When you look back through heavyweight history there are always fighters who have captured the majority attention of boxing fandom. Fighters such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis all achieved legendary status, but these fighters would not have been so well regarded without their respective dance partners. Many of those forgotten champions are always overshadowed by the movement in the sport, the generational changes that happen every decade and that lead to the memory of these gladiators subsequently fading away into obscurity.
One of those aforementioned fighters is the former WBC heavyweight champion, “The Atomic Bull”, Oliver McCall (59-14-0 (38KOs)), whose reign at the top may not have been a long one, but the impact that he had during his time was of such significance that it would bring about a paradigmatic shift in the 1990s heavyweight era.
Oliver has been out of the public eye for quite some time now, but his social media presence is fast uprising, and with that more and tales of comeback fights are starting to emerge. This story, however, is not one discussing potential comeback fights; rather, it is one telling the proud story of a once heavyweight king, who would fall into hard times before being reborn into a man much wiser and more resilient as a result of the adversity that he would overcome.
I had always wondered how Oliver became involved in boxing, and like many fighters before and after him, it was the inspiration of legendary forebears combined with the fact that he grew up in a difficult neighbourhood, that were the predominant reasons. However, Oliver was also a keen basketball player and overall athlete, and so, he was never too far away from the gym.
“As a kid, I looked up to guys like Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, they were my favourites, but it was the story of Ali having his bicycle stolen and him then taking up boxing that steered me towards the sport. I also lived in the southside of Chicago, Illinois, which at the time was a pretty rough area to grow up in and so you had to be able to look after yourself out there.”
Oliver then proceeded to tell me about his memories of the first stepping into a boxing gym:
“I was sixteen years old and I went to Wilson Avenue with my dad. He wanted me to box and so he actually set it up that I would go sparring with a pro, even though I had not been in a ring before. But because I could fight and there was a chance, I could make a little money, around $400. That did not end up happening and so I was actually taught how to throw the right hand and left hook instead during that first trip to the gym.”
A year after Oliver turned professional a certain Mike Tyson made history by becoming the youngest ever heavyweight champion at the age of twenty years old, and it was not long before he was looking for competitive sparring and for a fighter who would be able to give a good as he got. That fighter turned out to become Oliver McCall, who after only a handful of professional fights got the call to join Tyson in camp, though it would not be in the way one would expect:
“Tyson and Don King actually came to one of my fights. They made their presence known by sitting front row, and I had just knocked my opponent out, not just out cold but out of the ring as well, and he got his foot caught on the ring apron and went crashing out to the floor. Eventually, he got up, but I finished it off pretty quick and then I ran over to Tyson and told him that I would knock him out in the same way I had just knocked that opponent out, and Tyson replied, “Bring it on”. A week later and they called me up to come in as a sparring partner, and when I walked in through the door, they recognised me straight away and called for me to get in the ring next.
“I got in the ring and my manager Elijah Thomas was shaking whilst helping to lace up the gloves; he was more nervous than I was. As soon as the bell went, I clocked him with an overhand right which got his respect straightaway, and after that sparring session, they increased my pay to $500 from then until the day that I resigned from being his sparring partner.
“I learnt a hell of a lot from the years sparring with Tyson and I have nothing but respect for him and what he achieved in the sport. He was the small guy fighting giants and dispatching them easily; he is certainly one of the best to ever do it”
McCall would go on to spend two and a half years in camp with Tyson, spanning seven of his world title fights. In his own career, Oliver was steadily climbing the heavyweight rankings and in 1989 he got in the ring with the man that would go on to cause one of the biggest shocks in the sport: James “Buster” Douglas, who at this point in time was pushing on for a shot at a world title himself, with the high stakes of this fight being that the winner would go on to face the then undisputed champion, Mike Tyson. And Oliver reflects on the fight with Douglas, and how the years of sparring Tyson would eventually hinder his progress in the ring as opposed to helping it.
“When I got the fight with Douglas, I was not ready for it; I had been sparring shorter guys like Tyson and I was used to them coming at me, and guys like Douglas and Razor Ruddock I was just not ready for at that point of my career. My manager at the time worked out a deal with Don King and then they got me into that fight which, stylistically, for me was all wrong. I really needed months of sparring bigger guys and adapting before taking it. The rest is history of course, and when I was back in camp with Tyson, I was getting laughed at for losing to Douglas, and I told Mike that he ought to be careful with him, and you all saw what happened there.”
The defining moment of Oliver McCall’s career was the night that he became the WBC heavyweight champion by shocking the world and stopping the previously undefeated Lennox Lewis. It is a fight that Oliver fondly remembers for obvious reasons, but at the time critics were heavily favouring Lewis to continue his dominant run of form, and they did not give Oliver much of a chance of being able to topple the Brit. McCall had earnt his shot at the title by beating Francesco Damiani, putting him in prime position for the fight with Lewis, and with Don King having a strong grip on the heavyweight division, it was inevitable that he would want the title back in America. In McCall’s corner, that night was a hall of fame trainer, the late Emmanuel Steward, who as we know would go on to coach Lewis a couple of years later, but on this night, he was with McCall, who reflects both on his influence and the fight itself:
“Having Emmanuel in the corner made such a difference in my career. His experience was second to none, and having him just talking to me and the way he was, it took me to another level mentally, which is definitely what I needed that night.
“The night against Lewis was something else; I was so ramped up and confident, but it was not overconfidence from winning the fight, it was confidence borne from showing everyone that I could hold my own and be the best fighter that I could be. And when I hit him with that shot, I knew it was over right there. It was by far the best moment of my career.”
There is a clichéd phrase in sport which refers to the moment idols become rivals, and this was certainly the case when in the first defence of his WBC heavyweight title, Oliver McCall took on one of his boyhood heroes in Larry Holmes, who at this point was a shadow of his former self, but that made no difference for McCall who fondly recalls facing off against the heavyweight legend:
“You know the older I get, the more awesome I realise it was to have been able to share the ring with Larry and I have nothing but love for Larry Holmes. We talk quite a lot these days and his family know my family; we meet up at the events to honour former champions and it is just great that after sharing the ring with him we were able to remain good friends. The other thing about beating Larry was that when you go back through history, I have to be one of, if not the only man to have beaten two top ten heavyweights of all time back to back, and that’s some feat.”
Following the victory over Holmes, Oliver then came back to the UK for the third time in his career to defend his title against one of Britain’s best-loved fighters, Frank Bruno 39-4-0 (38KOs), who was making the fourth attempt at becoming a world champion. Oliver and Frank knew each quite well, having shared many sparring sessions during the mid-1980s. Both men had the utmost respect for each other as human beings, but all that went out of the window come fight night.
On September 2nd 1995 at a packed out Wembley stadium, Oliver McCall lost his WBC title via unanimous decision, whilst Frank Bruno had finally realised his dream of becoming a world heavyweight champion, in what would be a hotly contested affair, with both men fighting tooth and nail all the way until the end. When looking back on that night, although it was a defeat for McCall, I could tell the respect in which he holds Frank, and that it was a contest worth more than just world titles.
“My respect for the champion of the world or being a champion of the world Is very important to me, and with Frank, it was his fourth attempt, which to him was obviously a huge deal, but it does not matter if it’s the fourth time or the forty-fourth time. To have become world heavyweight champion in an era that had Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis took some doing. When I look back on the fight at first I thought I had won the fight, but when I thought about it I realised that my preparation was not what it should have been, and hats off to Frank because I knew whoever won that fight had to face Tyson next, and to be honest I am happy it was not me because I did not want that kind of whooping.”
In this current generation of new boxing fans, the memory of fighters like Oliver McCall is slowly fading away; their achievements are not being recognised as they should be, and with social media being so pertinent to the daily life of millions of people, the lines between what a true fighter is and one which parades themselves for the benefit of their followers is becoming increasingly blurry. Videos often portray these heroes of yesterday in a negative light and there is one particular moment in the career of Oliver McCall, a night that lives in infamy, a night that he wishes to forget and one which during our conversation had Oliver very close to tears having to relive again, which still surfaces.
In an attempt to recapture the then-vacant WBC heavyweight title, Oliver took on the man he had beaten three years earlier in that ‘shock upset.’ This time around, Lennox Lewis was 29-1-0 (24KOs), and had been rebuilding his career following that defeat with victories over Tommy Morrison and Ray Mercer. This was an opportunity for both men: the chance for Lewis to avenge his defeat, and a chance for Oliver to become a two-time world heavyweight champion; though the unfathomable events that unfolded would result in one of boxings most infamous, yet sad moments, as during the course of the fight Oliver suffered a mental breakdown and refused to carry on, prompting referee Mills Lane to step in an award a TKO victory to Lennox Lewis. For Oliver McCall, this was his breaking of the ice moment and the revelation to many as to the state of his mind at that time.
When asked about that moment, Oliver was understandably very hesitant to want to reminisce about and relive it. This period of his life caused such pain not only to himself but to others around him, and he has since felt betrayed in the retelling of it by reputable journalists, who he feels manipulated his words. Though Oliver would recall how he was able to rise once more from this rock bottom and how he was able to be reborn into a new way of life:
“I have to keep that buried, and the reason for that is the enemy have used that in so many various ways to do and accomplish bad things. As a result of that manipulation, I ended up being barred from fighting for four years. Dealing with the things I have dealt with; I am still fighting. The fight of life comes with lots of challenges, but it is about staying focused and staying close to the Lord, and I definitely need the Lord in my life. And I am much better now, better than I have been for a long time”
Rather than focusing on his career post-Lennox Lewis, I wanted to address the rumours that Oliver is making another return to the ring, having seen multiple reports of him supposedly calling out Mike Tyson as well as the current WBC heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury. Since returning from his aforementioned four-year ban, he has had two fights – winning them both – but like most people in boxing, I have wondered as to what purpose he has coming back to the sport and whether he is really serious about fighting elite-level opponents?
“At the moment the one fight that is being proposed is me and Shannon Briggs. Now that would be great if it came off, but it's been a long time since I have had three fights in a row; and not just that, I want my grandkids to be able to have the chance to see me fight live. Guys like myself, Roy Jones Jr, Mike Tyson & Michael Nunn all have this little bit left that we want to give to the sport and to our families, so if we could do it all on one night, that would be awesome”
Whilst the majority will scoff at the idea of fighters like Oliver McCall returning the ring, and many understandably have cause for concern over the safety of older fighters coming back, in the eyes of Oliver McCall if their return can be handled safely then why not!
Having another fight is not the only thing that keeps Oliver motivated these days;, he still has a love for the sport and has also opted to help other fighters by sharing his knowledge and the wisdom accrued from over many years spent around the very best that boxing had to offer. He is now training fighters and has a burning ambition to head to other parts of the world to help fighters in reaching their potential.
The definition of rebirth is a period of new life, growth, or, no less dramatically, of a revival. Through the life of Oliver McCall, we have seen the rise, the fall and the rebirth of a once heavyweight king, who overcame adverse times to come again and to prove to people that it is possible to come back from the brink of despair, to find a new purpose and renewed reasons to go on in the achievement of differing, contemporary goals.