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Authors: Carl Merritt

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BOOK: Fighting to the Death
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H
ello, Bill. It’s Carl …’ I was about to say my last name but he interrupted with lightning speed.

‘I thought you’d call.’

I took a deep breath. I was more nervous than before the start of a fight.

‘Before I agree to anythin’ I wanna know what I’m gettin’ myself into.’

‘No problem.’

We arranged a meeting for the following evening after Bill said he had something to show me south of the river. I didn’t know what he was on about but I thought it was worth a spin. That evening, Bill was waiting in his five-year-old Jag at Lewisham Station. He had that yellow tie on again. He said very little as we drove straight to an industrial estate. Bill was a bad driver, very erratic. He was always braking suddenly, as if
he had the weight of the world on his shoulders and just wasn’t concentrating.

As his Jag approached a vast, grey warehouse, I spotted a heavy-looking fella in front of the main door. Its metal shutters then started opening automatically to let us in. Bright lights illuminated the inside of the warehouse. I immediately spotted loads of flash motors and people walking around the inside of the warehouse. The vehicles were expensive – Rollers, Mercs, Jags, you name it. I was gobsmacked. This wasn’t another afternoon with the boys down at Lacey Lady’s.

‘This is the real thing,’ muttered Bill as the Jag crept slowly along the inside wall of the huge warehouse. ‘None of your prize-fightin’ bare-knuckle bollocks. We’re talkin’ big money ‘ere. Last man standirr’ takes the prize.’ I later found out that this sort of fighting had been going on for years but always stayed well underground. A world few people knew about, but where the stakes were high and the fighter’s lives were on the line.

As we slowly rolled to a halt between two sparkling limos I realised the cars had been carefully parked in a circle creating a ring area in the middle. People were walking around with huge wads of cash in their hands.

After Bill carefully parked up, we got out of the Jag and I followed behind him as he stopped and greeted at least half a dozen heavy-looking geezers in overcoats. When he got to the last fella, I saw him take a fat envelope out of his inside jacket pocket. Looked like it had thousands in it.

‘All of it on Gary,’ Bill said to the other fells, obviously a bookie. But there were no betting slips. The stakes were far too
high for anyone to ever contemplate they might get ripped off. As Bill had already said, this was the big time.

Then we strolled back to his car, got in and waited for the action to begin. I noticed that all the people – mainly well-dressed blokes – had an attitude to them. They held themselves in a certain way. Their shoulders rolled as they walked. Many of them talked out of the side of their mouths and they had tons of gold jewellery.

The floor of the warehouse was concrete and I wondered to myself if it caused a lot of extra injuries to anyone falling hard on it. The building itself had a glass ceiling and masses of lights hanging from it. Back time the doors opened and shut, the noise echoed through the entire warehouse. It was a spooky set-up. I certainly didn’t feel safe in there.

Then Bill turned to me: ‘Reckon you could handle it?’

‘Depends how much?’ I said, nibbling unashamedly at the bait.

‘Thousands, son. Fuckin’ thousands.’

Just then the vast warehouse doors rolled up yet again and a black BMW with blacked-out windows cruised in. Bill’s eyes snapped across at the pimp-mobile. Seconds later another vehicle sped in.

The Beemer pulled up on the edge of the group of cars and I could just make out four men. Three of them got out snappily. They looked like armed heavies with their sunglasses and bullnecks. They were casting around, casing the joint. Just then the fourth man emerged. He was more bulky, dressed in jeans and a tight T-shirt. He wore heavy Chelsea-style boots and wasn’t wearing any gloves. But I knew immediately that he must be one of the fighters.

On the opposite side of the main group of parked cars, a similar scene occurred moments later with the fellas in a Merc. All the cars encircling the ring had their dipped headlights on to help illuminate the fight area. Both fighters then started walking through a gap between the vehicles towards opposite sides of the ring. It was like a Hollywood movie. Surreal is the only way to describe it: fucking surreal.

Each trainer walked in front of his man, with two minders immediately to the front and back of the fighter. I could barely make out either of the fighters’ features except that they both seemed to be dark and swarthy. I learned later that this was quite deliberate so that no-one got a good enough look at the fighters to point the finger at them in a court of law.

The ‘ringmaster’ – that’s what Bill called him – was already in the space between the cars, awaiting the fighters. ‘You watchin’ this?’ asked Bill in an almost impatient voice, without moving a muscle in my direction. I nodded. I was transfixed, glued to my seat, so to speak. It was clear that Bill didn’t want us to leave his motor. Virtually everyone else remained in their limos because, as Bill later told me, ‘They’re not the sorta faces who want to be spotted out in the open.’

However, there were a few women out there, dripping with jewellery and fur coats. They sort of added to the atmosphere. A lot of them looked like brasses, but some of them might have been genuine wives – old-fashioned crims are surprisingly good at keeping their marriages intact.

My window was open throughout and I could hear bets being laid left, right and centre. The bookies stood out like sore thumbs. They even had the same kind of suitcases with legs underneath that they use at racetracks up and down the
country. Every time a suitcase opened, I spotted the banknotes spilling out.

Just then the ringmaster took centre stage. There was a hush in the audience. ‘The fight is about to commence,’ he yelled in the echoing warehouse. ‘All bets must be in now.’

Meanwhile each fighter was shadow boxing behind two minders on the edge of the ring. But the sheer size of the minders still meant it was virtually impossible to see the fighters clearly.

The ringmaster then slowly backed his way out of the ring. The minders separated and the fighters began walking to the centre. They moved slowly and stood upright and fearless. Bill’s Jag was one of the motors parked right at the front so we had one of the best views in the warehouse.

Seconds later they were both in the ring, prowling the perimeter like caged animals. The ringmaster raised both his arms at the same time. That was the signal. The ringmaster ducked between two Rollers and the fight commenced.

No time for formalities. They were off with a vengeance. Headbutts, kicking, biting. I was astounded. The aim was victory by any means. My jaw dropped to the floor as I watched these two men brutalise each other. The ferocity of the fight was breathtaking. I could feel tension in my own stomach just watching them grinding each other down with the type of sheer unadulterated violence I’d never witnessed before in my entire life.

They bounced off at least half a dozen of the nearest cars. At one stage, one of them appeared to drop to the floor unconscious, only to be grabbed back up by the hair by his opponent, who then rammed his head against the grille of a
brand new Mercedes 500 SL. Then he collapsed to the floor, out cold. The other bloke continued kicking him as he lay on the concrete. He seemed to be trying to kill him.

This put all those prize fights in the shade. This was brutal, terrifying and, I hate to say it, awe-inspiring.

The entire bout only lasted about a minute and a half. The victor signalled his win by stopping in his tracks and spitting onto the floor next to his opponent, who was out cold or maybe even dead. Then the victor turned and walked out of the ring, his minders closing in on him as he strutted towards his Beemer between all those other flash motors. The doors of both fighters’ cars had remained opened throughout the fight, to make sure they could make a fast getaway in case of trouble. Already, some of the well-dressed audience were spitting and cursing in the direction of the loser. They’d no doubt lost a packet by betting on him.

As the winner headed back to his vehicle, a cacophony of car hooters started blasting away, showing their approval. Others put their headlights on full beam, showering the warehouse with fingers of sharp, white light.

Then I looked back in the ring to see the loser being dragged towards the same Merc that had brought him in just a few minutes earlier. Then, a screech of tyres as the winner disappeared through the electronically controlled doors. Back in the warehouse, the loser’s minders were desperately trying to revive him with a towel before shoving him in the back of the Merc. Eventually they picked him up off the floor and bundled his crumpled body in the back seat before speeding off. Some people were still screaming abuse as the motor careered out of the building.

‘Fuckin’ wanker,’ said one brassy-looking blonde, who I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

‘Useless prat,’ screamed an old boy with a long overcoat and badly fitting wig.

Just then Bill chipped in, ‘What d’you reckon, then?’

I was still gobsmacked by the whole event.

‘Fuckin’ amazin’. I’m definitely on for it.’

‘Good,’ said Bill, as he flicked his electronically controlled window down and a hand passed in an even fatter envelope than the one he’d handed over a few minutes earlier.

As his window buzzed back, Bill fired up the Jag along with just about everyone else in that warehouse. The noise of all the engines starting up at virtually the same time was eerie and deafening. Then the fumes started wafting through the Jag, combining with the steam from the cold. It left the entire warehouse filled with drifting smoke.

‘You have to get out quick,’ explained Bill. ‘Specially the ones who’ve just lost a packet.’ I just nodded. What more could I say?

Bill drove me back across the water and took me all the way to Stratford tube station that night. I made him drop me well away from home as I didn’t want him knowing anything about my life. I had a feeling he was someone who’d shoot me if it suited him. As I got out, he leaned over and tapped my arm. ‘It’s up to you, son.’

I nodded. I didn’t believe it was up to me. He was in charge of my destiny and I knew he’d be making a lot more dough than me if I turned out to be a winner. I was just about to shut the door when he pulled a handful of clean, crisp banknotes out of his pocket.

‘I don’t need it,’ I said firmly, still wanting time to consider my decision.

‘It’s a day’s wages for being there today.’

I shut my eyes for a moment. But his hand was still there when I opened them again.

‘Alright,’ I said, taking the notes and wondering if I’d live to regret my decision.

‘Gissa bell when you’re ready.’

He knew he had me in the bag.

 

I walked two miles home that night. It was a long, thoughtful stroll through my life in a sense. What did I want out of life? Was it money? Or was it revenge for all the shit that had been thrown at me for so long? Whatever the answer, I knew that Bill was standing over me like the grim reaper waiting for me to confirm my contract with the devil.

Shall I or shan’t I? What happens if I lose? Would I even live to tell the tale? And even if I did live, would I be a cabbage after suffering one beating too many?

With all this swimming through my mind I stopped at my local – the Camden Arms – for a pint. At the bar I bumped into a mate called Scott.

‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ he said. ‘What’s wrong, mate?’

I put a brave face on things, ‘I’ve just seen somethin’ so fucking unreal you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.’

‘What you on about?’

‘Nothin’. Just buy me a pint and shut up.’

I was stunned by what I’d just witnessed. That night the booze went straight to my head and I was virtually legless by my
third pint. I hadn’t eaten all day and Scott ended up carrying me home to my mum’s.

Next morning I felt so weird about what I’d witnessed at that fight that I retched up in the bathroom. The trouble was I could so easily see myself as one of those very same fighters. I had the right background, the right experience and probably the right attitude. You see, at that time I hated most of the fucking world. I didn’t owe anyone outside my family anything. I wanted to be somebody. Somebody who earned respect within my community. Someone people would look up to. Maybe even somebody to be feared.

And then there was the money. It would be handy. More than handy. It could give me a lift up into another sphere. Then I tried to slap some sense into myself. How could I even be seriously considering it? This fight game was sick and twisted – and a highly dangerous contest. One that should be avoided at all costs.

For the next couple of months I thought a lot about Bill and the illegal fight scene. At first I kept my training up, although I still insisted to myself I’d never actually phone Bill and ask to be counted in. Trouble was that on the work front things were not looking good. The building game had virtually dried up and I couldn’t get many door jobs at clubs. I was scraping the barrel and my mum was barely able to afford to run our little home, let alone support her grown-up son. Soon my training started to fade as well.

I didn’t have the dough to buy myself any decent clobber or even buy a girl a rum and blackcurrant at my local boozer. I kept wondering about that pot of gold awaiting me if I picked up the phone and dialled Bill’s number. His card was still hanging over my bed at home, tempting me every night.

I
first met Carole in 1983 when I was working the door in the Charleston Club in Leyton. I’d run into quite a few girls through working in clubs, but I noticed her because she was the only one in a crowd wearing a tracksuit. When she appeared at the door, I told her she was too young to come in, which as it turned out was a bit strong of me as I later found out she was three months older than me (we were both seventeen). She glared at me in a fearless kind of way and I immediately clocked there was something about her that I really liked, so I waved her in with her mates.

Later that night I was on roaming duty at the club, which meant I had to wander around the premises and make sure no trouble flared up. I was near the bar when I noticed Carole and her mates again. I offered to buy her a drink on the QT but she refused. I shrugged my shoulders, smiled at her for a few
moments and then walked away. It just wasn’t my style to be a pushy bloke. I’ve always had too much respect for women to do that. After all, where would we men be without them?

That night I was back on duty at the door when Carole was leaving. I don’t know what came over me. but I asked her for her phone number. I was expecting a right mouthful for being so upfront. Instead she said, ‘Alright’ and wrote it down. I was well chuffed. My brother, who was drinking in the club that night, even had a go at me because he thought Carole looked too young to date. But I knew there was something about her I really liked.

So I went home a happy man that evening, determined to ring her and ask her out. Next morning I spent at least half an hour plucking up the courage before I finally dialled her number. It turned out to be a wrong number. I tried it again over and over just in case. Then I moved some of the digits round but it was a complete dud. I screwed up the piece of paper and threw it in the bin. I was heartbroken. She’d obviously not felt the same way about me.

A few weeks later I was off duty, having a bevy at the Charleston when in walks Carole – bold as brass. Naturally, I completely blanked her, convinced she wanted nothing to do with me. Then she came up to me.

‘D’you remember me?’

‘Yeah, you did me up like a kipper.’

‘Well, here’s your chance to buy me a drink.’

And off we went. We went out at least three times that first week. She was the best thing that ever happened to me – and she still is to this day.

Carole was such a special creature to me. She didn’t fall into
all the usual categories and she wasn’t a noisy Essex girl. She was a straight-talking, polite but strong-willed teenager. And she really wanted to be in my company because of who I was, not because I could get her into a club free or because she thought I was the local hardman.

She was quiet, but when she spoke her mind she meant it. She never shouted. I liked the fact that she always wore casual clothes like jeans and trainers. There were no airs and graces to Carole. What you saw was what you got. And I knew she was someone I could trust, which was probably the most important thing in my life at that time.

Carole was into volleyball big time and I used to watch her play once a week and then use the gym facilities for free. Something in the back of my mind kept telling me to keep my fitness up – just in case.

I spent most of my time at Carole’s house because it was cheaper than going out. And my car was a right joke – a rusting white ex-police Triumph 2000. You could still see where the police stickers had been ripped off it. And there were holes in the dash where the two-way radios and other equipment had been.

Carole, bless her, didn’t care about stuff like that. But I gotta admit it really got to me. So one night I picked up the phone and dialled Bill’s number. This was it; decision time.

‘Let’s meet up,’ he said without a hint of surprise at my call. He knew he’d already reeled me in the last time we’d met.

A few days later we met up in what was then the West Ham and England soccer star Bobby Moore’s pub, called Mooro’s, in Stratford. I still didn’t want Bill knowing where I lived because if my mum got any inkling of what I was up to she’d have hit the roof.

It was early evening and I got to Mooro’s first. I always get to places early when I’m a bit nervous. I was sitting quietly in the corner supping a pint when Bill walked in with a mate. They both stuck out like nuns in a strip joint in their smart, neatly cut whistle-and-flutes and ties. We nodded at each other. Bill got some drinks in and then he introduced his friend. ‘Grant has earned a packet out of the fight game. He doesn’t look too bad on it, does he?’

What was I supposed to say? ‘He does. He’s a right ugly bastard.’ So I just nodded politely.

‘Right,’ said Bill. ‘There’s a job on the go. You been doing any training?’

‘Nope.’

‘Well you’d better get your arse into gear, sunshine.’

Bill then asked me if I wanted to train with Grant. I replied ‘No thanks. Prefer trainin’ on my own.’ I didn’t know who the fuck Grant was so I wasn’t keen on turning him into my new best friend.

Five minutes later – after a bit of small talk and banter – Bill and I shook hands and he got up to leave with Grant.

‘You need some readies?’ Bill asked me, almost as an afterthought.

‘Nah. I’m alright.’ In my naivety I thought that if I didn’t take any money off him that day then it’d be easier to back out if I wanted to.

‘Gissa bell in exactly one week and I’ll tell you all the details.’

Then he was gone.

Fuck it, I thought to myself. Am I really going to do this? I’d shaken his hand on it and I’d been brought up to believe that a handshake was as good as a written contract. There was no
way I could back out now. I was up to my ears in it. But what the hell …

That week I went back to hod-carrying at a building site in Tottenham, North London, and tried to get down to the gym to do some running whenever I had the chance. At first, I was shocked at how unfit I’d become. A lot of it was down to the fact I’d been spending much of my time with Carole at home, instead of going to the gym.

Finding out I was so unfit made me realise that if I was serious about the illegal fight game then I needed to get properly fit again. So I didn’t ring Bill a week later as he’d instructed. Instead I went through a rigorous training regime because I knew I’d be like a lamb to the slaughter if I entered a ring before I was fighting fit.

Three weeks after I was supposed to have called him, I finally picked up the phone.

‘Why d’you take so fuckin’ long comin’ back to me?’ Bill responded in a dry tone.

‘Got caught up at work,’ I lied.

‘How’s the trainin’ goin’?’

I assured Bill I’d been hard at it. Then he said he’d come down and see me later that night. Obviously he was a bit twitchy about whether I really was fit again and wanted to inspect his ‘goods’ to make sure they were in good working order.

Three hours later I was banging away on a punchbag when Bill strolled in to the local youth hall called Maryland Point, in Stratford.

‘Is there a quiet corner we can have a chat?’ he asked me within seconds of arriving.

‘Yeah. Just gotta shower up first.’

Ten minutes later Bill was driving me in his XJ6 to a local snooker hall called the Golden Eagle. He kept well off the subject of the fight game in the car, and conversation wasn’t easy between us, especially since his driving continued to greatly trouble me. Stirling Moss he was not. There were lots of uncomfortable silences.

Once we finally got to the Golden Eagle, I got Dave the manager to put the light on table number six because it was in a corner well away from the other tables. Then I racked the balls up carefully. Bill took the break.

He smacked at them and managed to get a stripe in the far left corner pocket.

‘Right, let’s talk money,’ he said, leaning on his cue and taking a look to see if anyone was within listening distance. Then he glanced down at what he could pot next.

‘What sorta money we talkin’ about?’ I asked in a deadpan voice.

Bill smashed at a stripe and missed the pocket by miles.

‘Works out 60/40.’

I lined up my first one of the day.

‘Me 60?’ I asked.

‘Nah. Me 60. You 40,’ said Bill.

This bloke was taking the piss. I smashed a solid brown into the middle pocket.

‘But how much actual dough we talkin’ about here?’ I asked.

‘Depends on what happens.’

I missed the next one and then looked over at him.

‘What d’you mean? Who wins?’

‘Yeah,’ he answered as he took aim.

Bill clearly didn’t like talking money because he then tried
to change the conversation by suggesting I do some more work in the gym.

‘Yeah I’ll do it, if it makes you feel better,’ I said, sounding as if I didn’t give a toss.

I won the snooker game hands down. But Bill never actually specified how much money was involved and I was so desperate for a decent earner I never nailed him down properly. As I left the hall that night I wondered what the hell I was playing at.

 

Three days later, Bill picked me up outside Stratford bus station and had a right go at me when I slammed his precious car door too hard. That bothered me a bit, but not half as much as his rubbish driving. We eventually headed along the Whitechapel Road to Bethnal Green. Bill hardly said another word in the car after that first exchange and I didn’t have a clue where we were going, except that he’d told me to bring my gym bag. Eventually he parked the Jag up in a residential street and I followed him up the steps to a big imposing Victorian house.

An old dear of about eighty let us in through the front door. I couldn’t even see her face clearly because she hid behind the door as she opened it. Where the hell was he taking me? I followed Bill down a narrow hallway and through a back door into the garden. I was surprised how small the garden was. There was a one-storey building constructed at the end of it, which partly explained the size of the garden in comparison to the house.

When we reached the door to the building, it was swung open by a fit-looking ex-boxer type in his late forties. Inside were two heavy bags hanging from the ceiling and a small-sized ring. It was like an Aladdin’s cave amongst the rose bushes.

The ex-fighter turned round and walked back to hold one of the bags for a wiry-looking fella who was slugging the hell out of it. It all looked like a bit of a show for me. Then Bill broke the ice by introducing me.

‘This is the boy I was tellin’ you about,’ he said to the older ex-fighter, completely ignoring the bloke doing the punching.

Just then the boy on the bag stopped whacking it. The ex-fighter shook hands with him and the kid disappeared out the back. Bill nodded to a bench next to the bags and I sat down and changed into my boots and training gear. I noticed that the small ring was surrounded by ropes and even had padded corners. It was a thoroughly professional training set-up. Maybe Bill had a stable of fighters, I thought to myself.

‘Just give him a gentle warm-up,’ Bill said to the ex-fighter. ‘Carl, take it easy on him. We’re only here to see how you’re shapin’ up.’

Using proper gloves, we had a nice, easy sparring session as per Bill’s instructions. I jabbed away at my new partner and he lashed out a few times to see how I handled the punches. After about two minutes Bill called a halt to proceedings.

I went and sat back on the wooden bench on the edge of the ring and Bill pulled up a chair and sat down opposite me. He went through all the details of each of my early prize fights down in South London and for the first time I realised he’d been watching me at every bout. He had a dossier on me in his mind. I was impressed.

Then he got serious. ‘There’ll be a lot more kickin’ and dirty tricks. Things you’ve been told not to do in the past. Now you’ve gotta do them, otherwise you’ve had it.’

I nodded keenly.

‘Jimmy,’ said Bill to the ex-fighter. ‘Show the kid how it’s done.

Jimmy then got back into the ring and started a short demonstration. First he showed me a throat punch. It’s exactly that: a punch directly on the Adam’s apple that knocks out a man if properly detonated. I mumbled something like ‘I do know a bit about the street’ to try and let them know that I was knowledgeable about such moves, but Bill and his mate took no notice. Next came close quarters kicking. Bill could see from the look on my face that I was far from impressed.

Then Jimmy turned towards me and punched his own chest lightly. Bill said: ‘Solar plexus. Base of the rib cage.’ Jimmy then showed how if you brought forward a couple of your knuckles you could make your fist into an even more deadly weapon. Looking back on it, a lot of the moves were pure martial arts, but I didn’t know much about that at the time. Jimmy did each move in slow motion, making it all look a bit strange. I nodded my head each time. I didn’t have the bottle to tell Bill I’d pulled just about every trick in the book since becoming a doorman.

At the end of the session, Bill nodded towards the door and off we headed through an alleyway behind the house. As he dropped me back in Strafford, Bill patted me on the back. ‘Off you go, Son. And don’t forget this is all between you and me. Less people know about it the better.’

I felt like saying I’d worked that one out. There was no way I wanted anyone to know what I was up to. My mum and brothers would have killed me, and Carole would probably have dropped me like a hot brick if I’d confessed what I was getting into.

I called Bill a couple of days later to ask him when I’d be fighting.

‘It’s all organised,’ he said.

‘So what about the money, then?’ I asked.

Bill said the winner’s fee was £4000 and loser would cop £1500.

‘But you won’t lose,’ he added.

‘Right,’ I replied, not at all sure whether I shared his confidence.

Bill said the fight would be in two or three weeks’ time. I didn’t bother asking who my opponent was because I knew he’d never say. About a week or so later I called him up with a progress report on my training and to assure him I’d kept out of trouble and not had any mishaps that might threaten my fitness.

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