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Authors: Carl Merritt

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BOOK: Fighting to the Death
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W
hen I was eleven, I had my first serious boxing contest against kids from another club. We were up against Repton, the most famous club in the East End. Since my mum didn’t have a car I had to get three buses to make it to their gym in Bethnal Green. And, of course, I had scruffy gear on because I couldn’t afford anything special. The club only provided the gloves but I’d bought my own boxing boots from money I’d saved while cleaning cars up and down my street.

I lost that first bout to a massive lad who looked a couple of years older than me. He hit me with a flurry of punches and I struggled to keep my balance within seconds of the opening bell. I remember how everything seemed so loud in that gym. As usual, all the other kids had their dads there, shouting and urging them on and, as usual, I had no one to support me. I didn’t feel too upset when I lost, but when I got home that
night and my mum asked me how I’d got on, I cracked up. I went to my bedroom and sobbed my eyes out. But I wasn’t going to give up – far from it. I threw myself into an even more intense round of training in preparation for the next boys’ tournament.

Two months later I found myself waiting outside the Black Lion boozer next to the West Ham Boys’ Club at 9 am on a Saturday morning. Minibuses and parents’ cars took us to a tournament this time. As before, Mum scraped together the £2 match fee, but it meant I had to miss training a few times that week because she didn’t always have the money that.

As this was a big tournament, the younger age groups went into the ring first. I had my kit on under my tracksuit so I quickly got into some warming up, shadowboxing and stretching, while the trainers taped up our hands and talked us through the coming battle.

‘Remember what you’ve learned.’

‘Keep your head, son.’

‘You should be alright.’

Putting those gloves on made the butterflies start fluttering around in my tummy. Half of the adrenaline rush was caused by fear – fear of the unknown – and the other half by sheer excitement. It was an exhilarating combination.

I did a bit more shadowboxing as I waited alongside the ring. And, naturally, I tried to do it like my hero Ali. People called it showboating and, even by the age of eleven, I was the acknowledged master of it. To keep warmed up, I carried on shadowboxing until I actually entered the ring. The home fighter always got in the ring first, which was part of the tradition of the game.

Finally it was time for my fight. Nearby, parents from both sides cheered and jeered as I shadowboxed my way to my corner. As usual, my old man wasn’t amongst them and Mum couldn’t come because she had to look after my brothers and sister. Meanwhile, the trainers were yelling orders at me, which always got me even more hyped up and ready for battle. But by this stage all I could think of was how I’d be pummelling my fists into the opposition.

‘Go kill him, son,’ said one parent sitting nearby. I turned and tried to make out who it was, whether he was on my side or my opponent’s. Later on in life I wondered why anyone would want to say such a stupid thing to a schoolboy boxer. Hardly sporting, is it?

Just then another parent yelled at the top of his voice at my opponent ‘Do him, Mark.’ Then the noise became a big blur. All the voices merged into one. The only sound I could hear above it all was my trainer. ‘Remember what I told ya, son …’

The ref beckoned that we boys should meet in the centre of the ring. Then he told us the rules. ‘First thing, lads, I want a nice clean fight. No head butts, no biting, no elbows and keep it above the belt. Right, let’s have a good bout.’ Then we returned to our corners.

Ding
went the bell and we were off.

I moved and ducked around a bit at first, just sizing up the enemy. I’m a southpaw, leading with my left side, and that makes me even harder to fight for any orthodox fighter. I was bouncing around, floating like a butterfly, Ali-style, or so I thought. Then I let my opponent come to me so I could try to take control of the centre of the ring. The idea was to let him do all the work. After all I was there to score as many points as I
could and to win as quickly as possible. My trainer’s words rang over and over again in my head.

‘Win as quick as possible.’

Ding, ding.
It was the end of round one.

Within moments my trainer and second were around me in my corner. They told me I was doing well. The next round was another classic standoff as me and my opponent tried to resist the temptation to charge in, and so lose control of the contest.

By round three the speed of both our punches had dropped because we were so knackered. The ref was barking out orders throughout.

‘Keep it tight.’

‘Watch your heads.’

‘Not too close.’

That’s when I found some extra energy to try one last long flurry to score points as quickly as possible. I charged in for that flurry and this time crunched into my target and felt him wobble under the power of my punches.

Ding, ding.
It was the end of the final round. We were both sweating buckets and my head felt like a hammerhead had been smashing its nose against my temple.

That last bell left me feeling an overpowering combination of anticipation and exhaustion. The noise of the crowd became clear once again and there was relief that it was all over. I believed I’d won and, in later years, I was usually proved right. But there were times when I kept a low profile, said nothing and wondered why I’d been robbed of victory.

But the overpowering feeling this time was one of being so knackered it was impossible to speak or think. I sat there in the corner, with my chin resting on my chest, awaiting the final
verdict. Then the ref grabbed my arm and yanked it into the air to show I’d won. ‘Carl Merritt.’

I felt sorry for my opponent that day because I later found out the poor kid was under heavy pressure from his dad, who went everywhere with him. A few minutes later his old man reduced him to tears because he’d lost to me, even though he was fourteen at the time. It was about the only time I was glad my old man never showed up to see me fight.

It wasn’t until I turned thirteen that I became virtually invincible in the ring. I won all three fights when we went up north to a boxing tournament. I was even awarded a trophy (made of plastic). It was the first thing I’d ever won in my life, and I felt really proud of it. But, once again, no one was there to see me win it.

Back at West Ham Boys’ Club, I continued being shouted at for going in too hard, especially during sparring sessions. There was this one trainer who’d whack me over the head with a huge brown leather glove every time I lost my cool, which seemed to happen a lot! The tension simmering inside me seemed to be constantly about to explode. Boxing clearly hadn’t calmed me down completely. There were times when I was still definitely out of control.

 

I remained quite a loner at school. I was big for my age, so no one tried to bully me but I didn’t make friends easily. There were plenty of battles between my school, Forest Gate, where we wore green jackets and black trousers, and the kids at Stratford Secondary Modern, with their slick all-black uniform. We used to throw what we called Millwall bricks at them, that is newspapers rolled up so tightly they can really sting if thrown
in the right way. One night the cozzers turned up in vans and grabbed a load of us and then hit us with our own Millwall bricks. I suppose we deserved it.

Inside school, PE teacher Mr Draper was always blowing his top at me and my mate Alex Dyer because we were always larking around with the weights in the school gym. ‘I’m going to make an example of you two,’ he’d often say, pulling a slipper out of his desk drawer. Then he’d bark, ‘Hands on knees, sonny.’ I’d see him turning towards me as he prepared to swipe me. It used to scare the life out of me and it was also very embarrassing because he did it in front of the class.

The headmaster, Mr Dipsdale, used the cane and I was regularly punished by him as well. There would often be a queue of boys waiting outside is study for a whacking It was like a conveyor belt some days.

Around this time, I started playing rugby at school. It’s another very physical sport and I was soon getting in trouble for fighting during school matches. I played prop forward and, one time, I gave this kid opposite me an upper cut and knocked him out cold. I was sent off and then hauled before the headmaster and banned from playing for a month.

At school in the summer I did athletics, especially the shot put. I was also quite partial to the javelin- until the time I missed Mr Draper by inches when I launched it over his head. My favourite sport after boxing was really swimming. I loved. going to Romford Baths and Beckton Lido in the summer. But I often got into aggro there when I fought with other boys about who should be first off the diving board.

Throughout this time the boxing bug grew even stronger in me. I continued watching all the fights on telly at every
opportunity. I was glued to the screen for the Mexico Olympics heavyweight boxing championships when that massive Cuban Teofilo Stevenson won it. I even got Muhammad Ali to sign a book he’d written when he made a personal appearance at a bookshop in the City of London. I waited three hours to meet him and was well chuffed when he winked at me and did a quick one-two with his fists to show who was boss. It was well wicked. My legs were like jelly for hours afterwards: I couldn’t believe I’d just met my all-time hero.

Meanwhile me, my brother John and our mates continued getting up to mischief, although it was never too bad. I pinched a scooter when I was thirteen and we ended up smashing it into the doors of a garage because we didn’t know how to drive it properly. We also did a spot of shoplifting at Woollies. I bought a brilliant fishing rod for next to nothing one time by swapping the price tags. Another day I managed to nick a pair of trousers by putting them over my own strides and walking out of the store.

Most Saturdays my brothers and me went to the kids’ matinee at the local Odeon. I started wearing nicked Farrar slacks with new Remington shirts. But most of the time I stuck to jeans and Adidas trainers. I suppose you could call me a bit of a soul boy back in those days. At the local picture house, I eventually got barred for popping some kid who put chewing gum in my hair. So I started sneaking in through the back exit near the toilets. It was all good, clean fun.

One of my best memories of growing up was when my younger brother Ian and me went on holiday to Jersey Islands. We were taken by some rich friends of Mum’s who’d taken pity on us because we still didn’t have a bean to rub together. I must
have been about twelve years old and I’d never been on an aeroplane before. It was fantastic to escape East London, all the domestic chores and boring old school. I felt a sense of freedom I’d never experienced before in my life. We stayed at this family’s house on the island and it seemed like a palace. I even kissed a girl for the first time on that holiday. I met her on the beach and I remember her mum and dad lived nearby and had a swimming pool in their back garden. She was about a year older than me, with lovely long, golden hair and a gorgeous smile.

But nothing much had changed when we got back to Forest Gate. Poor old Mum was still struggling to make ends meet. Oh, and school was still a waste of time.

 

The green grass of Wanstead Flats provided the perfect extra training ground for my boxing. Me and my brother John and a couple of mates would run right round it two or three times a week because it was exactly three miles, which was what I was expected to run every day. Back in those days, the late seventies, there was a lot of racial tension round where I lived, which was something I definitely disapproved of. And sometimes it spilled over into my life.

One night on Wanstead Flats a Mark III Cortina rolled up alongside myself, a mate called Andy and my brother, and out popped a bunch of Asian blokes holding bicycle chains. They were obviously after aggro and I later heard they were known as the Chain Gang. We gave them a right pasting when they started trying to swing their chains in our direction. Cars were driving past and watching all the action but luckily no one called the law. A bunch of people out walking their dogs didn’t
even try to intervene. We never saw those Asian fellas again, but I heard they’d been pouncing on people in the area for months and we were the first ones to really take them on. After we’d sorted them out, we just carried on jogging.

My nickname at that time was ‘Blue’ because I wore all-blue boxing gear. My brother was known as ‘Nelly’ and then there two other mates called ‘Smudger’ and ‘Hodge’. But I was never too keen on nicknames and so ‘Blue’ soon disappeared, never to be replaced by anything else.

Naturally, many of my mates at that time were into football, and the violence on the terraces at my nearest club, West Ham, was notorious. Every time you turned up for a match, there were fisticuffs. As I wasn’t that interested in football, I didn’t pay much attention to all the aggro, until I made a rare visit to the North Bank terraces for the Hammers’ game against Chelsea and a copper got stabbed just next to me. I didn’t like what I saw one bit. They just rounded on this cozzer when he tried to break up a scuffle. In. those days there was a group of West Ham soccer hooligans called the InterCity Firm, who were notorious for carrying blades. There was even a junior version known as the ‘mini-ICF’.

I had run-ins with many of the junior members because I had a sideline going at the time minding kids’ front doors when they had parties at home, to stop gatecrashers, The mini-ICF was always turning up on doorsteps, making out they were armed with blades and bottles. But me and my mates Smudger and Nelly sorted them out when they came looking for aggro one night. They were right nutters, but we never had any more problems with them after that tear-up. Violence seemed to underpin all aspects of my life at that time.

 

At home, we were now living with our latest ‘new dad’, a miserable bastard called Terry. One afternoon I walked in on him trying to slap my beloved mum. I ran after him into the kitchen so the arsehole went and shoved a meat pie in my face. I was mortified. I burst into tears and ran out of the door. My mum was shouting at me to come back but I just kept going. I didn’t even have any shoes on but didn’t once look back.

BOOK: Fighting to the Death
6.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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