“I’M GOING to get my licence back,” Billy Graham tells Boxing News, reinvigorated by his recovery from two hernias that for so long had affected his quality of life. “I’ve got no big ideas about becoming a top trainer again – I’ve got no desire to work that hard. I’m too old to be a trainer again. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I need to be around it more.
“It wasn’t because I’d fallen out of love with boxing [that I left it]. It was because I’d had enough of the people around Ricky Hatton. Me daughter’s mother kept on saying to me, ‘You’ve got to stop – it’s making you ill’, and it did. When I got out, I was physically f**ked. Me hands was ruined – they’re ruined now. The doctors was going crazy at me to stop. But as a cornerman, and as a tactician, I was at me peak. I’d so much experience.
“I think, in the back of me mind, I’d always intended to come back. When I retired, I didn’t stop learning. I carried on, because you’re seeing more all the time. I was hands-on. Judgement of distance; punching power; balance; leverages. That’s what I love.
“So, yeah, I’m going to do it again. I’m under no illusions – it’s not that I’ve got aspirations of turning back the clock. But if I’m being vague, it’s because I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Graham last worked a corner in 2008 when Ojay Abrahams fought Jamie Ambler in Watford in the last of Abrahams’ 100 fights. That he had so recently led Ricky Hatton to victory over Juan Lazcano meant that he was still recognised as one of Britain’s leading trainers, but not only has Hatton long since retired, Graham’s long-term peers Enzo Calzaghe and Brendan Ingle have died, meaning that if he is to return to the sport he will be returning to one with a vastly different landscape to that he had known.
“I thought Enzo really didn’t like me for all those years,” says Graham, 67. “I’d come across him all the time. Then, out of the blue, he phoned me up – there’s always a lot to moan about in boxing. Then, when [Joe Calzaghe] fought Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jnr, he phoned me on the nights of the fights. ‘He’s definitely going to retire – if he doesn’t I’ll chop his hands off.’ He probably asked me who I thought was going to win. It certainly wasn’t for my advice; it was just a chat. I was gutted I couldn’t go to his funeral – I couldn’t find out where it was until it was too late. Enzo [dying] was a shock, because I didn’t know he was ill.
“I’ve been against [Ingle] loads of times. Our paths used to cross quite a lot. He could talk; had great stories; be really funny. I knew he had a lot of good fighters, but I also knew he had a lot of fighters nobody wanted to see. We was rivals. We wasn’t friends. But he had respect for me as well.
“I was 18, 19 – only a kid – by the time I had me first [professional] fight. I was in the dressing room on me own, and Brendan walked in – he looked older than he actually was. I didn’t know who he was. He asked who I was fighting. ‘I know him. I’ve seen you fight – you’ll beat him. Are you on your own?’ ‘Yeah, Phil Martin’s in the ring.’ He stayed with me all the time, and walked down with me. That was the first time I knew him. I never brought that up to Brendan. [But] it was a nice thing to do.”
If the Graham most widely remembered is the one who featured on HBO’s 24/7 while he was so crucial to Hatton’s identity and success, in the years before Hatton became a pay-per-view fighter Graham’s reputation and enthusiasm meant that even more significant figures visited his gym. Among those to use The Phoenix Camp when it was in Salford are the great Tommy Hearns and the late Emanuel Steward; before Graham became an independent trainer he also spent time in Helsinki with none other than Angelo Dundee.
“That was great,” says Graham, reassuringly puffing on a cigarette while revisiting his memories of Hearns. “He’s one of me favourite all time fighters. Fantastic to watch. F**king deadly. Other than Nicky Boyd I never trained a tall fighter – I’d have loved one. That was fantastic, and he absolutely loved my daughter Billie. She’d have been a toddler, had to go to nursery, and he was gutted, Thomas.
“Just to be around him and watch him working out – he was well past it then [April 1999], fighting at cruiserweight. He’d be sat in my office. He had these little soldiers, and bought one in for Billie. She used to sit on his knee. He was great. Unfortunately, what I could see the most was the slippage. [But] his leverages and his balance, as he’d be moving around the ring [stands up to demonstrate]; he’s dead long. One fucking movement.
“[Steward’s] someone I’ve always admired as a coach. I loved his fighters. Had no edge on him; was dead polite.
“[Dundee] was great as well. I didn’t even know he was going to be there – Helsinki’s not exactly a f**king fight place. It [March 1992] was the first time I’d ever worked a corner on my own. Henry Armstrong [against Jyrki Vierela]. Good fighter.
“I was desperate to learn anything. Nobody told me Dundee was going to be there. Phil [Martin] wouldn’t have known – I’m sure he’d have gone over himself. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I was shocked he was there, and went up and told him it was the first time on my own, and he was great. I was worried because I’d never wrapped anybody’s hands. I felt really self-conscious.
“At the breakfast table he went, ‘Come here – sit here’. He remembered my name, and then said to me, ‘I like to go for a walk after breakfast – do you fancy coming?’. We ended up doing that every day, for at least a week. He couldn’t believe how much I knew about his career, other than [Muhammad] Ali. I was talking about Carmen Basilio, and one of my favourite all-time fighters, Jose Napoles. Smooth as butter.
“We talked about all fighters, from all different eras. I always tried to talk about Muhammad Ali, and he didn’t want to – I could tell. I actually asked him, ‘Why didn’t they tell him to retire?’, and he didn’t like that. I remember, I was gutted because we was robbed, but we got a draw. ’Billy, you come over here to another country, fought an unbeaten kid, and got a draw – you should be celebrating.’ I was green.”
His recollections of even Hearns and Dundee are further demonstrations of the complex Graham’s inability to separate boxing’s dark from its light. There are anecdotes about time spent on the phone advising Ronald “Winky” Wright but of how he allowed his fighter, Steve Foster, to fight on against Wright for too long; about how Michael Katsidis once phoned him to enquire about being trained by him and then acknowledgments of Katsidis’ decline; about how he once discouraged Carl Thompson from taking a proposed rematch with David Haye.
“The Preacher’s” eyes regardless light up when he recommends Pariah as the “best documentary on Sonny Liston”, and when he describes himself as “Ellie Scotney’s biggest fan”. He is as reluctant to embrace technology as he is incapable of being dispassionate about the sport that will forever define his life, and yet his obsession – for that is what it is, and perhaps that is also what he needs it to be – demands that he tolerates it to get his fix.
“I’m the world’s worst at technology,” he says, lighting another cigarette while Mowgli, his lakeland terrier puppy, plays at his feet. “I can work YouTube. I can work Netflix. Every day I check on YouTube what’s coming up [in boxing]. I’ve got DAZN as well, but I only go on that when I have to because that’s a bit too technical for me. I keep going to brew up and pause it and then I can’t f**king get it back on again for ages. So, I’m scared to touch things. I’ve not text anybody for that long – I’ve got a fucking iPhone; me hands are fucked and the keyboard’s too delicate for me to touch – I’ve forgot how to text.
“[But] I do it a couple of times a day. I think half the time I do it as much as to hear what tripe somebody’s going to be talking about. Someone’s coming out with words of wisdom, and it’s bollocks.
“Joe Gallagher and Jamie Moore are the only two who are still doing it, from Manchester. They’re still producing. From what I remember about Matthew Hatton, he should be a good coach. He was good at knowing what he was looking at. He was good at picking winners, from being young – and I know some good fighters who’ve been useless. Pat Barrett and Anthony Crolla, too.
“I’ve always watched women’s boxing – Jane Couch was a very good friend of mine – but I didn’t think I’d be as interested as I am now. I’m really enjoying women’s boxing. The fights should be 12 two-minute rounds. It’s great because there’s loads of good women fighters now, and two-minute rounds are why it’s really exciting.
“Me favourite to watch is Ellie Scotney. She’s got fantastic balance, anticipation; she’s a box-fighter. They’re my favourite fighters to watch – aggressive counter-punchers – and I’ve watched her since her first pro fight.
“If she’s coached and managed correctly, she’ll be a superstar. The Americans would love her. She’s not the finished article. But she could be a fantastic body puncher.”
It is then – perhaps more than at any other time during the course of two-and-a-half hours at his house in Mossley on the outskirts of Manchester, during which he also reveals he “can’t stand the royals” and describes selling the house he once owned in Atlanta as his “biggest mistake” – that Graham’s need to again be involved with fighters is most clear. It is with fighters that he is not only at his most compassionate, but his most spirited; as eager to see them managed correctly as he will no doubt again be to help them train.
“The early days, with Ricky Hatton, were the best days,” he says. “Right from the first time I see him. When he first came to the gym. He was made for me. My tastes changed over the years – the fighters I preferred to train – and he was made for me. He was training all the time.
“I would have taken him on the pads the first day, and let him spar the first week. From then, even though I had other fighters to train – champions – he was constantly on my mind. From day one, as a junior amateur.
“I knew he was perfect for me. Personality-wise as well – he’s got some of my bad traits an’ all. I was a successful trainer when he come to me. That was the best times. With him, and when he turned pro, coming up.”