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.

Sport
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows' by John Constable
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
musicYou'll have to ask Taylor Swift first
News
Joel Grey, now 82, won several awards for his role in Cabaret
people
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Arts and Entertainment
Master of ceremony: Jeremy Paxman
tvReview: Victory for Jeremy Paxman in this absorbing, revealing tale
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - London, £60k

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - Central London, £60,000...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Agent / QA Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an est...

Recruitment Genius: C# / XAML Developer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for a talented...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness