It’s been 39 years since a 27 year old Kirkland Laing defeated the great Roberto Duran in one of the biggest upset victories of all time. 39 years of torment later and we have woken to the news of his tragic passing. A man of immeasurable talent and unimaginable tragedy, of chaotic contradictions and captivating charisma.
Born on the 20th June 1954 in Jamaica he emigrated to the U.K. He soon picked up boxing and representing Clifton ABC in his newly adopted home of Nottingham he collected a series of ABA titles at featherweight. Omitted for the 1972 Olympic Games he turned professional under the guidance of the Cartel, headed by the formidable pairing of promotor Mickey Duff and trainer Terry Lawless.
Between 1975 and 1980 he blew through domestic challenges including picking up the coveted Lonsdale belt against Henry Rhiney. Two losses against the brilliant Colin Jones and then a shock loss to Reggie Ford seemed to have spelled the end for Kirkland at the top level, but ultimately it was the catalyst for his big break.
Roberto Duran was already a former lightweight and Welterweight champion when he entered the Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan. An enormous favourite it was meant to be a stepping stone for Duran to take on the popular Tony Ayala Jr. Laing though had come to spoil the party.The Associated Press said “In the first two rounds, Laing was constantly in motion,”. The gifted one showed all his gifts as he bamboozled one of the most talented fighters to ever grace a boxing ring.
Jabs and footwork, and a thunderous right hand in the seventh round. Dazzling skill and an iron will took Kirkland to a split decision victory and pure elation. He jumped into Duff's arms and screamed a cathartic scream of victory. This would be the summit of Kirkland’s boxing life The high of that victory though would never be equaled.
Cannabis had been a part of Kirkland’s life for a long time. It was a rife in the London Jamaican culture and Kirkland was a man who took to it easily. Even before the Duran fight he was a frequent user, but with the money and the fame that comes with beating the likes of Duran, the drugs, the booze and the women become all the more accessible. His corner team found him in a squat, spliff in his mouth the day he knocked out Rocky Kelly to regain the British title in 1987.
He continued to fight until 1994, winning most but losing many, to fighters who wouldn’t have landed a glove on him in ‘82. Addiction though was the monkey he couldn’t shake from his back. By the turn of the minenea he’d completely disappeared. He was intermittently homeless, heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol. Bouncing from council flats to hospitals to crack dens. In 2003 Steve Bunce found him for a documentary, bearded and bedraggled, drinking in the morning, Kirkland was a shadow of the great fighter of the 70’s and 80’s.
Today though we don’t remember that man. We remember the talent. We remember the jubilation, the euphoria, the virtuosity. We remember the life of a man who changed boxing, who on his best night created history, an immortal moment.
In Memory of The Gifted One,
Kirkland Laing. 1954-2021.
Rest in Peace.
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