'Bomber' has sights trained on title glory

Ian Stafford meets Herol Graham as he prepares to step back into the boxing ring four years after a premature fall from grace
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The Independent Online
Somewhere in the St Thomas' Gym in Wincobank, Sheffield, you can still find a life-size cardboard cut-out of the man. Even though Brendan Ingle's school of boxing now boasts the supreme talents of Prince Naseem Hamed, nobody has quite forgotten the "Bomber" and what he symbolised.

Back in the 1980s, everyone knew Herol "Bomber" Graham. He was, at least in Shef- field, a man of the people. While his fame and credentials increased inside the boxing ring, he remained one of the close-knit citizens of the South Yorkshire city, working in the local market at a jewellery stand, forever in the Sheffield Star newspaper, opening this and guesting at that.

He was as big a part of the Sheffield scene as the musical likes of the Human League, Heaven17 and ABC were at the time. The problem was, despite a host of desperately near misses, that was as big as he became.

Hamed idolised the man. To him, Graham was what this wide-eyed little Arab boy wanted to become. To Brendan Ingle, before Hamed matured into the force he has become today, Graham, his protege, was the finished article.

By common consent, he was too crafty and too elusive for his own good. OK, Graham may not have possessed a devastating punch, but he still bamboozled almost all his oppo- nents. Even the great Marvin Hagler was once quoted as saying that he did not fancy facing Graham in the ring.

When the "Bomber" had his chances, he blew them. First, against Mike McCallum, fighting for the world middleweight title in 1989, he lost by a point, having had one deducted for spinning his American opponent round. Then, against the hard-hitting Julian Jackson, he was knocked out having totally dominated the fight.

Finally, in 1992, Graham lost his British title to the unfancied Frank Grant, prompting his retirement. Here, surely, was one of the finest middleweights never to win a world title. Four years on, at the age of 36 and with a record of five defeats in 49 fights, Graham expects to get his licence renewed by the British Board of Boxing Control, and then plans an immediate comeback. With this in mind, he has been training at a Sheffield gym run by the former boxer Glynn Rhodes, who Herbie Hide has also turned to on his comeback trail. Herol Graham is dreaming again, even at this late stage, of completing an unfulfilled career.

Unfulfilled? Graham knows exactly how close he came to winning a world title. "Well, everyone knows how questionable that decision was against McCallum," he begins. "For me, the Jackson defeat in Malaga was far more devastating.

"The referee actually told me that, unless something happened in the next round, he was going to stop the fight; I was that far ahead. All I had to do was keep on picking him off, and stay away from his reach, but I wanted to finish it off in style.

"I was like the centre-forward who, facing an open goal, blasts the ball over instead of tapping it in. Jackson got me with a punch, starting from his boot, that I never saw. I was out cold for over five minutes that night."

Worse was to come against Frank Grant, a fairly unfancied British middleweight. Losing to Jackson, a respected puncher, was unfortunate but acceptable, but when Graham was stopped against Grant, it was immediately translated as the end of the road.

"What people didn't know was that I was in no state to fight that night," he insists. "Something terrible had happened to a member of my family earlier that week which simply blew my brains out. It was dreadful news which, even today, I can't go into because it was so very personal, but it badly affected me. I found myself standing in the corner of the ring letting Grant hit me, knowing that it wasn't really me in the ring that night."

The defeat prompted his retirement, shattering his and Brendan Ingle's dreams. Still, at least the Irish trainer knew by then that he possessed a gem of a 17-year-old kid who, he was convinced, would one day take the extra step Graham did not.

Graham has maintained his fitness and sparring skills, partly because he has done nothing else since the age of nine, and also because, after a year's rest, he decided to try again. For the past couple of years he has been battling with the BBBC to renew this licence.

"I've passed everything they've thrown at me, but I've had the distinct feeling that, at least in the past, they haven't been too keen to give me a licence. There's never been anything wrong with me.

"It's not as if I've been like Frank Bruno and had to convince them about my eye. I've passed everything, including their MRI scans. In the end, they started using psychometric tests against me which anyone would find difficult. Maybe it's down to the politics of the sport, but this time I'm certain everything should be all right."

Which invites the obvious question: Why? Surely Graham knows the history of boxing comebacks makes bad reading. What has he really got to gain? Is he not acting like the poker player on a losing run?

"Look, I'm not a Barry McGuigan or a Joe Bugner. They thought they could still do it, but got found out. I'm not a fighter; I've always been a boxer. I haven't been in as much trouble as most, I still have the instincts and, although I'm 36, I'm going on 28 years old. Boxing is what I'm best at, and while I think I can still do it, keep out of trouble and earn a good living, it makes sense to me."

To try and prove his point, he launches into an anecdote. "The other week Glynn asked me to spar with a boxer who had turned up for a practice session. After a few rounds they ended it. I was all over the guy, showing that none of my instincts had been lost. I had no idea who he was until they told me. I had just taught Cornelius Carr, the British champion, a lesson.

"I know most comebacks end in failure, and then they disappear into oblivion. But I don't want to be telling people in 20 years' time that I could have been a world champion."

There must be other reasons behind a decision which most outsiders would disagree with. For example, it must be difficult to see Hamed, a kid who looked up to Graham, now achieving everything he failed to do.

"I wouldn't be human if I didn't have mixed emotions," he agrees. "I applaud what he's done, but I still remember him as a kid, knocking on my door and asking me to come and spar with him. I used to let him beat me up because he was such a great kid. I'm pleased for him but, sure, it rankles a bit because I know that he's achieved what I failed to do."

Times have changed for Graham since the heady days of the late '80s and early '90s. He discovered that his failure made him just another loser. "I made a lot of money, but gave a lot of it away to my associates and friends. There was a time when certain people followed me around everywhere but, because they think I've sunk, they've all bailed out. It might have done me a favour."

Graham takes what he hopes to be his final test on 24 May, and expects to hear positive news a couple of days later. If all goes to plan, he will return as a super-middleweight.