Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan (25th February, 1995)

 

Chapter 2

Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan

25th February 1995, London Arena, London

‘Fucking hell, Nigel, you’ve really got him in trouble, mate!’

Corner man Dennie Mancini after a first round that saw Gerald McClellan knock Nigel Benn into the first row.

By the practical and physical nature of sport, injuries are bound to occur. In athletic pursuits, where the muscles and sinews are primed in the pursuit of glory, sometimes the smallest deviation can cause a problem. Strains, sprains and tears become par for the course.

Some sports do come at a higher price in terms of the potential risks inherent in participation. Jockeys falling off of horses over jumps at high speeds potentially throw themselves under a cacophony of thundering hooves, every one a potential life threatening occurrence. Whilst many steps have been taken to improve the safety of motor racing in all its forms, it doesn’t detract from the fact that streamlined chunks of metal travelling at vast rates of acceleration and speed can be a recipe for serious injury.

Even football has had its fair share of recent brushes with near-death and fatalities within its less obviously threatening surroundings. One need only to look at Fabrice Muamba, the Zaire born Bolton player whose heart stopped for seventy eight minutes on the White Hart Lane pitch, to see that the spectre of death lingers over every sport.

Then we have boxing.

From the earliest recordings of the fistic arts, there have been examples of fighters dying. As far back as 1725, there are reports of men stepping into a boxing ring and meeting their ultimate demise. In 1833, Simon Byrne would die from injuries caused during a 99th round defeat against James Burke. The official reason given for his passing was ‘congestion of blood in the brain’, though in the four days between fight and death, he told his chambermaid that it wasn’t likely to be the beating that killed him, but the mortification of losing the fight.

There have been over one thousand reported deaths in boxing, and the clamour for boxing to be banned in some circles only increases each time a young fighter ends up in the papers for all the wrong reasons. To those who haven’t been able to see past the bombasticity and bludgeoning violence of the sport, it seems like a no brainer. Why would someone want to stand in a ring and punch or be punched by someone else, and what type of person would willingly choose to watch?

Unfortunately, the fight that saw me pass through the barrier between casual observer and pugilistic enthusiast was a contest with almost such an outcome. Gerald McClellan would require emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain, leaving him permanently disabled; not something that is easy to digest or fully understand during the immortality of childhood. My perception of the fight was one of sheer awe, as both men took and gave punishment like nothing I’d ever seen. Regardless of the outcome which naturally overshadows the reminiscence, this was boxing at its most volatile, aggressive and passionate.

Boxing out of my home town of Ilford, Greater London, Nigel Benn was a dangerous fighter in the early years of his career. The nickname ‘The Dark Destroyer’ wasn’t a misnomer; Benn would defeat, by knockout or technical knockout, every one of his first twenty two opponents. Though the boxing equivalent of wet paper bags are often used to feather a fighter’s record in the early years of his career, this statistic still stands out as impressive, especially when Benn would knock out fighters such as Winston Burnett, someone whose 20-98-3 belies the fact that only fourteen of those losses came by facing a ten count or ref stoppage. Two of those belonged to Benn; in contrast, Chris Eubank would beat Burnett six months this second defeat on points.

In the first Burnett match, we were already beginning to see the prototypical Benn fighting style, as he stalked his prey around the ring with limited, if any, remorse. Hands held low like the street fighter he was, he invited opportunities for his opponents to hit him, knowing that he trusted his hands to do the talking when necessary. Targeting the body as often as the head, punches were thrown with intent to hurt; there was never a sense of Benn trying to find his range or feel out his opponent. The ref would Burnett out of his misery in Round 4 following several shots that snapped back the Jamaican’s head and forced his whole body to recoil. Unsurprisingly, the second fight went no better: Burnett was stopped in Round 3 after a combination of shots that had him hanging limply against the ropes and almost out of the ring. Benn wasn’t looking to mess around.

It would be the twenty third fight of his career which would see him lose for the first time, an all English clash seeing him face Michael Watson for Benn’s Commonwealth Middleweight Title. Not only was Benn defeated by Watson, he was comprehensively outboxed. The favourite of both the fans and the bookies, Benn attempted to walk through Watson’s offense time after time, only for many of his hooks to meet the high guard of the challenger, or miss completely. Using the space afforded to him in the ring to maintain distance where possible, Watson would snap Benn’s head back with jabs and combos, slipping back into the guard before any retaliatory shot could be fired.

The champion was rocked in Round Four, though was able to fight back and land some significant power punches before the bell. The same could not be said for Round Six; as both men traded punches on the ropes, Benn was caught with a left hook that seemed to take him, and his body, by surprise. As if in slow motion, his body tilted and crashed to the canvas, a look of shock registered on his face. Though he would be in the process of getting up at the time, he was not able to beat the ten count. Watson, a 5/1 bet for the victory, had pulled off the unthinkable, and had beaten ‘The Dark Destroyer’.

What would have worried Benn, his fans and his promotional team was the inability to switch gameplan. What had worked so well in the previous fights, Benn’s power punches to head and stomach often forcing his opponent’s guards to drop, hadn’t worked at all against Watson. Whilst Watson was a class above a lot of the men who had stepped into the ring to fight Benn, it was the inability to recognise the danger he was in, or to offer something resembling a plan B. Every time Benn would get hit with a Watson punch, he would leave himself open for two or three more, almost confused as to how best to fend off the rapier jabs of the more experienced opponent.

Following the fight, Benn and his team realised that for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding his boxing career up to date, things weren’t working out. It was one thing to beat a string of relative no-hopers, but when facing up against his first opponent of any real quality, Benn had been found wanting. A renewed focus on training and sparring was necessary, as well as a selection of opponents that would get him the rounds under his belt that were so clearly needed. Even more importantly for Benn was that the next five fights would be Stateside, allowing him to get away from the circus that had been created around his brand and quietly rebuild his reputation post-Watson.

Benn’s US debut would see him go the full ten rounds with Jorge Amparo, a man who had never been stopped and had fought four former world champions. Finally, Benn was beginning to get substantial in-ring time against opposition of a better quality. That isn’t to say that his ability to punch his way past opponents was lost; his second fight in the US didn’t see its way out of the first round, Jose Quinones almost getting punched through the ropes on a first knockdown before dropping to the floor shortly afterwards to leave the ref little choice but to stop the fight. Whilst he could still hit his opponents with power that belied his stature, this one round knockout also showcased a wiser Benn, as he picked his shots until he sensed weakness, clinically finishing Quinones off with several heavy shots.

Following a split decision victory over Sanderline Williams (comprehensively won on two cards), there were still murmurings that Benn couldn’t consider himself amongst the top echelon of middleweight fighters. The next two fights would arguably change that. In the first, he would pick up his first world title by defeating Doug De Witt for the WBO World Middleweight Title. A brutal beating saw De Witt drop three times in the first minute of the eighth round following seven previous rounds that saw cuts above both eyes and a serious ear injury. An even more impressive first round TKO of Iran Barkley followed, though this resembled a bar fight as much as a boxing contest. Barkley would hit the mat three times, though Benn would be chastised post-fight for a punch thrown when Barkley was on the mat for the second time.

It was time to come home. With an offer of a substantial payday to fight Chris Eubank, Benn would put aside his own desires to take on Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard and contest another all-English affair. The two men were the antithesis of each other in terms of style, with Eubank arguably more stylish and definitely more elusive. After nine close rounds, a tiring Benn would be stopped by a flurry of Eubank shots, forcing the referee to stop the contest with four seconds left of the round. For the second time, Benn would lose a title to a fellow British boxer.

This time, the rehabilitation would take place primarily in the UK, outside of a stop in Italy to pick up his second world title, the WBC Super-Middleweight Championship, in a four round TKO victory over Mauro Galvano. Rather than the conclusive victory Benn might have wanted, the fight ended in controversy when Galvano was unable to continue due to a cut above his eye. With the Italians angling for a technical draw due to it being at the end of Round Three, confusion reigned until it was announced that Benn had been awarded the fight by TKO. To put any lingering doubt to rest, Benn would subsequently defeat Galvano by unanimous decision in Glasgow.

Between winning the title and fighting McClellan in 1995, Benn would accumulate a record of twelve wins and one draw, the draw being the controversial rematch with Chris Eubank. The fight would be a record breaker for UK boxing as Benn would become the first man to get paid £1 million for a UK fight. Benn would technically win on two of the judges’ scorecards, only for a docked point for a low blow in the sixth round would leave the score tied: one judge for Benn, one for Eubank, one tied. The fans in attendance weren’t happy – they clearly thought Benn had done enough to unify the titles (Eubank being the current WBO Super Middleweight Champion).

In the lead up to his match with McClellan, Benn would have two unanimous decision victories, the first over Henry Wharton, the second over Juan Carlos Giminez Ferreyra. Whilst both fights were comprehensive victories for the champion, they lacked the fireworks and ferocity expected of Benn between the ropes. With his 31st birthday behind him, and forty two fights of escalating length and competitiveness, people began to wonder how long Benn had left at the top of the pile.

For a fighter who had had questions about his chin ever since the fight against Michael Watson back in 1989, Benn couldn’t have chosen a more potentially difficult opponent. Gerald McClellan, fighting out of Illinois, was as dangerous a puncher as had ever set foot in a boxing ring. Around the time of the Benn/Watson contest, McClellan would lose his eleventh and twelfth fights on points. He wouldn’t lose another fight for the next five years. More worryingly, after a points victory over Charles Hollis in 1990, he would win his next fourteen contests by knockout or TKO. Ten of these fights would not see the bell for the end of the first round.

On McClellan’s first trip to the UK, he would win the WBO Middleweight Title that had been vacated when Chris Eubank moved up to Super-Middleweight, a belt that Eubank had taken off of Benn with his ninth round victory. John Mugabi would be his opponent for the vacant championship; Mugabi would hit the canvas three times in the first round. A fighter notorious for having no fight go the distance in his career up to this point, Mugabi would be hit multiple times with shots that stiffened his entire body, punches akin to walking into a brick wall staggering the veteran. That the referee allowed the fight to continue after the second knockdown was questionable, allowing Mugabi to take several more heavy shots to the face before collapsing face first to the mat. Jumping and punching the air as the ref waved off the fight, McClellan had proved to the British crowd his immense power. He would clearly be a danger for any opponent, no matter how lauded they might be.

Unlike Benn, who seemed to be slowing down, McClellan continued to improve as he knocked out challengers with relative ease. His impressive record would see him earn a shot at the WBC Middleweight Title in 1993, a match against the Virgin Islander Julian Jackson, a man who had only lost one fight of a forty seven fight career up to this point. Even successive low blows in the fifth round would not be enough to stop the American, as he got up after a short delay to land a left hook that almost had Jackson sliding under the bottom rope. The game champion was able to get back to his feet, only to take more punishment as McClellan smelt blood. The second knockdown saw Jackson once against get back up, but Miles Lane waved off the fight with him in no state to continue. A rematch would take place in 1994, the final fight before McClellan would meet Benn; this time Jackson barely made it out of the first minute, dropped by a body shot for a ten count. The speed, power and accuracy of McClellan was frightening as he swarmed all over Jackson after the first punch of note. Future glory seemed within his grasp.

The opening to the show was pure 90s; lurid colours flashing across the screen supported by synth music of the most basic. ‘The Big Fight’ emblazoned across the screen in gold, symbolic of the glory ahead for the victor. Vox pop style promotional snippets of interviews sat next to a montage of each mans’ impressive in-ring action, numbers dancing across the screen to remind the viewer watching at home that they were in for some destructive and explosive action. In the lead up to the fight both men were confident that they would come out the champion. McClellan criticised Benn’s ability to box; Benn reminded us all that he had more knockout victories than McClellan had matches.

The contest came at a good time for ITV Sport. Having only the week before showcased a one-sided ‘mugging’ (the words of Jim Rosenthal) between Frank Bruno and Rodolfo Martin, the broadcaster would have been looking for action that was a little more inspiring. The coverage pre-fight seemed to highlight the belief that they would get exactly that, everyone effusively selling the contest as a potential ‘fight of the decade’. Worryingly for the British fans, popular consensus was that the fight would be short, with McClellan likely to be the one with his hand raised at the end. The Times and The Mirror had the American winning in the sixth and fifth round respectively; The Guardian and Today didn’t even have Benn making it out of the first round.

Those who had lumped on the bookies’ tip would have liked what they saw as the introductions boomed out over the PA system in the London Arena. Lead to the ring by a flag waving Don King, McClellan looked unfazed by the hostility of the pro-Benn crowd, like a man ready to take what was rightfully his. In contrast, Benn appeared more wide-eyed and on edge as he followed his crew to ringside, a man who might have been beginning to regret the choices he had made.

After the ring introductions, the first round proved to be beyond the expectations of all the pundits who had expected a ferocious start. With a reminded of the thirty three first round wins each men shared, it shouldn’t have been surprising that one boxer was on his back within the first three minutes. Benn, after looking surprised by a couple of decent shots and the power within them, would get caught against the ropes with relative ease. Using his left hand to seemingly identify the places to aim for, McClellan would knock Benn out of the ring and onto the apron. A couple of shots that had managed to connect on Benn’s chin, a target ducking underneath the belt line in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable, stiffened the legs, before the next shot had Benn almost amongst the glitterati in the front row.

What followed has been debated about ever since the fight, as Benn would get what was perceived longer count to get back into the ring. Whether he had fallen far enough into the crowd to get a twenty count, or the ref offered a very calm and considered ten count, Benn was somehow able to get back into the ring. Inside my house, the fear of an early stoppage (and an early night) grew exponentially. How could Benn manage to see out this onslaught to finish the first round, let alone the fight?

And an onslaught it was.

McClellan was like a pitbull, snarling and chomping to get at Benn as quickly as possible, a fighter who knew he wasn’t paid by the hour and sensed it wouldn’t take much more to put Benn out for good. Stumbling around like a drunkard after closing time, Benn was lucky not to get stopped by the referee at several points – some officials would have stepped in for less. A token left hand before the bell rang would be the only offense of any note from the Brit, though it was at least a signal that he had managed to weather the storm and was still not only standing, but swinging as well.

In the Benn corner, a sense of worry was pervasive amongst not only the boxer, but his team also. Choosing not to dwell on the massacre that was the first round, Dennie Mancini would champion Benn’s cause, extolling the virtue of his work in that first round and reinflate a sense of belief in the almost beaten man. The second round would not be a repeat of the first, not if Benn could help it.

The street fighting instincts seemed to kick in, though many punches were high, wide or handsome, yet every connection would send a capacity crowd into rapture. As if exhausted by the early flurry and confused by the fight even entering a second round, McClellan would show little in the second round, resorting to holding onto Benn after receiving several stinging left hooks to the face. It was as if Benn drew energy from every punch that connected, his legs working hard to allow McClellan no space to escape.

The danger with a powerful fighter like McClellan was always going to be his ability to turn a contest on one jaw-shattering punch. Even though Round Three and Round Four saw Benn make multiple use of his left hook from out of a crouch position to good effect, the American still looked the more dangerous. Benn still needed to be wary of his opponent, a point highlighted when he was stopped in his tracks by a McLellan left hook, a desperate clinch enough to allow him to stay upright. These punches were becoming less frequent as the fight went on, however.

With the rarity of McClellan being dragged past Round Three, a longer fight felt like it was going to favour Benn. The commentary mentioned McClellan’s seeming inability to defend, and whenever the camera focused on the man, he looked dazed and tired by the constant barrage of blows from Benn. The wars across the UK and the US to get Benn to this night were paying dividends – he knew what it took to dig deep.

As hindsight is always perfect vision, it is easy to look now and see the warning signs that things weren’t quite right as the contest progressed. What could easily dismissed as the struggles of a boxer who had never been challenged in this manner, or been forced to box this many rounds more than a handful of times, looks damning when viewed in retrospect. The mouthguard seemed to have a mind of its own, popping in and out of McClellan’s mouth with every breath he forced into his exhausted body.  Between rounds and as he circled away from the onrushing Benn, his eyes flickered rapidly, a feature of his countenance noted on commentary. Every shot that Benn landed that somehow McClellan managed to absorb was testament to his capabilities at the time, as well as a steady march to the inevitable tragic ending.

That is not to say that Benn had it all his own way up until the eleventh round. The pundits went back and forth on whether Benn had done enough to recover on the scorecards following the first round knockdown, whilst arguably McClellan would win Round Seven after a barren spell since sending his opponent through the ropes. The frustration of the crowd was tangible, and spilled over for Benn at the end of Round Six, a couple of heavy shots landing after the bell, shrugged off on commentary as the instinct of a fighter who has his man hurt.

Just as it seemed like the home favourite was doing enough to peg back the points, disaster struck. A right hand by McClellan would send a flailing Benn into the ropes, before follow up shots would leave him propped up against the corner. Though suggestions would be made that the resulting knockdown was a slip, connection by McClellan’s glove seemed to be the catalyst for Benn’s trip to the canvas. Irrelevant as to whether it should have been considered a knockdown or not, all of the hard work that Benn had put in to closing the points gap was undone, much to his visible frustration.

McClellan would have his heart questioned in Round Nine, as an overreaching Benn would hit the American with his glove and then a glancing headbutt as he tumbled down to the canvas. As if to try and force the referee’s hand to give him the time that he so desperately needed, McClellan would kneel on the floor, much to the chagrin of the crowd in attendance. Boos reigned down as the ref told him to get back up to his feet, to resume the war of attrition that only occasionally threatened to break out into a boxing contest.

Even in a fight where every shot feels liable to leave a man laying on the canvas, the end came suddenly. At the time, I felt it was an anti-climax, buying into the commentary team’s suggestions that McClellan’s will and desire had been broken by Benn over the course of the intense battle. A big right hand from Benn in Round Ten would send McClellan down to his knees, the crowd’s fervour for their champion to win reaching a fever pitch as the first real sign of weakness from the American played out in the middle of the ring. He would get up to his feet, but there was no doubt that he was in no real condition to continue, each following punch taken with limited attempts to defend the swarm of blows from Benn’s right and left gloves. In testament to his will and desire to win, McClellan would manage to avoid ending up flat on his back, instead heading back to one knee for the second count of the round.

With the referee clearly signalling the count to the kneeling warrior, McClellan looked stunned. The crowd, every man and woman standing on their feet, has a sense that neither man would give in if they had an ounce of fight left in them. Yet, as the count continued to move towards ten, McClellan didn’t move. As the referee waved off the contest following the splaying of both of his hands to signal the ten had been reached, the realisation that Benn had managed to defeat the American against all odds hit. Rapture mixed with relief, for Benn and for the crowd in attendance. At the time of the knockout, McClellan was ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards.

It wasn’t long before the feeling in the ring changed from celebration to concern as McLellan would end up flat on his back, the corner and the medics rushing to try and administer first aid. With the TV viewers to consider, the post match interview with Benn was tinged with a sense of ill timing, as he lauded it over his fallen opponent at a time when oxygen masks were being administered and people were trying to clear the ring. Noticing the situation, the interview would be cut short, with McClellan’s condition unclear and the coverage finishing with questions left hanging in the air as to how serious things were. Was he just exhausted after a war that would end up putting Benn in hospital as well? The crowd crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

In a bittersweet turn of events, it would be the disabling of Michael Watson at the hands of Chris Eubank in 1991 that may have saved McClellan from a more serious condition, or even death. When Watson had required immediate medical attention, no paramedic or ambulance had been in attendance, leaving his brain to be starved of oxygen and a long wait for the required treatment was received. This time, five doctors, four paramedics and two ambulances were on the scene; an army of medical personnel that probably saved McClellan’s life.

In the ensuing hours that followed McClellan’s collapse, the adrenaline and aggression that surged through the body of Benn led to him declaring ‘rather him than me’ when challenged by a journalist on the condition of his opponent. Crass, but unfortunately all too understandable from a man who felt the world was against him in the lead up to the fight. When they ended up in the same hospital, Benn would show a more tender side to his personality, kissing the hands of the stricken warrior.

Understandably, calls from the British Medical Association to ban boxing were instant, especially considering all conceivable measures had been put in place to try and stop this type of tragedy occurring. In a comment that seemed almost too obvious and simplistic, a spokesperson for the medical body would say “The problem is that boxers are punching each other’s heads.”  However, just like McClellan would survive his brush with death, boxing would also survive, yet with the lingering spectre of tragedy never too far away.

Benn would fight two more times in 1995, defeating Vincenzo Nardiello and Danny Perez by TKO. This would be the last hurrah for a boxer that many felt had been on a downward slide before triumph over McClellan. His WBC Super Middleweight Title would be lost in a match against a forty year old Thulani ‘Sugarboy’ Malinga in 1996, one that Benn himself admitted he had been complacent in and put in a lacklustre performance. Later that year, two consecutive losses to the Irishman Steve Collins would signal the end of his career.

As for McClellan? He would spend eleven days in a coma, losing his eyesight, ability to walk and powers of comprehension in the process. Over time, the ability to get around with a cane would allow him an element of freedom, but he required full time care that would be administered by his three sisters.

The tragedy of the fight rightly overshadows the quality of the contest, but it would be remiss of the boxing public to choose to bury their heads in the sand and forget about it. The battle between the two champions encapsulated the best and worst of the fighting game; the lengths that a man would go to to take a punch and keep on moving forward; the potential for debilitating injury and death ever present.

This was the fight that made me fall in love with boxing as a sport. Perhaps too young to realise the overarching narrative that played out in the days that followed, it became emblematic of persistence in the face of adversity. Even after over twenty years, it grabs and engages me in a way that no other fight has and possibly will since. The epilogue may be tragic; the talents of the men who were willing to die for victory, unquestionable.

 

Roberto Duran vs Vinny Pazienza II (14th January, 1995)

This is going to be an ongoing thing, where I try and look at boxing from the year 1995. It was a year that I fell in love with the sport, and included some of my favourite fights (in terms of the memories I attach to them, at least). Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Steve Collins, Frank Bruno….they all had their moments that year that made me become a fan of the sport.

I plan to do at least one for each month of the year, so I begin with a match between Roberto Duran and Vinny Pazienza. Unlike some, I didn’t see this match until earlier this week. Hope you enjoy.

 

index

“Many people did not believe I could make it, but I did. Many people believed I was too old to win, but I was not.”

Roberto Duran after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard, 1980

Chapter 1

Roberto Duran vs Vinny Pazienza

14th January 1995, Atlantic City New Jersey

When I was little, two of my favourite books were books on the history of sport. One of them charted the history of the Football World Cup, and through this I was able to appreciate and understand the precocious talents and majesty of players such as Pele and Diego Maradona, alongside tracking the development, the rise and the fall of many of the bigger footballing nations who had competed since the tournament’s inception. The second book was an Encyclopedia of Boxing. Resplendent with historical photographs, it comprehensively covered the biggest names, fights and events in a long and storied account of boxing from birth until the beginning of the 90s.

Unlike the footballing chronicle, the Encyclopedia left less of an impact in terms of my overall knowledge and understanding. Looking back, it seemed that I was too young to show more than a passing interest outside of the pictures liberally dotted around every page. I remember faded black and white photos of Jack Johnson, Ali represented in his prime, and one particularly shocking image of a Benny Paret, a boxer killed following an Emile Griffith onslaught in a bout in 1962, slumped on the canvas following eighteen unprotected shots to the head in six seconds.

As well as highlighting the legitimate danger for the men who stepped into the ring, the sheer amount of fights that they would contest over the course of a career was eye opening. It was not uncommon for boxers in the early to mid-1900s to fight upwards of a hundred fights from their debut onwards. Jake Lamotta would hear the opening bell one hundred and six times in his career (winning 83), whilst his long term nemesis, Sugar Ray Robinson, would put on the gloves two hundred times in his twenty five year stint (winning 173). True, there were also fighters like Rocky Marciano, who famously would retire undefeated with forty nine victories to his name, but the idea of someone fighting into triple figures amongst modern boxers is a very unlikely concept.

The changing world of the fight game stands out as one of the reasons this is becoming more of a rarity. The world of PPV television fires the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ spirit, yet also brings with it a fear of defeat; one telling blow could cost the entourage collectively above and beyond what they are willing to risk. Coupled with an industry, and a world for that matter, geared towards profit and protecting one’s own, fewer boxers are left in a position where they have to fight for scraps, appearing on the card for any promoter that will write them a paycheck.

At the start of 1995, Roberto Duran was about to put on the gloves and boots for the 103rd time in his career. Having had doubts voiced over his age and whether he would be able to get it done in the ring in the lead up to his initial battle with Sugar Ray Leonard, the fact that Duran was appearing on cards fifteen years later was a choice solely driven by money; the IRS and child-support payments would soak up the majority of any money due to come Duran’s way. A love of the playboy lifestyle meant that not only did he have numerous children with a variety of different women, but that he also spent millions of dollars earned during his heyday, when he was able to stand toe-to-toe with greats like Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. Unlike the Panamanian, these three sporting luminaries were able to walk away from the ring after forty, sixty seven and sixty seven fights respectively; a mere drop in the ocean when compared to Duran’s record.

Beginning his career in 1968, Duran would bounce between the renowned boxing nations of Panama and Mexico, ratcheting up twenty four wins in his first three years. To crown this achievement, he would reach his half century by making his debut in Madison Square Garden, the mecca of boxing, in a one minute beating of Benny Huertas. Both men came to fight and trade in the center of the ring, but very few could match up to Duran’s durability and his power behind his punches. Tit for tat shots soon degenerated into a one sided blowout as several combinations rained down on Huertas, felling him with an innocuous right cross following a left that seemed to put his opponent down through sheer force of will and accumulation of punishment. Duran had arrived in the eyes of America.

Duran’s next two outings at the Garden would showcase the best and worst of the dangerous brawler. His determination was fuelled by a fiery temper that could occasionally get him into trouble and often seemed to bubble just below the surface. The desire to be the best and provide money for people back in his homeland led to liberal deployment of the dark arts of boxing.

In his first world title fight against Ken Buchanan, the Scot was clearly not prepared for the level of legal ferocity and illegal ‘strategy’ that Duran would bring into the ring. The challenger would score a knockdown in the first minute of the fight (Buchanan’s fists against the canvas would stop his fall, but the ref would administer a standing eight count). Getting in close at every opportunity, Duran never allowed Buchanan to settle, and hit him with relentless combinations to the head and body, liberally sprinkling his offense with headbutts, elbows and shots south of the belt line. Buchanan seemed to want greater protection from the referee, and wasn’t able to regroup when it wasn’t forthcoming. Several punches after the round thirteen bell ended up with the champion down on the canvas holding his groin. With the Scot unable to continue, and the ref unable to see any clear foul outside of the after bell blows that both men connected with, Duran was awarded the contest, and with that, his first world title, the WBA Lightweight title.

It wouldn’t be until his 32nd fight that Duran would first taste defeat in the ring, losing a unanimous decision to Esteban de Jesus, a fellow boxer who learnt his trade in Panama, in a non-title fight fought at Light Welterweight. A charging and reckless Duran would be dropped flush with a left hand from De Jesus, en route to a unanimous decision loss. De Jesus was a competent knockout puncher, and it didn’t take much to pierce the moving guard of Duran, yet the punch only left him grounded for a little under five seconds.

When he stood back up, he was smiling.

The smile would be plastered across his face for the next seven years, though this time through success rather than an attempt to brush off an opponent’s success. Seven years and forty-one fights would pass before he would taste the sting of defeat again. In this reign of terror, not only would Duran twice beat De Jesus to a bloody pulp in retribution for his first loss, the second match gaining him the WBC Lightweight Title, he would also afford Sugar Ray Leonard his first ever loss in the forty first contest of his win streak. A decision by Leonard not to run and instead to try and fight Duran’s style of fight left him defeated in a close Unanimous Decision, losing his WBC Welterweight Title as well. There was one positive: due to the amount of interest generated by Duran’s win streak and Leonard’s Olympic Gold and subsequent undefeated start to his professional career, Duran would receive the biggest payday of his career, $1.5 million; Leonard, a massive-for-the-time $9 million

The forty-second fight would be notable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Whether you believe Duran’s story of stomach cramps caused by the process of making the weight limit, or you feel that eight rounds of jukes, jives, fancy footwork and bolo punches by Leonard finally broke him, but the infamous ‘No Mas’ incident changed everything for the Panamanian. Before the fight, Duran knew that Leonard would try and get him angry, throw him off his game, but he felt he could handle that. Midway through the eighth round, Duran decided he had had enough. Though he never uttered the famous appellation ultimately linked to this fight, he did the one thing a boxer should never do: quit. Overnight, he went from a hero in his home country to something of a national disgrace; how times change over the course of six months.

Just looking at Duran’s record in the 80s, you could see that he wasn’t the man that first burst onto the scene in Panama at the age of sixteen. Losses against Marvin Haggler (by Unanimous Decision) and Thomas Hearns (by a less than impressive 2nd Round TKO) shouldn’t really be held up against him; if you are willing to stand up and take on the best in your chosen field, you aren’t always going to win, no matter what level of competitor you are. However, losses against fighters like Wilfred Benitez, Kirkland Laing (a match that won the Ring Magazine award for ‘Upset of the Year’ in 1982) and Robbie Sims were less forgivable. These weren’t cans, but they were nowhere near the standard of competitor Duran had been known to defeat handily. Between them, these three boxers would retire with a cumulative total of thirty losses; none of them to Duran.

After summoning up some of the old fistic magic at the age of thirty eight to defeat Iran Barkley for the WBC Middleweight Title, and one last slow dance with Sugar Ray Leonard where he was out fought by a long way, Duran’s career would seem to enter terminal decline. Winning matches was not necessarily the issue; the quality of opponent was. Following a three year gap from the Leonard fight in which his only contest was a TKO loss to Pat Lawlor, Duran would win the next seven fights in a row, but against a quality of boxer noticeably weaker than the likes of Haggler, Hearns and Leonard.

Arguably, the most impressive record of this bunch of opponents was Sean Fitzgerald, who was yet to be defeated. Duran would knock him out in the sixth round. Fitzgerald would retire six years later having never made a defence of the USA New England Middleweight Title that was the pinnacle of his career; Dana Rosenblatt would blast him out of the ring in the first round to win the belt shortly before Fitzgerald’s would call it quits.

Duran’s style was still geared towards relentless pressure and pushing his opponents backwards with work that targeted both the head and the body with equal ferocity, just someone had hit the slow motion button. The mind was willing, but the body wasn’t able to execute his gameplan to the same level as he once was capable of. His victories at this time often came when he managed to get in close to his opponent, connect with multiple punches before the overwhelming force that was seemingly the last thing to go accumulated and put them down.

His opponent in January was Vinny Pazienza, somewhat of a journeyman with delusions of glory beyond his boxing acumen. What Paz did bring to the ring was the ability to take a punch and keep on going, as well as the stamina to keep him moving and throwing for all twelve rounds, and the lack of scruples required to occasionally bend a rule once in awhile. Pazienza wasn’t apologetic when it came to this side of his character. As far as he was concerned, he was in the ring to have a fight, and that was what he was willing to offer.

In a match involving one of the premier boxers of any era of the sport, it could be easy to neglect Pazienza completely, focusing solely on Duran. However, Pazienza had a story that arguably eclipses that of ‘Hands of Stone’.

A boxer very much of the Duran mould, but with a few rougher edges, Pazienza was workmanlike in a 40-5 record, with many of the forty wins coming against boxers who had numbers that looked like a bad cricket score. A defeat of Greg Haugen would give Pazienza  IBF World Lightweight gold, only for him to relinquish the title back to Huagen only eight months later.  It often felt as if Pazienza was more than capable, but lacked the spark of quality required to defeat notable opponents; he would lose contests against Roger Mayweather, Hector Camacho and Loreto Garza, all fights contested for world titles.

In the fight against Garza, Pazienza would show that he was not above letting his frustrations boil over a la Duran. As the eleventh round came to a close, a bloodied and beaten Pazienza would use a clinch as the perfect opportunity to try and life Garza off his feet and slam him to the canvas. Though the infraction was quick and not completed, the referee was quick to wave off the fight and award it to Garza. Noticeable, Pazienza and his corner didn’t seem to complain about the decision: the general sign of a fight who knew he did wrong.

Up until his battles with Duran, Pazienza’s biggest moment had been a victory over Gilbert Dele in 1991, winning the WBA World Light Middleweight Title in the process. It seemed like a reward for his perseverance as much as anything else; it was harder to doubt Vinny’s effort than it was his ability.

He would never get the chance to defend his title. On the 12th of November 1991, a car he was passenger in skidded and collided with another vehicle. Though his father would report to the NY Times that “he’s not banged up that bad” in the initial aftermath, it would turn out that Pazienza had broken his neck in the accident. With doctors unsure whether he would be able to walk again, let alone box, Vinny not only trained with his protective Halo on (all against doctor’s orders), but would be back in the ring in thirteen months, winning his return fight against Luis Santana in a ten round decision. By the time he was due to meet Duran in the ring, he was on an eight fight winning streak.

The contest in January would not be the first time Duran and Pazienza had stood on opposite corners of the ring from each other. In a match that was for the IBC Super Middleweight title, the two met in June 1994, in a contest with an atmosphere that could charitably be described as ‘fractious’. During the lead-up to the fight, Pazienza promised to make Duran ‘bark like a German shepherd’, whilst Duran (via translator) vowed to put The Pazmanian Devil back in the hospital.

By the end of the fight, both men had been cut open; Pazienza above the eye, Duran in the middle of the forehead, both seemingly following a clash of heads. Several times Pazienza had to be told to stop holding onto the ropes, with repeated warnings for both men to punch above the belt – a wayward shot on Pazienza would lead to a short break whilst he readjusted and caught his breath. Punches after the bell and taunting in the later rounds would get the crowd on the back of the brash young pretender, willing on their hero to show them a glimpse of what brought him to the dance all those many years ago.

The fifth round perfectly encapsulated the nature of the fight. Duran, following a slip by Pazienza in round two, was able to finally able to use his experience to lure his opponent to overbalance on a punch, dropping him to the canvas with a right hand. It was a highlight far too infrequent for the Duran fans in attendance, made even more frustrating by Roberto’s inability to capitalise. Indeed, Pazienza would finish the round much stronger than the veteran, purely through his ability to throw punches in bunches. Every time Duran landed with one shot, Vinny had moved out of reach of the second punch, if a second punch was actually thrown. In all reality, Duran was slowing even by the time he scored the knockdown, and would arguably lose every round after the fifth. All three judges even scored that round 10-10, suggesting that Pazienza had done enough to draw the round following his trip to the mat. That was debatable, but in the rest of the contest, he outworked, outfought and out-willed the living legend almost from the opening bell.

Duran looked and felt like an old man, attempting to rage against the dying of the light of a career that had sparkled, but ultimately failing. As the twelfth due to close, even the commentary team mused over whether Vinny Pazienza had finally forced Duran into retirement. But Duran wasn’t finished. With an impetuousness which could only come from being forty three and a five weight world champion, not only did he claim the moral victory in the fight by telling the NY Times “If this kid’s so tough, look at his face and look at me. I didn’t lose the fight.”, but by also quickly denying any potential thoughts about retiring with words as quick and to the point as one of his acclaimed body shots.

“No. I will fight.”

It has to be believed that the only reason we ever saw a Duran vs Pazienza II in January 1995 was the bad blood that seeped into every aspect of this rivalry, as well as the knockdown in Round Five. In that moment, we saw a glimmer of what Duran had been capable of throughout his career, and there was always the chance he could unleash one shot that would drop the mouthy American for good. Outside of his name, the resonance of past glories that he had built up in the 70s and 80s, it was all he had.

The second bout was dubbed ‘A Matter of Pride’, a fitting sobriquet for Duran’s career since ‘No Mas’. Even before the bell had rung, it was clear that the ill feeling the surrounded their first fight hadn’t dissipated in the six month gap between contests. Pazienza almost knocked the referee out of the way to get at Duran during the reading of the rules, and he would talk the whole way through the ref’s spiel, telling Duran that he was ready and he was not afraid. He was met with Duran’s trademark cold and steely gaze, seemingly unaffected by the brashness of youth. The ref would physically have to force the men to touch gloves; neither man willing to show the other any hint of respect.

Visibly bigger and more out of shape than in the first fight, Duran would struggle throughout the fight to raise the tempo in a manner that could put Pazienza in danger. In the lead up to the fight, the footage of Duran’s recent victories showed a propensity for him to lean into the opponent on the ropes and drop them with combinations, the single shot knockout power a distant memory. Pazienza just never let him use this technique effectively.

The first punch by Pazienza, though just clipping Duran, seemed to surprise the Panamanian, and the opening round felt like a rehash of the previous fight. Not only had Duran’s legs gone by now, but the speed of his punches offered little in the way of trouble for his opponent, as Pazienza was able to get in, hit a right and a left, and get out without Duran even getting close to catching him. Wary of Duran’s potential punching power, Pazienza would throw unorthodox strikes, often with his arm and head moving in completely opposite directions. This ability to stay out of range, but hit combinations with ease when moving closer, gave Pazienza the first round. Once again, it would require the referee to get in between both boxers as Pazienza would move to square up to Duran, but that hostility would dissipate as the fight progressed.

Over the next couple of rounds, Duran would find himself in a position to drive his opponent back into the ropes, echoing his most recent victories. However, Pazienza seemed happy to fight off of the ropes, and would even will Duran on with taunts. Each time Duran would let fly with his solitary shots, all too often Pazienza would slip the punches and retaliate with several of his own. It felt like Duran was swatting at flies for long stretches, and even when he managed to force Pazienza back against the ropes in round three, Duran was all too easily shrugged off by the younger man.

In hope more than expectation the crowd followed Duran into this fight, and by the third round they could see that their man wasn’t likely to show us any glimpses of the dangerous fighter that once was. Restlessness seeped in as Pazienza took another round, with several punches thrown after the bell for good measure. Though the first contest between the two was heated, this all felt tokenistic; both men occasionally giving the fans the scrap they had paid to see, but the gulf between the two so vast that any real needle was lost at the first bell.

It took until the fifth round for Duran to throw a punch that felt like it had something resembling meaning, a left hook. Smiling, Pazienza would rattle his head to taunt, often a sign of a man who doesn’t want to admit to the pain the punch caused. Having taken large chunks of the fourth round off, Pazienza was back to nipping in and out of range, using levels to hit Duran at will with punches that were never going to end the fight, but were doing enough for him win the rounds. Anytime Duran looked like he was loading up a significant strike, Pazienza would quickly disengage, knowing that Duran was never going to chase after him. His guard would remain low also, with his chin rarely in hitting distance.

Duran’s biggest successes in the fights would come in the later rounds, as a slowing Pazienza would leave himself open for the odd counterpunch. When moving forward, Duran’s work to the body was workmanlike, but he would always take several blows to the head for his troubles. As the fight continued, he would stumble forward, rarely throwing anything with conviction, holding on to Pazienza and breathing heavily.

Even Pazienza seemed to offer little of quality in this fight. The contest in June would have been seen as a big opportunity; this fight felt like it rehashing old news. Like the first battle between the two, Pazienza would hit the canvas, only this time it would be due a slip rather than any pressure from the fading Duran. The tiredness of ‘The Pazmanian Devil’ would impact upon the form and fury of the strikes in the later rounds, with several wild swings borne out of a desire to conclusively finish his opponent. Yet, for the most part, he was able to do enough work to win the rounds, without ever putting himself in danger like he had back in June. At times, it felt that his mouth was doing the most work of anything in the ring as he continued to berate Duran into the latter stages.

Both men would touch gloves at the start of the eleventh and twelfth round, a modicum of respect seeping into proceedings. That the resigned thump Duran gave Pazienza’s gloves in the penultimate round was the hardest he’d managed to hit his opponent tells its own story. The commentary in the final three minutes would take on the tone of an elegy for Duran’s career. As if to finish this sequel in a manner befitting some of the action we’d seen across the twenty four rounds, Duran would hit Pazienza with a last second low blow by mistake. Like he had been in the face of the rest of Duran’s offense, Pazienza was barely phased as the bell went to seemingly put Duran out of his misery and leave him little option but to retire.

Even within the usually steely gaze of Roberto Duran, there seemed a hint of sadness as the scorecards were read out and declared Vinny Pazienza the victor in a lopsided result (118-10, 117-111, 116-112). Both men would show respect for each other at the post-fight press conference and share a hug, singing the other’s praises for the pay cheque each would receive (Pazienza, at $750,000, earning over $100,000 more out of the fight). Clearly hating to lose, Duran would look for any excuse other than his failing body, and this time would suggest that Pazienza took steroids, a repeated claim among some in the boxing world.

As if to highlight how far Duran had fallen as a viable contender, Pazienza would be comprehensively out-boxed in his next contest against the IBF Super Middleweight Champion, Roy Jones Jr. Undefeated at the time, Jones would finish Pazienza in the sixth round, knocking him down three times following a fifth round where Jones would avoid all five punches thrown by his opponent. Though he didn’t even get close to taking the title from Jones, Pazienza would pocket over one million dollars for his fight purse.

Following the loss to Pazienza, many people would have been waiting for Duran to finally hang up the gloves and call it a day. However, just like the first fight, he was already quelling the hopes of many who wanted him to get out of the game with his mental faculties in working order. Whilst it was likely to be subject to the rule of diminishing returns, it is understandably hard to walk away from any endeavour that affords you paycheques upwards of half a million dollars. This is especially the case when you are used to living the standard of life Duran had cultivated for himself, by competing in the one thing you consider yourself good at.

For a man who was considered ‘too old’ when he bullied Sugar Ray Leonard around the ring in 1980, Duran’s last fight would be a losing effort against Hector Camacho in 2001. After the Pazienza fights, he would go on to fight another fifteen times, a frankly dangerous amount for a man whose sole skills at this point in his career was the desire to lace up the boots and the ability to soak up punishment. In those fifteen fights, Duran would win ten and lose five, though the most serious loss would come at the hands of William Joppy, a young contender from the US. In a match that resembled a massacre, Duran would be knocked out in round three, soaking up a large amount of punishment in the eight minutes he lasted. By this point, his purse was down to a quarter of a million dollars.

In the end, the decision on when his career would end was taken out of Duran’s hands, as he had little choice but to call it a day following a near-tragic car accident. With the nature of his battles in 1994 and 1995 with Pazienza, his subsequent beatings by Camacho and Joppy, and other losses to fights like Jorge Fernando Castro and Omar Gonzalez, the thought of Duran boxing into his 50s was a worrying, yet legitimate, concern. Luckily, Duran would recover well following the accident, and would retire seemingly with his faculties intact.

With title belts won in four different divisions and the longevity to fight in five different decades, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest the legacy of Duran is written in stone. If ever we wanted proof that Duran possibly outstayed his welcome, look no further than his match versus Vinny Pazienza on the 14th of January 1995.

NaNoWriMo – Day 17

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However, the embers still gave off a faint glow. I needed to find something I could do to challenge myself. Considering my limited prowess in most things athletic, and my interest in reading, my two choices couldn’t have been more polarising in nature.

Firstly, I decided to run a marathon.

Secondly, I decided to read lots of books.

The marathon was always an inkling of an idea that I’d had following time I’d spent watching the London Marathon on the television back when I was younger. It was always a pipe dream, one of those ‘things to do before I die’ that always seemed more likely to kill me in the process, if anything. Still, one drunk evening in May, I threw down fifty of my English pounds and signed up for the 2014 Brighton Marathon. With the outlay of money, it was always likely that I’d at least attempt it – I was never letting that money go completely to waste.

It was around this time that I discovered a rather large presence of readers online. This was both a stupid realisation and a great one, as it should have been obvious to me that a great many readers would head online to discuss, debate and recommend books. The discovery of Goodreads, a website where people review books and the algorithms working in the background spit out a recommendation based on your habits, revitalised my reading. I was back to where I started when I was a child – I was a voracious reader once more, primarily due to one thing: The Reading Challenge.

At the start of the year, you could sit there and suggest an arbitrary number of books that you would read over the course of said year. As you accrued titles that you completed, all you had to do was give your star rating (and add the finishing date) on Goodreads, and the book would be added to your challenge. At the start of 2014, I decided that it was feasible for me to read a book a week for the whole year, thus leaving me with a reasonable target of fifty two.

By this time, I’d given up drinking and began to train for the marathon. On top of the money I put down to enter the race, I’d splashed out one hundred pounds on running shoes and bought an ultimate marathon training book on my Kindle. The book I bought (how else was I ever likely to run a marathon without the support of a book?) had me out four times a week, three smaller runs with one longer run at the weekend. The theory was that, by increasing the miles per week, your body was getting used to running, and the long run allowed you to practise effective marathon strategy as well as give you a taste of the reality of long distance running.

Starting the week of Christmas, I began with a three mile run. Easy stuff for most, but it was as much as I’d worked out in the past year. I wasn’t exactly in athletic shape, and the tightness of the running top I wore wasn’t exactly flattering. Just to make it even more challenging, I started my training in Lewes (at the home of my in laws), where their house is set on top of one of the higher peaks around the area. Great on the way down, a bit of a bastard on the way back up. Still, I succeeded, and it was onwards and upwards from there.

I managed to stay off the drink for January at least (Cancer Research was running a Dryathlon advertising campaign at the same time, so it was in part due to this), and generally began to try and be a bit healthier all round. The mileage increased, and my body took a battering, specifically on the long runs. I was hitting thirty to forty miles in a week, and this was in Croydon, the most boring place to run on earth. With my longer runs, I shuttle ran between a bus stop and a big roundabout for as many times as was necessary to fulfill my quota.

As my marathon running kicked into high gear, so did my reading. A book a week – a rate I’d never been near in previous years – was nothing at all really. I read some great books over the course of that year. The aforementioned ‘Stoner’ got a look in, but I also read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls, ‘Dept. of Speculation’ by Jenny Offill and ‘I Am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes. Not all my encounters were good; ‘The Maze Runner’ by James Dashner and ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn were two of my lower literary points that year.

Maybe it was the ease with which I was finding this reading challenge that lead me to try and up the ante. That, and my penchant for purchasing books on my Kindle that would otherwise require a small donkey to cart it around for me if I wanted to take it anywhere. I decided, rather foolishly, to type two things into Google.

‘The most difficult books to read in the world’.

‘The longest books in the world’.

As with the previous chapter, it becomes fairly arbitrary that I chose ‘Romance of the Seven Kingdoms’ above several other choices that might have just as easily fit the concept. Within a short window of time, I’d purchased ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace (difficult and long), ‘Gravity’s Rainbow (not as long, very difficult), ‘A La Recherche Du Temps’ by Marcel Proust (exceedingly long) and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ by Luo Ghuanzhong (ridiculously long, lots of characters).

This is where the wheels came off both challenges, so to speak. I injured my calf muscle on a run, leaving me unable to train for close to two weeks, whilst my reading slowed down as I deliberated, tried out, and quickly dropped each of those individual books in turn. Saying you are going to do something, committing to it and actually doing it are all clearly very different things.

Luckily for me, I was able to cycle and swim in place of the running. Whilst it wasn’t the same, it did at least allow me to retain a certain level of fitness in a low impact sport without risking injuring myself further. The reading…well, they wouldn’t be mentioned if this book if I’d suddenly broke through my reticence and read one of them.

With both challenges I was undertaking at this point, there was an underlying element: a desire to be able to say ‘I’ve done that’. Whilst the challenge and competitiveness that had driven me in the past to directly compete against people didn’t exist in the same way as it used to, there was still a general desire to get a reaction out of people by doing something that a lot of people couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do.

In some ways, it is sad that there is an element of showing off that made me want to complete the tasks. Most people will willingly run the marathon for the fun of it; a challenge only about themselves and the road. A book like ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ will be read by someone for pleasure, and as an opportunity to enjoy one of the greatest feats of literature from another culture.

There was a hint of that, but it would be remiss to suggest that there wasn’t more to it. In a life where you potentially have very little time in the limelight, any opportunity to stand out and be special is important. The fact that I saw running a marathon and reading a really long book as an opportunity to rise above the parapet spoke more to my personal interests and desires than anything else.

The weekend of the marathon was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Considering my inability to train at times during the period leading up to the run, I was never going to be able to do myself justice. However, it had never been a case of getting good time – the focus was always on getting around.

I got to eighteen miles before I stopped, the longest singular run I’d ever completed and the mini-hurdle which I wanted to overleap within the larger challenge. I walked with purpose for a mile or two, before committing to another bout of running. The drizzle that had plagued that start of the race disappeared, to be replaced with a bright blue sky and enough sun exposure to burn the top of my head. A second bout of walking was necessary, but it allowed me to do the one other thing I was hoping – to finish the race running.

According to my wife, the way people had passed my group of friends and family before I arrived in the final stretch didn’t bode well. People limped, pale skinned and vomiting as they went. Considering my non-athletic disposition, there was legitimate concern that I could only be worse off than any of these ‘proper’ athletes. To their surprise, I bounded down the road looking, to their eyes, as a fresh as I did when I started off. What that says for my looks at the best of times, I’d rather not contemplate, but it was nice to feel that I looked good. The stops obviously did me good, but you have to whatever it takes to get you through.

The last mile was insane. My wife and some friends had seen me off, so I’d had some contact with people I knew up until around the fourth mile. I then didn’t see anyone I knew for another twenty miles, or over four hours of running. Naturally, people were incredibly encouraging no matter who you were, but it wasn’t exactly the same as seeing someone that meant a lot to you. This distance from those at the roadside didn’t stop me from purloining jelly babies en masse – seemingly the long distance runner’s snack of choice.

As I came down towards where Queens Road meets the coast, people crammed a dozen deep between the curb and the steep drop to the beachside concourse below. Though this mass of humanity was inspiring, it somehow didn’t impinge upon my ability to see my family and friends waving frantically as I leisurely jogged past. The last mile flew by, my weary legs, carried by the roar of the crowd, striving to finish as quickly as I could.

My time was eventually 5.17. I remember walking around a lot after going through the finishing line – the adrenaline and sugar of the energy drinks coursing through my veins. It took over half an hour for my friends and family to find, considering I had no way to contact them by phone, and the Cancer Research meeting point wasn’t easily accessible. I sat down on the stony Brighton Beach and waited, wrapped like a burrito in a foil sheet.

When they found me, it was the legitimate pride that I felt in all their words and gestures that made it all worth while. Sure, I hurt a lot for the next few days (though not seemingly as much as I thought I would), but I was made to feel as if I had achieved something truly impressive, a concept that hadn’t been the case for many years. I also raised over eight hundred pounds for charity, which was not to be sniffed at.

Now, if thousands of people can cheer me on as I read ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, maybe I’d actually get somewhere.

Interlude 5

Books I’ve Almost Read

‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

In my list of long and difficult books that I’ve barely made any inroads in, one book was absent that I decided to buy around the same time: ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy. Unlike ‘Infinite Jest’ and ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, the cost was limited somewhat by the age of the text – I was able to pick up one of the biggest (and some say best) books in history for nothing! I couldn’t turn it down, and it ended up on my Kindle.

There it sat for many months. Finally, my one nod to New Years’ Resolutions saw me set out to tame the beast. The reason I chose it was for the name value: most people know ‘War and Peace’ as a ridiculously long book, so it would make a bigger impact when I said I’d read it. That, and I knew about it longer than the other options.

As I sit here, undertaking another challenge in NaNoWriMo, I’m around five hours from finishing the book. One of the biggest problems I have with the Kindle is that it tells you how long it will take you to read something. During a challenge to read as many books as you can, it is quite easy to put a large book to one side just because it might slow you down.

‘War and Peace’ started at thirty six hours.

I’ve attacked it in fits and starts. I’ve had moments where I’ve completely lost track of what is going on due to periods of time away from the book, and the sheer volume of scope and number of characters Tolstoy attempts to cover. There are areas which are genuinely some of the dullest writing I’ve ever seen – a fox hunting description lasting across several chapters almost led to me giving up the book for good. Even now, I’ve not picked it up since my flight was delayed on return from my honeymoon in August.

I will…will finish it.

Is it the best book I’ve ever read? No, I can’t suggest it is. However, there are moments, manifold moments across the text, where Tolstoy moves seamlessly between the political machinations of the ballroom to the folly of war. There are moments where the ridiculousness of love through the eyes of a young maiden mirrors the stupidity of generals as they send their men to die in vain. Tolstoy is a great writer; ‘War and Peace’ a great book.

Even if I didn’t enjoy the book, it is hard to argue with the sheer scope of what Tolstoy tries to offer us within the confines of a cover; the labour of love that this tome must have become; the vision with which so many lives interact, live and love across the pages of a book. Having got so far, I feel like I need to finish it to do the book justice.

…Telling people you’ve nearly read all of ‘War and Peace’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.