Daniel Hughes casts his eye on one of British boxing’s great enigmas
Natural talent in any sport comes along not by luck or something you are born with. In boxing you have to learn it often and always is not nearly enough. You have to work at your craft and learn often by your mistakes, ideally behind the closed doors of sparring, but the reality is often under the bright lights of an arena. A bad night at the office with no substitutions and generally a hard rebuilding job is the uncompromising outcome.
Watching so many British fighters come and go over the years it’s easy to remember those with that ‘get out of jail’ card, the one punch knockout. Look for example at Nigel Benn: the epic nights could well have been harder to come by. He was taken to the brink against Anthony Logan while making a name for himself as an unbeaten, rampaging 18-0 prospect, stopping almost all before him. Benn was in trouble that night, on the verge of being stopped, until he found that one punch, beautiful show closer which wrote a different headline. Defeat and it becomes a different career path, backwards to come forwards.
Sheffield’s Herol Graham was the poster boy for being your worst opponent when not at the races: you miss, he countered, your desperation became his opening reflexes and a purist technical fighter in the art of hitting and not being hit. High risk; boxing by numbers. He was an avoided fighter and many like myself so enjoyed watching him. He came close to becoming a world champion at middleweight but Julian Jackson found that hail mary punch in Spain, when outclassed and running out of ideas and eyesight, his vision impaired by Graham’s stinging counters all undone by a Jackson get out of jail card. A cruel game isn’t it?
But there was an unheralded fighter also around the late 70’s to mid 80’s who had the same style and pulled off one of the greatest upsets British boxing is ever likely to see.
Kirland Laing, a Rastafarian welterweight from Nottingham, born in Jamaica and with a similar style. Many fighters have nicknames, some of which fail to live up to the style or personality you watch. For the counter punching Laing, ‘The Gifted One’ was an absolutely perfect description. I used to love watching him on Sportsnight; he dazzled and frustrated opponents, even when coming up short while outclassing the Welsh welterweight Colin Jones. Laing was a mile ahead in both fights then got stopped twice in the 9th round. Laing was ever the enigma. Colin Jones had serious power and both nights pulled it out of the fire. Jones onto world title chances and Laing thinking “what if?”
So did Laing re-dedicate himself to training after the second Jones defeat? No he didn’t, winning a comeback fight before dropping a points decision to journeyman Reggie Ford. Talented but with no dedication, you never knew which Kirkland Laing would turn up in the ring, and neither did he it seemed. For it was all too easy: easy come, easy go.
Laing was managed by legendary UK promoter Mickey Duff who knew on any given night how good he could be.Duff at that time had a decent working relationship with Don King. You may of heard of him and you may of also heard of Roberto Duran who in January 1982 had been beaten by Wilfred Benitez. Sure you all have, boxing names known worldwide.
In the summer of 1982 a chance phone call between both promoters and the need for Duran to schedule a decent warm-up fight, rebuild and to move on to bigger and better things was exchanged. Duff said he had a welterweight called Kirkland Laing who would make a decent opponent for Duran.He was tricky he advised King but had no pop, no power. Duran could and should certainly do what Colin Jones had done to Laing twice. The tapes were out there, King agreed and a 10 round fight in Detroit was signed and Laing sent over to make up the numbers.
Kirkland Laing didn’t read the script. He pulled off the esteemed Ring magazine upset of the year for 1982, winning by 96-94 on two cards and the third card called the other way. It was no shock, and even Duran gave credit to Laing with no argument over the decision. The underdog waited for Duran to initiate the action and the counter puncher repeatedly frustrated a true ring great. Duran ran out of ideas and Laing had that special night, that one night when it all comes together. As if to underline the victory, actually pressed the action in the final stanza.
Don King was livid, feeling that Duff had got one over on him and even viewed Laing as a hidden talent, a boxing wolf in sheeps clothing. Duran dusted off the defeat and went on to be what he was at the time and would in all eyes be: a hall of fame fighter.
One of the elements forgotten on the night is that they were stipulated to come in over the 147 lb welterweight limit. Laing fought at 149 1/4 lbs and Duran came in at 155 lb. Away from home, judges were not going to give the visitor any favours, especially on a Don King promotion. It truly is a great performance.
Off the back of the fight King and Duff returned to speaking and business terms a year later with King not happy, and Duff with that smile to himself. Not many in the boxing world get one over Don.
Of the fighters, well you all know what Roberto Duran had and was to become. That night at 31 years old and 74-3 he was expected to walk through Laing, still a great, great fighter afterwards who would pick up titles and massive paydays.
For Kirkland Laing, he went missing after beating Duran. Drink, drugs and women were all distractions he indulged in before and more so than ever after that great night in Detroit. For a year Duff tried to tempt him with various career high purses. Kirkland Laing avoided those offers, in reality unaware, Kirkland was so tricky in the ring at his best, so self-destructive outside of it.
I always wondered about that night against Duran, what made him outclass such a ring legend. I remember Laing saying the Duran fight was the only fight he felt he trained properly for. No drugs, no drink, no women.
The reasoning was because he was fighting Roberto Duran,the only fight he felt physically and emotionally scared about. The ‘Gifted One’: on that September night in 1982 he was indeed that.