In October 2015 I went on a journey: as part of quite possibly the strangest form of therapy ever suggested by an alleged mental health practitioner I began visiting boxers. The idea was to talk to them and in some way manage to get over the death of my late father, who had died a year earlier. These unusual conversations eventually coalesced into a book, which I’ve entitled ‘Dangerous’.
Not to put too fine a point on it my dad was a bastard to me. I won’t go into detail but he turned me into a pretty fucked up human being. Which was why, in the months after he died, I simply couldn’t come to terms with the wave of depression that overpowered me. I’d never experienced depression before this; I thought depression was something that other people did. Not me. What was strange about it is that we weren’t even close – In fact I’d only seen him a handful of times in the past thirty years. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t handle his death.
The beleaguered NHS stumbled into action: Anti-depressants were hurled in my direction and they sort of worked but didn’t work. The depression kind of stuttered to a halt but so did my ability to enjoy life. I couldn’t get angry. I couldn’t get sad. I trembled like Shakin’ Stevens and my penis decided to stop working. As a result, I was passed on to a dysfunctional therapist who, in the course of many tediously lingering conversations, asked me to write about boxing.
If this seems like a strange suggestion, allow me to qualify it. Many years ago I was a fully-paid-up boxing writer. I wrote for a number of the broadsheets, the red tops, Boxing News. For a time I was even the editor of Boxing Weekly and Boxing Monthly. So I knew the difference between an uppercut and a left-hook. However, I stopped writing about the sport when my good friend Michael Watson was almost fatally injured during a title fight with Chris Eubank. I vowed never to return to boxing and almost made it.
This year, some 18 years after I last put finger to keyboard in anger I returned to what I used to do. I found a sport largely unchanged between the ropes but transformed outside. Print journalism was dying and social media was the new kiddie on the block. In the course of talking to a number of ex-fighters I discovered that depression was rife.
It’s not just Tyson Fury, it seems, who sufferers from this terribly debilitating condition. Far too many fighters and ex-fighters have all been hit by depression in a variety of ways. Some, such as Herol Graham and Leon McKenzie have even attempted suicide. In the course of the book I was able to sit down and talk to these people. Many of the deeply emotional conversations I had can be found within the pages of ‘Dangerous’.
On a warm June afternoon I met former IBF cruiserweight champion Glenn McCrory. In an extract from ‘Dangerous’ we talk about our shared experiences of depression:
Chapter 32 – Carrying
Glenn McCrory walks me through the centre of Newcastle. A tall good-looking man in a crumpled suit, he looks as if he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. I soon find out that he’s been doing that literally and metaphorically since he was a child. Like others in boxing I’ve met during the last seven months, he doesn’t recognise me. Although realistically there’s no real reason for him to remember that just a month short of 25 years ago I was one of many celebrating in his dressing room after he defeated a Kenyan fighter named Patrick Lumumba to win the IBF world cruiserweight champion. Indeed, after only a few moments in Glenn’s company you get the impression that there are simply too many people in his life for him to take stock of them all. They are everywhere; and they all seem to want a little piece of him – myself included. In the space of a minute he is stopped three times in the street by well-wishers. His hand is duly shaken and his time is duly taken. Shaken and taken. But he gives of himself freely, liberally and without complaint.
‘I can see how being a celebrity could really get on your nerves,’ I say.
‘Yeah… Well… You have to try and do the right thing…’ he replies in his gravelly, clipped Geordie accent.
Glenn’s buying me lunch today because he foolishly bet against my parenting skills. In the course of one of a number of very long and surprisingly intimate telephone conversations we’ve been having recently I told him about a technique he could use to get his troublesome one-year-old son Aidan to sleep at night. Yet even though I received a text from him in April saying: ‘I did what you said!! 1st full night in 3 years! Legend!! Thank you!’ Glenn still looks as if he could do with a good night’s sleep. He’s tired and distracted. Not really wanting to be here with me but too polite and too generous to let anybody down. And this reluctance to let anybody down, I will discover, seems to permeate every fibre of Glenn’s being.
I’ve been interested to see Glenn again after all these years because I believe he has more in common with this 53-year-old former boxing writer than most. After his career in boxing finished, Glenn suffered from depression and is another who was prescribed the same anti-depressants as I. Like myself Glenn is also known to enjoy the odd sherbet or two. There is also the fact that Glenn’s father died in February this year.
In the week before we meet Glenn, who is also an actor as well as a longstanding boxing commentator for Sky TV, has been in rehearsal for a one-man play about his life. It focuses upon his relationship with his late step-brother, David. David suffered from a debilitating muscle wasting disease known as Friedreich’s Ataxia. I can recall his wheelchair-bound figure being an enduring presence at Glenn’s training camp whenever I visited in the last 1980s. At the time I had no idea that they were brothers; they seemed to have nothing whatsoever in common. There is also a film in development and a book has just been published, entitled: ‘Carrying David’.
‘I didn’t like him at first, frankly…’ announces Glenn. We take a seat in a local restaurant and it doesn’t take much prompting to get the ex-fighter talking about his late brother. He will do this a great deal over the next few hours. ‘What we didn’t realise is that David had an illness…’
‘I suppose you must have seen him as an intruder?’
‘Yeah… I got pulled out of the bottom bunk and had to go in with two brothers…’
Glenn fills in the details of his childhood: his father, a steelworker, his mother’s side of the family all miners, too many siblings – the inevitable consequence of a fiercely Catholic upbringing. No money. ‘As a kid I used to steal anything. We never had anything so I just used to forage…’ And that feeling of being lost in the day to day struggle of simply surviving. ‘And then all of a sudden this kid came in and it’s: “Now you’ve got more time for a stranger than me!”‘
I shouldn’t really be at all surprised by now, but I am: Another boxer, another open book of emotion. But in Glenn’s case there is something innately disturbing about the combination of this strapping 6′ 4″ handsome man and the rawness, the unprotected vulnerability that leaps out at you. He’s yet another ex-fighter who will reveal the most personal minutiae of his life to anybody willing to listen:
‘David used too be slow. We’d go to school and he’d be slow,’ recalls Glenn. ‘He could walk but his feet started to twist in a bit. And the nuns would give me the strap for being late. One time I said: “Right, get on my back!” and I carried him. And he loved it. And we were running and laughing. From then I would carry him whether we were late or not.
‘And then all of a sudden I had someone who wanted me. Somebody needed me. And that was our relationship. That was us. We had a special relationship…’
‘Was carrying him the start of your boxing?’ I ask. ‘Did it build up your strength?’
‘Yeah… He loved it… He lived for the boxing. When I was going to pack it when I lost five or six fights I was at my lowest ebb. But David just wouldn’t give in: he’d fall off the toilet, he’d fall down the stairs but he’d just get back up.
‘When he was 15 the doctor said: ‘hasn’t anyone ever explained his condition to you? He’s got a muscle wasting disease…’. Normally the life expectancy is 15. So he was living on borrowed time.’
‘That’s awful,’ I say.
‘He died a month short of his thirtieth birthday. There were times when he was so bad that he’d be asleep and his breathing would start to drift. You’d lie next to him in the bed and think: “Should I stick a pillow over his face?”‘
‘Is this in your book?’ I ask.
‘No I don’t think it is…’
‘Do you not want people to know this?’
‘No it’s okay… I loved him and I just couldn’t… He fought for life right until the end… He fought every day to live…
‘Did you love him because he depended on you?’
‘From that first moment we fell in love… You know… And when the kids at school called him a ‘spacker’ I smashed the living daylights out of them… I got dragged off…’
Despite his size, it’s hard to imagine Glenn McCrory using violence on anybody. Scarcely a sentence comes from his lips that doesn’t contain the word ‘love’. We’ve only been talking for about twenty minutes and he’s already choking back the emotion. As am I. And then he suddenly changes the subject. Now he’s asking me why I wanted to meet up with him.
For the very last time I tell a boxer everything about my father. About how we didn’t get along in the worst way imaginable. But this time it’s no longer a secret. Now that my mother finally knows it seems right, almost natural, that everyone should be aware of what happened.
‘Why didn’t you like your father?’ asked Glenn, turning from confessor to therapist. ‘How did that manifest itself?’
I tell Glenn about the abuse I endured as a child. I give him more detail than I afforded my mother when I met her the weekend before. Glenn doesn’t seem remotely surprised.
‘Did you have a dislike of your mum?’ he asks.
‘No… It’s complicated…’
‘She didn’t help you, did she?’ Glenn announces. ‘You want your mum beside you, don’t you?’
I tell Glenn about the unexpected effect that my father’s death had on me. The strange dichotomy I experienced: about being utterly bereft by the loss of the man who was such a brute towards me and at the same time hating him more than I’ve ever hated anybody. I tell Glenn about the effect that the anti-depressants had on me: Me and Glenn and Herol et al.
‘I came off them straight away…’ admits Glenn. ‘I just didn’t have anything. It was as if I was walking in a mist. I kind of just decided to myself that without feeling pain you can’t feel happiness. Without one you can’t have the other.
‘So I thought I’d just battle through. At the end of the day we’re all going to the same place and we can just keep putting one foot in front of the other.’
‘With me it was also the fact that I couldn’t have sex any more…’ I confess.
Glenn nods towards me knowingly.
‘Was it the same for you?’
The ex-boxer laughs a little guiltily: ‘Yeah… I’m saying all this shit but that was one of the main things…’
‘I physically couldn’t do it.’
‘No… I couldn’t… How did your depression manifest itself?’ asks Glenn.
‘Well it was weird,’ I reply. ‘Embarrassing. I’d be out and just start crying for no reason and not be able to stop. Or something would trigger it when I was at home alone and the tears would be pouring out of me.’
‘I did a lot of crying too…’ says Glenn. ‘I still find it really hard because David is really, really raw… It never goes away…’
‘I can see it’s really raw, Glenn, I feel really bad about bringing all of this up…’
‘After my first divorce I’d see a girl for a while and I’d start to cry and I’d think: “You don’t want me” And I’d leave. And I went to see a therapist because I didn’t know what was wrong. And I found myself flirting with her and her flirting back. And it wasn’t doing any good whatsoever.’
‘That’s not really what’s supposed to happen…’ I agree.
‘Yeah… I’ve never been to a therapist since but it’s something I really should do… But then I just think: “I’ll fix myself…” But you never do…
‘There’s times in my life when I thought I could quite happily die. I’d be sitting on a plane going “Please crash… Please come down…”‘
‘Are you comfortable talking like this to strangers?’ I ask.
‘No… It’s fine. I’ve done a lot of talking about David…’
‘It really does sound like a case of classic clinical depression,’ I say.
‘Yes… I got diagnosed with long-term depression. It affected me really, really bad. I felt that nobody looked after me…
‘It’s very hard when you’re in a difficult relationship… Your family’s struggling. It got to the point where, honestly, every day was in a grey mist. I just could not lift the darkness… Everything was grey….’ Glenn lets out a groan. ‘Now when I look things are in colour…’
‘Your public persona is very different to the real you,’ I say. ‘On TV you seem very confident… Well adjusted… Happy…’
‘I’m a mess…’
‘Well, we’re all a bit of a mess really…’ I agree. ‘I used to take a lot of drugs to try to sort out that mess… Except of course you don’t realise at the time that this is the reason you’re doing it…’
‘Mine was alcohol…’ says Glenn. ‘There’s times when you drink too much and you think: “What did I do that for?”. But it kind of takes away the pain a bit. And makes more pain at the end of it. But I never actually thought I was depressed. I just kind of thought that my glass was half full…’
‘Same as me… That’s exactly how my wife describes me…’
‘But I think when David died it was one of those where… I prayed for him to die. To get him out of his misery. And then he went…’
Glenn issues an unintelligible grunt. He’s still feeling the pain.
‘I don’t know whether it was guilt or whether I didn’t want him to to go… I didn’t realise how much I loved him… And then combined with how my career was, and my marriage… everything was horrendous…’
The conversation stalls for a moment. And once again I find myself astonished, humbled, overwhelmed by these incredible people who fight for their living inside a roped off square of canvas. Every single boxer I’ve met up with in the past few months seems to have been desperate to bare his soul. It’s completely at odds with everything you might expect of these often brutally violent men. I change the subject: I tell Glenn about Herol Graham and his near death experience. I flick on my phone and show him that picture of Herol’s impressive scar. In doing so Glenn catches a glimpse of an old black and white photograph of me, taken a few years before he and I met. He stares at it for long time:
‘Aah… I know that fellow…’ he says eventually. ‘I remember him 100 per cent… ‘That’s why I didn’t remember you earlier – Jesus, you were just a kid then.’
‘It’s true,’ I say. ‘Now I’m an old man writing about boxing for the first time in an eternity.’
‘What sort of pushed you away from the sport?’ asks Glenn.
I launch into my well-trodden story, my apologies for having to do this one final time: about feeling complicit when boxers I knew were hurt. And about how I’ve now realised that I seem to have been using boxing as a means of getting over my dad.
‘I know what you mean,’ says Glenn. ‘I wrote my book for the same reason – to try and get over my brother David…’
‘He’s obviously deeply entrenched in your life,’ I say.
‘Then I finished it and found out it was too angry.’
‘Angry?’ I say. ‘Angry at who?’
‘I was just angry at everybody: ex-wives… Management… It was just a case that I needed to get all that out…’
‘Did you see the death of your brother as a metaphor for all of this?’
‘Yeah… Probably… Yeah… Probably that just kind of summed up the whole of my life. It was just a struggle… Just hard… And in the end I thought: “I don’t even want to put this out”. And so I left it for two years. When I went back to it when I had kind of healed a bit.’
Like Derek Williams, whom I met up with what seems like a million years ago, Glenn is one of the few British fighters to have sparred with Mike Tyson. It’s a welcome relief to move away from the dark subjects that have been occupying us and simply talk about boxing for a while. I like talking about boxing, I’m finally beginning to realise that more and more. So does Glenn:
‘Larry Holmes was my hero – I loved him,’ says the ex-fighter. ‘And I was sent over to spar with Mike Tyson in preparation for his fight with Holmes.’
‘Who’s idea was that? You were never really a heavyweight and hadn’t you lost five times by then?’
‘It was my manager of the time. I remember Tyson’s cornerman Matt Baranski befriended me because I didn’t have a trainer. He said: “Who the fuck sent you out here? He’s loves knocking people out… But a WHITE guy!!!”
‘But Tyson never knocked me down. I did well with him. It was tough. It was a hard way to make money.’
‘So how did you stop him from hurting you?’
‘I never stopped moving,’ recalls Glenn. ‘Tyson was unbeatable at that moment. I remember thinking that this guy’s just got no weakness…
‘And then I remember Robin Givens walking in and he just turned into putty. And I was thinking: “For fuck’s sake! No! No! No! No!”. And I could tell… I could just see there and then that this was going to end badly.’
Strangely enough, Glenn was initially managed by Alan Minter’s father-in-law, Doug Bidwell. Bidwell seemed to be willing to offer Glenn’s services as sparring partner to anyone who could pay:
‘When I sparred Bonecrusher tears were running down my eyes. I was only nineteen,’ Glenn recalls. ‘You’re just a bit too young for that. My manager put me in sparring with anybody. And that’s how I learned. Trevor Berbick I sparred with, too. That was hard.’
Even harder for Glenn McCrory was the fact that he ended up being yet another victim of boxing’s omnipresent financial predators. Although he won the IBF cruiserweight title Glenn, predictably, earned very little in the way of hard cash for his trouble.
‘I was on the dole when I won the world title,’ he recalls. ‘I signed off the night I won it,
‘I somehow ended up having two managers. One manager took 33 ½ percent, the other took 25 percent. I took home about £3,900 for that fight.’
‘You read about this sort of thing all the time,’ I say. ‘But it’s still shocking when you actually encounter it…’
‘I don’t think there was many as bad as mine…’ Glenn agrees. ‘After I retired I had to get a fight with Lennox Lewis to pay the taxman. I had nothing. I needed to get £80,000 and that’s why I fought Lennox. I knew I was going to lose that fight…’
‘It’s such a terrible business!’ I say.
‘It’s not the boxers… As we keep saying, the boxers are lovely people…’
‘Yeah… That’s why I was angry.’
‘Is that another reason why you got depressed?’ I ask.
‘Yeah… Boxing had a lot to do with it. Because I found myself coming out of a career with no money. Nothing. I’d been world champion and got nothing. British and Commonwealth champion and got nothing…’
‘How were you surviving?’
‘I wasn’t… I got two houses repossessed…’
‘But everybody must have assumed that you had lots of money…’
‘Yeah… They think you must be minted… But I had two divorces… One of them was an American – She’s got my baby over there… She’s seven…’
‘Oh Glenn,’ I say. ‘That’s terrible… I couldn’t handle that…’
‘No it’s hard. Very hard…’
Almost inevitably the conversation turns to religion. I’ve been more or less waiting for this to sooner or later happen. Once again, is there a boxer alive today who doesn’t want to try to convert me to God? But that’s not entirely fair, because Glenn doesn’t really try. He just looks genuinely concerned when I tell him that I am a non-believer:
‘When people say that I really find it difficult to understand,’ he says. ‘I mean, why would you not want to believe in something?’
‘I’m a pragmatist,’ I tell him. ‘It’s not that I don’t believe that there is some kind of underlying force that holds the universe together, it’s more that fact that I find it hard to believe that it has a consciousness and wears a white beard.’
‘But you must believe that there’s something else after death?’ He says.
I describe to Glenn my own lowest point. About the time a few years ago when my undiagnosed hyperthyroidism had become so bad that my body had simply packed up. I could hardly walk, I was morbidly obese. I was depressed beyond human endurance. Writing was completely out of the question. Of how I lay in bed night after night trying to work how I could die in a way that would cause the least hurt to my wife and daughter. About how, ludicrously, I would spend hours pondering the nature of the universe, trying to unravel its beginning and end. Perhaps this was the closest I ever got to a religious experience.
‘Am I talking nonsense here?’ I ask, embarrassed. ‘Is it the Guinness?’
‘No… No… You’re just speaking the truth…’
‘Well boxing is all about truth, isn’t it? Truth and lies…’
‘I still occasionally have nightmares of fighting again and not being prepared,’ says Glenn, his eyes far off in the distance. ‘In my career I never pulled out of fight but in the dream you get to the point where you pull out. And the sense of relief is incredible. Because, you know, nowadays I’m not well enough to fight. I can’t do it. So you’ve got that insecurity that you can’t do it any more.’
‘That’s your stress dream…’ I say. ‘How often do you have that?’
‘Normally when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew…’
‘I get a similar stress dream,’ I say.
‘All I ever wanted was to win the world title,’ says Glenn. ‘I’d been told my whole career that I’d never win a world title… Even my dad said that…’
‘Your dad told you that?’
‘Yeah… I think he didn’t want to see me hurt…’
‘And when I won the world title that was it for me. My heart wasn’t in it any more. I would have retired then. I’d had such a hard career.
‘When I was a kid I loved Frank Sinatra and Richard Burton and the Brat Pack and all the hell-raisers. And I prayed that I could be like that. That’s all I wanted. Because it was looking like I was either going to go down the mines or to work in the steel factory. And I had nightmares about the darkness. And I prayed to God saying I want to have every single experience. I want to live life… I want to live for two. I want to live for David as well. But careful what you wish for…’
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