In 1994, when I first submitted the proposal to Dark Trade, nine out of ten dubious publishers rejected it. They insisted that a book about my encounters with fighters as diverse as Mike Tyson and Michael Watson, Chris Eubank and James Toney, Oscar de la Hoya and Roy Jones Jr, was essentially un-publishable. Of course they were more polite. Dark Trade had "no obvious market potential" or, more personally, "is not quite for us." Only Mainstream, who had published Nothing Personal and believed in me as a writer, offered a small advance for me to write a book about a desolate subject like boxing.
Feeling rejected and spurned, I skulked away. But I was young and determined and, instead of immediately signing with Mainstream, I decided to spend more time with the fighters. The book was already burning inside me. I had interviewed Tyson at length in Las Vegas, and I'd been gripped and traumatised by the tragic second fight between Watson and Eubank – which had left Watson in a coma.
Michael Watson survived boxing – just – and I wanted to document his courage. I also wanted to capture the elusive essence of Eubank, who was a much braver soul than his affected persona suggested. Tyson, meanwhile, was in jail. His whole life had been chiseled from themes of loss and deceit. Tyson was aware, when we first met in Vegas, that his life was whirling out of control. "Who knows what else is coming now," he said, sweat rolling down his face in a boxing gym found on a stretch of wasteland. "I don't even care. But, sometimes, I get a real bad feeling in my stomach." Tyson spoke about the fate of some great heavyweight champions who had preceded him – Joe Louis, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali.
I told him how I'd fallen for boxing in South Africa, especially for Ali, and how the arrival of great black fighters in Johannesburg, like Bob Foster and Emile Griffith, had transfixed me at the height of apartheid.
Tyson knew what it meant to be a fighter. "In the ring you're in the hurt business. So I got no illusions about boxing. This is a brutal business."
I wrote about Tyson and Ali, Eubank and Watson, and it sometimes seemed as if no-one would ever read these words in a book. It took another riveting fighter to bolster my belief. Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the company of James 'Lights Out' Toney, was the exotic destination which transformed this book from a vague idea into a tangible reality.
I had heard all kinds of stories about Toney, from his crack-dealing and gun-toting past to his scalding temper, but he was the canniest defensive fighter I had seen in years. I was also intrigued by Toney because he was managed by a middle-aged Jewish woman called Jackie Kallen who told me that she would set it up so that I hung out with Lights Out as much as I liked. I wondered if the then unbeaten Toney would be quite so accommodating as he prepared to defend his IBF super-middleweight world title against Tony Thornton.
That first visit to the Toney camp turned out to be the gig of a lifetime. I became friends with James and Jackie, with his mom Sherry and a little dog called Pee-Wee, and the mean and slick boxer who called himself 'Lights Out' made me laugh more than any other fighter I'd ever met.
But on October 29 1993, we had got serious. Toney agreed that I could spend the last few hours with him before the Thornton fight. As time drifted past, the profane kidding around stopped and a stone-cold look settled on Toney's face in his hotel room on the seventeenth floor. In the room next door, a maniac with a taste for irony played Gene Pitney's 24 Hours to Tulsa over and over again.
"Dearest, darlin'/Only 24 hours from Tulsa/Only one day from your arms/But what can I do?"
"I hate this shit," Toney snarled.
Finally, Toney stood up. It was time for him to fight. He wore a hooded tracksuit and heavy boots. A solid gold choker glinted on his muscled neck. He thrust his fists deep into the pockets of his top.
"You ready for this?" he drawled.
I nodded. "OK," he murmured. "Let's go…."
The next few hours unfolded in a blur of intensity. I sat with Toney in his dressing room while we listened to Dr Dre's The Chonic over and over again. We liked it a lot more than Gene Pitney.
I asked Toney how he dealt with the tension. "This is boxing, baby…" he answered quietly. "You have to deal with it."
Thornton walked out first to LL Cool J's Mama's Gonna Knock You Out. Toney raised a dubious eyebrow. "How old is that shit?" he asked.
When the door swung open, a sound man barked "Showtime!" Toney looked straight at me.
"Okay," he said, "let's go…"
I followed him on the long walk to the ring, with Dr Dre's High-Powered thudding in our wake, and wondered if many other writers got this lucky.
Afterwards, once Toney had won comfortably, he came over to where I stood, sinking a beer I really needed. "See, man, I'm not so bad," he crooned as the sweat flew from him. He was on his way to becoming the world's number one fighter in the pound-for-pound ratings. "We gonna do this again?"
I nodded, almost in disbelief. "OK," Toney said. "We got a deal. And now, baby, it's time to eat cheeseburgers, lotsa cheeseburgers, 'cos I'm James Toney – champion of the world."
In April 1995, in the week I got married, I went back to Mainstream and signed the contract only they had offered me a year earlier. Nineteen months later, in November 1996, when Dark Trade won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year it felt as if, maybe, we weren't so crazy after all.
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