Coventry boxer Errol Christie died on Sunday, aged 53. Dave Woodhall looks back on his life and times.
The death of former middleweight boxer Errol Christie was not only saddening but it reminded me of a few things about the sport that looking back, seem to be part of ancient history.
Boxing is now in that strange position where there’s more money involved than ever before, the big fights attract bigger crowds but it rarely captures the public imagination. Joshua v Klitschko did, and before that Froch v Groves II, but in reality most boxers could walk down the street unrecognised. Thirty-odd years ago, when Errol was still aiming to break into the Nigel Benn/Chris Eubank league, his potential opponents would have stopped the traffic.
At a domestic level Errol was the most successful British amateur of all time, winning all ten titles available to him before turning pro in 1982, aged nineteen. He won his first thirteen fights, twelve inside the distance, many of them on ITV’s Fight Night shows where he appeared on the same bill as fellow Midlanders Pat Cowdell and one-time British welterweight champion Kostas Petrou. As he turned over these early opponents with ease, it seemed that Errol’s dazzling amateur skills had transferred to the paid ranks with success and he would soon be emulating the bill-toppes.
Then he was matched with hard-hitting Belgian light-heavyweight Jose Seys. It would be unthinkable now to see such a promising talent meeting an opponent from a higher weight category, particuarly one with such a high record of inside the distance wins as Seys boasted, and the over-confidence of his handlers seemed reflected in Errol as he was knocked out inside the first minute of the contest.
He recovered from this setback and was matched with Londoner Mark Kaylor in an eliminator for the British middleweight title, due to take place on Bonfire Night 1985. Against a backdrop of that summer’s riots and given Kaylor’s links to the East End there was always likely to be problems, and they spilled over during the weigh-in when the fighters had to be pulled apart as they brawled on the pavement. There was talk of the fight being called off but eventually it went ahead, and the two men put on one of the greatest events ever seen in a British ring.
The first round was the domestic equivalent of the legendary Hearns v Hagler contest. Both men went down, fireworks were going off in the crowd and no-one was able to hear the bell amidst the tumultuous atmosphere. It was difficult to hear the bell at the end of any subsequent round, as the crowd continued to roar their appreciation of two fighters at war. Kaylor was down again in the third, Christie in the eighth and he was scrambling to pull himself up on the ropes when referee Harry Gibbs reached ten in a count that brought an end to one of the most controverseial and eventually glorious nights in British boxing history.
Sports fans of the modern era would be surprised that such a bout between two such high-profile fighters would take place without a title at stake. They would be amazed that it happened on a Wednesday night, and that TV coverage of the fight was restricted to a delayed showing on BBC1. The only way to follow the fight live was on radio. That’s what it was like back then. The best fought the best; if you wanted to see it you paid your money and you went along. Boxing isn’t the only sport that’s forgotten what it should be all about.
Ironically, Kaylor never did get that shot at the British title, although he continued to fight at the top level. For Errol, though, the dream was over. He had a few more years in boxing, winning against journeymen and being stopped whenever he tried to get any higher. There was talk that a medical examination had revealed a problem with his leg muscles, but this came too late for his career to be revived. A third round stoppage to Michael Watson, himself on the way to his fateful meeting with Chris Eubank, was effectively the end of Errol’s career at the age of 27, although he did return for one more fight almost three years later, being stopped once more, this time by the little-known Trevor Ambrose. Finally, he knew enough was enough.
Errol then did what many boxers do – embarked on a career of business ventures, with mixed results. His 2010 autobiography No Place to Hide told the story of growing up proud to represent a country where many at the time thought he didn’t belong. He became a community worker until the cancer that killed him at such a young age took hold.
You rarely come across a boxer who isn’t a gentleman out of the ring. They don’t have to be anything else, because they don’t have anything to prove. Errol Christie had reason enough to be bitter, not least because the £82,500 purse he split with Kaylor might have been a record for a British non-title fight in 1985, but 32 years later it would have been big enough to set both men up for life – and no doubt been followed a few months later by an even bigger one for the rematch. He got on with life, treated its setbacks as he’d treated its successes, and proved that although he may never have won a professional title, he will always be a champion.