Boxing: How Kirkland Laing went from hero to zero in 30 years

Kirkland Laing shocked the world when he beat the great Roberto Duran. Three decades on, a lifetime of drink and drugs has taken its toll

It was not meant to end the way it did the night Roberto Duran, the great Roberto Duran, fought Kirkland Laing in Detroit on 4 September 1982. Duran and his people were between super-fights, the loss to Sugar Ray Leonard was 10 months earlier in a fight that made him $10m, and Laing, fresh from a win at a sporting club in Solihull, was selected as an ideal sacrifice.

Laing had won and lost the British welterweight title and was considered, even by 1982, a lost cause by people inside British boxing. He had been thrown out of gyms by irate trainers, rumours of his drug use were rife and for all his immense talent it looked like he would never be the fighter that many glimpsed. An attempt to deny smoking weed one day in the Royal Oak gym was comically exposed when it was pointed out to Laing that he had a giant spliff tucked behind his ear.

"I was mixed up and too young to be serious," said Laing. "My head was too easily turned by girls and things and people took kindness for weakness. Too many people did that."

When Laing got on the plane for the fight in Detroit against Duran he had been a pro for seven years, had lost just three of his 27 fights. He was 28 and given no chance of beating Duran; there were serious calls for the fight to be scrapped, fearing serious harm in the ring. Duran needed a warm-up for a planned November showdown with the unbeaten Tony Ayala Jnr, a fight worth millions. Ayala was famous for his antics in and out of the ring, including knocking out his stricken victims' fathers and cornermen.

Duran had a similarly colourful history, including a brutal knockout of a horse and kneeing Ken Buchanan in the privates during a world title fight in 1972. Duran had also been the first man to beat Leonard.

It was against a backdrop of neglect that Laing and his long-suffering trainer, Joe Ryan, arrived in the desolate city of Detroit for a fight that Mickey Duff, Laing's manager, was convinced his man could win. "I looked at Duran's fights and not his age," said Duff. "I knew that his boxing age was different and that in boxing terms right then, Duran was an old man." Duran was 31, an idol in Panama and a former world champion at two weights, including 12 defences at lightweight.

"Duran was the only man that Kirk ever feared and that fight was the only one where he gave up drugs and concentrated," said Ryan.

Duran, meanwhile, was having some problems away from the ring with a battle for his services taking place between Bob Arum and Don King. However, he looked suitably mean, moody and fit at the weigh-in, where he was in excess of six pounds heavier than Laing. He also bragged about knocking out Laing and then doing the same to Ayala, Marvin Hagler and then Leonard in a third fight.

In 2003, when Laing had been out of the ring for nine years, I went in search of him in Hackney to film a BBC documentary. It seemed like a simple mission at first; I had an address or two, a number or two and various east London boxing people had seen him. I was wrong, it took three days and two nights to track him down. "He looks like a black Santa Claus," one of many dossers told me. "He's in a bad way," another claimed.

Laing had been grabbed but not charged by the police during a raid on a local crack house a year or so earlier. The police were unable to give me an address. I eventually had a call at 3am from Laing and arranged a meet the next day. He was late and when he arrived he was in a sad state. I bought the beers.

"I beat Roberto and then I was meant to fight for the title," he said, standing and throwing the exact punches that had confused and hurt Duran that night in Detroit. "I was good, man, I was good that night."

He was brilliant, actually.

Laing put on a simply amazing performance to beat Duran in every area. It was not a smash-and-grab raid as many have chosen to believe. It was a proper fight and at the end of 10 rounds Duran dropped his head, knowing he had blown his multimillion-dollar fight with Ayala. In round 10, Laing went for the stoppage, which annoyed Duran but delighted the crowd who had booed Laing's arrival. Laing beat the living legend on points and celebrated wildly with Ryan and Duff.

It should have been the start of something special.

In 2003, Laing sat on a park bench with me and denied that he had gone missing after the Duran fight. "I was in the gym waiting for fights, but they never happened ... and then I heard that fights were offered. It was just a case of mistakes, I never vanished," Laing claimed.

However, the people around him remember it differently. Duff and Ryan insist that they tried hard to track Laing down. "I had fights lined up, good fights," claimed Duff.

It was reported that Laing was in New York, then Jamaica, and then he was sighted in Nottingham, where he was from, and Hackney, where he lived. "I was still close to the gym, waiting for a fight," Laing told me. Meanwhile, Duran got serious and had a couple of quick wins before an unexpected event affected him. Ayala Jnr had signed to fight for the world title against the unbeaten WBA light-middleweight champion Davey Moore, a fight that had been part of Duran's plans before the Laing defeat. However, Ayala Jnr was found guilty of rape and was sent to prison for 17 years. Duran replaced him, battered Moore, made a million dollars and was, by June of 1983, a world champion again. Laing was still missing.

"It was hard for me to see that, to know that Roberto had the world title and I had nothing," added Laing. In November 1983, Duran made $5m in a super-fight with Hagler; the defeat to Laing had apparently been forgotten.

Last year, I asked Duran about the Laing fight and I noticed an instant change in his eyes, which told me that he had not forgotten the night he got a beating from the British boxer.

"A good fighter, a good man. What he do now?" Duran asked. It is a good question.

Laing was finally back in the ring one year after beating Duran. He accepted a risky fight in America against the much bigger Fred Hutchings and was badly knocked out in round 10. The British Boxing Board of Control suspended his licence and he spent four days in hospital recovering. It was not the end of Laing's boxing career and he fought another 27 times, winning the British title and European titles before vanishing once again.

"I should be the champion, Roberto said that. I should be the champion," Laing told me. A few days after I finished filming I got another call in the middle of the night. This time it was not Laing, it was his then girlfriend. Kirk, she told me, was in intensive care, having fallen from a balcony at the flats. The "fall" was shrouded in mystery. Laing made a slow recovery and returned to Nottingham in 2004 to be near his family. He told his biographer that it was an accident: "I was partying." He remains in Nottingham, a recluse and one of British boxing's best fighters, and a man capable one memorable night in Detroit 30 years ago of beating a living legend.

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