May 25, 2024

On This Day: Herol Graham Endures His First Bad Luck Break In A Series Of World Title Shot Near-Misses


It’s been said and written many times that Herol Graham deserves the distinction of being called ‘the greatest British fighter never to have won a world title.’ Agreed. But one could also argue how Graham – nicknamed “Bomber” by Brendan Ingle; this the late trainer’s famed trickery, designed to throw a Graham foe into thinking he was a banger, not a super-slick stylist – also ranks as one of the most unlucky of failed world title challengers.

No less than three times, the Sheffield southpaw who was almost impossible to hit cleanly during his prime years fought for a world title. And three times, the man who paved the way for stars like Naseem Hamed and Kell Brook came thisclose to winning the big one. We all know how Graham was boxing the ears off Julian Jackson in 1990, this Herol’s second shot at gold. Unfortunately, we also know all about the vaporising bomb of a punch a desperate, almost blind Jackson crashed onto Graham’s temporarily exposed chin; the shot from hell ruining Graham the split-second it made contact.

And Graham came agonisingly close to winning a major belt at the third time of asking, this in 1998, when he dropped Charles Brewer multiple times only to get tagged and stopped late on. To this day, Brewer says without hesitation that Graham was the trickiest, toughest, and most taxing puzzle he ever had to solve in the ring.

But Graham really came agonisingly close (to repeat the description) on this day in 1989. In his first shot at a world title, Graham faced perhaps the best fighter he ever faced – Mike McCallum, in his prime and a former 154 pound champion who had more than showed his credentials in winning fights against the likes of Ayub Kalule, Jackson (who McCallum stopped quickly), Milton McCrory, and Don Curry.

The sole blot on “The Body Snatcher’s” record was a points loss to the criminally underrated Sumbu Kalambay – who was at the time of the McCallum-Graham fight also the only man to have beaten Graham, this fight too going the distance.

Meeting in London, McCallum, 35-1, and Graham, 41-1, put on a real show for the purists; a display that was all that is sweet about The Sweet Science. And, boy, how close did these two box as they took turns showing their immense skills. It was a joy to watch, the brains, the learning, the hard work, all of it was on display for those who were paying attention.

McCallum boxed brilliantly, although he didn’t live up to his “Bodysnatcher” nickname on this night, as Graham wouldn’t let him. Graham boxed brilliantly, but his sheer elusiveness wasn’t on display this night, as McCallum didn’t miss as often as other Graham foes had. Both men knew they had to dig in, which they duly did, and the heart, as well as the IQ and skill of both greats – yes, greats – was tested to the limit.

There was controversy, this as McCallum was given an eight-count in the fifth round, although it appeared clear he had merely slipped. Crucially, all three judges neglected to score the round a 10-8 in favour of Graham. Later, Graham was docked a point for throwing his co-challenger (the WBA middleweight belt being vacant) into a corner turnbuckle. This too would prove ever so crucial.

After 12 superb and engrossing rounds of boxing, the judges were split. McCallum got the nod on two cards, at 117-115 and 115-114, while the third judge had it 117-114 for Graham. Had Graham not been docked a point for the foul, he would have earned a draw. And a rematch.

Lady Luck just hadn’t shown up, and this was something Graham would have to get used to. Graham boxed every inch like a world champion on this day 35 years ago, as he would do for just shy of four rounds against “The Hawk” in 1990, and again, for just shy of ten rounds against Brewer in 1998. But something, call it bad luck, call it fate, whatever, always got in the way to keep the belt from being wrapped around Herol’s waist.

It might not be too much of a consolation for Sheffield’s finest to ever do it, but ask McCallum, ask Jackson, and ask Brewer to tell you to name the best they ever shared a ring with, and chances are they will tell you Herol Graham.

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