Countdown to Mayweather v Hatton: Street fighting man
Steeped in boxing Billy Graham has grafted his way from the violent backdrop of Moss Side to the glitz of Vegas where he is now preparing his long-time pupil Ricky Hatton for the defining fight of his career
In the Seventies when Nat Basso's Anglo-American Sporting Club was at its peak inside the Piccadilly Hotel in central Manchester a young middleweight called Billy "The Preacher" Graham was often on the bill.
Graham fought 14 times, winning 12, during a two-year career that started in 1974 and ended one afternoon when he was in a flat in Salford with a girl and not in the gym. It was a regular dilemma in Graham's life between the girls and the ring, and when he finally walked away from professional boxing he was only 21. He was about to go under the radar and get lost somewhere on the streets of Manchester and Salford for about a decade.
"It's such a long time ago and a lot of things have happened since but I've never been one for living in the past, me. This is where I am now," said Graham and now is a suite at the MGM Grand on Las Vegas Boulevard for the last three weeks.
Graham has been in Las Vegas twice this year for Ricky Hatton's wins in January and June and in the summer he spent some time with Muhammad Ali's business manager, Gene Kilroy. They drank coffee and talked boxing at a variety of booths in the late-night coffee shops with Graham often emerging at dawn with his eyes bloodshot from caffeine and snout and his trademark Pork Pie just a bit pissed on his head. After the Jose Luis Castillo win in June, Graham took up residency in one seat at a lounge bar in Caesars Palace for nearly 24 hours. I joined him at 5am, 2pm and midnight and I swear he looked great. It was about more than the drink and I think Graham was just sitting in the fight game's most famous hotel having joined the club of master trainers from big fights. "I'm a long way from Salford, Buncey." He was right.
"Boxing's been my life and the chance to sit down with a member of Ali's inner circle and just talk has been fantastic. When I was fighting there was nobody bigger than Ali. Nobody."
However, boxing would still be Graham's life if he was stuck in an amateur gym in Salford and far removed from the edge of the glitz that now illuminates his days and nights. He has been with Hatton from the start of the Manchester boxer's career and they were working together when Hatton was still an amateur. Graham talked back then about Hatton's ability and versatility as a boxer and I can remember a midnight walk in about 1996 after a fight in Manchester with Graham banging on and on about "this kid". The kid was Hatton and in September 1997 they started to work together as professionals.
From the start of Hatton's career the boxer's original promoter, Frank Warren, called Graham a pain in the arse because he continually rejected opposition. Warren, who is a master at creating a winning and believable record for his prospects, was not impressed with Graham's interference. They both talked openly about their dislike of each other but in the business of boxing it is common to work with somebody that you hate and the pair of big boys got on with business. Hatton and Warren finally split in 2005 and it is worth remembering that boxing people only ever fall out over money and not because of anything related to hate.
"I had a few run-ins with Frank. That's the way the business works but I was too busy getting Ricky ready to worry about a bit of name-calling. At the start my gym was full with good fighters and from the start it was clear that Ricky was prepared to work and fit in. He's not changed one bit as a person and now that he's the big name in the gym he still fits in. Trust me, that's the only way it can work," said Graham.
When Graham emerged from the wilderness in the late Eighties he found himself at the door of his old sparring partner and friend from his boxing days, Phil Martin. The pair had shared the gyms in the Seventies and Martin had fought for and lost in a British title fight. Nobody who ever saw Graham fight doubts that he would have reached British title level but his problem, as he admits, was inside his pants. In the violent and disturbing wake of the Moss Side riots Martin created a boxing gym and retreat above a fire-scorched Co-op. He built the place from scratch but the gym was not for show, it was never a calling point for politicians desperate to score a few points in the slums for a photo opportunity with a bloody-nosed black kid. On the top floor Martin created a video haven where he and Graham spent days watching modern and ancient fighters and Graham still locks himself away for whole weekends watching tapes of fighters.
Martin started to use Graham to work with the boxers and for a few years the Champs Camp gym, as it was known then, had a series of British and European champions including Maurice Core, Ensley Bingham, Carl Thompson, Frank Grant and Paul Burke. The outside wall had a mural of Ali and in the middle of Moss Side, surrounded by streets where gun crime was way out of control, Martin and Graham were in charge of a boxing renaissance. They buried a few of their fighters. At the start Graham was working on the outside but he gradually, over the long short years when the gym's success was constant, moved closer to the middle. There was growing friction and inevitably the working relationship between Graham and Martin came to an ugly end and the split still angrily divides people in Manchester to this day.
Martin's early death from cancer put an end to the Champs Camp gym but Graham left long before his friend's death to open his own gym, the Phoenix. He took a few fighters with him and a lot was said at the time and there are still people in the boxing business, and not just in Manchester, who prefer never to work with Graham.
"That was a difficult time for a lot of people but I had to get out and go on my own," recalled Graham. "Some things were said and done that I didn't agree with and I left. It's really that simple and I don't, to be honest with you, want to go over it again and again."
Now Graham has a justifiable reputation as a trainer of boxing champions and on Sunday he will be poolside at the MGM for the Las Vegas end of the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Show. He is a serious contender for coach of the year and the Americans are still fascinated by the large leather body bag that he straps on for his 15-round sessions with Hatton. The pain in Graham's wrists and hands from holding the pads at the same time is so great that he administers his own cortisone injections before each session.
In Las Vegas two days ago the rival entourages came chest-to-chest and thankfully Graham was spared the derogatory assessment of his talents that Roger Mayweather, Floyd's uncle and trainer, has regularly shared.
"I'd be embarrassed if I said some of the things that I've heard. It would make me sound like I don't have a clue about boxing. The Americans enjoy giving it a bit of large and that's their style. It's not really my style and it's certainly not Ricky's style," continued Graham, whose residency at the MGM has been broken two times each day for visits to the private gym that he and Hatton have been sharing. There is certainly a different mood for this fight and Graham was forced to limit the public's access to the gym back in Denton to just one day each week.
"There is a lot on the line here and it's what we have always wanted. I've been watching this kid Mayweather since 1996. I know more about him than anybody. I know how his mind works. He's a boxing master but Ricky will beat him," added Graham.
It was at the conference on Wednesday that Mayweather talked in private to a few chosen people about Graham's comments regarding Moss Side. Graham mentioned that somebody as flash and arrogant as Mayweather would probably get a slap if he was on the streets in Moss Side. Mayweather was convinced it was a racist comment.
"Was it bollocks," insisted Graham. He knows a thing or two about surviving on the streets of Moss Side and Salford and he now knows how to survive in Las Vegas.
The finest pugilistic partners in history
Angelo Dundee and Muhammad Ali
Dundee met a young Ali a few years before they started their 30-year partnership. It was a glorious moment in boxing history with Dundee listening to Ali's bold claims. "He said it all and he did it all," Dundee remembered years later. They worked together from the second fight until the end in the Bahamas.
Manny Steward and Tommy Hearns
Steward started training Hearns in the basement of the Kronk Community Centre in Detroit when the boxer was 10. They remained together for over 30 years winning world titles at five different weights and they were involved in a series of fights that helped define the sport in the 1980s. "Tommy's like a son to me," Steward has said a thousand times.
Enzo Calzaghe and Joe Calzaghe
Enzo helped out in the amateur club when his son was 10 and their relationship is unique in the sport of boxing. No other father and son partnership has been as successful. Joe has never lost with his dad in his corner and is unbeaten in 44 as a pro. "My dad is a great trainer – I'm so proud of him," Joe said after his last fight.
Brendan Ingle and Naseem Hamed
Brendan started to shape the brilliant Hamed when the seven-year-old boy was delivered to his gym in Sheffield. They were a glorious team of two true eccentrics. The whispering guru from Dublin with his mad methods and the stunning kid who could do things that most fighters only dream of. They fell out and it was nasty at the end but for nearly 20 years they were unstoppable.