- Herol Graham has spent time in a mental health institution on suicide watch
- The Bomber, as he was known, is now facing the biggest fight of his life
- The fame and adulation for Herol ended overnight, along with his boxing career
- Graham admits he never really recovered from defeat by Julian Jackson in 1990
Herol Graham, the legendary British, European and Commonwealth boxing champion, was rarely beaten in the ring during his heyday in the ’80s and ’90s but today he has been brought to the depths of despair by his own demons.
The Bomber, as he was known, is now facing the biggest fight of his life, against depression and bipolar disease. At 59, he has spent time recently in a secure mental health institution on constant suicide watch. Today he is still fragile but in a ‘halfway house’.
The fame and adulation for Herol ended overnight, along with his boxing career, after a single punch from Julian Jackson in a clash for the vacant WBC middleweight title in 1990.
In recent lucid moments, Graham recalls that fight. He said: ‘Jackson caught me on the chin in the fourth round. I felt like a horse had kicked me. I was out before I hit the floor.’
Despite going on to gain a world title shot in March 1998 in what was to be his final fight, Graham admits he never really recovered from the Jackson defeat and talks frankly about his desperation to get out of hospitals — the isolation and the drugs regime that zombifies him — and return to normal life.
For him, that normal life includes loading lorries for his local Asda, the only job he could hold down after boxing, although he has also generously given much of his time helping to train young boxers.
His insight into his own situation is heartbreaking. When he wrote his life story several years ago, he called it tellingly Bomber: Behind the Laughter.
‘It’s a struggle,’ he said. ‘A daily struggle I never wanted to get used to. I hope I’m getting out soon. I want to be on the outside again with my family and friends.’
Herol has been sectioned twice, the latest incident came after he slit his wrists after drinking a bottle of brandy.
‘It has been hard for me after boxing,’ he said. ‘I didn’t plan a way out. I hope trainers and managers these days do more to prepare young boxers for life afterwards, financially and mentally. I wasn’t ready to come out. I got depression and ended up in hospital.’
Tragically, his much-loved partner Karen Neville died last year after a long battle with cancer and Herol’s depression returned a hundredfold.
Frank Bruno has visited him on the secure ward and advised him: ‘Herol, I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through. Get out of here as soon as you can. Don’t get institutionalised.’
Sadly, Graham’s story is just one of a long list drawn up recently by former boxer John Oliver, one of Anthony Joshua’s early trainers.
That list numbers 28 former boxers in urgent need of help and support, seven of them needing 24/7 attention. In the past 33 years, says Oliver, six ex-boxers have died from injuries in the ring, two died in mental hospitals and three in care homes.
Some of the strongest men in the world have been physically and mentally broken by the pounding they suffered in the ring. After repeated concussions, many professionals have been left on the scrapheap at a young age, alone and traumatised without any structure inside the sport to help them.
Improved safety regulations came too late for many of yesterday’s champions struggling in poverty and isolation.
But that is set to change. A group of veterans headed by former world champions John Conteh, Alan Minter and Barry McGuigan are fundraising for a retirement home for ex-boxers, the first of its kind, where they can enjoy care and companionship.
Conteh, 68, said: ‘We’ve all needed help. Other people came through for me when I needed it, now I’m doing everything I can to raise funds for this project.’
Ringside Rest and Care — launched with a donation of £1,000 by Bruno, who was himself sectioned in his post-career life — aims to raise £10million to provide a 36-bed residential home for ex-boxers, with medical facilities and a cinema screening old boxing bouts. The scheme will need £1.5m a year to keep it viable.
Oliver described how the need for intervention came home to him on a recent visit to a former champion in his care home.
‘There was no social activity for him,’ he said. ‘He just took his meals with others who were like complete strangers to him, and went back to his room lonely and depressed. God, it was terrible. We went for a walk in the nearby park and talked about old times. He put on a brave front but when it was time for me to go he begged me to stay.’
Oliver knows of other former boxers too ashamed to be named. One, convinced he is still reigning world champion, is often drunk in public, berating passers-by for failing to recognize him before he collapses weeping in the street. Another is a total recluse.
For former boxer Mark Goult, 50, the pain is shared by his elderly parents. They brought him home from prolonged periods in hospital following a brain bleed after he had clinched the southern area bantamweight title in 1990 and have been his carers ever since.
His mother, Jackie, said: ‘We are a boxing family. My husband trained Mark and his brother, Wayne. But that night in Norwich ended it all. He survived a five-and-a-half hour operation but afterwards doctors warned us he wasn’t going to live.
‘There were months of hospital care then endless speech therapy and physio. Through it all his best road to health was other boxers and their great camaraderie.
‘Mark is at home with us but he can’t use his right arm and drags his right leg. His speech never returned and we are the only ones who understand him. We worry about his future when we’re gone.’
Only now is the issue of concussion being properly acknowledged and studied. The British Boxing Board of Control have signed up to the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation.
General secretary John Smith, however, says it is not in the governing body’s remit to provide welfare for former boxers. They do not have the funding or the resources. Ringside Rest and Care has some of boxing’s greats on board to hopefully take up the slack.
Rosemary Ellmore, who for some years cared for East End hero Terry ‘Babyface’ Spinks until his death in 2012, says she would have loved to run a care home where he could have shared his last years with boxing mates.
‘Terry was my cousin,’ she said. ‘We were always close and I loved the way millions of people took him to their hearts. When he won Olympic gold at 18, London was so proud of him, all the kids got the day off school to welcome him home.
‘He turned pro and won 41 of his 49 fights but all those blows to the head ruined his life. He retired at 25 on health grounds and he was heartbroken. Londoners loved him and once he’d opened his own pub in Canning Town, there was no end to the parties and the drinking.
‘He collapsed one night and ended up in a brain injury clinic, totally burned out. The doctors said boxing had damaged his brain.’
Terry told her years later that he would do it all again, he loved the warmth and friendship of the boxing fraternity.
Some of the sport’s hardest cases are today acknowledging the need for better care in the years after a boxing career ends. Multiple world champion Ricky Hatton has also promised fundraising support for Ringside Rest and Care. Aged 40 now, he quit boxing in 2012 before eventually going into rehab for drink and depression.
Impressively, he has spoken frankly about his retirement from the sport, saying that at the time he did not care if he lived or died.
‘Depression is hard to describe unless you’ve been through it,’ he said. ‘You need help but you don’t want to tell anyone. You’re in bed crying every day. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.’
Hatton is back from the brink through self-help and therapy. He said: ‘Boxing isn’t like other sports. In football, you have a support network set up by your club. In boxing, once you retire, that’s it, you’re on your own in most cases.
‘Often boxers fall on hard times financially and healthwise. It’s great that people are setting up a care home for them in retirement.’
Hundreds of ex-boxers’ associations act as support groups to raise money. Hastings EBA chairman Dave Harris proposed Ringside Rest and Care after looking through his friend Oliver’s sad list. He set up the British Ex-Boxers’ Hall of Fame and is determined to make this new project equally successful.
‘What we want is a safe and companionable life for our heroes, a place where they can be secure and talk about old times when they were in the ring. There’s nothing ex-boxers love more,’ he said.
Graham would enjoy living out his days with old mates and sparring partners.
A few weeks ago, he was cheered when former world champion Chris Eubank tweeted: ‘In three weeks of sparring in 1989 with Herol Graham I only struck the Bomber one time. Later I maintained for five years as world champion that I’d never fight Herol as there was nothing intelligent about fighting a man you couldn’t hit!’
Herol tweeted his thanks, saying: ‘It takes a big man to tell the truth, I am humbled.’