Kirkland Laing, who has died aged 66, is often regarded as the best British boxer never to have won a world title, largely because of an extraordinary win he posted in 1982 when he outpointed the great Panamanian Roberto Durán by a split decision in a ten round non-title bout in Detroit.
In truth, it is what happened after the fight that defined the career of the man who was known as “the gifted one” in his welterweight fighting days. It should have been the result that would guarantee Laing a shot at the world title and potentially huge financial rewards. But the reality was that Laing went missing for a year, apparently on a huge party where booze, dope and women accounted for much of the money he had earned.
Asked years later about what happened, Laing would be coy. His promoter Mickey Duff and manager Terry Lawless had despaired. Unable to contact their fighter, lucrative fights could not be made, and when he finally returned to training the fickle boxing world had largely forgotten him. Duran moved on to win a world title less than a year later, with money-spinning contests against the likes of Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns, while Laing suffered a crushing defeat against Fred Hutchings in his comeback fight before sinking back to domestic and European level bouts with his big opportunity wasted.
Duff was frustrated, but resigned to the situation. While he appreciated better than most the fabulous talent possessed by Laing, he also knew that his star fighter lacked discipline and dedication. “Kirkland could have been the best in the world,” he once said to me. “But what am I supposed to do when I don’t know where he is? And what can I do when he is out all night doing God knows what, instead of training? I just gave up on him.”
With his lean muscular physique and graceful, quick movement, Laing certainly looked the part of a world champion, while those of us who reported on his career remember his happy go lucky personality and a smile that would light up a room wherever he might have been at the time. But his desire to party proved to be his undoing.
Training partners said they would always know that Kirkland was in the gym from the pervasive smell of marijuana that would accompany him. He liked nothing more than a drink, a smoke and a bet. Sadly, they were habits that would take a hold on him, especially after his fighting days were over.
Born in the parish of Clarendon in Jamaica into a household of ten children, Laing moved to England with his mother, Louise, before his tenth birthday and grew up in the St Ann’s district of Nottingham. Studying at Elliott Durham school was not for him, but he soon developed an extraordinary aptitude and appetite for boxing, winning numerous junior titles before stepping into the seniors.
Bitterly disappointed to be overlooked for Olympic selection despite winning the ABA title in 1972, Laing turned professional, and had his first paid fight in 1975. He won the British welterweight title on and off for 12 years after taking the belt for the first time in 1979.
By then he was being steered to stardom, and was twice matched with the big-punching Welshman Colin Jones in 1980 and 1981, first for the British title and then for the British and Commonwealth belts. Each time, watched by a live BBC television audience, Laing had seemed to be boxing his way to brilliant victories. With his hands-down style and a defence that relied on his astonishing reactions, he threw a series of trademark flashy punch combinations. But in each fight he was nailed by big shots from Jones in the ninth round, and was twice stopped in a manner that seemed inconceivable after what had gone before.
After the Durán fight a year later, Laing’s disappearance from the boxing scene scuppered any chances of reaching the top, and it soon became clear that he was destined never to fulfil his true potential. Nonetheless he had a number of high- profile fights later on, and a knockout victory over the Frenchman Antoine Fernandez earned him the European welterweight title at Wembley in 1990 in what would be recognised as a career-best achievement.
He retired in 1994, aged 40, following a loss to another British fighter, Glenn Catley, who would go on to win a world title. By then it was clear that his lifestyle had taken a toll on his once sublime talents. In all he fought 56 times, with 43 wins, 12 defeats and one draw.
After leaving boxing he drifted into a life of hard drug addiction and poverty. In 2013 he was severely injured when he fell from a fourth floor balcony in a Hackney block of flats in mysterious circumstances, and later he was taken into care after his mental health deteriorated.
Laing had five children by three partners, and seven grandchildren. At the time of his death he had been living in a care home in Blidworth, near Nottingham, and his daughter Delene said: “He still had that amazing smile. He always did precisely what he wanted. There truly wasn’t a malicious bone in his body. Perhaps he reacted to a strict upbringing by just wanting to have fun when he went to London, but he was a lovely man and a lovely father.”