He was the best British fighter never to win a world title. Herol Graham has heard that remark so many times that he could be forgiven for being a little nauseous but, kind and pleasant to a fault, he only sees the good within the bitter sweet depiction.
“It means a lot to me,” said Graham without a hint of pretense. “I didn’t win a world title but I came mighty close and I’m respected within the sport. In the build up to a championship fight something always seemed to happen, whether it was girl trouble, or trouble in training camp.
“In the end, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
When it comes to defensive boxing certain fighters have the knack of intuitive improvisation. Willie Pep, Pernell Whitaker and Wilfredo Benitez were all professional escape artists, whereas today “The Invisible Man” is played to perfection by pound for pound hotshot, Floyd Mayweather.
Well in Britain, during the eighties and into the nineties, the supreme defender was Herol “Bomber” Graham.
As a teenager he confidently strutted into The Wincobank Gym in Sheffield, England but could never have imagined his finesse splashed style would become lifeblood for a myriad of British fighters and, although retired for almost sixteen years, he is still emulated to this day.
Prince Naseem Hamed, Johnny Nelson and Junior Witter were all world titlists who borrowed heavily from Graham. The wide side-on stance and low guard was blended with lightning reflexes and the ability to pull back from multi-punch assaults without losing balance.
“It’s great because I remember it so well,” said Graham. “When I came along the kids were boxing like old timers with their hands up, which wasn’t for me. When I sparred my hands were low and I was always moving, which nobody could really understand. They were all looking at one another like I was crazy.
“Anyway within two weeks they were all copying that style and then Naz came along, utilized it and began adding his own attributes. Still, the snake like bending at the waist was what all the fighters copied and it’s great to have been such a popular influence.”
Graham annexed British, Commonwealth and European titles at 154 and 160 pounds, but could never win the big one. In 1989 he lost a split decision to a peak Mike McCallum in a WBA title bout and a year later was schooling Julian Jackson, prior to being nailed by a made-in-hell knockout punch in the fourth.
Jackson’s right hand spoke only once and Graham was out cold.
The Bomber’s final fight came in March 1998 against American power puncher Charles Brewer and once again he performed brilliantly. The IBF super middleweight title was on the line but, at thirty eight years of age, the fading veteran could not make the finish line and lost by stoppage in the tenth.
He was always so close and agonizingly so.
In later years Graham battled depression, but has emerged from the darkness to enjoy a great family life. His biography, Bomber: Behind the Laughter, was received extremely well last year and the former world title challenger was glad to shed the stereotypical tough guy image.
“There was a sense of relief in disclosing my depression and it put people’s expectations into perspective,” said Graham. “Of course I’m a man, but men cry sometimes, don’t they? Men have problems and battle depression and a lot of people were glad that I touched on that.
“My book helped raise awareness of depression and its link to boxing. Fighters should have someone to speak to when their careers come to an end. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t and once you fall into despair it’s very difficult to pull yourself back out.”
Graham still follows boxing and is interested in training full time, but this reporter was keen to know if it’s possible to teach the natural skills he possessed.
“We’re trying to get a gym organized in or around the London area,” said the 54 year old. “I’ll be coaching and I think I have plenty to offer. I see trainers tell fighters to twist their wrists as they throw shots and that is just wasting time, when speed is of the essence.
“The faster I punch the quicker I hit you, right? Still, I wouldn’t force anyone to learn my style and if they just want taught boxing fundamentals then that’s fine by me – as long as they win.”
Ring TV.com spoke to one of the finest British middleweights of the modern era about the opponents he encountered during a distinguished and memorable career.
Best overall: Mike McCallum, but I thought I beat him. He tried to dictate the pace and I could see that, so I changed the tempo and did my thing. I boxed, frustrated him with my movement and, although he scored points by applying pressure, nothing was landing. The judges scored aggression but it wasn’t effective aggression. This was The Body Snatcher, right? Watch the fight and you’ll see – he couldn’t touch me to the body. It was a great experience and he was a great fighter, but he couldn’t get off the shots that he wanted to get off. I was perhaps guilty of not throwing enough back, but I thought I earned the decision.
Best boxer: Sumbu Kalambay for the European middleweight title. It was a very close fight, but he caught me with a big punch and I slid across the ropes. I have to give him that, it was a great shot, and that probably took the fight away from me, if I’m being honest. He was a quality opponent, who won and lost a fight with Mike McCallum after that.
Best puncher: The best puncher was Julian Jackson, come on, please. I don’t even have to think when it comes to that question. One shot and I was gone and it came just after the referee was going to stop the fight in my favor. I made the mistake of going for a sucker punch, when he was in the corner, and Jackson responded with a knockout punch. I had to go to the hospital and there were some scary moments because I couldn’t remember a thing about the fight. Three or four hours later it all came back to me and that was a really powerful right hand shot. There were a lot of broken hearts in Britain that night, especially mine. Another extremely hard puncher was Lindell Holmes, who I outpointed in Sheffield, but nobody tops Jackson.
Best defense: Maybe Sumbu Kalambay but there wasn’t anyone who really excelled defensively. Even McCallum wasn’t difficult to hit and although Kalambay was a big puncher with long arms, he was still findable. That said I didn’t hit him as often as I wanted to, so Kalambay edges it.
Fastest hands: Mine (laughs). For the most part my hand speed was superior, so it’s difficult to think of someone who troubled me. You could say Vinny Pazienza had the quickest hands but he couldn’t hit me with anything. It was funny because after that fight Pazienza told me that I didn’t touch him. I said; “What about the marks all over your face, Vinny? There’s blood coming from your eye and you have swollen lips, but I didn’t touch you?” He was going on like I didn’t win the fight (laughs). He did have quick hands because he was short limbed and exploded on the inside, but his style was easy to box against.
Fastest feet: Nobody, come on now, don’t mess about (laughs). I kept it long and my stance was wide, so I leaned back out the way. The suspension of a bridge is long, is it not? If I wanted distance then I created it, so nobody was able to counter me in terms of footwork – nobody.
Best chin: Well I can’t say me for this one because I got knocked out (laughs). It’s got to be Charles “The Hatchet” Brewer. I got him down twice, but couldn’t finish and he ended up stopping me. The fight was in Atlantic City, on the undercard of Lennox Lewis vs. Shannon Briggs.
Best jab: Nobody bothered me with the jab. I expected a great jab from Mike McCallum, but his didn’t trouble me at all. He was forced to hustle and bustle with me, because boxing wasn’t working for him.
Strongest: Sanderline Williams in 1985. I remember him because he wore army trunks, but more so because his shots seemed to go right through me. I really had to move that night, because he hit so hard. I would still give punch power to Julian Jackson though. I have to because he knocked me out.
Smartest: Sumbu Kalambay or Mike McCallum. Both of them were smart technicians who made you think, but I pushed both of them all the way.
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing