All Heart: Boxing’s Finest Gentleman, Carl ‘The Cat’ Thompson

By Jeff Weston on September 28, 2016
All Heart: Boxing’s Finest Gentleman, Carl ‘The Cat’ Thompson
When The Cat missed, he missed big – like a drunk reaching for a Walmart trolley.

Chunks of a boxer’s life you cannot get back. They must readjust, change the oil, take a few spanners to the engine, fight the ridiculous fights…

“Don’t just swing it. Measure it. Time it. He’s open to the right hand. You’ve gotta put him in his place. He’s getting too brave. You hear me? He’s getting too cocky now. Show him what you’ve got. He cannot take your punches…”

It started then, in June 1994, after a brief round three Akim Tafer onslaught. Not with the evangelical words of celebrity minister, Billy Graham but with the impromptu monologue of an altogether rougher, ‘say it as it is’ Manchester trainer; a 1955 Billy Graham UK vintage.

Such a ubiquitous name. A dozen and a half of them on BoxRec. But this one in Carl Thompson’s corner, in a French backyard; his own record during a short, fighting career (12-2-0) eerily similar to The Cat’s eventual slate (34-6-0).

You win six, you lose one – that keeps things tidy, just about respectable.

Thompson didn’t start round four of his mid-career 19th fight anything other than ragged, playing possum as was his stamp, but the words in his ear perhaps heralded an inner truth: When The Cat missed, he missed big – like a drunk reaching for a Walmart trolley. Hone this somehow and you have a different fighter – one that can pick off an opponent with a single, blistering shot.

For the truth is Thompson’s right hand is one of those bar cocktails that send an unconscious shiver through a man’s very being, induce a blackout from which few properly recover. His story is thicker and more taut than the average man’s, his dedication mostly unsurpassed. He is the only boxer to defeat both David Haye and Chris Eubank and yet these wins are mere specks on a rich, 17½ year canvas.

The initial chapter is widely known: Master Sken Kaewpadung, the knackered shins and the rude awakening or first professional loss to Crawford Ashley in October 1989. Thompson came into this bloodied sport (June 1988) having gained a solid reputation as a Muay Thai practitioner, but the “more upright stance and wide open guard” were deemed bad habits in boxing circles, akin to jab-eating madness, naivety and unfettered generosity.   

Fixing such defects would take time. And Master Sken, for all his wisdom, would have to go. Enter Moss Side/Champs Camp stalwart and “left-wing political activist” Phil Martin, and later on the irrepressible Billy Graham and Maurice Core.

Thompson, after tip-toeing through the club and hotel circuit, got an early taste of foreign soil courtesy of his fight after Ashley against the relatively green Franco Wanyama (3-1-1). Sint Amandsberg, Oost-Vlaanderen played host to the “rebound bout”. Belgium’s municipality, known for its manicured lawns and fine architecture, was not beholden to The Cat’s temple-like body and prowess, however.

The Wanyama fight was to end with a six-round points decision against Thompson, despite The Cat’s claims that he “offensively shut [the Ugandan] down…had that guy rocking and rolling”. Thompson was, nonetheless, “floored” and the Ugandan curse was to strike again two fights later in more dramatic fashion versus Yawe Davis (26-6-2) inside Monaco’s Stade Louis II; a controversial TKO in round two of eight.

A glamorous venue. The wide-mohicanned Thompson forcing the pace rather than demonstrating the phone-booth credentials by which he would later be known. But such openness suited the Italian-adopted Davis. A fierce, flying right hook from him set the tone.

Thompson must have had blurred vision during this fight. Yellow stadium seats, yellow shorts, everything but The Beatles’ yellow submarine sailing towards him. The decision which ended the bout did not provoke the same hot-coals, apoplectic dance that would unfold after The Cat’s fight with Johnny Nelson years later but it did prompt incredulity, the sad feeling of being a victim of maniacal refereeing.

Ref Francis Risani may have been French but one sensed that there was some Italian blood in the family – a bit of partisan waving off of a still-fresh fight.

Crazy that Thompson would later admit: “What people always forgot was that I loved fighting away from home. I loved the crowd cheering for my opponent. And when they came to lay me out I put up resistance and broke their hearts. I took their best shots and wouldn’t go.”

Later experiences would justify this, but in the immediate aftermath of the Davis scrap The Cat stayed at home. He fought on English turf only for nearly three years. Perhaps waited for the sourness to ease. Perhaps waited for a proper referee (who would know him and his ways) once he was more established.

The defeated fighter is prime meat for others though – sometimes foolish others, hubristic revellers. What Thompson lost in his April 1991 fight to Davis, he quickly found – and more – versus Welshman, Nicky Piper five months later. The carefully groomed Cardiff-born bruiser (10-0-1) – ironically his only setback to Thompson stablemate and former Strangeways Prison ‘guest’ Maurice Core – more than likely anticipated a vulnerable foe; an opponent who had lost three of his last four fights. What he did not envisage was resolve and tenacity.

But then, how could he? Thompson was deemed a 9-3 dunce on the circuit; a boxer who had finally walked into the inevitable, punishing haze of the sport. To many he was shot – just another fumbling trier who had, early on, discovered his limitations; that awful realisation that thwarts most men.

To interpret numbers is to ultimately gamble though. And the Piper camp had not accounted for the 10lb weight difference. Nor had they allowed for the tough, physical specimen before them – something of the polite Clubber Lang about Thompson that night at York Hall in Bethnal Green. “A bit of a hard nut,” ITV’s Reg Gutteridge commentated with his usual brio.

When the “wild” right hands came, in the third round, they demolished Piper. He looked dazed – like a genius who’d just come out of a pub quiz after being defeated by a high school scoundrel.

And so, just 39 months into his professional boxing career, Carl Thompson was off, launched, at the age of 27. He would win all his fights over the next seven years with the exception of his first World Cruiserweight title tilt against Ralf Rocchigiani at the G-Mex, Manchester in June 1995; a cruel, dislocated shoulder in the 11th confounding the scorecards which had The Cat cantering: 99-91, 97-92, 97-92.

The fight against the six-foot German for the vacant belt was significant for many reasons. Manchester had not had a world champion for 60 years since Collyhurst flyweight, Jackie Brown. The occasion showed The Cat in his prime, utilizing great variety and poise, and going beyond eight rounds for the first time. And the faces in the crowd – Frank Warren, Naseem Hamed, Graciano and Christine Rocchigiani (check out that holler!) – all said something, be it “Do it for your city, Carl” or “Schnell, angriff, Ralf!”

“Show me that jab and left hook, Carl,” was the constant phrase seeping into the ring in the second round of this fight. Such purgatory, such interference opens a window on and perhaps explains The Cat’s preferred away days. Best not to jinx it, best not to have multiple passenger seat drivers twisting the game plan. (Unless the cry is from the corner.)

But that is what happened. And the pre-bell commentary, heightening expectations, asking of Thompson four lungs instead of his usual three (“Well, everything else that’s happened in Carl Thompson’s career crystallized really into one night”) was an appalling curse, a Ramadan with two sun rises.

Thompson steadied the ship with a trio of ‘nothing’ fights after this disappointment – versus Albert Call (6-4-3), Jason Nicholson (13-7-0) and Keith McMurray (16-38-2) – but it was effectively two years down the pan like the post-Ezra Sellers era late in his career when Phill Day (8-7-2), Hastings Rasani (11-8-0) and Paul Bonson (18-66-6) inexplicably appeared on the radar.

Chunks of a boxer’s life you cannot get back. They must readjust, change the oil, take a few spanners to the engine, fight the ridiculous fights. Or maybe style fights, suitability fights. Examining Thompson’s forty gigs in the ring one is drawn to two sets of lottery balls: fights 12 (Davis), 13 (Piper), 18 (Massimiliano Duran), 19 (Tafer), 22 (Rocchigiani), 26 (Rocchigiani II) and 27 (Eubank), 28 (Eubank II), 29 (Nelson), 34 (Sellers), 38 (Sebastian Rothmann), 39 (Haye).

Four of these The Cat lost, but only Sellers (23-4-0) wiped him out in what was a “knockdown festival”.  While the erratic Johnny Nelson was suited up at ringside two days after his victory over Alexander Vasiliev, expecting a spring re-match and WBO defence against Thompson, boxing did what it always does: it KO’d the script.

“I twisted my ankle in the fight and had to make a decision. I had to go at him. He was a southpaw and I knew it wasn’t going to last long. If my ankle didn’t go, I [would] have boxed him. But he was a tremendous puncher,” The Cat explained at the time.

Whether the pensive-looking Nelson was disappointed or now fearful of the Roy Jones Jr-sparring Sellers wasn’t clear. What was clear is that The Cat would have to build again…in the twilight of his career, aged 37.

Money – that elusive fiend – had hardly cosseted Thompson during his finer days. He had famously earned a mere £3,500 against Steve Lewsam for the British Cruiserweight title in 1992 and a tidy, yet extremely modest £100,000 against David Haye 12 years and 25 fights later when defending his IBO World title. In between there had been abiding slugfests against Duran, Tafer, Eubank (twice) and Rothmann but his clenched fists had failed to morph into able fingers ready to exploit the till.

“I just wanted to live a normal life and make some money, but it doesn’t happen that way,” Thompson told Elliot Worsell in 2005, weeks before his final fight. “I’m not naturally outspoken, but I feel as though I have to be to get people to notice me and pay the bills. I’m not going to change now, because that would be phoney, but if I knew that from the beginning, I would have opened my mouth more. I just don’t understand why you should have to disrespect other hard-working boxers to make money and get people to sit up and listen to you.”

This is the essence of The Cat. He is a gentleman – as far away from the “shrewd realist” and showman as you can imagine. And yet on these often imbecilic shores (both the UK and the US), people seem to crave that otherness, that ersatz, synthetic personality. It stirs things up, it whets boxing’s invisible blade. Without bogus controversy, how can we possibly get on?!

A pleasant dip into the 1994 Duran fight with its 200-year-old ref, old-fashioned coats and old-fashioned faces shows pugilism in another light. There is a feeling of authenticity not just from the Italian’s renowned jab and high, white socks, but from the navy-blazered Mario Guerrini gabbing at ringside.

Thompson’s first European Cruiserweight brawl in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna emits a bit of everything: a studious, admiring public; magnificent style from the home-town fighter; and Duran’s mother playing Mary Magdalene (her boy slumped, crucified in the corner of the ring following The Cat’s clinical combination finish in the eighth round). 

Such a fight was bound to end after a brief moment of vanity – Duran, guard down, adjusting his trunks, succumbing to the Thompson march, clubbing hooks, short chops and overhead rights. Duran (19-4-0) resembles a confused child once down, unable to grab the top rope at the first attempt, his mother resuscitating him with familial words. As he is walked backwards to the opposite corner and an apparently non-portable stool, the feeling is that Thompson has brought devastation to this northern city close to Bologna, ignored its heritage and ripped the European title from Magdalene’s bosom.

The Cat’s corner in their yellow, Champs Camp jackets, seem content, semi-jovial. Trainer Phil Martin smiles, assistant Billy Graham looks to have his mind on the next fight. And for good reason, although he wouldn’t know it: the man who initially brought him into the fold, Phil Martin, would die from cancer just over three months later aged 44.

It hurt them all. 

Tragedy can seemingly do two things – lay a man low or lift him to strengthen the memories, the legacy. Thompson had three more fights that year (Akim Tafer, Dionisio Lazario Nascimento and Tim Knight), but it is really only the first that is remembered: Tafer (19-4-0) in Epernay, Marne, France.

“Please, God – don’t let me disgrace myself,” were The Cat’s thoughts after taking a hiding in round three.

They are a measure of the man. Despite the Eye of the Tiger ring walk. Despite being the European champ. You can tell, in that walk, in that face, that Carl is a reserved chap, a relatively shy individual. He is the opposite of the bombs that he throws. He does not crave attention – just a living, a livelihood.

He is, in many ways, the soulful singer-songwriter, Lisa Stansfield. Nothing, absolutely nothing like you imagine once the artistry ceases. Look at the fire in the ring, on stage, and then compare it to the ordinariness outside, the colloquial grain; an extraordinary ordinariness – a kind, affable, man of the people.

Tafer looks brutal. He is built of the finest French granite. The chants of “A-kim! A-kim! A-kim!” around the arena are enough to blow over a lesser opponent. Referee, Franz Marti from Switzerland, to his credit, lets this fight flow. He recognizes that he is in the company of two men of steel – one enormously humble, the other so revved up inside that he punches a towel off the top rope in the first round.

This isn’t a 75” versus 75½” reach in favour of Tafer as the stats suggest. It is much more. One examines the Frenchman early on and believes him to have extra-long, bludgeoning forearms. The ceremony, the pomp now over, Thompson must wonder why he has agreed to meet this opponent, La Marseillaise and all that comes with it.

“He’s gonna keep throwin’, he’s gonna get fucked, he’s gonna get tired.” The words from new no.1 corner man, Billy Graham somehow dissolve and don’t register. Before The Cat is a wall put together with Napoleon mortar. Ashley, Davis, Piper, Arthur Weathers, Duran – all the fights that came before this do not matter. He is hostage in a ring with a Gallic blunderbuss – precision lacking at times, but a slugger, a dangerous over-the-channel charger who, unlike Thompson, would only fight on away turf twice during his entire career.

No “have gloves will travel” attitude from Tafer – just the stirring home crowd, willing him over the line, praying for an early evening.

“The toughest fight of my career,” The Cat would later reflect, just as he would label the second Rocchigiani encounter “the fight where I showed my all” and Sellers “the hardest puncher I ever came across”.

Tafer, alas, fatally allows Thompson to fight in the pocket, to lean in on his opponent and when the murderous ending comes via a right upper-cut and right cross in the sixth, he is bewildered, outwardly not aware of the count.

The Cat, quick to honour his opponent, quick to show concern and warmth – like a modern-day Canelo – does all he can to alleviate his professional work from just seconds before, but the smelling salts, exhaustion and possible missing tooth in the French camp tell another story.

Thompson’s applause and bows to the crowd from each side of the ring, after having his arm held aloft, speak of a distinct grace, a depth to the man that the world would come to know following his cruiserweight titles in 1997 (Rocchigiani), 2001 (Uriah Grant) and 2004 (Rothmann).

It is undoubtedly The Cat’s pivotal night, an early inauguration. Without Tafer there would be no Rocchigiani, no Eubank, no Grant, no Rothmann, no Haye later on – those giant, defining fights central to his legacy.

Asked about a rematch (“One more time”), Thompson responds: “I’ll sit down, think about it, have a rest, next time…thank you, merci.” Such simplicity – tinged with ambiguity - but when he gets hold of the trophy, and turns to the press and the crowd, it is the proudest, the happiest you are likely to see him in a ring.

Recognition. The French know how to spoil you a little. Unlike the sport itself which can be unforgiving, ruinous and far from equitable in dishing out its rewards.

Is there an epithet for The Cat besides “Come from behind fighter”? Yes. You hear it at the end of the Rothmann fight in the ninth round a decade later – the last sentence:

“Just needs a little bit more variation, Thompson…Got the left up just in time…Well, Thompson’s absolutely exhausted. Thompson is exhausted. He’s tired and Rothmann’s really going for him now. Thompson, on the ropes, and Rothmann’s actually stepped back and maybe let him off the hook. I’m not sure Thompson has a great deal left. Richie Davies is having a good look. He certainly won’t allow Thompson to get himself hurt. He may just survive the end of this round. Oh, what a shot from Thompson. Right hand. Oh, what can you say. Oh, ye have little faith…”

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  1. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:28am, 09/29/2016

    Eric-Conrad was a fitness buff and incorporated boxing training into his program. He was King of the Hill on TV at the time and started to actually started to believe that he was a fighter, in large part due to his relationship with Frankie who he “adopted” as a pet during that time. Frankie was one of those “pets” that if you rubbed them the wrong way, would tear you a new asshole.

  2. Eric 06:08am, 09/29/2016

    Used to watch Wild Wild West back in the day. Conrad was also in one of my favorite Columbo episodes. Conrad played a fitness instructor who murdered one of his clients. Hollyweird would later make a movie out of the old television series, Wild Wild West, starring Will Smith in the lead role. hehe. Now we have Denzel Washington in the Magnificent Seven, and before him, the Rock borrowing from the real life story of sheriff Buford Pusser. teehee. About the only thing the Rock and the late Pusser had in common was they were both ex-wrestlers.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:16am, 09/29/2016

    Years ago when Robert Conrad was riding high he glommed onto Frankie Crawford to show that he was macho in “real life”. They used to spar and Frankie would lighten up to keep everyone happy, I guess. On one occasion Frankie overheard Conrad say during an interview that if they really fought it would be a toss up because he was a Middleweight and Frankie was a Featherweight. The next time they sparred Frankie KOd Conrad. When their association ended Conrad had to get a restraining order against Frankie. Frankie was a bad boy whose life makes Micky Ward’s seem like tiddlywinks in comparison. I’ve been dropping hints for the writers on for years about Frankie and not just about an article, whose life ended more tragically than Arturo Gatti’s, if that’s possible.

  4. The Thresher 03:59pm, 09/28/2016

    I wrote about The Cat extensively. Great fighter.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:35pm, 09/28/2016

    Fifteen years ago and fifty pounds lighter Smoger referee for Carl and Sellers. British commentator saying that Ezra is “circumspect” early on before the fireworks started.

  6. The Thresher 01:21pm, 09/28/2016

    Mock is still fighting and doing pretty well actually. He beat some pretty good boxers in his day.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:15pm, 09/28/2016

    Both Lolenga Mock and Carl clocked Haye to the side of the head…..I predict that sooner or later someone is gonna’ find that sweet spot again, that is if Haye ever fights again.

  8. The Thresher 01:03pm, 09/28/2016

    I’d go with Joe Louis, Tony DeMarco, Jersey Joe, Sugar Shane Mosley, Harry Arroyo, Greg Haugen, Iran Barkley, Vinny Paz,  and a few others as being very decent and accessible to fans. I found Andre Ward to be that way as well. Johnny Tapia was simply great. Margorito is a decent chap as well and believe it or not, so is Brando Rios.

    But there are plenty who are not.

  9. Eric 12:56pm, 09/28/2016

    Thresher…Know just a tad about Maske as a fighter and nuffin’ about him as a person.  I was just compiling a short list of my own. I’m sure there are others I left out on both lists. Those names that I mentioned just either seem to rub me the wrong way or in the other case, I have a good feeling about that particular person. Of course, the only one that I ever met in person was Patterson, and I’m only going by interviews and what I read on the others. I can’t say I really know some family members, much less some boxer that I have never met. After all, Marciano hung out with some mobsters, so maybe he wasn’t that squeaky clean either.

  10. The Thresher 12:43pm, 09/28/2016

    Eric, do you know anything about Maske?

  11. Eric 12:19pm, 09/28/2016

    Boxing’s finest gentlemen were Alexis Arguello, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, in no particular order. Boxing’s biggest aholes were Floyd Mayweather, Ray Leonard, Jake LaMotta, Carlos Monzon, Larry Holmes, Oscar Bonavena,  in no particular order.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:01pm, 09/28/2016

    His KO of Haye after David hit him with everything but the kitchen sink is a speck?!

  13. The Thresher 11:20am, 09/28/2016

    With all due respect, boxing finest gentleman was Henry Maske

  14. Eric 06:27am, 09/28/2016

    What are the odds of a fighter being compared to Lisa Stansfield? Interesting and entertaining article. Can only remember her one hit that played non-stop on the radio in 1990. I believe the title was, “Been Around The World,” or something like that. Poor girl couldn’t find her baby. Nice tune and great voice. Sure beats that crap they call music today.

  15. Eric 05:39am, 09/28/2016

    Thompson’s fights with Eubank were entertaining. Whatever your take on Eubank, it took heart to jump from 168 all the way up to cruiserweight to take on someone like Thompson. So a GGG vs. Kovalev fight isn’t as far fetched as people might think.

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