By Alan Hubbard
I AM REALLY LOOKING forward to the next episode of Strictly Come Boxing when Billy Joe Saunders trips the fight fantastic again, this time with a new dancing partner, the redoubtable fellow Brit Martin Murray at the O2 on April 14.
Billy Joe’s fourth defence of his WBO world middleweight title follows his recent twinkled-toed display in Montreal which left challenger David Lemieux looking like a wilted wallflower.
It was coming under the tutelage of Dominic Ingle, son of the wily legendary master tactician Brendan, which brought about the breathtaking transformation of Billy Joe from highly capable but sometimes under-performing box-fighter into a hit-and-hop-it dancing king.
Indeed, in some ways his exhilarating punch-perfect performance was reminiscent of previous fleet-footed graduates of the Ingle Academy of the Sweet Science in Sheffield’s Wincobank.
Among them fellow middleweight star Herol Graham.
So there is no doubt Saunders will be as saddened as the rest of us to hear of the desperate plight of the former three-time world title challenger Graham and his partner Karen Neville. Both are in urgent need of help.
Father-of-six Graham, now 58, has struggled with his health in recent years and is currently in a mental health hospital as a consequence of severe bipolar and depression.
His long-term girlfriend Karen has Stage 3 bladder cancer and can no longer walk or earn a wage.
Consequently, the couple have no income and are unable to afford the medical treatment Karen requires.
“They are in dire need,” says close friend Andy Brace.
“Despite Herol being recognised as one of the greatest boxers this country ever produced, he never received the financial rewards his talent deserved and they need funding which is not available on the NHS. If Karen doesn’t get this funding, she will die.
Herol is widely regarded as arguably the finest British fighter to never win a world title, and his switch-hitting skills engrossed the nation in the 1980s and 90s. He lost on a split decision to t Mike McCallum and was brutally ko’d by Julian Jackson in gutsy challenges for the WBC middleweight belt, then retired in 1998 following a another brave loss, this time to IBF super-middleweight champion Charles Brewer.
Retirement has not been kind to Graham.
As recently as 2016 he was fighting for his life in a London hospital after a series of complications following a burst appendix.
The trouble with boxing,” Barry McGuigan, once said, “is that too often it ends in sadness. Every fighter has a story that could break your heart. And when the last bell sounds, some simply do not know what to do with themselves.” Graham knows the anguish of those withdrawal symptoms too well, even slashing his wrists in a moment of deep despair.
‘Bomber’ Graham, who was sexually abused as an eight-year-old, was driven to attempt suicide after he retired when he found himself alone in a sparsely furnished house, his marriage wrecked, his wealth evaporated from failed business ventures, his mind in turmoil.
Graham’s 54-fight, 20-year career, which saw him win the British, Commonwealth and European light-middle and middleweight championships in the Eighties, finished at 38 after those three unsuccessful world title attempts.
He had been one of the nation’s most charismatic fighters with a smiling, laid-back style that was a mix of Muhammad Ali and former Sheffield spar-mate Naseem Hamed, plus a punch hard enough to have left one opponent requiring brain surgery.
But he could not cope with retirement, as he explained in his poignant and biography ’Bomber-Behind the Laughter’
He recalled: “There were big demons, inside me. It all came to a head one evening when I sat alone as I had most nights, staring at a TV which didn’t always work.
“All my self-belief had gone. I was financially on my knees. Mentally I was in torment. I just wanted out. So I sharpened a knife, took a bottle of brandy and went into the bedroom, made a couple of calls and said a few prayers before beginning to slash my wrists.
“As I did, I screamed and lay down thinking I’d die in my sleep. But in the morning I woke to find the blood had congealed and dried on the sheets.” He took himself to hospital but later former girlfriend Karen (with whom he was subsequently re-united), called the police, fearing he might try it again. Two officers came and he was sectioned in a mental institution.
Which, sadly, is where he is again today.
The tale of his turmoil makes compelling reading in this week’s Boxing News.
And with Karen so gravely ill, the couple are indeed of urgent need of help so it is good to know that the British Boxing Board of Control will be providing some financial assistance.
We know that boxing has the biggest heart of all sports when it comes to helping those in distress. A JustGiving appeal has been set up and donations can be made via www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/ karensfight