Oliver McCall: Fighting a losing battle

The former world heavyweight champion was working towards a last shot at the big time – until he wound up behind bars. As he awaits his fate, Steve Bunce tells the tale of a doomed struggle against cocaine

Oliver McCall has been a professional boxer for 25 years and an addict for longer, but nobody in his entourage was overly concerned when he left his hotel room in Miami last month to visit the city's zoo.

It was the weekend before a fight, due to take place on 15 February, on a card that also featured McCall's son Elijah, who is trained by his father, and the excursion must have seemed innocent enough. McCall – the former WBC world heavyweight champion, famous for his trio of title fights in the Nineties when he knocked out Lennox Lewis at Wembley in 1994, lost on points to Frank Bruno in 1995 and finally broke down in tears in a rematch with Lewis in 1997 – is a big animal lover. But there is a side to the once fearsome "Atomic Bull" that is less naive, and events soon led to a low ebb that now look likely to finally end a proud fighter's career.

That Saturday, McCall was arrested and charged with possession of crack cocaine, possession of a crack pipe, and a violation of his latest in a long, long line of paroles. Now, still, he is being held at Broward County detention centre in Miami.

In the mugshot from his arrest, McCall, now 44, has a sickening cartoon quality, his eyes at mad angles and his face a wretched reminder of crack's destructive ability. The fight he was preparing for would have been McCall's 66th in a career that started in obscurity on the forgotten circuit that exists in many American cities.

The fighter's struggle with drugs has led to prison terms, months in rehab and most savagely the night at the Las Vegas Hilton when McCall started to cry and howl during the vacant title fight against Lewis. It took Lewis, the referee, the millions watching on TV and the crowd a long time to realise that they were witnessing an addict going through the most naked and aggressive withdrawal from crack. In McCall's corner the two men in charge of trying to get his head and body right knew exactly what was happening.

"Oliver has his problems and you better hope that you never have the same," said Greg Page, the former heavyweight champion who was working the corner with George Benton, a one-time contender whose career was ended when he was shot in the Sixties. Page was an addict and he knew exactly what was happening, but from his perch on the ring steps he had no way of knowing that in a few years his life would nearly end after just one more fight.

In 2001 Page, a man who held the real world heavyweight title, suffered a head injury after a fight for the Kentucky heavyweight title at a lap- dancing club in a remote outpost called Erlanger. Page was due to receive just $1,500 for his work in the makeshift ring. His purse was useless when he had a massive clot scraped from the surface of his brain and he never fully recovered; last year he fell out of bed and was strangled by the same tubes that helped him breathe. The death hit McCall hard.

In Las Vegas the day after the macabre spectacle of the Lewis fight there was a truly bizarre attempt by McCall and his people to claim that "acting crazy" was part of the tactic to beat the stoic Brit. Even McCall laughed at the end of the half-hearted excuse. It is claimed that Lewis has reached out on several occasions since that night to help McCall, but the reality is that only McCall can help McCall and he has repeatedly fallen deeper into his addiction since that disturbing day.

It is amazing that in the shocking fallout from the Lewis defeat McCall was still able to put together enough meaningful wins to get right back into world title contention in 2007. It is possibly even more remarkable to think that a win against Lawrence could have seen the "Atomic Bull", as McCall is known, just a fight away from another world title at the age of 44. "I keep forgetting that everybody who shakes my hand is not my friend," McCall said one night in London before losing his world title to Bruno. In the build-up to the Bruno fight McCall, who was never far from his last rehab visit, was under constant scrutiny; it had been the same in the weeks before beating Lewis the previous year: he needed to be protected from his addictions.

There is a very real chance that McCall will receive a long custodial sentence – in which case he will have fought his last.

A spokesman for the centre was unable to confirm whether McCall had watched his son fight last month. Hopefully, he was denied access because Elijah lost for the first time in six fights when he was knocked out without his father in his corner. It's impossible to imagine the despair McCall must be feeling.

The day before he went to the zoo McCall insisted that this was his last chance to work his way back towards another world title fight. "I will quit if I lose and put it all into my son, but right now I'm a fighter first, then I'm a dad, then I'm a trainer." Now, he's a prisoner again – and still an addict.

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