By Terence Dooley
There is nothing worse than the loss of what you once had or felt, Manchester’s Carl Thompson knows this better than most. Even though he is 49 and seven years away from his last fight, the former British, European, IBO and WBO titlist would fight tomorrow — and over 10-rounds at a decent pace — if he could.
Like many former champions who have fallen into the vale of years, “The Cat”, 34-6 (25), hungers for those heady days of give-and-take, the fans cheering him on to improbable victories and the glory of title wins, but it can never be. His licence is gone, so is his prime, the fans all moved on to the next generation and the mere mention of a comeback for their former favourite is greeted with a shudder.
We send fighters out to risk it all when they’re young then quietly shelve them when they are no longer top-drawer draws. It’s one of the basic brutal truths of boxing, and it hurts many a fighter as much as the shots they took during their prime years.
“If I could fight then I’d fight,” said Thompson when speaking to BoxingScene, his gentle voice picking up a bit of extra fire when I mention his age. “You know what, people will always use my age against me, again, but it’s something I’d do if I could.”
Once they’re done with the sport, many fighters become pundits, calling fights when they would much rather be in there swinging away. Or they move into training, a hard job for former top pros, who often fall into the temptation of trying to impose their signature style on their charges.
Thompson isn’t asked to appear on TV too often these days, but he is constantly in various gyms, most notably his old stomping ground of Champs Champ in Moss Side and the Round 1 Boxing Gym in Horwich, where the young amateurs sometimes find themselves, to use the local parlance, “Blowing out of their arses”, while Thompson continues to relentlessly pound away at the bags.
“I don’t just come into the gym and say ‘Hello’,” said Thompson. “When I come down there, I do 10-threes on the bag, no messing about, because when we’re in there we all have to train. It’s just that type of place. I hope it gives the young kids a boost and shows them how much you have to put into it to become champion.
“I hope the kids have the same dedication to respect this sport and show the desire to be more than just one champion. I wanted to win all the titles. I won a lot of them, so I got the medals, but I didn’t get the money.
“[Champs Camp’s former owner] Phil [Martin] had that mentality of getting you fit, that you have to be ready because someone could knock on your door at short-notice and that made us hard guys to beat. But I was always an easy fighter to train — I knew I wanted to get to the top and would put the work in. I’m not really a boxer, to tell the truth, I’m just a natural born fighter. It worked out for me because you had to hold your own with the boys in Champs Camp — I did, I was naturally very fit.”
Thompson turned pro with a second-round TKO over Darren McKenna at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in June 1986. It wasn’t his first taste of action; he was a former Muay Thai practitioner and had trained under the legendary Master Sken. Like most good teachers, Sken had an awareness of the limit of his abilities and recognised that his background in Muay Thai would hinder rather than help Thompson’s boxing career. This hypothesis came true when Crawford Ashley boxed Thompson’s ears off in his ninth fight, a sixth-round TKO defeat.
“I was from a Thai Boxing background, which is not the same as kickboxing, so had to get used to the boxing stance, which was noticeable when I fought Ashley Crawford. Ashley was a better boxer at that time and I was eating his jab, really, because I didn’t know how to defend against it, but you learn.
“I never had an amateur background. It was completely different, but losing made me stronger and determined, and that’s where I got my approach of breaking my opponent’s heart. My heart overcame the skills, which were lacking then, but my mind was strong and that’s a big part of fighting.
“[Muay Thai trainer] Master Sken wasn’t a boxing coach, so me and Oliver and Humphrey Harrison moved over to a boxing gym. Phil [Martin] was around at the time and it was ideal for me. I was compensating for a lack of skill with heart and determination, which was stronger than most fighters.”
Indeed, Thompson’s hustling, bustling approach was eventually complimented by an uncanny ability to either play possum to perfection or regain his senses when all seemed lost. This ability was a big feature of his mid-to-late career, but he had started to work on it early only to be told that it could cost him fights.
“Mickey Vann told me (after a second-round KO of Peter Brown in July 1989) that doing that could make me lose fights because people wouldn’t know I wasn’t really hurt, so I did it less after that, but it was part of my fighting character to play possum to draw people in and then try to break their heart and mind. We all worked so hard that we’d feel fresh late in the fight. I did it less and less, but then it did work a few times later on.
“I think that’s just part of my character and the way I fight. I was showboating with it against Brown, but I used it well against Chris Eubank [a decision victory followed by corner retirement win in 1998] and in a few other fights. That was my character and strength coming out. It’s the type of person I was, but I was very aware that the referee could stop the fight if he thought I was hurt, which was bad for me because I liked to play hurt, draw people in and then break their hearts. You’re coming up against a potential loss if it doesn’t work out.”
The loss to Ashley for the vacant BBBoC Central Area light-heavyweight title was followed by a six-round decision defeat to Franco Wanyama in April 1990. Thompson regrouped with a points win over Terry Dixon in March of the following year. As a reward for his efforts he was thrown in against the experienced Yawe Davis in Monco in May 1991.
Thompson lost to the better man on that night, a second-round TKO, but his mental strength was undimmed despite three defeats in his last four fights, and his first great moment was just over the horizon when he travelled to the York Hall as an underdog for a meeting with rising prospect Nicky Piper, who was 10-0-1. Piper’s draw had come against Maurice “Hard” Core, Thompson’s stablemate at Champs Camp.
“We didn’t have anyone in our corner to promote us, so when I beat Nicky Piper it attracted Frank Warren, and he looked at one or two of our other fighters,” said Thompson. “It was good to get that notice at that particular time because things started to pick up for me.
“I took Nicky at a few week’s notice. I didn’t want to take it, to be honest, because he was knocking everyone out [only Core had seen the final bell in Piper’s fights thus far], but I thought: ‘I’ve got to take this chance’. He probably looked at me coming off a loss and expected it to be easy. They didn’t know that I was the type of fighter who wasn’t just a body, if you know what I mean.
“I’m a natural fighter — all I knew was to go in there and try to win a fight. I knew I had some skill, but I’m more skilful now that I was in those days when I was fighting. I can do things now that I never did in my career because I was never taught them. You pick up little subtle things that could have stopped you eating a lot of jabs. I never realised this because if you don’t see something then you can never know about it.”
Still, Piper was standing in front of Thompson and a crack at the vacant British, which was lying dormant. The Mancunian swept Piper aside in three rounds to earn himself an unlikely title shot. He said: “I wanted to go on from British champion to other belts because I had that hunger. They said I was too big for him after I won it, but I was too hungry and needed it more.”
Thompson’s reward was a fight with Steve Lewsam for the vacant belt in June 1992. The Lonsdale belt had been sat on the shelf since May of the previous year when eventual WBO world title challenger Derek Angol defeated Tee Jay in three and then moved on.
“Lewsam was my biggest fight until that point,” recalled Thompson. “I knew I could beat him. I had a strong mind, determination and didn’t give up anything. It was amazing to become British champion after losing a few fights when I was learning early in my career, but you have to learn your profession. I may have lost in the early part of my career, and in the early parts of some fights, but I would always come on strong.”
Further successes followed, most notably the brace of wins over Eubank, a WBO world title split decision win over Ralf Rocchigiani in Germany in 1997 and his away win for the EBU belt against Massimiliano Duran (W KO 8) in Italy in 1994 at a time when British fighters struggled abroad. Epic slugfests against Terry Dunstan (W KO 12 in December 1999), Ezra Sellers (L KO 4 in November 2011), Sebastiaan Rothmann (W TKO 9 February 2004) and David Haye, more on that later, were sprinkled in for good measure.
Things came full circle for Thompson after he lost his WBO title to bitter rival Johnny Nelson courtesy of a fifth-round stoppage in March 1999. Thompson had joined Billy Graham when Phil Martin took ill with cancer in 1994. After the loss to Nelson he enlisted the services of his old friend Core and the two conspired to produce those memorable wins over Dunstan, for the vacant British cruiserweight title, and Haye, an IBO title defence in September 2004.
“I was back with Maurice because we are friends,” recalled Thompson. “We came along together in Champs Camp and we got together again when I fought Terry Dunstan. I was in my garage doing my own training, that’s my mentality, and Maurice came to help me get ready. We just had a bar and some bags. Maurice would come in, and I’d do the circuits and work hard. I took that homegrown mentality into the fight with Dunstan. It was like ‘Boom’, no tactics, just fitness and having a proper dog fight.”
Thompson always felt that he was on the outside looking in when it came to the politics of the sport. Although firm fan’s favourite, he was never flavour of anyone’s month and this rankled. It all came to a head when Haye stepped up after only 10 fights, Thompson believed that Haye had had it all too easy and was determined to show people that they had tried to flog the wrong dead horse for Haye’s coronation.
Do you like omens? Like Piper, Haye had 10 KOs on his ledger and Thompson was brought to London to play the part of sacrificial lamb 13 years after his win over Piper had upset the applecart, and in the same month of September. Talk about meant to be.
“Some people in boxing want to talk you down to talk other people up, I came across that a lot in my career,” said Thompson, a brief flash of anger entering his normally gentle voice.
“When I boxed David Haye, people said I was too old, but Haye was 23 and had 10 fights with 10 knockouts, so I knew I’d beat him because he hadn’t done the rounds. That’s just an example of what went on throughout my career, people said I couldn’t something and I’d go and do it.”
“That was a wicked night,” added Core. “We’d gone back to basics in a garage for Carl when he fought Dunstan. Then Haye came along, the younger man, and he threw everything at Carl in the first few rounds. Carl came back to the corner, I asked him if he was alright and he said: “Yeah, I’m cool”, so I knew we had him at that point.”
Haye eventually succumbed in the fifth, but he had proven his fighting spirit throughout and was still trying to let his own shots go when Terry O’Connor stepped in to wave the fight off.
It turned out to be the aging warrior’s last big moment. A lacklustre 10-round decision win over Frederic Serrat on the undercard of Ricky Hatton versus Carlos Maussa at Sheffield’s Hallam FM Arena in November 2005 followed, but Thompson looked creaky and gradually settled into an uneasy retirement. It is over for Thompson, everyone knows that, yet the talk of those big nights still stirs something in him, something that will live as long as he does, an itch that he can no longer scratch.
“It is a sad sport,” he said. “People don’t always see that. Fighters don’t often get the rewards. Only a few fighters get those big rewards, and I wasn’t one of them — I didn’t get the big money from boxing. It’s down to a few things, not one thing’s to blame, but it shows you don’t always get what you deserve. Plus I was in a division where there isn’t too many stars as a lot of people are moving through it to heavyweight.”
“I’ve had too many memorable nights,” he sighed when asked to sum it all up. “But the one that stands out was Akim Tafer for the European title [a sixth-round TKO in France, his sold defence of his first EBU title reign, he regained the belt in 2000 following the Dunstan win]. I was getting my backside kicked for three rounds against a guy who had knocked out Derek Angol and Dennis Andries.
“Then I found the right shots, a right uppercut and left hook. I looked at him when I’d done it and thought: ‘My word’. That was the only time I let out a scream of uncontrollable excitement. I did it, I’d turned it around again — that was fantastic and is always there at the back of my mind as the main one.”
It’s a testament to his career that many of the people reading this will list a number of different fights when asked to define Thompson. Although every single one of those contests will be listed under just a single, often overused, word: “Warrior”.
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