It’s hard to understand why certain fighters become important to you as a spectator, a largely detached, anonymous observer. A football team is a regional affiliation, representative of a people, their values, their history or, at the very least, embraced by default, from father to son and therefore, easier to qualify and understand. Fighters, though their geography can be a thread in the fabric of the union, become important to us for deeply more instinctive and personal reasons. In some instances, this importance lasts beyond their prime, beyond the entertainment they offered or titles they won, beyond, even, their own retirement.
A handful remain entwined in our psyche, sometimes an unwitting avatar of the person we wish we were or a sculpted peg for a hole in the children’s puzzle of our lives. Like the characters of those to whom it is directed, the reason, the motivation, the endearing qualities that engender this adulation is varied, sometimes splintered, unresolved and ill-defined. In middle life, as outlook cedes from the vain and amorous to the mortal and mortgaged, there are moments of pause, even within the cacophony of father hood and the persistence squeal of the interest payments on the roof above, in to which whispers of doubt and reflection echo and haunt.
You know, the ‘Ifs, the buts’, the couldas and the wouldas.
In my own foray beneath the still waters visible to the world, as the children grow to reflect the good and the bad of the lessons and example I’ve shown, when the competition of the sporting field fades, replaced by clotted fables told at pub firesides to those who’ve heard them before, it is easy to contemplate, to extrapolate to those for whom a physical peak was a towering mountain. For fighters this adulation is often an oxygen, a purpose in and of itself. The competition inherent in their profession, and their success in it, a metric by which their self-worth is quantified and the foundation on which every relationship in their lives, positive or otherwise, is built.
As a 40 something, with the pasty, thin 12 year old kid still rattling around inside, it is a strange paradox to have to weave the fallen, troubled idol into that narrative. To assimilate the collapse of that which had seemed certain, and concrete and to fathom the hero, the under-dog, the champion you revered shares that self-doubt and darkness and, in Herol Graham’s case, has succumbed to it can be a difficult task. Herol’s problems, like those of contemporary Frank Bruno, apparently magnified through the lens of my lazy, unqualified and probably entirely incorrect ‘fag packet’ psychology by exactly the same factor that differentiated their physical prowess and depth of courage with my own in our shared, though entirely independent, youth.
The news Herol, a fighter of such elusive skill, who could befuddled and frustrate hall of fame greats like Mike McCallum (in the video above), has himself been engulfed by the darkness of depression planted one of my boyhood heroes in to just such a parable. His boxing story is well told and requires no repeating here, but one could easily draw similar linear conclusion from the frustration and ‘almost’ of his long professional career and the financial and emotional problems he’s encountered since.
Herol never did do anything in a linear fashion however, whether it be outwitting opponents with reflex in defence and lightening hand speed and unconventional angles in attack, or in his near 20-year retirement. Sporadically, he was involved in training others and he had a passion for skipping which spawned get-fit programmes and world records too. And whilst there appear ripples from the disappointments of finishing his career as the greatest British fighter to never to win a world title, confirmed in his completed memoire Bomber: Behind the Laughter, the conclusion this is the root, or singular, cause of his current problems is surely far too simplistic.
The truth of Herol’s debilitated state, and I’m not going to attempt to define it, is likely far more complex and layered but entirely less rare than the talent he possessed as a boxer. Depression doesn’t discriminate between bankers, road sweepers, teachers or world-class fighters. Depression, from moderate to life-shortening, doesn’t check bank accounts or trophy cabinets as the much cherished Ricky Hatton and heavyweight champion of the world Tyson Fury can confirm.
And whilst I feel empathy and impotence about the plight of Herol the man and the father, there is no comfort in the realisation he is, despite being preserved in my mind’s eye as the glossy black eel of his hey-day, the man who should’ve been King, in fact, just like me, you, the rest of us.
Ducking life’s blows, desperate to contribute, to find purpose and meaning beyond the flush of youth and its unkept promises.
The sprinkling of wisdom of my own middle-age ensures his star is no less lustrous for the revelation.
To read more about Herol’s challenges, his own and those of his partner Karen, click here for a verified Just Giving page from which you can donate to help them.