ALL SMILES: ‘Bomber’ Graham
TO BE labelled by fight fans and experts as the best British boxer to never win a world title is a description that Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham recognises is a double-edged sword.
First and foremost it underlines just how talented the former British and European light-middleweight and middleweight champion was.
But at the same time it also indicates that the Nottingham-born pugilist had somewhat underachieved during his professional career, which lasted 20 years from 1978 to 1998, considering his immense in-ring aptitude.
While Graham’s record reads 48 wins (28 K.Os) and six defeats, it fails to tell the story of his mercurial defence that would often leave opponents chasing shadows.
‘Bomber’ was defeated in three world title bouts but explained that he does not mind being classed as a nearly man.
The 53-year-old Graham told the Voice of Sport: “Most people would look back [at my career] and say ‘disappointed’. I’m not disappointed at all. I’ve achieved a lot. To me, I was my own world champion. I’m the best unfortunately not to win a world championship. I don’t mind that at all.
“I boxed three world champions, lost to them but I got to the pinnacle. I mesmerised a lot of people by simply doing it. People have taken me under their arm [and said] ‘Herol, if you only did that at that time you would’ve been world champion’ but that’s life.”
MESMERISING: Graham connects with a punch to Mark Kaylor’s jaw in 1986
He chuckled: “But you never know, in the next cycle of life I might do it!”
Graham fought in three world title fights that all ended in different circumstances. In 1989, he challenged for Jamaican great Mike McCallum’s WBA middleweight title but lost via a split decision verdict from the judges.
And in the final bout of his career, he fought for Charles Brewer’s IBF super-middleweight title in 1998. Graham managed to drop the American twice in the third round but Brewer – who is 10 years younger than Graham – weathered the storm and forced the referee to step in and cause a halt to the contest in the 10th round.
Sandwiched in between those two world title match-ups was a 1990 WBC middleweight title fight in Spain that Graham is arguably remembered best for.
In the opposite corner stood the fearsome puncher Julian Jackson. For four rounds Graham dominated the action, causing Jackson’s left eye to swell almost completely shut.
However, with the fight set to finish due to Jackson’s injury, he unleashed a ferocious right hook that knocked Graham out cold before he even hit the canvas.
“My only regret is when boxing Julian Jackson, if I only kept my hands up at the stage when he threw the shot, it would’ve hit my hands, not my chin and I would’ve been world champion,” said Graham.
“But that’s a part of life I have to accept. I can say I was in with the best, I boxed the best, held my own with them and nearly, nearly…”
CLOSE CALL: Graham and McCallum were evenly matched in their 1989 clash
As Graham revealed in his autobiography Bomber: Behind the Laughter, life after boxing was far from upbeat.
Due to his inability to accept his retirement from the squared circle and ending up penniless, amongst other problems, Graham fell into depression and attempted to commit suicide by slitting his wrists, which led to him being sectioned.
However, he declared that he is now in a better place both mentally and physically.
“In any community it’s there and there’s a stigma with some people in the respect that people think people with mental health problems are stupid. It’s nothing to do with that.” said Graham.
“It was a case of me being in a sport all my life. Every day I used to go running for six to eight miles, I was in the gym training and everything was focused on me. Then all of the sudden you come out of it, and it’s like ‘what do I do now? I’ve got to live a life now. How do I live it?’ It’s like starting over again. No one could help me other than myself.
“It was really hard to get out of but I only just managed with the help of my sweetheart Karen (Neville).
“After a 25-year split we met up again and got the help from there. I got some good help.”
Having been in a dark place following his retirement, father-of-six Graham advised others not to suffer in silence like he did.
“Anybody who’s going through the same situation as myself, I’d just say to them to cling on. Cling on to your friends around you. You need friends to talk to, to express things to. Talking is the best thing. It definitely helps.
“I was reading about depression and tablets. Tablets? What do you want to take tablets for? You can go running, train yourself. All you have to do is go for a run or walk for your serotonin to peak. It helped me in a big way. I say to anybody if you don’t want to run just do some walking. It’s like soul searching.”
Graham now works as a personal trainer and resides in Muswell Hill, north London but it was at the St Thomas' Boys & Girls Club in Sheffield where his legacy lives on.
Under the guidance of Graham’s former trainer Brendan Ingle, three world champions – ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, Johnny Nelson and Junior Witter – were forged at the Yorkshire-based boxing gym.
UNORTHADOX ENTERTAINER: Naseem Hamed enters the ring on a magic carpet
However, as Graham explains in a humble manner, it was he who originated the unorthadox switch-hitting style that has become synonymous with Ingle-trained fighters.
“I’m not saying me, me, me, me, me; I’m not one of those people but I can remember going to the gym back in the late 70s, I trained there and they let me do a one-on-one,” recollected Graham.
“I had such a laugh. They couldn’t touch me. I was moving around like Muhammad Ali – hands down, hands up, whatever I wanted to do. I sparred with a guy called Mick ‘The Bomb’ Mills and I bamboozled him.
“Within two weeks of being in the gym, everybody changed styles. Brendan said ‘we’re going to do Bomber’s style’. I’m not saying just because it was me but they couldn’t touch me. Not everyone could box the same way of course but most of them do.
“It [the style of the boxing] does work. Brendan could see that it worked, hence he did the same thing. No one really used to do it at that gym at all. At least I’ve left a mark somewhere.”
And the gym could soon boast to producing another world champion as welterweight Kell Brook challenges for Devon Alexander’s IBF strap at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan on February 23.
Speaking about Brook’s chances for victory, Graham added: “Kell’s going to be in a hard contest but should be strong enough and slick enough to win. It’s going to be a hard competition for him. He’s got to do it and he can do it, I know he can. He should come home victorious.”
*On January 25 at the Stratford Circus, Herol Graham will be appearing at Stereo-Hype, which is a major interactive African Caribbean mental health festival. The first event of its kind, the free two-day festival aims to get African and Caribbean communities to talk openly about mental health and stigma to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices within black communities, through drama, film, dance, spoken word, art installations, panel debates and social contact. For more details, visit http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/stereohype