Boxing: Some fighters stagger out of the ring. Mickey Walker staggered into it

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The Independent Online

Edward Michael Walker is remembered in the annals of boxing as the middleweight who had the best left hook and the biggest thirst in the business. If it hadn't been for the one, the thirst, the other, the hook, might have made him the only 150lb heavyweight champion in modern history.

When he wasn't fighting the bottle, Mickey Walker was often fighting heavyweights. The only difference was he could hold his own with heavyweights. He found some of them so easy to hit and beat, he even fought them dead drunk on occasion to even the odds a little.

One such was the eve of the 1930 Kentucky Derby when the pocket-sized Walker climbed in with a 15st 10lb, 6ft 3in brute named Paul Swiderski. You have heard of fighters staggering out of the ring. Walker staggered into it. Anywhere else, and he would have been arrested as a common drunk.

Actually, Walker, known otherwise as "The Toy Bulldog", was an uncommon drunk. He hit the floor so often in the first round of that contest, the referee never bothered to rise from a kneeling position - he knew Walker would be right back - and Walker's manager, the foremost ring larcenist of all time, Doc Kearns, reached over and rang the bell with a water bottle while there was still a half-minute to go in the session.

Kearns' reward was a punch in the jaw from Walker because in his condition he couldn't tell friend from foe. Kearns recovered in time to pull a fuse and plunge the arena into darkness the next time Walker went down. Trouble broke out, police were called, and when order had been restored, Walker was sober and Swiderski was sunk.

This is only one of the riotous instances recalled in a dog-eared copy of Walker's biography The Toy Bulldog And His Times which I borrowed from a friend and have just finished reading. Walker, who held the undisputed welterweight and middleweight championships, had 141 fights in his 100-proof life. He was married seven times, once squandered almost $500,000 on a trip to Paris and was thrown out of hotels for brawling in half the major cities of the world.

Walker palled around with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Al Capone. He once ran across a ballroom floor to take a punch at Edward, the Prince of Wales. He actually cocked a fist at Capone before a friend stepped in. "You saved his puss," Walker grumbled. "I saved your life," the friend corrected him. He lost the most important fight of his career, to the heavyweight Max Schmeling in 1932, because he trained on the golf course, not on golf, on champagne. The caddy carried the drink. Walker carried the clubs. No one kept score but on his worst holes Walker used up three bottles.

In 1939, on the day World World War II broke out, Walker found himself on the booze with a cast of characters to whom he shouldn't even have been talking. He hoisted a glass of beer and announced: "Gentlemen, this is my last drink. I'll never take another as long as I live." He never did. Walker filled the void with painting, a notion that came to him while watching a film on the life of Gauguin.

Although some unkind critics suggested he should have taken the boxing gloves off first, his art was widely exhibited. "It is the only thing," Kearns cracked, "that could keep Mickey Walker on canvas."

While Walker's lifestyle is not recommended to athletes in any field, his colourful career, and those of many former great champions, serves to remind us that boxing is better served by the past than the present. The clue to its future lies, I believe, in the growing and, perhaps, irreversible conviction of a wider audience that only a handful of fighters today are worthy of their attention.

Not even Saturday's bout between Oscar de la Hoya and Shane Mosley in Las Vegas for the light-middleweight championship, a contest of a calibre that would once have enticed a platoon of boxing writers across the Atlantic, is receiving much play in British newspapers.

The assertion of Britain's leading promoter, Frank Warren, that boxing commands a great deal of regional support does not entirely put paid to the theory of terminal decline. It is unlikely to be achieved unless substantial figures come forward.

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