The Kirkland Laing boxing story is one of the craziest, most brilliant, frustrating, incredible and sad tales in a business of extremes, joy, blood and violence.
Apparently, Sweet Kirk is dead, just 66 and after a life in rings, gyms, dens, denial and other tribulations on both sides of the ropes. He lived a charmed and cursed boxing life, the unforgettable figure and fighter, the carefree soul on the very edge of greatness. And a man denied what he deserved and also a man with nobody else to blame but himself for his failings, his defeats, his chaotic life.
In 1972, when Laing was just 17, he won the ABA title, which was the old way to glory, and that meant he should have gone to the Munich Olympics. He was overlooked, ignored – it was the first of many decisions that went against him and on this occasion he was innocent. In Munich, who knows, perhaps a stunning young kid would have caught the eyes of the officials? He had a shot – I’m convinced of that, he was buzzing with belief and over three rounds of three minutes each, that is crucial. His genius was missed that year.
In 1982, when Laing was not a bright-eyed kid, he beat Roberto Duran in a great fight in Detroit. It was and remains a stunning win – one of the finest by a British boxer in the USA. Duran was fresh from making $5m in a fight with Sugar Ray Leonard and Laing was fresh from an eight-rounder in Solihull. Laing actually tries to finish Duran in the 10th; Duran was a legend then, make no mistake, but Kirk was fearless. And, he was stupid at times. He chased the giant in that 10th round, amazing. Duran was very good that night, make no mistake, but Kirk was exceptional. In 2013, Duran admitted as much to me; Laing beat a great fighter on a special night. It was not a fluke and Duran was not fat and old.
Inside a year, Duran was world champion again, winning the belt in front 19,000 at Madison Square Garden and signed for a $10m fight or two; Laing had vanished. Hey presto, gone, honest. Lunacy. He denied it whenever he was asked, but the people who loved him, made money from him and cared for him, all tell the same story: Kirk went missing after the Duran win. It was his window, he missed it. He went to New York and Jamaica, then Nottingham, where he was raised and finally back to his home in Hackney. His Duran money was gone, his golden opportunity was gone. He smoked and smiled and waved goodbye to the millions.
And there you have the two extremes of Laing; the rest of his amateur and professional career just fill in the gaps in the mayhem and wonder that seemed to follow Kirk wherever he walked and talked in his boxing life. He was hidden in a thick cloud of marijuana smoke, he was grinning, he was hitting sparring partners, he was running at dawn across Crackney Downs, as Hackney was dubbed. Kirk knew a lot about that crack pipe, make no mistake. It nearly killed him in 2003 when he was pushed off a block of flats. It was dealers, I was told. An accident, the police told me. He never fell, I was told again. He survived intensive care and went back to Nottingham to recover. He was 49 at the time, his last professional fight had been less than a decade earlier.
He was a shell of the old Kirk long before he fell. A few weeks before the incident, I had tracked him down to a park bench in east London, sat with him, cried with him, remembered his great nights, looked at what he lost. I left Kirk that day with a dozen empty cans and his cherished European title belt on his lap. He was gazing at something he knew he would never get, or perhaps it was just the dope and the remnants of about six Special Brews that gave his eyes that mystical, faraway look. He was an exceptional fighter, but he was even better company.
Laing won the British title, the European title and never had a world title fight. He was a professional from 1975 until 1994, winning 43 of his 56 fights. He fought at tiny, private sporting clubs, a sideshow attraction over six rounds to bored punters in their purple dinner suits, and thrilled on nights at the Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Arena. They were old-fashioned nights when a powerful single beam of light lit up the dark and smokey arena and the boxers walked to the three-roped ring for fights. Kirk loved that spotlight. He won and lost and just kept getting back in the ring; he was a natural, the Gifted One, as he was known. His weight changed by just two pounds between his first fight and his last, he was a natural athlete. He had managers, trainers, new managers, new trainers, advisers and demons; he listened to all of them, every voice was important at the time. When I caught up with him 2003 – it was a long and comical ordeal to get him to meet and talk – he had nothing but the key to an empty council in Glendown House on the Downs Estate in Hackney. And the beautiful European belt and those bloody memories.
Kirkland Laing had a quiet last 15 or so years, close to his Nottingham family and a long, long way from the gyms and chaos of his east London life. Grown men have been in touch in tears during the last 12 hours. “Is he really dead?” He was adored, make no mistake. There had been a couple of false alarms. This final one seems real, but, who really knows with Kirk? It’s Kirkland Laing, the Gifted One, the man who shocked the world and “bashed up” Duran, the boy who never really grew old, just a bit greyer and a bit slower, his dreadlocks a bit wilder. We loved him: Kirk, thanks.