Our Northern grit is just champion

Herol Graham

Herol Graham

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THE evening had a special feel about it as we arrived in the dark, and snow fell thickly from the night sky.

I hated the cold but it was one of the vital ingredients that always helped Northerners to create a special, hostile atmosphere for visitors at any sporting event.

Herol Graham 2011

Herol Graham 2011

How often do you see a London football club win on a Tuesday night in February in Yorkshire? We’re tough up north and every bit of discomfort for the visitors is a bonus.

Inside Sheffield City Hall the atmosphere was electric. It was packed to the rafters with South Yorkshire fans, as well as 40 commentators and TV technicians, and Harry Carpenter, who was introducing the fight on Sports Night, which was being screened live to 12 million viewers.

I could hear the chanting from the arena as Brendan taped my hands and passed on his last few words. He told me Alma, his wife, had predicted I’d take him down in the seventh and that made me smile. So that’d have to be it. As I walked out towards the ring, lights flashed all around and the crowd went crazy. I tried not to look up too much, because I would have found it hard not to smile if I’d seen any of the guys I knew. So I climbed into the ring, danced around a bit and just looked at the canvas.

When the bell went for the first round a roar went up and at last we were on the way. I was well pumped up and had the chance to get all the angst out. The tension worked for me and I went on the attack pretty early. I had Kalule staggering in the second and found it easy enough to get out of the way of his biggest shots. As I sat down at the end of the third I could hear the chants of ‘Bomber’ ringing around as Brendan grabbed my head from both sides and stared into my eyes. I can’t remember what he said but I can remember the look of hunger and hope.

Herol Graham meets Muhammad Ali

Herol Graham meets Muhammad Ali

The runs I did in the mornings with the weights in my hands were paying off as I carried on hitting Kalule with fast two-handed attacks. And in the sixth I really went for him. But as I expected he was durable and as we neared the end of the fight he caught me a nick above my eye and for the first time in 35 fights I had stitches. But I had won all but two rounds and so I just had to keep it going. If I couldn’t get him down then I had to concentrate. Finally, at the end of the tenth as I smashed Kalule with left and right time after time the ref jumped in to save him and the crowd went mad.

Brendan threw his sweaty towel up in the air and it landed on a lady in a ball gown on the front row. It was pandemonium.

The crowd definitely had something to do with it – they always did. I always felt unbeatable on my home turf. The sparring set-up helped as well. Maybe Frank Warren and Kalule’s manager had got far enough up my nose to ignite something in me. Who knows? I was the European Champion.

Jackson? He’s blind as a bat

Herol 'Bomber' Graham

Herol 'Bomber' Graham

Brendan called me over. He’d been on the phone most of the afternoon. He was smiling, and had something to tell me.

“So Herol, we’ve got you another shot.” He said in his Irish drawl.

“What’s that then?” I asked.

“WBC Middleweight championship of the bloody world that’s what!”

“Okay, who’s it against?”

“Julian Jackson,” he replied.

“Who?”

I had no idea who Julian Jackson was.

I never spent that much time looking around to see what everyone else in the world was doing, I concentrated on what I was doing. That was my way.

I just wanted to get better at what I did and didn’t give much thought to anyone else. That was up to Brendan. He told me that Jackson was originally from the British Virgin Islands but he’d been boxing in the US for a while and now he was based there.

He said: “He’s a very good fighter but there’s one big thing in your favour.”

“What’s that?”

“He’s blind as a bat!”

“What?”

“He wears glasses that look like milk bottles!”

What Brendan didn’t tell me was that he was the main contender for the vacant WBC world title and, despite his eye defects, he’d spent the last three years merrily knocking out anyone who came within his range.

As Brendan and the others talked to me about him over the next few weeks they said that he’d knocked this guy out and that guy out, and it started to seem to me like he was knocking everybody out. But they were giving me the impression that he’d had a fair amount of luck. They weren’t emphasising to me that he was a big hitter, just that he’d knocked a few guys out. But then so had I.

Herol meets his hero in Las Vegas - and cries

MY attention was distracted by a big group of sharp-suited guys who swarmed slowly past us like a shoal of basking sharks.

Bloody Hell. Muhammad Ali. This was the man who had captured my imagination on the black and white telly 20 years ago when I was six.

The greatest boxer of all time.

The man who I tried so hard to emulate and had inspired my every move from the first time I had set foot in a boxing ring.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was him. Twenty yards away from me and surrounded by about fifteen security guys.

I looked across at my friend Brian and said: “Quick, get me a photographer.”

Two minutes later Brian hurried back with a photographer in tow and I looked across to see if Ali was still there. He was, so I grabbed the photographer and said: “You’ve got to take this photograph of me and Ali.”

He seemed happy to go along with me. So I jumped over next to the great man. The protection surrounding him looked like they didn’t really want me to. He was free to roam around, but the guys were always hovering around him like wasps. Somebody knew I was boxing so they let me in and I was lucky enough to get the picture.

I was completely star struck. I said to him: “I’m in awe of you man, you’re the only reason I’m boxing”.

Then he mumbled something and I just started crying. I was in bits.

It had been a great night. Brian smiled and said: “Nice one Herol. You just blubbed all over Muhammad Ali.”

Bomber is happy to be putting the bad times behind him

RETIRING from boxing in 1998 left Bomber with something of a hole in his life.

During a difficult decade he divorced from his wife, suffered depression, had financial troubles and, after an attempted suicide, was sectioned.

From there, though, the recovery started.

Distraught friends helped him to get the counselling he needed and new partner Karen supported him both emotionally and financially as he climbed back on to his feet.

Since 2009 he has worked in personal training, attempted to break the world skipping record during a monster nine-hour session and worked in Sheffield schools with disaffected children.

He has made friends with former trainer Brendan Ingle after a long-term rift and has recently been asked to coach the Angola Olympic boxing team ahead of London 2012.

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