“IT hit the side and I felt a numbness and I remember falling and I could feel myself going down.” In his next memory, Herol “Bomber” Graham was in hospital being checked out. “After that, I watched it on television and it was then I really felt it. Watching it, I felt it.”
Now, in a very different hospital several decades removed, Graham reviewed the fight and the punch on a mobile phone. He was in a north London psychiatric ward and round four against Julian Jackson began. Moments later, the shrieks of British boxing commentator Dave Brenner could be heard. “That’s what we were worried about!”
The rerun was paused. Graham was lifeless on the canvas, having dropped suddenly.
Graham had spent eight months on a north London psych unit. It was not a fun place, but he was there because he was damaged. He was damaged from boxing. He did not slur his words, nor did he shuffle his feet. It even looked like he could go a few rounds now. In the not-too-distant past, he made an attempt at a marathon jump-rope world record. But he was told he had punch-drunk syndrome. It was, of course, a dated diagnosis meant to be consigned to medical history after J. A. Millspaugh’s 1937 dementia pugilistica paper. But this was what Graham was told he had, and he was accepting of it, too.
“You do get punch-drunk,” he said. “It does do that to you.”
Graham’s main problems were his short-term memory, or lack of one, and a biting depression that he could not shake. It drove him to multiple suicide attempts, which were the primary reason he was locked up. He could not be trusted. When he talked about suicide, there was a devilish grin that hinted he may just be a little out of control. Graham never felt the same after the Jackson thunderbolt, in or out of the ring. Even though the damage did not show early, it manifested itself, along with thirty years of fighting, and resulted in his condition today.
“When I went back in the ring [after Jackson], I felt that I wasn’t all there,” he said. “There was the apprehension of, ‘S**t, is it going to happen again?’ That’s in your head, that you don’t want it to happen again, but you just think it and think it. But I wasn’t the same because that was in my head.”
At the time, he believed he could carry on his fine career at a decent level. All he had to do was hit, move, and not get hit like that again. But Graham was by now running on fumes, and soon the time came to call it quits resulted in a dark feeling that had gnawed at him for years. “Of course, when you walk away it’s hard,” he admitted. “But my depression was way, way in front of that. It must have been five, six years prior to that.”
There were issues away from the ring, including heartbreak, a fallout with trainer Brendan Ingle, abuse he’d suffered as a child, and more besides. That went with him into the ring, and crushing losses did not help. Neither did the constant references to him as the best British fighter to never win a world title. What kind of honor is that? That neither puts money in the bank or a belt on the mantelpiece—and it certainly didn’t open any lucrative doors. Then the alcohol came. “I did drink [before], but not to that extent,” he said. “I know that drink and alcohol is a killer. I did have a drink and more so after boxing. It nearly became a problem because as the depression kicked in I was looking for a shield, the shield was alcohol, and I just went overboard with it. I was on medication as well and that’s how I ended up here because this is my third time [in the ward]. The first time was after the boxing.”
Graham looked deceptively fit and well, yet said he only managed the odd powerwalk. He wanted to do more, but the depression chains him to chairs and he sits and festers and cries. “Being in here is like being in a prison, but I’ve never been in a prison, of course,” he continued. “But you are locked up. I have leave so it’s not as bad, but sometimes with the depression, it’s escorted leave only, so they will be watching over me all the time. Wherever you go, they go with you.”
Graham actually has been to prison, just not as an inmate. He practiced his moves in prison, under Ingle’s watchful eye. The wise old trainer would put Graham in jails, in working men’s social clubs, and he even took them to nightspots where he let anyone interested try and hit his boys. His boxers were not allowed to punch back. On Saturdays and Sundays, they got out of the gym and tried to avoid being struck in the head. “There was some bloody horrible places we went to but it was good fun,” Graham recalled. “You look at them and some of them were huge and looked tough with skinheads or whatever, but I thought the people wouldn’t touch me.”
He continued: “The rules were they could touch me anywhere above my waist so all I did was put my hands down and moved around. But I had to be careful because in prison, they will just go out to smash you. They don’t care. If they can do some damage to you, they will, and I couldn’t let that happen. They were going for the face as well—it was open sparring and I’d move out the way, grab their hands, and move their hands round so it would spin them round and they’d get frustrated. When they got frustrated that was it, finished, I had them where I wanted them.
“Sometimes there were women doing it and I remember I was moving away and—bam—she hit me with a backhand. There’s always one. Under a photograph in the paper it said, ‘The only person to hit Bomber Graham,’ and it was this woman. No one ever hit me full on. If they did, I would have gone in for them…”
He laughed heartily, again a mischievous smile crossing his lips. “In the nightclubs there were some big boys, there were fighters in there, and they’d come out to destroy you. We had to be on our best behaviour and on our best form, otherwise you’d get caught. They’d [announce where we were going] on the radio, they would say ‘Bomber Graham will be at Pine Grove Country Club,’ that sort of thing, and we did it all over Sheffield. Sheffield’s quite big. And sometimes the places were packed and Brendan would say, ‘Herol, don’t get hit. But don’t go too hard on them.’ They could hit me but I couldn’t go hard on them, and it was good for my boxing. They were good days.”
The Sheffield “Bomber” was a slick and quick mover. He owned a jerky style and was nearly impossible to hit. There is more than one story of a top sparring partner throwing down his gloves unable to strike anything and storming from the ring. And those memories, in his long-term memory bank, still linger. He can recall his first day in the Ingle gym more than forty years ago in great detail. “It was a Sunday morning,” he reflected. “This is what I mean… You see how my brain goes. All those years ago and I remember it was one Sunday morning. I’m going to start crying again… I went to Brendan’s house [he recalled both his and Brendan’s postal addresses from the time], he lived at the bottom right-hand side of the road. I went to his house, had a hot drink, and we went to the gym. I remember looking at everyone and thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder what they’re like?’ He introduced me and said I was going to do some sparring, told me to get my gear on. There was a guy there, Mick ‘The Bomb’ Mills, and he threw some heavy shots, and there was some other guy, Robert Wakefield, and Brendan said, ‘You have to move with them.’ At the end Mick says, ‘F**k me, I can’t f**king hit him.’ I was just moving, moving out the way. And he was shouting, ‘Stand still you b*****d!’”
“Listen,” Graham said tearfully. “I can remember all these things from back in those days.”
Those days have gone, slipped away, replaced by a barren nothingness, an existence where fame, skill, and being the best British fighter never to win a world title counts for nothing. Graham paused to look around at the ward’s brick walls. “It’s no life,” he said. “But when I think about it, I sometimes think, actually, it’s the best place for me in a sense that the medication…” He tailed off, talking about his access to therapists and antidepressants.
One wondered if he was not becoming institutionalized. Even though he seemed so different from the people around him he felt he belonged there. Asked whether he believed he could cope in a halfway house, a stepping-stone back into society, he sighed. “I was anxious to get out, but what’s going to happen? Will I be okay?
He paused and looked around at the eccentric cast of supporting characters around him. Some gave the impression of being on the edge; others were lost, staring into parallel universes. Graham allowed himself a moment to believe he was not one of them. “I hope they don’t get out before me,” he said. He nodded toward a resident. “That one, I feel for him. He can’t communicate with anyone. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” © Tris Dixon, 2021.
Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing is released in the US on May 25 and in the UK and Rest of the World on May 27. It is published by Hamilcar Publications – visit www.hamilcarpubs.com/damage for more information.