Boxing: My weapons were my fists – now it's guns and knives
Errol Christie faced appalling racism, sparred with Ali and was a 'terrible' comic. Today he's trying to stop inner-city violence.
His life may have been largely spent in what he calls a state of "tormentation", but former boxer Errol Christie certainly makes for convivial company. He's passionate about the sport and is happy to tell stories against himself – "Oh my God, I was so thick in those days" – frequently breaks into loud laughter, but is given to more reflective moments, too.
We meet because Christie, now 46 and 17 years out of the ring, has just published his autobiography, No Place To Hide, a highly readable book written with Tony McMahon. The "tormentation" it charts is the appalling racism he experienced as a child in Coventry, one of eight children of immigrant Caribbean parents.
"I grew up seeing my parents spat at, being treated like dirt," he says. "People would make monkey noises and call us niggers and coons. Skinheads used to chase me down the street. I was kicked, punched, shoved to the floor and I was constantly fighting to protect myself. It was a very hostile environment and it was only when I came to London, where all sorts of people lived, that I started to realise it didn't have to be us versus them [black against white] all the time."
Christie is also eager to talk about a new play, Sucker Punch, by acclaimed playwright Roy Williams, which opens later this month at the Royal Court theatre in London. He is not appearing in it, though you may be forgiven for thinking that; one of Christie's many jobs since leaving the ring was a brief stint as a stand-up comic – "I was terrible," he says with a wince.
The play is about two young, black boxers in the 1980s who choose different paths to fame and glory, and Christie has been training them to fight standard and advising the playwright on technical aspects of boxing. "I think he's really captured what it was like back then," he says of the script.
Christie is also well-placed to advise on the murkier aspects of the game; though very successful at amateur level, he never made big money after he turned professional in 1983. "It's a dirty sport, always has been," he says. "I loved the game – it's the biggest love of my life really – but I didn't love a lot of the people in it, the managers, the promoters. I hate them. I was too trusting with my management, but boxers are now more attuned to what the sport can bring them, and that's a good thing."
His career, which included an amateur European belt and the captaincy of the England team from 1980-83, seemed destined to culminate in a world title. But then came leg-muscle problems and too many tough fights, not least the infamous loss to Mark Kaylor at Wembley Arena in 1985. Coming one month after the Broadwater Farm Estate riot in Tottenham, in which PC Keith Blakelock was murdered, the contest became a detestable white-supremacy contest for some of east Londoner Kaylor's more excitable fans. Christie's eventual retirement came in 1993.
Always an exciting boxer to watch and light on his feet, he was what he describes as a "dance fighter" and it's no surprise to learn that his hero is Muhammad Ali, with whom he once sparred. "He was a thinker, I tell them [the actors]. They thought boxing was just about throwing punches, but boxers have to be quick-minded and think about each punch. You have to instantly assess each move your opponent makes and decide what you are going to do next. There's a lot going on in a good boxer's head."
Has he also offered Williams advice on how boxers talk among themselves? He bursts out laughing. "Oh man, yeah, there's one word boxers use all the time in the changing room, but I can't say it in front of you." The playwright later tells me the word Christie means is "pussy", and he isn't referring to cats or cowards...
What does Christie think of today's game? "Boxing should be theatre, but we haven't got any characters around today – we need another Chris Eubank or Nigel Benn. Today's boxers all do the same thing. It's too technical and the flair has gone. You have to blame the trainers; they're making boxers technically good but not letting their personalities come through in the ring."
Christie's day job is teaching boxing at the Gymbox in London, a "white-collar" gym where City and media types box to keep fit (clients have included television presenter Dermot O'Leary, singer Seal and ex-Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli). Would he consider going back into the game as a trainer? "We've been doing some book-signing at gyms," he replies, "and we invite youngsters along to a sparring session where I go through some moves with them. They've been successful and I've really enjoyed it."
He has posted clips from some of these sessions on YouTube as a vehicle for talking about youth violence and, with the same aim, has recently started visiting some inner-city secondary schools. "My weapons were my fists," he says, "but today it's about guns and knives. I tell them they can learn so much through boxing, about discipline, fitness, camaraderie, respect for themselves and opponents. I hope they hear what I'm saying."
After reading the book, it's fair to say Christie still has some demons and he agrees, saying he is now troubled by insomnia. "Maybe I took too many blows to the head," he says with a laugh. "My mind won't switch off and I keep going over stuff. Sometimes I still feel like that little kid fighting everyone. My mum says I should find God, but I don't think I'll ever find peace."
'Sucker Punch' opens on 19 June.
'No Place to Hide' is available for £16.99 from www.aurumpress.co.uk
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