In the week I was born, and in the city where I was born, Paul Sykes fought the Connecticut heavyweight Dave ‘Doc’ Wilson at the Theatre Club, and beat him up so badly Wilson was hospitalised for a month. A year later, in the summer of 1979, he challenged Hackney’s John Louis Gardner for the British Empire Heavyweight Championship, and lost; nine months after that, in Lagos, Nigeria, he was knocked out in the first round of his last professional fight.
Sykes died last month, at the age of sixty.
I remember him only at his worst – as a big man sat on a bus-station bench with a can of Special Brew in his fist, all bristle and bile, all mad-eyed belligerence and garbled snarl; to my dad, around town in the late 70s, Sykes was a face, and a face to be avoided if he’d had a few.
A tribute was paid to the ex-champ (BBB of C, Central Area) by the Baptist Church he attended during his period of homelessness. “There will be many things said about Paul in the next few days,” read a note posted on the church’s website, “but infinitely more important will be God's words to him. May they be full of mercy and grace.”
Mercy and grace; precious little of either in a boxer’s life.
Emollient churchisms aside, Sykes’s death passed pretty much unremarked by the world at large; his obituary runs to six digits – W6, L3, D1 – and beyond that no-one, save for those who knew and loved him, seems to have had much to say.
But a boxer leaves marks.
There’s a temptation, in looking over the old fight cards, to play at Six Degrees of Separation – something along the lines of, I danced with a boy who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales. Well, Paul Sykes fought with a man who fought with a man who fought with Muhammad Ali.
“I hated Ali,” Joe Frazier told Thomas Hauser in 1997. “Twenty years, I’ve been fighting Ali, and I still want to to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus.”
Frazier’s bitterness towards Ali is breathtaking. Is this how boxers remember boxers?
“Look at him now; he’s damaged goods.”
No peace, yet, for Frazier; no mercy, and no grace. Ali left marks on Smokin’ Joe.
“He’s finished,” Frazier insisted to Hauser. “He’s finished, and I’m still here.”
The last man to knock Paul Sykes down in the ring was the Nigerian Ngozika Ekwelum. Ekwelum, like Ali, seems to have found peace beyond boxing – but, where Ali turned to Islam, Ekwelum found his calling in self-help. On his website, the Heavyweight Champion of Africa turned cornerman for the soul doled out wisdom that ranged from the arbitrarily severe (“You must be awake by 5.00 a.m.”) through the baffling (“In order to succeed in boxing, you must have the right metalatitude”) to the soporifically banal (“Winners are positive thinkers who see good in all things”).
But it’s peace, still, of a sort, and not to be sniffed at.
“Paul loved listening to the music [at church services],” reports the website of Wakefield Baptist Church. Even that is something; many a fighter, forgotten or not, finishes up with less.