In the smoke filled room of a Sheffield working men’s club in the early 1980’s, against a backdrop of steel mill closures and picket lines a bizarre spectacle was taking place. A little Irish man with a shock of greying hair wanders amongst the boddingtons soaked drinkers challenging them to put boxing gloves on and try and punch the young lad standing next to him. In stark contrast to the squat Irishman the young man that flanked him stood tall, nearly 6 foot and his dark skin stood out in a crowd not noted for its diversity, or tolerance of it. Herol Graham and Brendan Ingle were embarking on their favourite game. There were, as always, plenty of takers to try to hit the young boxer Graham, each punter more determined than the last to prove their machismo, but challenger after challenger, not one could touch him. Ingle, his trainer and the man issuing the challenges, would reminisce of this time “I would tell them that Herol couldn’t hit them! They all put the gloves on and loved it and they came out for the fights. Nobody ever hit him, never.”. The spectacle went on and on until it was almost Sheffield folklore that no human could land a punch on the lanky kid from Nottingham. What was initially hostility, quickly became adoration.
The men of the Sheffield pubs soon filled the fiesta nightclub and the Top Rank Suite to see him fight. They even got buses down to the Barnsley civic hall to cheer on their newly adopted favorite fighter. They roared and jeered as a line of British fighters threw themselves hopelessly at the man nobody could hit. Herol ducked and dived, slipped and weaved, shuffled and bounced out of the way of everything, he was a ghost in the ring. It was in this time he acquired his famous moniker, supposedly for the way he ‘Bombed’ down the road while doing his runs rather than for his punching, but whatever the story, it stuck. Herol Graham was no more, as he walked to the ring to take on Pat Thomas for the vacant British junior middleweight title in a packed out Sheffield city hall, he became what the British public would forever know him as, Bomber. Thomas like the before him was spellbound, a rabbit caught in ever so dazzling headlights of Bomber. After 15 rounds with the Lord Lonsdale belt wrapped around his waist he was hoisted up into the air by his trainer, basking in the cheers and yells of the crowd.
With this win Brendan Ingle, famous trainer out of the now famous but then fairly unknown Wincobank Gym had his first champion. Brendan ingles story is inextricably linked to that of Herol Graham, they were more like father and son than boxer and trainer, two persistent outsiders, neither of whom could have reached the highs or the lows of their lives, without the other. Bomber would say of their relationship “it’s like the West Indian they say Ti-Ti’s it means best friends, that’s me and Brendan”. Brendan was an irish immigrant who boxed professionally from 1965 to 1973 amassing a 19-14 record along the way, never once stopping his full-time job. He was a disciplinarian and a hard taskmaster but at the core of it all he had a passion for finding and nurturing potential. From the minute Bomber walked in the gym he could see it, size, speed, reflexes he had the whole package and Brendan soon packed him off the 1976 world amateur championships where as an underdog, and at only 17 years old he would best a young John Mugabi (later the Beast) to win gold. He won an ABA title and was a runner up too, proving he could go pro. Brendan had always wanted to nurture a fighter to greatness, to give someone the support he never had in his own career so when he, in 1981 with his newly crowned british champion, he was even more determined to push Bomber to the top.
After a quick follow up KO of comically named ‘Prince Rodney’ Bomber’s next major fight came against Kenny Bristol for the commonwealth title in a once again teeming Sheffield city hall, again teaming with spectators. With white shorts pulled up high over his hips Bomber bombed around, his hands low and his head fast. He boxed with the same style as a young Yemeni kid from the same gym would later make his trademark as he took over the world nearly two decades later. Bristol looked hopeless as shouts and screams of “C’mon Bomber!” filled the air between snapping jabs and probing right hands. Reminiscent of the great featherweight Willie Pep, Bomber’s feet were winning him the fight as much as his fists, he appeared to hold an internal radar, an extrasensory perception of where and what his opponent would do next. After 15 rounds of mastery the still only twenty two year old Bomber Graham walked into his house and presented his young family with a flash new rainbow belt, and the prospect of a prosperous life from boxing.
The next six years are defined by a conflict outside and not inside the ring. Brendan Ingle, obstinate to the last, had refused the advances of boxing mogul Mickey Duff whos promoting and management empire ruled british boxing with an iron fist. Duff who had supplanted the semi mythical Jack Solomons in the 1950’s and was a formidable force in the early 1980’s. He represented Jim Watt, Howard Winstone, Barry McGuigan, Lloyd Honeyghan, Alan Minter, John H Stracey and the rising Frank Bruno. Described as “No stranger to deception” by the Guardian and his company was labeled “an efficient cartel which broke one monopoly and established another” only a madman would pick a fight Duff, Ingle however was exactly that madman. “I wanted the best deal for my fighters and Duff never liked that” was Brendan’s short retort. His entire ethos was that of David and Goliath, a small man whose every fiber hated the other of the bully; “what don’t we have in this gym? ” he would ask the gaggle of children gathered in the Wincobank, “Bullies!” they would reply. This would seep into his management of his fighters, including Bomber as so as not to succumb to the bully Duff he trod his own path, directly into the boxing wilderness. Between 1981 and 1987 Herol was unable to secure a world title shot, first at Junior Middleweight and then for the majority of this time at Middleweight. He busied himself beating every contender and winning every belt outside of a world title. Top ranked Americans Lindell Holmes, Irving Hines and Tony Nelson were all Knocked out with ease. Brits Chris Christian, Liam Coleman and Jimmy Price all succumbed to the bombing shots of Bomber. Belgians, Frenchmen, Agrenetinians, Puerto Ricans, Nigerians, and Ugandans were all unable to last the distance with Bomber as he repeatedly won and vacated British, European and Commonwealth titles. Throughout this time it is hard to overstate his skills, the ease with which he could befuddle and then dispatch his opponents, tying them in a thousand knots and then simply nudging them over was spellbinding. Herol moved like a ballet dancer, a rhythm and timing that would have been more at home on the west end stage than in a boxing ring. He was magnificent but the long anticipated phone call, the one with news of a title fight, never came.
Herol waited and waited, the number one contender for the middleweight crown denied his shot. Duff, who had promoted middleweight champion Marvin Hagler’s title winning effort against Alan Minter in 1980 was, or so Ingle alleged, dissuading or even blocking the champion from fighting Bomber. Even when Barney Eastwood, on behalf of Graham offered the American $1 Million to fight Bomber he refused. No reason was ever given but the decision of team Hagler not to fight Bomber was so final that when in February of 1984 WBA President Gilberto Mendoza moved to strip Hagler of his title for what was to them seen as a flat out refusal to fight his mandatory contender. This period though was taking its toll on Herol the man, personal relationships began to break down, both at home and in the gym. The first cracks began to show in his mental health and as he went to Wembley arena to defend his EBU title against Sumbu Kalambay, Brendan was not to be in his corner. The pair had started to have disputes and as Herol’s ego grew the more they had clashed. After twelve torrid rounds where Bomber, the master boxer tried to out-slug the hard hitting italian, he came up short for his first loss. “I’d have won that fight if Brendan had still been in my corner,” Graham lamented after the fight, visibly crestfallen, he could feel his long awaited title fight slipping away. Bomber was a finely tuned race car designed to peak, but as the track rolled on and on with no sign of an endpoint, no respite, the wheels had begun to come loose, and with the defeat to Kalambay, the first tire popped in the career of Herol Graham.
Sure enough it would be Kalambay not Graham who would fight for and indeed win Hagler’s vacant world title beating Iran Barkely over 15 rounds in Livorno Italy. Bomber came back at British level and the unfortunate men on whom he took out his frustrations were James Cook and Johnny Melfah both of whom were dispatched in the 5th with an almost nonchalant ease. Bomber still had all the tools that had made him great, the speed, the reflexes, but was somehow lacking the air of invincibility he had once had. His personal life began to spiral and his mental health too, he was experiencing mood swings and the procession of ill fated romantic relationships came and went his head was ever drifting away from boxing. On 10th May 1989 however he finally got his world title shot. The WBA had stripped Kalambay and the vacant title was now to be contested between Bomber and the up and coming Jamaican fighter Mike McCallum. The fight took place in the majestic Royal Albert hall and was seen by journalists at the time as the Bombers crowning moment. The stage was set, with Kalambay a mere blip this appeared to be the coronation of the next British superstar.
With Brendan back in the corner, Bomber started well, moving from the waist in his trademark defensive style potshoting McCallum from the outside. His exceptional balance was still there and at times he was able to make McCallum trip over his own feet while trying to get away. McCallum however was a far bigger man than Bomber and as the rounds ticked on and on his size, strength and most importantly reach began to take their toll. McCallums arms were long enough that when Herol leaned back what against a smaller opponent would have been out of range, McCallum could still land, and land hard. Bomber was still the more accurate, unable to miss at times as he engaged with McCallum at mid range, slipping in and out never once raising his gloves for traditional defence. In the 5th round the first area of controversy would arise as McCallum charged in on Graham who ducked low to upset his balance, a tactic that had worked well up until this point, McCallum was pushed into the ropes but as he bounced out, Herol hit him with a clean right hand and he goes down. However, because there was water in the corner from between rounds it was ruled a slip, if this had been ruled a knockdown as it could very well have been, this could have changed the outcome of the fight. As the fight went on McCallum had more and more success, despite losing the first few he was clawing away at Herol’s lead. This exposed a flaw in team Graham as when the going got tough Barney Eastwood had begun to encroach, shouting contradictory advice over what Brendan was telling Bomber. Enraged the ever fiery Brendan just shouted more and louder, Herol would later say “I looked forward to the round, so that I could have a break from their sixty-seconds of screaming,”. The fight ended with both men having given everything in an epic back and forth but Herol was deducted a point for a low blow in the thick of the exchanges. It was not to be for Graham as the scores were read and McCallum, not Bomber, walked away with the belt.
Many called robbery and others thought Bomber had blown it, one thing was absolutely certain, Bombers exile was now sealed forever. The next two years were the same, as the likes of Benn, Eubank and Watson all fought each other and became megastars in the process, yet all of them refused to fight Bomber. Offers were sent but as had become the norm no reply was ever issued. “Nobody wanted to willingly fight me, I had to wait and then take what was offered” unfortunately what was offered was the herculean task of facing Julian Jackson for the Vacant WBC middleweight title. Jackson was 40-1, he had only lost to McCallum up until this point but he had knocked out cold every other opponent he had faced. He had tremendous power in both hands and was a formidable foe, but like the cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, his vision was his only flaw. He had had surgery on his retina and he was too blind to pass the British boxing board of control vision test meaning the fight would have to take place in Benalmádena, Spain. Apparently it was only news of the eye rather than the punch power than filtered through to Bomber who said “I knew nothing about him, but I was told he was blind as a f***ing bat”.it was this hubris that would ultimately cost Herol everything.
The fight started like almost every Bomber Graham fight, Bomber dancing and potshotting, outclassing an opponent that looks amateurish compared to his dazzling skill. Herol targeted the eye of Jackson, causing horrendous swelling and almost blinding him completely. Then at the end of the third round a wild swing from Jackson caught Bomber square in the mouth, he took it well but the writing was suddenly on the wall. The next 60 seconds in both corners were as dramatic as the fight. In Jackson’s corner the seconds desperately pressed away with the endswell trying to slow the swelling, Jacksons trainer pleaded with the referee and doctor not to stop the fight, Referee Joe Cortez offered Jackson one round, one round to prove he was still in the fight or it would be stopped. With eyes fixed on the action in Jackson’s corner no one had seen what was happening in Bombers. Dom Ingle, Brendan’s son, recounted what happened; “Herol had a bridge across his front teeth where they’d come out, cost him a few quid, but as Brendan took his gum shield out at the end of the third he looked down and all of Herol’s teeth were in the Gumshield.” Despite the horrific scene inside Bombers mouth Brendan had seen the doctor and knew they were close to winning so he didn’t tell Herol, opting to just put it back in and tell him to keep away from Jackson, knowing it was almost over. Herol, oblivious to the pain decided to ignore the instruction and fight like a champion, going for the finish. He chased after Jackson bundling him to the ground and raising his hands above his head, he was toying with Jackson, comfortable to hit and move. Then, mere seconds away from his biggest victory, from finally becoming world champion, so close to exercising all those demons that had dogged him for years, it happened. Jackson swung his gargantuan fist and Bomber was out. It remains in the zeitgeist to this day as one of the most terrifying and brutal knockouts the sport has ever seen. As Brendan crouched over him and the doctors gave him oxygen the tragedy was palpable. A young man who had fought so hard, come so close, laid unconscious, a visual metaphor for how cruel boxing can be.
Herol was crushed, not just in the ring but mentally too. His mental health, that had been delicate before this, was shattered, his world brought crashing down with a single blow. He fought on, as so many do but the magic was lost. He was 5-3 in his final 8 bouts beating good names like Vinny Pazienza and Chris Johnson but losing again to Kalambay and finally in his last title effort against Charles Brewer. He periodically fell out with Brendan and their relationship eventually broke down completely. The story of the boxer who struggles with life outside of the ring may have been immortalised by Brando in On the Waterfront but the reality is far less glamorous. Bomber was unable to cope both emotionally and financially and he grappled with his very existence. A wise man once said “You may love Boxing, but Boxing doesn’t love you” and this was never true when Bomber retired. He was offered no support, no help or money from the sycophants that had buzzed around in his hayday. When youre the fighter every manager, agent, promoter and punter wants to speak to you, when you’re the ex fighter no one cares.
Herol was sectioned in 2009 after an alcohol fuled suicide attempt and spent time under pshyictric supervision. He has struggled ever since, unloading Lorries at asda and battling constantly with his own mental health. His Partner Karen was diagnosed with Terminal Cancer in 2018 and Herol was sectioned again, the latest episode of tragedy in an already tragic story. There was a time when Herol Bomber Graham was the best middleweight in the world, an uncrowned king inside the ropes with a country and a city at his feet, but now he struggles on, living a life not befitting a man whose hands and feet wove epic poetry for our pleasure.
Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx
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