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This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine
PELE REID reckons there’s a film that reminds him of his story and it’s not Rocky, The Fighter or Requiem For A Heavyweight.
“When I watch Forrest Gump I think: ‘Goodness me, that happens to me all the time’,” said Reid. “I just seem to fall into things. It was never my intention to be a boxer.”
He never intended to knock out Vitali Klitschko either. Before they were boxers, Reid and Klitschko were kickboxers and they met in the European championships in Bulgaria in 1992.
The Ukrainian was the man to beat.
“Vitali was the full-contact champion and his poster was everywhere,” remembered Reid. “But this was point scoring. It was all about hitting as much as you can without getting hit. You weren’t supposed to knock each other out, but you could hurt each other.
“Vitali was a big guy and when I saw him before the final, I remember him smirking at me. But I was confident I could go in and out and beat him.”
In the second round, Reid did what he wasn’t supposed to do. He put Klitschko flat on his back with a spinning round kick.
“They were going to disqualify me,” said Reid. “I remember the officials talking about it. But they decided my technique was good and there was no intention to knock him out, so they gave me the win.
“What I achieved that day was my greatest achievement in my competitive sporting career. It never got any better than that.
“Even now, people, young people who weren’t even born when it happened, ask me about knocking out Vitali. You should see how people react to me after they’ve seen it on You Tube.
“I was told Vitali was denying it happened, so someone put it on there and now just about every day, someone comes up to me and says: ‘I never knew you fought Vitali’.”
Reid is happy to tell his story to the young people who come to him for careers advice.
The story he tells is how, through boxing, he escaped the dangerous doors of home city Birmingham and though he possibly didn’t fulfil others’ expectations, he’s content enough with his achievements and glad he spent time with Brendan Ingle.
“I started boxing at 22,” said Reid, “and by the time I retired, I had learned a lot.”
A lot about boxing – and a lot about life.
“People chase money believing it will make them happy,” said Reid, “but it doesn’t. I had money, glory and fame for a while and I know it doesn’t make you happy…
“Brendan used to say: ‘Boxing is a dirty, vindictive, prostitute’s game.’ Everyone who goes in that gym hears that. Brendan tries to prepare you for it, but I thought it would be different for me. I suppose everyone does. But boxing is a money sport and where there’s money, there’s nastiness. As much as you might like the sport, that’s the way it is. I really know boxing – and it’s exactly what Brendan said it was.”
Reid was steered towards the Ingles’ gym by Michael Taub, the author of the Jack Doyle biography, The Gorgeous Gael. Taub approached Reid after watching him outpoint Lee Swaby, also a future professional, in his first, and only, full-contact kickboxing fight.
“He said I should go there and spar Johnny Nelson,” he remembered. “I didn’t know who he was.
“After we sparred, Brendan said: ‘Turn pro.’ I went to the Peacock gym, sparred [future European champion and WBC challenger] Zeljko Mavrovic and he said, ‘You’re strong.’
“I was into martial arts and always thought boxing was brutal. But the boxing at the Ingles’ gym was like martial arts. They were flashy, they switched stances. It suited me.
“I thought I would give it a go. I believed that whatever I did, I would be good at it. I had proved myself as a martial artist and thought that with time, I would prove myself as a boxer. I knew I was talented and thought I can win things and make money.”
Boxing, it turned out, was easier than he thought it would be.
“I only had one full-contact fight before turning pro and before my debut, my legs were like jelly,” said Reid. “I had never boxed before. When you get in that ring, you are baring your soul. You are saying: ‘This is the whole of me,’ and it’s scary.
“In the gym, we worked on throwing half a jab, slipping, then countering with a right hand and left hook. I did that and he [Gary Williams] fell on the floor. I didn’t even know I was a puncher. The same thing happened in my second fight – and it kept happening. If a fight went into the second round, people would ask me: ‘What went wrong, Pele? What happened’?”
The quick knockouts – Michael Murray lasted only nine seconds after dislocating his shoulder – led to a shot at British and Commonwealth champion Julius Francis at the York Hall in January, 1999. Along the way, Reid had demolished fellow unbeaten prospect Wayne Llewellyn and built a gleaming record of 13-0 (13).
Ian Darke told Sky Sports viewers before the Francis bout: “I can’t remember a fight for this title in recent years attracting so much publicity.”
And most of the publicity centred around Reid.
He was named after a footballing legend. His half-brother Mark Walters played for England. He wore grass skirts, did the splits, and everyone he hit on the chin, he knocked out.
Reid was the heavyweight Britain had been waiting for and there was a coronation feel about the fight. Francis wasn’t expected to win – in the years leading up to this bout he had been beaten by Murray, Mavoric, Axel Schulz and – in the bout before meeting Reid – stopped by that man Klitschko.
But those who made Reid a sizeable favourite reckoned without Francis’ pride and knowhow.
“I was told Francis wouldn’t last two rounds with me,” said Reid, “but he was clever. He covered up for two rounds, then he got me [in the third].
“Boxing is about taking the right fights at the right time – and the Francis fight should have come a few fights further down the line. I take full responsibility for that.
“Brendan used to say: ‘Who’s in charge of you?’ The answer is that I’m in charge of me, I’m my own boss. The position I end up in is down to me and that’s life.”
Reid’s career threatened collapse. Another unwise step was made in the Francis wreckage, which resulted in a one-round loss to world class Orlin Norris and within two years Reid had also been stopped by Jacklord Jacobs and Michael Sprott.
He drifted away, had a few K1 fights and after bumping into Birmingham man-about-boxing Jon Pegg, he returned to boxing.
But as it turned out, the new Reid had the same failings as the old one. He came apart when John McDermott whacked him on the whiskers in a 2008 English title fight, and when Prizefighter offered him another possible way back, Sam Sexton narrowly outpointed him over three.
“Most boxers don’t know when to give up,” said Reid, now 44 years old and a dedicated Jehovah’s Witness. “They always think they can do better, prove everybody wrong and make a fortune and you do need that mentality to be a boxer.”
The McDermott and Sexton defeats forced Reid to accept he wasn’t going to prove everybody wrong and make a fortune from boxing. But he did have one last fight, surviving a wobble or two to outpoint Dave Ingleby over 10 rounds for the vacant British Masters title in Birmingham in March, 2009.
“I retired at the right time for me,” said Reid, who bowed out with a 20-6-2 (17) record. “You look at my record and it shows that in my last fight, I won a title. Not many people can say that. People ask me if I miss boxing, but I don’t. I retired at the right time. I laid it to rest. I still meet people who are journeymen at my age. They don’t know what to do apart from box.
“They gave their life to boxing and can’t move on. They have nothing to replace it so they hang on for as long as they can. They are used to it and it pays the bills. I was so happy to close the door on boxing.
“Boxing didn’t close the door on me and I achieved more than a lot of people. I’m happy I did enough to make a mark.”