Close-up: Herol Graham For love and the money

His career bombed four years ago. Now, after the waste, the artful Bomber has the taste again. Harry Mullan met him
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The Independent Online
Few of us can pinpoint the precise second when the dreams died and disillusion replaced hope. Herol "Bomber" Graham can: after one minute and 13 seconds of the fourth round of the World Boxing Council middleweight title fight against Julian Jackson in Benalmadena, Spain, six years ago today. He had put on the performance of a lifetime and, with Jackson half- blind and reeling, was moments from victory when he was flattened by the hardest single punch I have ever seen a man take. Graham never got over it: he subsequently lost his British title to Frank Grant, the only domestic fighter to beat him in 49 contests, and retired.

Now he's back, at 37, his money gone but his engaging optimism as touching as ever. It's a familiar and depressing scenario, but he has convinced himself that this time the story will have a happy ending. "The moves are still there, the reflexes are still there", he said after a workout in the Sheffield gym run by his former stable-mate Glyn Rhodesk. "Okay, I sometimes get caught but I got caught when my reflexes were brilliant - ask Julian Jackson.

"I truly believe I have something to offer, that I can still pick up titles, but it's got to happen quick and with the right people as well. You've got to have somebody big, somebody influential behind you. I don't want it to be like it was before, only fighting every six months or so - that's too long. That was a big mistake, but then again Brendan [Ingle, his then manager] didn't know at the time. He was a one-man band. Maybe he should have thrown Mickey Duff a piece of me, because Duff was running loads of shows and we needed the exposure and the television.

"I missed boxing - not so much the participation side, but just being around it. There were a lot of things going on at the time of the Grant fight [Graham's sister, to whom he is particularly close, was viciously beaten and hospitalised a few days before the fight] and I tried to separate myself completely from boxing. But after three or four months I started creeping back to the gym to keep fit, and all of a sudden I got a spark for it again.

"In a way I'm glad the Jackson thing happened. There were so many people around me at the time, I was being torn in all kinds of directions and I didn't know the true value of myself or them. When things went sour, a lot drifted away and only a handful stayed by me. There're the people I count as my friends. The others were just acquaintances.

"If I'd won the world championship then, the money might have drifted as well. This time I know the true strength of the people around me and the money goes in the bank for my rainy day. I was a spendthrift and an easy touch. If I told you how much I'd lent out and never saw again you'd call me a stupid twat, but that's what I was.

"Despite everything, I love the sport. The comeback isn't purely financial, but I spent a lot of money regaining my licence and now I need to earn it back again." Graham's request for reinstatement was denied after the Boxing Board of Control told him he had failed a complex psychometric test. It took years of costly medical tests and the threat of legal action for restraint of trade to force a change of heart.

"I don't see why the Board blocked me. I don't know any other boxers who were asked to take psychometric tests. They shouldn't have done that to me. It wasted four years of my life, four years of my boxing career."

Watching him work out with an assortment of sparring partners, it was possible to share his optimism about Tuesday's comeback against the obscure American Terry Ford in Sheffield. Physically, Graham is ageless: there is not a surplus pound on his lean frame, and the moves are as bewilderingly clever as they were in his prime a decade ago. He has extraordinary grace and balance, operating from such a low centre of gravity that it sometimes seems that his knee grazes the canvas. He is still virtually impossible to hit cleanly.

Yet he acknowledges that there will be the old familiar fears as he waits for the first bell on Tuesday. "There's always apprehension before the fight, nervousness. You question yourself if it's still there. You know it is, but you have to prove it to yourself. If it's not there, then throw the gloves away. If I ever got beat badly, or cut up, it's not worth carrying on. I don't want to get hurt for the sake of a couple of thousand pounds."

Graham has spent 23 years in the ring, winning European, British and Commonwealth titles under the guidance of Brendan Ingle, the eccentric Dubliner who now looks after Naseem Hamed. They were an appealing pair who made good copy - Brendan and Bomber, a partnership which predated Cus And The Kid, its American counterpart featuring Cus D'Amato and Mike Tyson. But the relationship was rarely quite as cosy as was presented for public consumption, and foundered after Ingle sold his managerial interest to Barney Eastwood. Today they barely speak, although given Ingle's role in Hamed's life, and the tight-knit nature of the boxing community in Sheffield, occasional contact is unavoidable.

Hamed was once the star-struck schoolboy in the Graham entourage, but has already made more money at 21 than Graham ever imagined. Yet there is no jealously, only warm affection when he speaks of the brash youngster. "We knew Naz was going to be a star, even when he was a kid. The moves I had in the gym, anybody can be an influence on somebody else and the person achieves something because of it, that's brilliant. I don't resent his success. Of course, sometimes I think `Oh, I wish that was me', but that's all."

It is easy to believe him. He is a man without malice, whose gentle face reflects a personality at odds with his chosen trade. His easy-going, trusting nature has cost him dearly, in terms of bad business deals and broken relationships. He has a 19-year-old daughter, studying theatre at university in London, and a six-year-old son who lives in Sheffield with him and his current girlfriend. Unlucky in love, in life, and in the ring, he takes every setback with a shrug of the shoulders and a self- deprecating giggle.

"I'm headstrong", he says. "All my life it's been the same old story, no luck. Are you given luck or do you make it? I don't know. That's how life is."

Triumphs and turbulence

1978: Wins ABA middleweight title and turns professional.

1981: Takes every round against champion Pat Thomas to win the British light-middleweight title in his 17th fight.

Beats Kenny Bristol to become Commonwealth champion.

1983: Stops Clemente Tshinza for the European championship.

1985: Knocks out Jimmy Price in the first round for vacant British middleweight title.

Barney Eastwood takes over as manager from Brendan Ingle.

1986: Stops the former world champion Ayub Kalule to win European middleweight title.

Stops Mark Kaylor at Wembley, his best British performance.

1987: Graham is beaten for the first time in 39 fights as Sumbu Kalambay takes his European title.

1989: Loses split decision to Mike McCallum for vacant World Boxing Association title: a penalty point deducted for throwing McCallum to the floor is the difference between defeat and victory.

Rod Douglas needs brain surgery after Graham stops him in British title defence at Wembley. It is six months before Graham can bring himself to box again.

1990: Julian Jackson knocks him out for the vacant World Boxing Council title.

1992: Frank Grant stops him for British

title, and Graham announces retirement.

1993: Graham fails psychometric test as he tries to regain boxing licence. Long battle with the Board Of control begins.

1996: His licence is restored.