Gray Matter: The Bible of Boxing and memories to last a lifetime
You may or may not have heard that today is my final day at The Ring, so I’m signing off with a column. I’m conscious of the fact that my online resignation may have been missed by some readers and it would be rude not to check in.
This is not – I repeat not – some thinly veiled form of narcissism. I’m only out to offer praise before signing off with some light entertainment.
I’d like to thank every fighter I’ve ever interviewed or covered for The Ring. It doesn’t matter what level a fighter competes at – you could be a journeyman or a pay-per-view superstar – it takes serious courage to step between those ropes. These are extraordinary athletes who ultimately risk their lives. I’ve been blessed.
I’ve thanked all of my colleagues at The Ring personally, so I’m only going to focus on the fans now. A lot of paid boxing writers may look down their noses at fight fans, but that’s a ludicrous way to be. I’ve probably learned as much or more about boxing history from fans than I have from colleagues. Bottom line: I was a fan decades prior to working at The Ring and could have run circles around some paid journalists – technically and historically – before I ever cashed a check. As I said yesterday – fans are the lifeblood of this sport.
I start a new role next month and will still be in boxing (I’m super-excited, but more on that later). If I could get some of the regulars who visit The Ring to continue supporting my work, then I’ll be a happy man. You guys have been a blast and your feedback makes everything we do worthwhile.
Anyway, 10 years is a long time, so here’s a trip down memory lane:
First fight covered I covered for The Ring: Ricky Burns TKO 4 Kevin Mitchell (09/22/12)
Burns, then the WBO lightweight champion, agreed to speak to me following the post-fight press conference. As we walked through an empty Glasgow arena, he stopped for a second to take in the victory. “Nobody expected that,” said the champion. He was 100-percent right. One week earlier, Ricky had asked me for a prediction and I told him that I was picking him to win on points. “F__k off!” he laughed. “This is never going 12 rounds!”
Final fight covered: Joseph Parker KO 11 Joe Joyce (09/24/22)
These two guys fought their hearts out in one of the best heavyweight fights I’ve seen live. Whenever Parker found himself trapped in his own corner – which was often – blood and sweat flew over the ropes and landed on ringsiders. That’s when you know you’re at a fight.
Best fight covered: Naoya Inoue UD 12 Nonito Donaire (11/07/19)
I was the only European journalist – this was pre-Brexit – who attended the bantamweight final of the World Boxing Super Series. I ventured to Japan convinced that Inoue would smoke the legendary Donaire in short order. Instead I got what I fondly refer to as “mini-Manila.” The skill level, the power, the fighting heart – this one had everything.
Worst fight covered: Zolani Tete UD 12 Omar Narvaez (04/21/18)
I’m the unofficial head of the Zolani Tete fan club and couldn’t wait to see him live. This fight took place on the Carl Frampton-Nonito Donaire undercard in Belfast and it was an absolute nightmare. Narvaez backed off with his hands glued to his head and displayed little in the way of offense. Tete, a natural counter puncher, had nothing to work off of and jabbed his way to a shutout decision. I was probably more tired after this one than the fighters.
Best boxer covered: Floyd Mayweather
I’ve seen Floyd fight live a couple of times – nobody does it better. Love him or hate him, he’s one of the best ever.
Most memorable KO: Carl Froch TKO 8 George Groves
Froch signs off on what should be a Hall of Fame career with the best punch he ever threw. “I opened the shoulder on the wrong side of the line and essentially gave him the perfect shot,” Groves told me a few weeks later. “The Cobra” was never known as a one-punch hitter, but many a knockout artist would have been proud of this one.
Best interview: Tyson Fury
OK, hear me out. Fury will tell you who he’s fighting, when he’s fighting, and precisely how he’s going to win. He told me exactly how he’d beat Wladimir Klitschko and he delivered. He told me exactly how he’d beat Deontay Wilder in the second fight and he delivered. When I called him the Monday after he’d beaten Klitschko, Fury’s first words were, “What did I f__king tell you?” In today’s game, you’ll struggle to get a fighter to reveal a single sentence of their game plan. “The Gypsy King” gets on people’s nerves with retirement announcements and other forms of smoke and mirrors, but when he’s on, he’s on. Tyson is also a brilliant boxing historian.
Worst interview: Terence Crawford
This comes with a caveat. “Bud” was fighting a Scotsman (Ricky Burns) on Scottish soil (Glasgow) and was asked by a Scotsman (me) who he’d been sparring with. I wouldn’t have told me anything either. The soon-to-be champion looked at me like I was insane and responded, “Some good athletes.” Years later I met Crawford in Las Vegas and he’s one of the coolest, most unassuming fighters you could ever come across. After getting his Canelo-Golovkin 1 prediction, we discussed a variety of things boxing related. He won’t remember a single minute of that but it was a pleasure to share time with a great champion.
Longest interview: Tim Witherspoon
I love “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon: great guy, great fighting style, great jab and a great overhand right. However, when we went through his “Best I Faced” interview a few years back, the former two-time heavyweight champion had picked Tony Tubbs for almost every category. I had to call Tim over three days to convince him that Larry Holmes deserved a mention somewhere.
Best analyst: Paulie Malignaggi
Paulie is often outspoken, and sometimes that’s to his detriment. However, the former two-weight world champion is rarely off form when it comes to the technical side of boxing and he communicates brilliantly on the sport. You can learn more from Paulie in 30 minutes than you could from most ex-champs in a week.
Best person to talk boxing with: Billy Graham
I’ve only met Billy twice, but he’s one of the most engaging boxing personalities I’ve ever been around. Ricky Hatton’s former trainer is a wealth of knowledge and when he talks you listen. He trained Michael Gomez for his sensational upset win over Alex Arthur and loves reliving that fight, but we also spoke about Naoya Inoue, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and, of course, Hatton. And he explained to me exactly how Josh Warrington would beat Carl Frampton. Incredible.
When I jumped out of my seat at ringside: Anthony Crolla TKO 5 Darleys Perez
In late 2014, Anthony Crolla confronted burglars at a neighbor’s home. During the altercation, the Manchester man was struck over the head with a concrete slab, which left him with a fractured skull and a badly broken ankle. Tragically, this incident happened on the eve of Crolla’s first world title shot against Darleys Perez. The fight was called off and I was convinced that Anthony would never fight again. However, after coming out on the wrong end of a split decision draw against Perez, in July 2015, Crolla halted the Colombian four months later to win the WBA lightweight title and fulfil a dream. You should never show emotion at ringside – it’s unprofessional – but I literally couldn’t help myself.
Most Charismatic: Prince Naseem Hamed
It’s not easy to pin Naz down for an interview. In fact, I chased the former featherweight king for six years or so. However, once you win him over, Naz exudes the exact same levels of confidence and charisma he carried in his heyday. He’s a loving family man and an absolute joy to be around.
I’m not worthy: Holmes, Duran and Sugar Ray
I managed to secure face-to-face interviews with Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, all within 10 minutes from my front door. I owe the organizers of these “after dinner” engagements a whole lot. These all-time greats are almost God-like to me.
Did That Just Happen?
I was in bed one night and my wife was putting our son to sleep. Just as he dosed off, the house phone rings and wakes him up again. My wife swears, has a full-on meltdown, marches down the hall and picks up the phone with an attitude:
“Hello, it’s George, can I speak to Tom?”
The wife put the bedroom light on. She was literally as white as a ghost!
Am I actually talking to this guy? Mike Tyson
I spoke to Mike Tyson twice in a very short period of time – once for his Special and once for the Fury vs. Tyson Dream Fight Issue. Mike was the first heavyweight champion I can remember watching live (his first reign) and, in my opinion, he’s the most polarizing figure in all of sports. He doesn’t like speaking about his own career, but if you get Tyson into “historian” mode, the former champ’s incredible knowledge hits you as flush as that right hook to the body-right uppercut combo.
Most Emotional Moment: Muhammad Ali passing away
After our first son was born, the wife and I were lucky to get out together more than twice a year. I guess that’s pretty standard when you have kids. On Friday, June 2, 2016, we had dinner booked for Corinthians in Glasgow and had looked forward to it for days. Just as we’re leaving the house, then-editor-in-chief Michael Rosenthal calls to tell me that Ali is in hospital and his family have been called to his bedside. I kept an eye on my phone throughout the evening and it soon became evident that “The Greatest” wasn’t going to make it. I sat in that bloody restaurant with the tears pouring down my face. I was an Ali fan long before I was a boxing superfreak. Without him, I probably don’t have a career. I spent the next day proofing an Ali Memorial Issue – tough times.
When I almost died:
When I was in my 30s, it wasn’t beyond me to drive to England, cover a fight card, and drive home the same night. After covering Tony Thompson’s upset win over David Price (TKO 2), in Liverpool, I was driving back up the M6 motorway and fell asleep at the wheel. I was woken up by my wheels going over the rumble line or I probably wouldn’t be typing right now. I’ll tell you what, I’ve never felt so awake in my life. I put myself and other drivers at incredible risk. I never did it again.
Proudest moment: The Four Kings
I designed The Four Kings Special Issue in 2020. I decided what archive materials to use and who should write the new stories that were being featured. The issue had to be printed three times and was immensely popular. When fans respond like that, nothing beats it. Shout out to Michael Kronenberg for his exceptional cover design. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity Doug gave me on this one.
Foot in my mouth: Steve Collins
Sitting beside Steve Collins at a white collar boxing event and made the mistake of mentioning his points loss to Sumbu Kalambay. “Are you going to remind me of all the fights I lost? There’s a f__king boxing ring over there!” He wasn’t laughing. Paraphrasing slightly, but my reaction was something along the lines of “Benn… Eubank… er.. that Chris Pyatt win for the middleweight title was sure underrated.” Don’t ever mess with Steve Collins.