back to the ropes in preparation for punishment, more, it was impossible not to also shift in your seat, almost as though to flinch or recoil on his behalf would somehow be enough to spare him.

It wouldn’t, of course, but such was the affinity with Thompson you felt his pain more than you felt the pain of others. Not only that, unlike the others, those who took pride in their ability to hide their pain and be dishonest with it, Thompson was, for better or worse, an open book. You knew when he was hurt, in other words. He did little to disguise it. His body carried his secrets; his face told no lies.

And yet, on the night he faced Sebastiaan Rothmann in Sheffield in February 2003, Thompson did more than just lie. In round nine of that fight, taking us with him as always, he all of a sudden staggered back to the ropes on account of a Rothmann right hand and then, with no setup or cue, and without having the decency to so much as alert us, he pulled a move nobody inside the Ponds Forge Arena had imagined, much less tried to replicate in their seat.

Indeed, as each of us stayed rooted to our seats, and perhaps fidgeted, Thompson lunged forward to connect with a pulverising right hand, leaving Rothmann, the presumed winner, to deflate like a bouncy castle at the end of a kids’ party. What followed that was the most beautiful of silences – stunned silence, a collective intake of breath – and thereafter an explosion, both of cheers and applause; an outpouring, a rush forward of bodies in seats, some of which now collapsed, or folded in on themselves, having been freed from the twitching backsides weighing them down.

It was at the time, and given the context, the finest one-punch knockout win I had seen. It came after eight rounds of Rothmann dominance, with only a shock knockdown scored by Thompson in round five offering hope of an upset, and was a finish so startling in its execution one couldn’t help but get swept up in the emotion of it all.

Here was Thompson, almost 40, now on the comeback trail, returning to the ring after nearly two years out and stepping back up in class following routine wins against journeymen types: Phil Day, Hastings Rasani and Paul Bonson. Moreover, he found himself with so many cruiserweights, including Rothmann, eager to now take advantage of his name and usher him into retirement for good this time. As well as Rothmann, for example, there were cruiserweights outside the ring, some kerb-crawling like perverts or slot machine lurkers. One was David Haye, who, having grown up a fan of Thompson, was that night willing Thompson on to victory but only if in the process he was further weakened and aged and therefore vulnerable for future encounters.

Little did he know, of course. Little did any of us know, in fact.

For although Thompson could be seen sagging against the ropes in round nine, seemingly on the brink of collapse, the suspicion now, 20 years on, is that the Bolton warrior was in that moment perhaps the smartest man in the room. He was hurt, doubtless, and physically exhausted, but on a night in which the aim of the game was to patronise him and punish him and take him out for one last walk before he was put down like a dog, Thompson ultimately outsmarted everyone in the end. He outsmarted the cruiserweight with whom he shared a ring that night and he outsmarted the cruiserweight at ringside hankering to one day finish the job other men started. He even outsmarted the people who believed in him, and who wanted him to win, and who felt every punch he was taking and bobbed and weaved at ringside on his behalf. He outsmarted them as well because when he foraged forward and let go of his right hand, the rest of us were still on the ropes, sphincters tight, eyes closed.

We could hardly be blamed for this. In round four Thompson had shipped a cuffing right hand which had him touching down for the first time in the fight and already he appeared out of his depth, too slow of hand and foot to match Rothmann, the cocksure IBO champion. Sensing this, too, Rothmann was now smirking as he spun away, raising his hands in delight after registering the first knockdown. He then stuck his tongue out with his chin forward, urging Thompson to take a swing at him, confident he was about to go the way of other Brits he had humbled, including Mark Hobson, Crawford Ashley, Garry Delaney, Rob Norton, and Kelly Oliver.

Despite such confidence, though, Thompson was still punching and in round five, although dazed himself, he exploded with a huge right hand and uppercut to drop Rothmann at the bell, whereupon the champion was counted by the referee, Richie Davies. It was, in many ways, a sign and microcosm of things to come, but at the time this we did not know; at the time, given how Rothmann responded in rounds six, seven and eight, that knockdown in the fifth seemed to serve only to fix him up and have him take the fight more seriously.

His tongue, for instance, remained inside a closed mouth for the following three rounds, the very emblem of newfound respect. In fact, it only opened again in round nine, which was the round in which Rothmann once more backed an unsteady Thompson to the ropes and contemplated the best way to now go about closing the show. In this moment Thompson, either suffering or thinking, or both, appeared to spot Rothmann momentarily hesitate, jaw loose, and with nothing to lose elected to shove a measuring stick left jab in the direction of that open mouth. Sensing then that his opponent was all out of ideas, and maybe shocked by the sight of the bogeyman coming back to life, Thompson, just for the hell of it, tossed and landed the right cross that for him changed everything and, for me, remains the best single punch I have seen land while sitting in a ringside seat.

After the fight, still living vicariously through him, I followed Carl Thompson from the ring to his changing room. Every bit as exhausted as Thompson, all of us, I proceeded to now watch the winner postpone the removal of his gloves and ignore an increasingly concerned doctor to instead do what he felt was necessary, essential. “Let’s go and see Rothmann,” he declared. “Where is his changing room?”

It was then, utilising both teenage gumption and a vague knowledge of the venue’s layout, I shot my arm in the air and signalled for Thompson to follow me towards the room in which Rothmann, or what was left of him, could be found.

“I’m sorry I showboated like that,” was the first thing Rothmann, still shirtless, said as he greeted Thompson and slumped down on a bench. “I didn’t mean any disrespect by it. I do that in all my fights. Nothing personal.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” said Thompson, standing near to him; over him. “Believe it or not, you actually helped me by doing that. I could see you smiling and poking your tongue out, and I thought, Right, this guy’s going to get it now. All those taunts just drove me on, mate.”

They both laughed at that and tapped fists – still gloved – in appreciation of what they had just shared; endured; survived.

“Maybe I need to stop doing all that stuff then,” said Rothmann. “I usually just do it to motivate myself, you know?”

“Exactly,” said Thompson. “I knew why you were doing it. I knew you were only doing it because you felt tired or because you were hurt. That’s why it just made me come on stronger. I loved watching you do that.”

Hearing this insight at the time, I did no more than smile, mostly heartened by the two cruiserweights’ display of comradeship and their ability to be so candid in light of all that had transpired. However, with time I have come to see both the fight and Thompson’s words differently. I have realised that intelligence and the ability to think and find clarity when on the verge of defeat is a skill every bit as valuable to a boxer – and much rarer – than the ability to display similar astuteness when on the attack and in the ascendancy. Meaning for someone like Carl Thompson, this warrior who could turn being hurt into the best form of attack, there was perhaps no better sight than that of an opponent ignorantly believing they had him wounded and therefore readying themselves to go in for the kill. Equally, too, as this became the norm with Thompson, and as he went on to do to David Haye what he had previously done to Sebastiaan Rothmann, there was soon no more troubling sight for a boxer than that of “The Cat” lolling on the ropes and counting in his head the number of lives he still had left to use.