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I’m back again, in a room high up in the MGM Grand on the Strip, staring into the glittering darkness of Las Vegas. One Vegas hotel room looks like another but it feels as if I’m on the same floor when, all those years ago, in 1996, a giant image of Mike Tyson’s head turned menacingly on a metal cube outside the brightly-lit green MGM just before he crushed Frank Bruno to become world heavyweight champion once more. I know it doesn’t matter. It just feels like I’m back where I belong – getting ready to meet Tyson and preparing a new section for an updated edition of an old book called Dark Trade.

Tomorrow afternoon, at two o’clock, I’m due to meet Tyson again in his office in Henderson, twelve miles from the MGM.

The same old uncertainty rises up inside me. Tyson is now, incredibly, forty-seven years old. I am fifty-two. We’re both embedded in the strangeness of middle-age and so much has happened between then and now. Yet the first time we met I wondered whether Iron Mike would live to see the age of thirty.

He is now more than just a crazed fighter. Tyson is an actor, a one-man stage-show performer, the co-author of a grimly riveting autobiography and a boxing promoter with his own company, IMP, Iron Mike Productions. I need to start planning my questions but where do I even begin with Tyson?


My own life has changed beyond compare. Since Dark Trade was published in 1996, Alison and I have had three children. I’ve written six further books and the kids are old enough to recognize that a murky corner of my life is called ‘boxing’. In our house, it’s a source of mirth. Even our son, a sports-mad teenage boy between two arty sisters, laughs in bemusement at my boxing life.

Yesterday, a Tuesday, I returned from New York and a research trip for a new book about an old boxer. I landed at nine am and in the afternoon, when they got back from school, I had to tell them that I had just heard I needed to fly to Vegas the next morning – twenty-four hours after arriving home from America – to see Tyson.

My son sounded doubtful. “Tyson?” he said. “The guy who bit off someone’s ear?”

The old conflicted feelings have returned in Vegas. Why am I immersed as deeply as ever in boxing – at a time when most reasonable people dismissed it years ago as a tawdry joke? I still love movies and books and music, and sport, and I live an ordinary life with my family. But boxing continues to consume me.

I still meet fighters whenever I can. I pay my BoxNation television subscription every month and, most days, scan the major boxing websites and trawl my Twitter timeline for news of Floyd Mayweather, Gennady Golovkin and new favourites of mine like Carl Frampton, the Belfast bantamweight, managed by Barry McGuigan. Every time there is a big fight on TV Alison sits down to watch it with me, for old time’s sake and as her way of supporting me in my enduring madness.

It could be seen as a disease, I guess, but it’s an integral part of me. Just as I am a husband, a father and a son, I remain an addict of the ring. I am still lost in boxing.

So this is how it should end, or begin again, back near where we started, feeling different, but the same.

Waiting again for Tyson, I remember other fighters from these pages and beyond. I have been here before. Other circles have been completed or broken. They are not all happy endings because this is boxing. This is still, in Tyson’s resonant old phrase, the hurt business.


James Toney had been my favourite fighter for a long time. As the years slipped away, however, his Lights Out nickname became less a threat to his opponents than a summary of the way in which darkness had begun to shroud Toney’s life. He kept fighting because, at least in his mind, he had no other choice. Toney tried to tell himself, and us, that he was still a great fighter but whenever he opened his mouth his words sounded muffled and slurred. It became impossible to ignore the damage done by twenty-five years in the professional ring.

I only needed to listen to some of my early interviews with Toney to remember that he had always spoken with a drawling, almost mumbling swagger. But it was a shock to hear again the clarity and wit that rang out of his gruff voice from those past interviews. Toney’s mazy speech eighteen years later was lost in the creeping slurry of too many fights, and too many punches to the head.

It was painful to even imagine how I would write about Toney, and everything that had happened, for a revamped Dark Trade.

I remembered how I had read the news that Toney had been enticed to England in November 2013 to add some flabby stardust to Eddie Hearn’s Prizefighter tournament with a mournful sigh. The idea that Toney was about to fight in London for the first time would have once entranced, rather than depressed, me.

The reality was bleak. Toney first faced Matt Legg, a white novice from Milton Keynes who had a professional fight record of 6-1. Yet Legg had had just one bout over the past five years. It was a measure of how far Toney had fallen. Of course he made it into the Prizefighter semi-finals where he was joined by three journeymen in Michael Sprott, Brian Minto and Toney’s former sparring partner Jason ‘The Sensation’ Gavern – a policeman from Ohio.

Lights Out faced The Sensation – the youngest of the remaining Prizefighters at thirty-six. The combined age of the four semi-finalists was 156.

I still had to write about the ensuing charade – which was made even more ludicrous by the fact that Gavern decided to emit some high-pitched whoops and shrieks whenever he landed a half-decent punch. Around the arena hundreds of jokers chose to echo him by making their own “Woo!” screams. It was one of the least amusing nights of my boxing life.


I sit alone in Mike Tyson’s office on an ordinary Thursday afternoon in Henderson. All the jittery and jet-lagged uncertainty I had felt the night before has melted away. I’m back in the old fight-game routine.

Tyson, of course, is late. Nearly an hour has slipped past, as if in homage to all those afternoons I spent waiting for him in Las Vegas in the 1990s. But time has been filled by a conversation with Steve Lott, one of Tyson’s oldest friends and now his assistant at Iron Mike Productions. Tyson and Lott are striving to build their boxing promotions and it feels easy to sit back and listen. Lott is a shy man, who still tells lots of jokes inbetween remembering all that he and Tyson have been through since they first met at Cus D’Amato’s house in the Catskills over thirty years ago.

When Tyson texts Lott, confirming that he will be with us in five minutes, I settle down on my own. I sit at Tyson’s desk, looking at his books and glancing up at the giant mural of D’Amato that stares down from the wall. I bring out a sheet of paper covered on both sides by my sixty-five questions. I suspect that Tyson will understand. Sixty-five questions should just be the starting point for such a tangled life.

It’s still a small shock to see him in person. He walks towards me and I feel surprised again by how short he is compared to the massive heavyweights I’ve met – like Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers. Tyson is smiling, just a little, and he tilts his head to the side, as if to match his apology for being late.

As soon as we sit down I can sense that something special is about to unfold inside Tyson. Within minutes, Tyson has begun to talk with the same raw immediacy that gripped me all those years ago. We talk for hours about his life and boxing and books...


A day later, I return to Tyson’s office. He is due to make a television advert for WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] but, as if to showcase the difference in his own life from our past encounters, he jokes that we need to babysit his four-year-old daughter Milan and her friend.

“They’re finger-painting,” Tyson says while we watch the two small girls hard at work in the reception area. “And we’re in charge...”

Tyson is at his warmest and most generous on a blue-skied Friday afternoon. It’s easy to like him as we fritter away the hours. We even talk about his facial tattoo. “I just hated myself then,” he says. “I literally wanted to deface myself. I went to this tattoo artist and said I wanted my face to be covered in stars. He refused. He said I have a good face.”

The tattoo artist suggested, instead, that he ink a Maori tribal design onto the left side of Tyson’s face. “It looks awesome. That tattoo is me. Sometimes I see people with tattoos on their face and I’m like ‘Woah, this guy is crazy!’ I forget I’ve got one on my face.”

Tyson laughs. “In the beginning, some people were scared by it. But the bikers would shout: ‘Oh, that’s beautiful man, great ink!’”

Eventually, to the delight of Milan and her friend, the make-up artist arrives for the WWE shoot. It seems poignant, remembering his past brutality towards women, that Tyson should have his face covered in make-up while his daughter croons, “Don’t worry, daddy, she’s gonna make you look pretty!”


Tyson looks bashful while the make-up artist powders his tattoo. “Lipstick! Lipstick!” the little girls chant, gleeful at the thought that Iron Mike needs lipstick for television.

We walk to a conference room where the WWE commercial is being shot. Tyson winks at me before he addresses an autocue filled by words he needed to say out loud while being filmed.


The autocue has pages and pages which he has to read. His only mistake on the first take is to pay homage to ‘Cold Stone’ Steve Austin – rather than the wrestler’s ‘Stone Cold’ nickname. He does it again and again and again. By the fifth take Tyson the pro nails it – only for the producer to inadvertently cough during the last line. Tyson needs to do it again and so he tells the unblinking camera that one of the highlights of his career was being elected to the WWE Hall of Fame. He reels off the long blurb a sixth time, perfectly, only to hear that someone had knocked on the window when they walked past.

Take Seven, however, is unbeatable. He’s done it.

“I need a break,” Tyson says. He leads me back into his office as if he does not know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, Tyson looks at me and smiles. “Imagine if that happened twenty years ago,” he says of his repeated WWE takes. “I would’ve smashed up their cameras.”

The former champion ponders the damage he would have done and, then, Tyson lets slip a soft laugh. “Maybe I’m making progress. Maybe, after everything, I’m doing OK.”


I’m down to my last hour in Las Vegas now. Three nights and two days in this city, especially on the Strip, are enough. I’ve had my latest boxing fix, and it’s been the most memorable encounter of a book I began researching and writing 23 years ago. I did not see a punch thrown, or watch one man beat another in a ring of shared hurt. There had been no press conferences or crowded arenas. But my belief in boxing has been restored.

It seems curiously apt that such conviction emerged in the company of Mike Tyson. He was not Tyson the destroyer or Iron Mike or Mad Mike or the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world or the criminal or the addict. All those truths and personae helped create the fantastical story of his life. But out in Henderson, in his low-key office, he was just a man.

I was struck again by how much Tyson still loves boxing – despite his contrasting feeling that he had also been deformed by the fight game. Boxing had cultivated the darkest traits in his character, and fed off his past misery, while fuelling his fire and rewarding him for his terrifying brutality and lack of morality. “Boxing made me,” he said, “and then it disfigured me.”

Tyson told me some dark stories about Joe Louis and Sonny Liston in Las Vegas – as well as snappier anecdotes of his past friendship with fighters like Joey Maxim, the light-heavyweight world champion who, in 1952, had become the only man to stop Sugar Ray Robinson. “I loved Joey,” Tyson said, “even if, like Joe Louis, he ended up working as a hotel greeter in Vegas. I loved hearing his stories. They don’t make white guys like him no more...”

He cackled and then grew more animated as he began to tell me about his inspiring encounters with Emile Griffith. Tyson knew I’d been working for years on a book about Griffith, who was torn between the ring and New York’s gay underworld in the 1960s and ‘70s. After his personal stories of how Griffith bolstered him, there had been a surreal few minutes when we sat together and he read my chapter breakdown and I tried to explain how I had structured the story.

I learnt more about Griffith from Tyson in an hour than I’ve sometimes gleaned in a day from a dusty archive. His encyclopaedic knowledge of boxing was at his most irresistible when Tyson zipped from one great old fighter to another, from Ted ‘Kid Lewis to Alberto ‘Baby’ Azizmendi, from Harry Greb to Jack Britton. He spoke in detail about one of his favourite fighters, Panama Al Brown – the freakishly tall bantamweight of the 1920s and 1930s who had a tempestuous affair with Jean Cocteau.

“Can you imagine,” Tyson said his eyes widening at the unlikely pairing of a Panamanian fighter who became the first Hispanic world champion in boxing history and a French experimental writer and film-maker, “Panama Al and Jean Cocteau! Only boxing gives you these characters...”

As the sun slipped away in Nevada the shadows spread across Tyson’s tattooed face. The fading light made him look younger than he had seemed earlier that day. Yet I also knew his unbridled love for boxing had replenished him.

“Hey Steve,” he shouted to his old friend. “You still there?”

Steve Lott wondered in from next door, confirming that everyone else had left. “I’m still here – someone’s got to work while you guys do your yakking. But I heard…Panama Al Brown!”

We retreated to Lott’s computer. Tyson began to bounce up and down, as if getting ready to spar again, while Lott searched for the film footage he had stored of Brown. It took just a few minutes before Panama Al Brown, who died in 1951, at the age of forty-nine, came back to life.

Panama Al flickered across a screen while Tyson marveled at his skill and venom. “Oh wow, look at his style,” Tyson crooned. He seemed happier than I’d ever seen him as he entered into a fiercely informed debate over the amount of bouts Brown had in a career which, starting in 1922, lasted twenty years. They settled the argument by checking the Boxrec website. Tyson was right – Brown had fought 162 bouts.

As they dug out rare footage of Ted Lewis, the London fighter known as ‘The Aldgate Sphinx’ before he picked up his ‘Kid’ nickname in America, Tyson began to chart another epic boxing life. Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, like Panama Al Brown, also fought for twenty years, from 1909 to 1929, and he became world welterweight champion – but Lewis’ fights against Jack Britton fascinated Tyson the most. They met an incredible twenty times in the ring which was unsurprising, Tyson remarked, when Britton had had at least 350 professional fights. He also remembered that Britton’s bout against Mickey Walker at Madison Square Garden, in 1922, inspired Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Fifty Grand.

Tyson only lamented the absence of any known film of Britton or Harry Greb. “I bet it’s out there,” he said, “disintegrating in someone’s garage. Steve and me will track it down. Don’t you worry...”

As they moved onto their next fighter, and another slice of archive material, the ghosts of the ring seemed to replace the haunting darkness of his own past. “Fucking boxing,” Tyson eventually said, “you just can’t match it...”

It was then, in that giddy moment, that I felt ready to write again. I had pages to fill and fighters to remember. At last, I could go back to Dark Trade. Where else but in boxing would I have met contrasting characters like Michael Watson and James Toney, Barry McGuigan and Mike Tyson? Where else would I have found resonant links between Belfast and Las Vegas, between race and sport, glory and infamy?

It’s always said that boxing will never be quite as great or as meaningful again – but they complained about that truth in the 1990s when harking back to the 1970s or while disillusioned fight fans in the 1950s lamented the lost power of the game back in the 1920s. It was always better in the past and yet, for those of us still lost in the maze, there is always another fighter to follow. A new version of an ancient story is always waiting to be told. And so, even if Tyson might fall again or Toney climbs back in the ring, the darkest trade of all will keep on turning.

I leave the MGM Grand and head down the gaudy old Strip. As I walk away in the early morning sunshine of Las Vegas, a familiar old boxing truth consoles me. This is not quite the end.

The new and updated edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 June 2014.

A NEW OLD DEVIL: Kevin Spacey as Clarence Darrow
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Clarence Darrow has come back to life in London. We’ve just been to the Old Vic to see Kevin Spacey play Darrow in the one-man play which first got me hooked on the hunched and compelling attorney for the lost and the damned. Spacey has also had a long fixation with Darrow and he and Chris Cooper were terrific together when they played the lawyer and the union leader Eugene Debs in a film for PBS in 1991.

In the round, at the Old Vic, with Spacey steaming and sweating and becoming Darrow just a few feet away from us, it seemed especially apt to be so close to this subject again. Ninety years ago this week, on 2 June 1924, Darrow agreed to represent the notorious Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb as they faced the death penalty for killing a boy called Bobby Franks with carefree malice.

Darrow had to find a way into two frightening young minds that had shocked a city accustomed to violence. The savagery of gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio had already turned Chicago into the slaughterhouse of America. There had been assassinations and bombings, abductions and even castrations among the 177 killings that blighted the first six months of that year in the Loop. But one murder gripped the nation. It took two boys, with their sharp suits and gleaming hair, slicked-back in a snappy Valentino-sheik style, to fix minds on a new depravity – the thrill-killing of a boy.

When Darrow asked why they had ended Bobby’s life Leopold offered a chilling answer: “The killing was an experiment. It is just as easy to justify such a death as it is to justify an entomologist killing a beetle on a pin.”

Leopold and Loeb, the unrepentant sons of millionaires, would do anything to alleviate their boredom and become famous. Their story perplexed Darrow because the boys were highly intelligent and had more money and prospects than almost anyone their age – and yet they squandered everything with the 19 year-old Leopold suggesting that he and Loeb were had been inspired to murder by Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and Dostoevesky’s Crime and Punishment.

Darrow had met them on the morning after their confession. Staring at the famous old man, Leopold thought: ‘So this is Darrow? The finest criminal lawyer in America?’ He cut a rumpled figure with an egg-stained tie hanging loosely around his neck. His face was a worn canvas of seams and crevices which revealed all the suffering he had seen over the years. Yet Darrow’s enduring magnetism resided in the romantic implication that he was far too busy saving lives to be bothered by trifles of appearance.

Much of Darrow’s brilliance in the courtroom, and greatness as a man, resided in his ability to find redemptive qualities in everyone he represented. He was a master at establishing a context of forgiveness in which to defend the accused. Hate the sin, he always said, but never the sinner.

Spacey captures the righteous passion of Darrow and he is suitably crumpled. But there is also something magnificent and unsettling when, turning the theatre into a courtroom, he bears down on us to ask some blunt questions. I was there because I’d been asked to write about Darrow for the play’s programme. The rates for a programme-writer are on the quiet side of low but it was easy to say yes when it was the Old Vic and Spacey asking – and there was also the bonus of two tickets for a sold-out run in the week that a new version of my Darrow book is re-issued.

And, as a South African, it seemed right that Spacey should approach our specific row and turn us into the all-white jury at the trial of Ossian Sweet and his family – a ‘Negro’ doctor and ten black people who were charged with murder in 1926 after they had defended themselves against a Ku-Klux clan lynch mob that surrounded their house soon after they had moved into a white neighbourhood in Detroit.

Darrow produced his greatest performance when exposing the prejudice that scarred America and prompted Dr Sweet to say: “I faced the same mob that had hounded my people through its entire history. I was filled with a peculiar fear, the fear of one who knows the history of my race.”

David Rintels’ play, which was written in 1972, is well-crafted but he does depict Darrow as a saintly figure and ignores his infidelity and darker schemes. He skirts over the uncomfortable truths embedded in Darrow’s bribery trial, when the attorney was almost ruined and his reputation was tarnished for years.

Rintels also does not have Darrow ask us white ‘jurors’ in this recreation of the second Sweet trial the questions which made the Detroit courtroom echo with gasps in 1926. “If you had a choice,” Darrow asked the real jury, “would you lose your eyesight or become coloured? Would you have your leg cut off, or have a black skin?”

In May 1926, during his closing address, Darrow's words rang out as they had done for so many decades in defence of the accused. After seven hours on his feet, he turned to the jury one last time: “I ask you in the name of progress and the human race to return a verdict of ‘not guilty’.”

When the foreman led the jurors back into court, the swiftness of their deliberations suggested that Darrow had lost. The old attorney's huge head jutted towards the jury box as he waited.

The foreman paused when asked if they had reached a verdict. “Yes,” he said, before crying out the two words that mattered: “Not guilty!”

Ossian Sweet buried his face in his hands while Darrow almost collapsed in exhaustion. The prosecution lawyer Robert Toms rushed to catch him but Darrow, his eyes glinting darkly, laughed: “Oh, I'm all right. I've heard that verdict before.” At the age of 69, and after the two most tumultuous years of his life, in which he had also saved Leopold and Loeb from deathrow and dominated the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, he had sealed his legacy as the greatest trial lawyer of the twentieth century.

It was not quite as dramatic at the Old Vic – but Spacey as Darrow still made a riveting fit. And I thought that Darrow, if not Ukip, would have been thrilled that the man we sat next to happened to come from Romania. Our new pal did not need to speak to us about prejudice for he was simply swept away by Spacey and Darrow. “Incredible,” he said soon after introducing himself and before he ended up sounding like a proper Londoner as he lamented the cost of renting a flat in this city. “The play is so human. It feels more real than the movies.”

Nigel Farage, of course, was not there – but we were happier in the company of our Romanian friend, Kevin Spacey and Clarence Darrow.

A new edition of The Old Devil – Clarence Darrow: The World’s Greatest Trial Lawyer is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 June 2014.

A DIFFERENT RACE: Remembering Joe Louis & Jesse Owens
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Joe Louis was born one hundred years ago last month – in May 1914. Jesse Owens, his great friend and ally in glory and despair, would also have been exactly 100 years old. They were both dead by April 1981, gone within a year of each other, but it’s still hard to shake images of them from my head.

I’ve been lost in researching a new book for a long time now. Sometimes, it has been a little confusing. Deep inside a very different story, I have also needed to update new editions of old books. And so Jesse and Joe keep echoing through the days. Earlier this year, in his office in Henderson, just outside Las Vegas, Mike Tyson held up an old American edition of my book about Owens and Louis

The US version of In Black & White had been called Heroes Without A County. I never cared much for the American title, chosen by a New York editor much savvier than me, because the word “heroes” often makes me wince. It can seem a cheap word, overused and stripped of any real meaning.

But, strangely, the book and its clunky title seemed to fit in the hands of Tyson. He had travelled a wild path to the world heavyweight title, as an apparent monster and anti-hero, and his reverence for Owens and Louis was touching. He understood what they had done for him and every major black sporting figure who had followed them.

Tyson sighed at both the beautiful and the tragic in the lives of Owens and Louis. He lamented the fact that, in December 1936, less than six months after winning four Olympic gold medals in Berlin, Owens had raced a horse in Havana. “Can you believe that shit? How could they do it to Jesse Owens?” And gazing at photographs of his great predecessor he said, with aching simplicity: “Oh, Joe Louis...”

Reflecting on his bleak and violent childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where his mother had offered him little love, Tyson said: “When I told my mom I was going to make something of my life, that people believed I’d become the best fighter on the planet, she just shook her head. She said, ‘Son, ain’t you ever heard of Joe Louis?’ There’s always someone better than you.’ With Joe Louis she was right.”

I walked through Brooklyn that same month, in January 2014, and Jesse and Joe transfixed me again. I started at Avenue H, on the Q train, and the black man in the ticket booth cackled mournfully when I asked how long it might take to reach the outer fringes of the Bronx.

“You goin’ all that way up into the Bronx?” he asked. “You sure, mister?”

I nodded, without telling him I was on my way to visit Billy Johnson, surely one of the last men alive who had seen Owens run competitively and Louis fight in a world title bout. Johnson was in his late-eighties and I had stumbled across him by chance – while researching this new subject.

“You got to talk to Billy Johnson,” I was told because he had seen most of the champions who had fought in New York from the 1930s to the 1980s. Johnson had hung out at Gleasons Gym and, later, at the Times Square gym which another compelling old fight character I knew, Jimmy Glenn, managed for years.

Yet it was only when I discovered that Johnson had also seen Owens in New York in 1935 that it became imperative to travel across the sprawling breadth of the city. Where else would I meet someone still alive and able to talk about his memories of Owens and Louis at their peak?

When I told Johnson that I was based in Brooklyn he laughed. “You got a journey ahead of you,” he promised me down the phone. “You won’t get no taxi to take you up here.”

I was happy riding the subway and that week I had travelled from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Harlem and Long Island. “For the Bronx,” Johnson said, “You just go into the city and take the 5 train all the way.”

Johnson told me that once I moved out of Manhattan and headed up into the Bronx it would seem as if “the 5 train turns into a black train.”

In Harlem I’d interviewed Bobby Miles, a cousin of Ezzard Charles, the former world heavyweight champion who had beaten his idol, Joe Louis, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Harlem had been Louis’s playground but the south Bronx had been his battlefield – from the night he knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938 to the more crushing defeat he had suffered twelve years later against Charles. Miles lived in a beautiful house in Harlem and he made me feel as if I was back in the days of the Brown Bomber.

But only Johnson, I was told, could talk about Owens and Louis with equal conviction. And so on that crisp yet icy Saturday I clattered along the Q track. We rumbled forward and reached Atlantic Avenue – a clear sign that we had left Brooklyn behind for Manhattan.

At 14th Street Union Square I switched to Billy Johnson’s favourite 5 train. The further along the line we went, moving from one station to another, the more apt his description became as the 5 train turned into a black train. Eventually, deep in the Bronx, I was the only white face left in a quietly swaying carriage.

It took an hour-and-three-quarters to get to Johnson’s apartment in the Bronx – but the long trip from Brooklyn was worth every stop on the subway for, inside the spry old man’s home, I found a small treasure-box of an archive. Johnson, who lived alone but was looked after by his daughter from across the street, had transformed each of the three rooms into a sporting shrine. As he took me from one to another, pointing proudly to the photographs and posters of black icons of the past, from Owens and Louis and Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jordan, he gave me a detailed history lesson with a light touch. His stories brought back each event to life – especially when he reached for his files of cuttings.

He showed me some old newspaper articles, a few of which I remembered from my own trawl through the New York Times and the Amsterdam News, which recorded Owens’s achievement in breaking three world records and equalling another in the space of forty-five minutes in Ann Arbor on 25 May, 1935.

“That was the greatest act of sporting excellence the world has ever seen,” Johnson said, before grinning shyly at a grand statement. “ least in my humble opinion.”

Johnson then told me how, in celebration of his tenth birthday, his parents had taken him to see Jesse Owens run just six weeks later. “It was right here, in the Bronx, on July 9, 1935,” Johnson said, the lucid, almost poetic words rising excitedly in his old voice. “I remember it was a rainy Tuesday night. But it could have snowed for all I noticed of the wet. To be allowed to go out at night, on my birthday, and see the great Jesse Owens run was the best present a ten-year-old boy could have ever had.”

I thought Johnson might start to cry amid the painful sweetness of his memory and so I asked him where Owens had run in the Bronx. “Ohio Field,” he said softly, and I briefly wondered if he had become confused, as Jesse ran for Ohio State in 1935. Johnson repeated the name. “Ohio Field, on the banks of the Harlem River, right here in the Bronx. It was University Heights, and NYU played college football there. That night Jesse came to town and he took on a sprinter you may have heard of – Eulace Peacock.”

Johnson said Eulace Peacock’s name with such delicacy that the story I’d written all those years ago lit up inside my head again. I remembered how Peacock had beaten Owens repeatedly in the summer of 1935.

“Five times in six days,” Johnson said. “He had Jesse’s number all right.”

What happened on the night of Johnson’s tenth birthday when Peacock and Owens raced at Ohio Field? “I remember one thing more than anything else,” Johnson said. “I damn near burst with excitement.”

He chuckled and dug deep into his collection to find the cuttings which described that race. “Look here,” he said. “They all talk about the rain. It rained and rained. I don’t think Jesse minded because, about a week before, he’d married Ruth...”

Did Johnson believe that the distraction of being newly-married might have been a reason for Owens losing so often to Peacock? “Now that’s a colourful question,” he chortled. “Peacock was just quicker than him for a while. You got a story that you could write right there. The Eulace Peacock Story. That kid might have done what Jesse did in Berlin...and won at least three golds on the track. But fate worked another way. The running gods wanted Jesse Owens to beat the Nazis.

“Even though he lost to Peacock that night, by less than a step over 100 yards, I still loved Jesse. He had that stardust. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. He might have lost a few races to Peacock but, damn, he was unstoppable every other time. He lifted us right up. He gave us hope we’d never had before.”

I asked Johnson about Joe Louis. Had he seen Louis knock out Schemling three years later at Yankee Stadium, again in the Bronx? “No I didn’t,” he said sadly. “My parents loved boxing, like we all did, but they were worried about the huge crowd that night. I was only thirteen and so I stayed home with my mother and my younger brothers. But my daddy went. We listened to the fight on the radio and I was convinced I could hear my daddy’s voice hollering after it was all over. I know it’s crazy but that was the kind of belief we had in Joe. He made us think everything was possible.”

The fight that Johnson remembered most was Louis’s comprehensive points defeat to Ezzard Charles. “I was twenty-five in 1950 and so I was a man. But I still cried that night Joe lost to Charles...even though I admired Charles. He was a fine heavyweight and a good man. But he sure wasn’t Joe Louis. So isn’t that strange? The strongest memories I have of Jesse and Joe in the Bronx were both from nights they lost. But that matters about as much as the rain that fell on my tenth birthday. You’ll have heard this before, but it’s true. Every one of these men [Johnson waved to the black sportsmen on his wall], and all these kids today making their millions, owe it to Jesse and Joe.”

I asked Johnson what he thought of African American sportsmen today, mentioning my three encounters with LeBron James – who had since won successive NBA titles with the Miami Heat. The little old black man shrugged. “I ain’t got nothing against them. They’re making money and living this incredible life. Eighty years ago they would have turned to boxing or the track. But now they have much more opportunity. I just hope they don’t forget who made it possible for them. I just hope they don’t forget that the rest of black America is not a football field or a basketball court. The rest of black America is still struggling.”

Johnson looked up and nodded shyly again. “Well, that’s just in my humble opinion...”

I made Johnson laugh when I said, after a couple of hours, it was time for me to catch the “black train” out of the Bronx. “’ll turn back into a black-and-white 5 train once you hit Manhattan again.”

He was right. For fifteen minutes we rattled through the Bronx on a subway filled with black faces. It was Saturday lunchtime and the mood was sleepy as the train swung from side to side. I knew Jesse and Joe would have recognized the familiar old American divide.

In 2014 Barack Obama was already deep in his second term. He looked a much older and wearier President with all the joy of his reaching the White House having been drained by the more disappointing realities of politics and real life. “I don’t see it changing the lives of too many people,” Joe Frazier had told me in his gruff but sage way when I interviewed him in Washington D.C. the day after Obama was first elected – in November 2008. “But, still, it’s something,” Frazier had murmured in his downbeat celebration of America’s first black president.

Two particular sentences from that interview still rang out. “We had water for white folks, water for coloured folks. White lines, black lines,” Frazier told me as he described his American childhood. Those words evoked my own past in South Africa, under apartheid. And they seemed resonant again on a wintry day in the Bronx on the black train.

There were just black faces on one part of the 5 train, up in the Bronx, and many more white faces further down, near Manhattan. It was the same old black-and-white wound of America, South Africa and other countries too.

Sport had always been a playground, and so it was easier in American football and basketball to turn a fantasy of equality into the reality of riches earned by LeBron James and his contemporaries. If some black men had become coaches, rather than just players, it was still clear that almost all the owners of clubs were resolutely white. In time that might change – even if there won’t be a romantic new rainbow nation as once imagined for post-apartheid South Africa or an Obama-led America.

The 5 train moved on slowly towards Manhattan and, with every stop along the way, the faces around me merged into different colours. Accents changed and tourists drifted into our carriage. The black and white lines were no longer so clearly demarcated. I plugged in my earphones and started to listen to the gravelly old voice of Billy Johnson on a battered and tiny recorder.

“Life might not be perfect but, without Jesse and Joe, it would have been unthinkable,” he said. “That’s why I never get tired talking about them. Jesse and Joe started a whole new story. It’s not over and who knows where it will end. But they gave us the start. It always comes back to them…”

The new and updated edition of In Black & White: The Untold Story Of Joe Louis & Jesse Owens is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 June 2014.

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Sometimes, on a gloomy day on the fringes of north-west London, the British Newspaper Library in Colindale looks more like an asylum, a hospital or a prison. A stark brick building, fenced in by iron railings, does not resemble the inky mine of treasures so many writers have discovered over the years.

This week, however, feels strangely poignant as I make the daily trek on the Northern Line to the remote archive which has shaped so many books I’ve written. On Friday, 8 November 2013, just before five p.m., this bizarre old building, which opened in 1932, will shut to the public for the last time. Eventually, next March, the British Newspaper Library will re-open in a swanky new setting in St Pancras. Our surreal mob of time-travellers and writers, historians and vagabonds, will turn up there, too, and we’ve been promised “bang-up-to-date research facilities and amenities.” But jobs will be lost and, somehow, it won’t be the same as Colindale.

During the last few weeks, especially in the early mornings, while waiting in the grimy lounge for the security guard to give the formal wave at 10.01 so that we can swarm up the corridor and take the stairs into the inner sanctum of a worldly microfilm collection beyond compare, it’s been intriguing to listen to the lament of those who have grown to love this unlovely old building.

“I don’t quite know why,” an old Scotsman wheezed last Friday morning, “but I fucking love this place.”

“It must be all the years you’ve spent here…,” a refined young woman replied dryly.

I knew the feeling and, while the Scot serenaded the dour dankness of Colindale and reminisced over all the glittering jewels of previously forgotten information he had uncovered, I felt an almost painful nostalgia for something that was still not quite over. I remembered how I first came here early in a new century, in the first few months of 2000, when I’d just given up on the idea of becoming a novelist. I’d written three previous books and for an idiotic year I had tried hard to convince myself that my future awaited inside the unwritten pages of a novel.

We had a toddler then, and a couple more would soon follow. Without much money and not really willing to work for a living in an ordinary job, I was in trouble. My agent at the time had suggested that I return to non-fiction and she conjured up the name of Jesse Owens. I groaned aloud to my wife and got very drunk on the night I abandoned my terrible novel.

The next morning, with sombre expectations, I made my first pilgrimage to Colindale. I found the archive a confusing place. There were so many pieces of paper that needed to be filled out to reserve a few reels of microfilm containing newspapers from New York, Chicago and Cleveland in the 1930s. And when the small boxes finally arrived it was even more bewildering trying to thread the loops of film onto the bulky metal machines.

My first morning was spent sweating and swearing quietly before I gave in and retreated to the desk to ask for some help.

Thirteen years later, I’ve become pretty nifty at loading each fresh reel before spinning and whirring my way back through time. I’ve even picked up a few tricks and, like a B-movie private eye, I sometimes feel as if I’ve learnt the knack for picking out clues which will lead me to the next chapter of my latest story. More importantly, it only took about a decade for one of the librarians to give me a knowing nod and whisper that, actually, I was wasting too much time peering at the blurred screens that occupied the first row of micro-film readers. The best machines were in the back room where the smartest wizards of the archive worked quickly and quietly, furtively eating peanuts or chocolate while they raced back through the years. Desk 83 became my archival home.

My spiritual conversion to Colindale had happened on my very first day when, while avoiding the obvious route of looking at Jesse Owens’s Olympic exploits in Berlin 1936, I jumped ahead a couple of years. I had no idea what had happened to Owens after he had won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, while Hitler and the Nazi high command glowered down at his shyly beaming face. So, taking a long leap of my own into the unknown, I asked for four reels from the early summer of 1938. I liked gazing at the surreal old adverts and reading the front and back pages, as well as all the book and film reviews. I lost myself in the first two tapes of microfilms - but there was no mention of Jesse Owens.

Then, suddenly, Colindale was illuminated by a thrilling glare. It was only a small article, running for just a few hundred words in a black American newspaper called the Chicago Defender, but it gripped me. That brief story described how, on 4 July 1938, Joe Louis had beaten Jesse Owens in “a 60 yard dash”. Only two weeks had passed since Louis, the world heavyweight champion, had demolished Max Schmeling, whom the Nazis loved even though he was a good man. A grainy image of the frozen-faced and flat-footed boxer racing against the flying feet and smiling face of ‘The Fastest Man on Earth’ flummoxed me. Why, and how, as the headline suggested, had Joe actually beaten Jesse?

I started reading each reel of tape more closely and soon, even though I was in Colindale in 2000, it felt as if I was lost in Chicago in 1938. I then returned to Berlin in August 1936, following Jesse next to London where he was about to be banned from competing ever again. A few months later, in December 1936, I even travelled with Jesse Owens to Havana, Cuba, as he raced against a horse. He had been reduced to a circus performer – just five months after he produced the most significant series of performances on an Olympic track in defiance of the Nazis.

Colindale being Colindale, of course, opened up the story every step of the way. When I asked doubtfully if they might store any newspapers from Havana I was swiftly offered a selection. I was on the path and, in that dark old library, I tracked Jesse and Joe through debt and drug addiction, consuming fame and FBI scrutiny, alongside the assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X , and on and on until I finally reached the obituary pages which gushed praise over their previously beleaguered lives.

Inevitably, newspapers only skim the surface of a story, and facts get mangled, and so I could never rely on Colindale for anything more than an irreplaceable start to a book. I soon realized how imperative it was to leave my microfilm reels far behind and fly to America in order to talk to the Owens and Louis families and to those surviving friends who had known them so well. Jesse and Joe came alive in a way that Colindale could not match – but I would never have had the skeleton of the book I eventually wrote, In Black & White, unless the bare bones had been gathered first in my cherished newspaper archive.

One book led to another. I wrote about Chris Barnard, Norman Shumway, Richard Lower and Adrian Kantrowitz as they all raced to transplant the first human heart in 1967. Once again, this book, Every Second Counts, was made vivid by the three American surgeons who gave me so much time when I visited them over and over again in Stanford, Richmond and Detroit. But Colindale provided the map we needed. Colindale provided the shadowy outline of a dramatic story which the surgeons told in their own words.

I wrote next about Clarence Darrow, in The Old Devil, and the same routine unfolded. The groundwork was laid in Colindale as I read voraciously about Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes Monkey trial, and the tragic case of Ossian Sweet which unfolded within the space of two tumultuous years from 1924 to 1926. I was amazed to see how Darrow dominated newspaper coverage like a brilliant showman – and felt exalted that I wrote non-fiction. Where else, but in Colindale, would I have met such contrasting characters in such diverse settings and eras?

It felt more personal when, while writing a book about me and my family, Under Our Skin, I spent many months in Colindale reading old copies of South African newspapers from 1981 and 1982 as I relived the horrendous detention and death of Neil Aggett – which forms a separate section of a memoir which is as much about South Africa than just my family. I could remember reading some of those same articles I pored over in Colindale when I had been 19 or 20 and living in another country.

And now, deep into my ninth book, I have been back in Colindale a long while again. The difference, this time, is the sad urgency I feel. There are just days left now and the old building is crammed with time-travellers on the same mission as me – trying to squeeze out as much information as we can before the heavy wooden doors shut for the last time on this unforgettable version of the British Newspaper Library.

Most of us still waste time poring over the adverts that hold only passing relevance to our chosen subject.

There is still nowhere to get a decent coffee or sandwich in Colindale, and it seems to rain more here than anywhere else in London. The building remains dark and gloomy on the outside – but, once inside and at Desk 83, its quietly humming machines and microfilms light up my work like nothing else. My research for my new book has taken me from New York to Miami to Havana, and from Johannesburg to Los Angeles and back again to New York. I’ve been in many other places as well, as least on my library research reader and in my head, as I’ve criss-crossed the years yet again.

This time, I’ve also felt rooted in Colindale. I can’t help myself looking up every hour and gazing around the old place once more. I remember then that it’s cold and bleak outside in Colindale on a wet November day in 2013. Yet this ancient archive burns with light and a kind of magic, too, and every day this week I think how much I will miss it once it has gone forever. Time-travel will never be the same again.

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A version of this blog was first published in Boxing News on 29 August 2013 – in a feature called The Dark Prince.

Seventeen years ago, on a sultry night in London in August 1996, I phoned James Toney for the last time. Of course we would speak again in later years but we knew this particular conversation marked the end of a book called Dark Trade. Five years had passed since I began working on a project that had consumed me while I followed fighters like Toney, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr, Chris Eubank, Michael Watson and Naseem Hamed. .

"Damn those British bums," Toney snorted for old time's sake as he wondered again why I'd spent so much writing about boxers he loved to dismiss. "Come back to L.A.," Toney instructed me from his suite in Beverly Hills. "Or meet me in Vegas. Jus' jump on a plane, man!"

Toney meant more to me than any other fighter and I was tempted to fly back to America for our final interview. But unlike Toney, then a boxing millionaire, I was almost broke. I could no longer justify spending yet more money on flights to and from America, on cheap hotels and small car rentals.

I had just a few thousand words left to write of an obsessive book that would be published in October 1996. And so I reminded Toney instead how anxious I'd been before our first meeting when his reputation as a crack-dealing, gun-toting gangster preceded his subtle skills as a defensive ring master. Toney had been regularly depicted as boxing's most ferocious character; but I soon discovered he was also one of the most amusing fighters in the business.

We settled into contented nostalgia on the phone, thinking of our time together in Tulsa, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Ann Arbor.

"Yeah," Toney decided, "it's been good."

The previous five years, for me, had been more than "good". They had changed my life forever by giving me the chance to write about boxing. Dark Trade ran so deep inside me it had become a kind of madness as I engaged in seemingly private conversations with my chosen fighters. Yet I had recovered from the blunt dismissal the book had received in the form of a proposal, and sample chapters, a few years before.

When I first tried to sell the idea to ten different publishers in London, nine of them rejected it. The book was apparently un-publishable. Dark Trade had "no obvious market potential" or, more personally, "it's not quite for us." Only Mainstream, who had published my first book, and believed in me as a writer, offered a small advance of £8,000 for a desolate subject like boxing. Over five years that would work out to be a princely amount of £1,600 per annum to fund my research trips.

The rejection hurt. But I was young and determined and, instead of immediately signing with Mainstream, I decided to concentrate on the fighters, and the writing, rather than worry about publication. The book was already burning inside me. In truth, it had been waiting to be written for years.

Dark Trade was forged in South Africa – where I grew up during apartheid. It was then, in the 1970s, that I began to understand the power and majesty of boxing. Muhammad Ali, inevitably, was the glittering cornerstone of everything that I loved about the ring. How could you not be fascinated by such a brilliant and funny guy when you were 10 years old and saw his impact on everyone around you? I looked at men who I'd hearing venting spleen about "the bloody blacks" and I was as stunned as I was amused that these same bone-deep racist crooners were besotted with Ali.

"Boy, he's so handsome," one Afrikaner said in an awe-struck voice when he showed us a photograph of Ali. "He looks a million dollars."

As a boy I did not understand Ali's conversion to Islam, or his embrace of black consciousness, but I realized there was something extraordinary in his hold over white South Africans. The closest any of those men came to voicing the contradiction at the heart of their love for Ali was when our woodwork teacher, a bruiser who gave us the odd klap [slap] with a stick, spoke simply of the world heavyweight champion. After Ali had rumbled George Foremen in deepest Africa in 1974 my teacher said: "He's not like our blacks, man."

I was only 13 then but I could recognize the defining difference between Ali and black South Africans. Ali had won his freedom; while most of South Africa remained warped by apartheid.

Two great black American fighters, Bob Foster and Emile Griffith actually visited South Africa in the 1970s. Foster was near his peak when, for the second time, he coolly held off our brave white hope, Pierre Fourie, in 1973. Griffith, in contrast, was in the dregs of his career in 1975 when he lost in Soweto to Elijah 'Tap Tap' Makhathini. Yet Griffith and his white trainer, Gil Clancy won a more important battle against the South African government which had tried to stop them working together in the ring. It was illegal for Clancy to enter a black township but he and Griffith held firm and the government surrendered – again making me admire the strength and decency of the best men in boxing.

Long after I had been forced to leave South Africa I actually met Ali and Forster. But those encounters stemmed from me being a fan rather than a writer.

The great Bob Foster, in Albuquerque, spars a starving yet worryingly chunky author, then surviving on a pauper's diet of doughnuts and takeaway pizza

I only felt ready to begin writing about boxing in 1991 when Dark Trade gathered momentum over a tumultuous few months.

Shortly before I interviewed Tyson in June of that year he had promised his opponent, Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock, that, "I'm gonna make you my girlfriend. Don't you know that you're really a transvestite?"

The "girlfriend" jibe was jailhouse slang; and Tyson's sneering ended with him repeating, "It doesn't count if he isn't dead, it doesn't count if he isn't dead…"

I was uncertain how Tyson would react when I interviewed him but he turned out to be fiercely lucid. He spoke of his feelings of impending doom and about the fate of some great heavyweight champions who had preceded him – Joe Louis, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali. I was transfixed for he was one of the most extraordinary men I had ever met.

A week later, as he strode to the ring behind The Mirage hotel and casino, with the sun sinking over a gleaming Vegas skyline, Tyson wore his usual fight uniform – black shoes and trunks and a white towel, out of which a ragged hole had been cut so that that it could fit crudely over his head. There were no satiny robes or sparkling sequins for Tyson.

The fight against Ruddock was not much prettier. Tyson had lost much of the blurring hand speed and elusive head movement which had once defined him. He could still punch, however, and after 12 rounds Ruddock's face was grotesquely puffed. His jaw had been broken and Tyson shook his head in admiration of such courage. The fighters embraced as the trainers poured water over their steaming heads. I thought again that no other sport could quite match boxing for its raw appeal.

I left Las Vegas on 30 June 1991, the day Mike Tyson turned 25, and I resolved to write seriously about boxing. I had already met Watson and Eubank and I wrote a feature about two very different fighters preparing for their rematch. The seeds of this book had been planted.

Then, on 7 August 1991 Tyson was indicted in Indiana on four charges of criminal conduct, confinement and the rape of Desiree Washington. It was not exactly shocking – but it still made his graphic desolation in Vegas seem eerily accurate.

Watson, meanwhile, was seething with resentment after their first fight had ended in a controversial win for Eubank. "I've never seen another black man try so hard to look and sound white," Watson said of Eubank. "He very weird and confused. That's why this fight is so important. Eubank says it's about money. But it's about respect – and our futures. Eubank knows this. He's preparing for a hell of a fight."

I returned to Hove to see Eubank again. In an attempt to curb his infamous bluster I asked him which five words he would use to describe himself?

Eubank chose his adjectives in alphabetical order:


"But Chris," I protested, "that's six words."

"I'm the fighter," Eubank said firmly. "I'll settle on six."

The six-pack wordsmith then shook his head gravely: "It's a terrible thing, boxing, a terrible thing…"

On 21 September, 1991, boxing truly did seem a terrible thing. At White Hart Lane that night I had been riveted by a masterclass from Watson, who was one of my favourite fighters, as he outclassed Eubank for nearly eleven rounds. He scored a knockdown near the end of the eleventh – only for Eubank to rise from the canvas and unleash a devastating uppercut that would soon send Watson into a coma.

As I headed for the tunnel leading to the dressing room, I remember seeing Eric Seccombe, Watson's former trainer, shaking and crying. His pale face twitched as he stared at the stricken figure of Watson on a stretcher. "No Michael, no….," Seccombe cried.

The next week engulfed this new book in suffocating sadness. I was not sure I would, or even could, write about boxing again. Tyson was in jail but, far worse, Michael Watson was close to death. The idea of even watching another fight seemed hideous. I felt close to giving up on a book I had hardly even begun.

Those doubts uncurled inside me whenever another tragedy blighted this book: Bradley Stone died on 28 April 1994; Gerald McClellan slid into a coma that turned into blindness and dementia on 25 February 1995; Jimmy Garcia died on 19 May 1995, as did James Murray on 15 October 1995.

Each catastrophe had a profound impact on me. I thought of those fighters when I settled on the title of Dark Trade. They were all dedicated professionals, trading blows in the most dangerous business of all, but they suffered the darkest of fates.

I became determined to highlight the way in which fighters like Watson, who somehow survived and slowly began to rebuild his shattered life, still loved boxing. Watson made me feel it was right to continue writing this book to try and honour the courage and resolve of all fighters. My respect for them grew rather than diminished with every year I was "lost in boxing."

My girlfriend, Alison, who became my wife before this book's publication, was both a comic foil and moral touchstone for me. Initially, when we met, I almost felt embarrassed to tell her that I was immersed in writing a book about boxers. She was an architect who loved art and fashion and knew nothing about boxing. I wondered if she would think I was deeply troubled to love a business as violent and crooked as boxing. But it did not take Alison long to recognise the compelling nature of the ring and, most of all, to admire the fighters she met in my company. She was also, like me, a sucker for big-time boxing.

And so, in an effort to offset the grim fatalities and injuries I had to document, I included small snippets which explained how Alison also "lost" herself in boxing. It seems hopelessly indulgent now but it was true to the nature of us, and our suddenly shared love of boxing, that a cultured Home Counties girl would fill our flat with rip-roaring imitations of Michael Buffer's "Let's Git Ready To Ruummmblleeee!" or step straight out of bath to do nude impersonations of Chris Eubank or Naseem Hamed. We knew each other well enough by then that I'd sometimes have to gently remind her that I was watching a replay of an Arsenal goal and could she, a naked girly Eubank impressionist, shift a little to the left to allow me full sight of the television screen while she did her crazy boxing dance.

Our most amusing times together were in the company of Sherry and James Toney – especially when the fighter's mother told us how she used to discipline him in the most beautifully profane language. We got so close to the Toneys that Sherry used to Fex-Ex us pastries and cookies from her Speciality Cakes & Pies Shop in Ann Arbor. It was a warning of the way Toney would balloon in weight in later years.

I think the book really began to fly on the night, in Tulsa, in October 1993, when Toney defended his IBF Super-Middleweight world title against Tony Thornton. Toney agreed that I could spend the last few hours with him before the fight. As time drifted past, a stone-cold look settled on Toney's face in his hotel room on the seventeenth floor. In the room next door, a maniac with a taste for irony played Gene Pitney's 24 Hours to Tulsa over and over again.

"I hate this shit," Toney snarled.

Finally, Toney stood up. It was time for him to fight. He wore a hooded tracksuit and heavy boots. A solid gold choker glinted on his muscled neck. He thrust his fists deep into the pockets of his top.

"You ready for this?" he drawled.

I nodded. "OK," he murmured. "Let's go…."

The next few hours unfolded in a blur of intensity. I sat with Toney in his dressing room while we listened to Dr Dre's The Chonic over and over again. We liked it a lot more than Gene Pitney.

I asked Toney how he dealt with the tension. "This is boxing, baby…" he answered quietly.

When the door swung open, a sound man barked "Showtime!" Toney looked straight at me.

"Okay," he said, "let's go…"

I followed him on the long walk to the ring, with Dr Dre's High-Powered thudding in our wake, and wondered if many other writers got this lucky.

Afterwards, once Toney had won comfortably, he came over to where I stood, sinking a beer I really needed. "See, man, I'm not so bad," he crooned as the sweat flew from him. He was on his way to becoming the world's number one pound-for-pound fighter. "We gonna do this again?"

I nodded, almost in disbelief. "OK," Toney said. "We got a deal. And now, baby, it's time to eat cheeseburgers, lotsa cheeseburgers, 'cos I'm James Toney – champion of the world."

Toney stuck to his word. He ate so many cheeseburgers that his career soon curdled. I was again with him both before and after his life-crumbling world title unification contest in Las Vegas against Roy Jones Jr when, in October 1994, he suffered his first defeat. He was never the same again, having lost a fight when victory would have guaranteed him $30 million, and we both knew it.

I spent time with Jones, too, but my heart was always in Toney's corner. I could never shake from my mind his utter desolation at that post-fight "party". He arrived three hours late and bit his lip as everyone applauded him, their clapping strengthening the longer he stood there in mute silence. You could tell that he had made up his mind that he was not going to cry, at least not in front of us.

"I take my hat off to Roy Jones," he eventually mumbled. "I gotta also say Jones did a good job of running from my power…"

There were shouts of support; and I smiled helplessly at Toney. What else could I do? My favourite fighter had been exposed.

He took my hand with a wink. "Hey big boy," he said. "You still here?"

We swapped some sad words and then Toney broke away for some food. Comfort eating was all he had left that night. His mother still kissed him. "I'm proud of you, boy," she said gravely.

It soon became less dignified. A day later Toney talked about shooting his manager, a middle-aged Jewish woman called Jackie Kallen. Murder, fortunately, was avoided but Toney and Kallen stopped working together. The James Toney bandwagon began to slow under his increasingly bloated weight. I still stayed loyal to him.

When I made the final call to Toney, to end this book, Sherry had just asked me to submit a sharp letter of rebuke to Boxing News. Jim Brady, who was then this magazine's American correspondent, had reported on Toney's lackadaisical victory over a journeyman called Charles Oliver in July 1996. In his previous fight, Brady acknowledged, "Toney looked superb battering Earl Butler. But once Toney weighs more than 12 stone 7, his hand-speed diminishes greatly and he loses his sharpness."

It was an accurate assessment but I agreed to pass on Sherry's fiercely protective letter to the editor Harry Mullan and it was duly printed in Boxing News under a 'Leave My Son Alone!' warning of a headline.

"Those British bums had better watch out for my mom," Toney said darkly before he lapsed into his familiar growling laugh. "We're almost done," he said. "And we had some fun."

I had a lot of fun writing Dark Trade, despite the darkness, and the book assumed even more meaning to me when it won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in November 1996. The pile of rejection letters no longer mattered. It had turned out all right in the end.

Seventeen years later it keeps on rolling and every time I get a kind email or tweet from someone who has just read Dark Trade, and liked it, I'm reminded of the surreal days that fuelled its writing. Next year it will be relaunched by another publisher, Simon & Schuster, who have just bought the rights from Mainstream.

The 2014 edition of Dark Trade will, I hope, follow Toney's final retirement from the ring. It is a source of sadness to see him still attempting to fight on – a once brilliant technician of the ring reduced to a beaten-up heavyweight. But there's still enough wit in Toney for him to probably raise a dubious eyebrow at the notion that some people might still want to read this old book of mine. "Some bums, usually British bums, will read anything," he once told me with a wise old grin.

I always think of those words when I see the boxing glove Toney gave me as a gift after Dark Trade was first published. He had worn it during his 1997 world title defeat of the great Mike McCallum, another defensive master of the ring.

That old red glove hangs from a white wall in my garden shed, where I work every day, reminding me of all those lost yet beautiful years when I was obsessed with extraordinary fighters like James 'Lights Out' Toney.

Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing is currently published by Mainstream as both a paperback and ebook. It will be re-released in the spring of 2014 by Simon & Schuster

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Driving along a red dirt road in Mozambique last week, with the lush green leaves and tall coconut trees on either side accompanied by the occasional pink or yellow-fronted shack selling bananas and tomatoes, it was initially hard not to think in black-and-white. Nostalgia is a terrible vice and this was no different. I remembered the days when I was a boy in South Africa and my big sister was addicted to the staticky sound of LM Radio. LM stood for Lourenço Marques – which has been called Maputo ever since Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal in 1975.

I was only dimly aware then that Mozambique's war of independence was being waged because words like "Frelimo" and "communists" and "terrorists" echoed dolefully from the state radio my father played every morning at breakfast. To me at 14, Frelimo could have been the name of the marmalade dad slapped down on his toast while he read the more liberally-inclined Rand Daily Mail as that newspaper tried to probe some of the inequities of apartheid.

LM Radio was much more mysterious and beguiling. Whenever I went into my sister's bedroom it seemed as if she was sprawled on her bed, reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir while cranking up the volume to LM. She was about to turn seventeen and her pink walls were covered in posters of men who either looked like pretty women – David Bowie and Marc Bolan – or, in the surreal case of Alice Cooper, were named after girls.

Bowie was the king, or the queen, of my sister's bedroom. Rebel Rebel blasted out of Mozambique four or five times a day and captured the illicit blurring that made LM sound so thrilling and different.

You've got your mother in a whirl

She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl

Rebel Rebel, you've torn your dress

Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess

Rebel Rebel, how could they know?

Hot tramp, I love you so

Rather than wearing a dress or reaching for the make-up like any of LM's glam-rockers, I loved playing football and cricket and rugby and tennis. But I also felt at home surrounded by my sister's posters and books and pop songs. I think my eventual decision to escape years of conscription into the South African army, and leave the country forever for England, was forged on those long afternoons listening to the imported decadence of Mozambique's LM Radio.

The station was shut down in 1975 and, within two years, the newly independent Mozambique was engulfed by civil war. The rebels were called Renamo and they were backed by a South African government keen to destabilise the Soviet-backed Frelimo government. Military service for all white South African boys intensified as Angola followed Mozambique into bloody independence in November 1975.

Yet those black-and-white memories were soon swamped by the colour of Mozambique in August 2013. Winter days of blue skies and sunshine, on empty beaches whose shimmering white sands stretched for miles, were also framed by the people we met and the places we visited. There were brief echoes of South Africa and a reminder that Lourenço Marques was once an exotic holiday destination during the bad old days of colonialism and apartheid when white families swooned at the taste of peri-peri chicken and jumbo prawns scooped just hours before from the very blue Indian Ocean. We never made it to LM ourselves before the war came but, like it's maverick radio station, Mozambique seemed to shut down to the outside world. For a long time death and poverty prevailed. As recently as 1996 UNICEF declared that Mozambique was the poorest country in the world. Last year the IMF reported that Mozambique had risen to a position of 113th, out of 182 countries, in terms of its Gross Domestic Product.

Part of that slow recovery is due to tourism and so one night last week, having walked down a blackened dirt track for twenty minutes, feeling strangely safe with our little torches, we finally found a bar called Charlies on the road to Inhambane. Our kids were as bewildered as we were amused to discover that it had been taken over by a dozen couples from Pretoria who had persuaded the black barman to pump out their tape of traditional Boeremusik – Afrikaans folk music I'd once derided as a snotty English-speaking teenager.

There was a kind of stately grace, however, in the way that the Afrikaans men and women took to the dancefloor at Charlies inbetween devouring the equally traditional peri-peri chicken and big fat prawns. And my wife and I discovered another form of nostalgia when the Pretoria mix-tape suddenly segued into Dexys Midnight Runners. Kevin Rowland might as well have washed up on a Mozambique beach as one Afrikaans woman in particular hollered "Come On Eileen" as if she was sharing the mic with the surly and preachy old frontman from Birmingham.

We ended up, purely by chance the next day, even going out to sea on a boat with her and some of her fellow dancers from Charlies. As we flew across the bumpy surf, riding up and down waves before we reached calmer waters, she yelled out again and again, with a kind of exhilarating abandon that rarely happened during apartheid, "Dit is vokken lekker! [This is fucking great/sweet!]"

We all thought it was vokken lekker, and only a little scary, when our boat puttered alongside six humpback whales far out at sea. The smallest whale was 14 metres long but the black guy at the helm exuded such calm that we soon felt almost as serene as he did while the humpbacks rose out of the ocean, water spraying in the air alongside their massive tails, within touching distance of our very wet boat.

I thought even less of LM Radio and the imaginary Mozambique of my past when we were back on land. A different and far more tangible country enveloped us.

Of course there is still impoverishment and it could be seen in the sometimes desperate faces of the black hawkers on the beach trying to sell their homemade bangles or paintings for any loose change. Yet even here, with boys as young as ten insisting that they were called John Wayne, a mordant wit framed the persistent beseeching. We gave in easily to the boys who spoke about going to school the next day before, sounding suitably middle-aged, we handed down earnest homilies to our own kids about how lucky they are in comparison. There was no need. Our girls and boy have eyes of their own.

They loved the moments when a man called Safromento [pronounced as a very snappy-sounding homage to an American city in Sacramento] took us to his village and taught them how to climb a very high coconut tree.

But they were quieter when Safromento explained that, for his own children, coconut milk is often the only form of medicine they can take when malaria invades the unbearably hot summer days of December. The closest hospital is six kilometres away and a parent has little choice when the coconut milk proves helpless against malaria – he or she has to walk with their fevered and sometimes dying child in their arms in the hope that they can be saved by a doctor.

Safromento showed us how to make a house out of palm tree leaves – which will be handy if all else fails and we end up living forever in Mozambique. We also learnt that, while things do go wrong in Mozambique, life always goes on. So there was no real drama when the road inexplicably flooded one night, despite the absence of any rain; and there was definitely no problem during another power blackout the next time we went to Charlies. The waiter simply shoved a candle into an empty can of Sprite and continued serving us one plate of seafood after another while telling us how much he loved supporting Barcelona rather than Arsenal.

In much the same way local fishermen would spend hours in the morning trying to haul in their huge nets, bulging with thousands of sardines, and shrug when a gang of them still struggled to bring their catch onto the beach.

They kept pulling and tugging, occasionally persuading even a beefy old white man like me to lend them a hand, while mugging for the camera. I didn't mind helping but I did purposely choose the line of men who were not anchored by a guy in a Man United shirt with V.PERSIE and the number 20 plastered across his back. My Barcelona-supporting pal from Charlies would have understood the reason.

There was something romantic in the way in which, after the fishermen had heaved and sweated for three hours, a procession of women walked down the length of the beach. They wore brightly-coloured long dresses and carried empty basins on their head which they would fill with sardines.

But the elegant picture soon erupted into screeching noise as, gathering furiously around the main fisherman, they haggled and cackled and screamed over the price.

He looked as if he was about to surrender to an army of fishwives before, bolstered by his grinning pals sprawled out in exhaustion on the beach, he began to shout back. It looked to us as if Mozambique's economy was, at least here, a competitively thriving business.

We slipped away into more indulgent pleasures where the only real headache was that our similarly competitive games of beach cricket kept being interrupted by a black Labrador called Chopsticks – who was adept not only at pulling off stunning catches but then trotting away amiably with the ball. He enjoyed the game so much that we gave in and abandoned the cricket altogether and threw the tennis ball instead for Chopsticks to chase and bring back in all his slobbery glory. On the day we left we donated the ball to Chopsticks, who lived with the divers in a shack of an office on the beach, and thought how lucky we had been to have visited Mozambique at last.

All my impressions of the country were cast in colour, rather than the monochrome images of apartheid-era South Africa, and I no longer thought much about LM Radio. And, instead of David Bowie and Rebel Rebel, or even Boeremusik and Dexys Midnights Runners, the soundtrack of our week in Mozambique was provided by a black man called Dennis who introduced us to the most gorgeous and slinkiest-sounding music this side of the hottest soukous from the old Congo. Dennis played his music on a battered MP3 player and he scrawled down some names of local bands – none of whom have made it to YouTube or Amazon.

Dennis said he would take us into deepest Inhambane to track down some tapes the very next day. And, when we explained that we would have left by then, he just smiled.

"Why don't you stay another week in Mozambique?" he asked.

And in that blurring moment, a long way from Rebel Rebel and LM Radio, we almost wished that we could linger just a few days more alongside Dennis, John Wayne, Chopsticks and everyone we'd met at a dark roadside joint called Charlies. It felt, at last, like we had truly arrived in Mozambique.

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Last weekend we had a different kind of Saturday lunchtime. Normally, at home, chaos and noise and kids surround the table with the only certainty being that we all sit in our usual places. It was different at Ascot, especially in a formal setting like the Authority Box, where we needed to scan a board to pick out our names and confirm exactly where we were expected to sit down for lunch. We rarely get invited to such events and so, skulking in a corner at first, my wife and I were able to indulge in suitable gawking at a very healthy-looking Sir Alex Ferguson and even wonder what would happen if he had the misfortune to be seated between us.

At that point, and still too shy to talk to anyone, we actually texted the kids to tell them we were, sort of, "lunching" with Fergie. The real truth was that, according to the seating plan, he would be two tables away from us. At least Fergie would be spared some bad jokes about my taking a Suarez-sized bite off his plate in recompense for all the pain he had visited on Arsenal over the years. I was soon more intrigued to hear that we would be having lunch with the German family who owned Novellist – considered one of the strongest contenders in that afternoon's King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Over breakfast we had already decided that Novellist, even with two 'ls', was my chosen nag for the day. Of course I didn't know anything about the horse at all. I just liked the name and, as a writer, felt compelled to back him. The size of the bet would depend on how much I had drunk by 3.30 that afternoon – twenty minutes before the start of the race. So it seemed an especially good omen that, at lunch, I would be sitting next to the owner of my new favourite horse.

Dr Christoph Berglar turned out to be a charming and witty man. He was also disarmingly open. Soon after we sat down he told me that he was the father of six children – "all with the same wife" he chortled as he waved, romantically, to a very elegant woman smiling demurely at the opposite side of a big round table. It turned out that the decorated doctor, who was actually a lawyer-turned-businessman, was primarily interested in the scientific art of breeding horses. He had discovered that the key to equine breeding resided with the dam – whom laymen like me still call the mare or, at our most confused, "the lady horse".

"Just like real life then?" I asked.

"Exactly," Dr Berglar exclaimed with a laugh as he pointed out the similarities between his wife and three of his good-looking children who, ranging in age from 17 and 32, shared our table. His youngest daughter, a couple of seats away from us, spoke German, English and Arabic with almost equal fluency. She was also taking a post-graduate degree in anthropology at Cambridge University. All of his other children were apparently just as intelligent and polite.

"They have a very special mother," the good doctor said by way of explanation.

Doctor B said he'd also had a lot of luck in breeding for the track. The very first horse he had bought had not cost him much money – "mainly because she looked like a German Shepherd!" But all his winners since then had descended from this great dam disguised as a German Shepherd. I silently thanked the masters of the Ascot Authority Box for seating me next to such an entertaining man.

The doctor could also be profound. When I asked him what he liked most about racing he thought carefully for a few moments before suggesting that he valued the lessons he had learned from such a singular sport. He said that, for the vanquished owner, defeat always imparted more knowledge than victory.

"There are a lot of rich people in racing," he said, realizing that he looked a very wealthy man himself. "They are used to winning and getting their own way. Racing teaches all of us to accept defeat."

Racing, in a way, is good for the soul. And so around two o'clock last Saturday afternoon, as we clinked our final two glasses of red wine together, I wished Dr Berglar luck for the King George. I also said that he looked remarkably relaxed when the small prize of £474,564 awaited the winning owner. The lessons in defeat might seem invaluable but almost half-a-million quid would be a nice way to round off his Saturday afternoon at Ascot. Wasn't he, at least on the inside, aquiver with tremulous anxiety?

"I'm trying to stay very neutral," he said with a wry smile. "And whether you win or lose you end up saying the same thing."

"What's that?" I wondered.

"Thank you," the doctor said, spreading his hands wide. "It seems enough just to be here today…"

He also explained that, as racing in Germany was of a much lower standard, he would only know how fast Novellist could run once he saw him on an English track. His horse had defeated Cirrus Des Aigles, the clear favourite, at the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud last time they met. But the King George would be different. Cirrus Des Aigles had finished second to the unbeatable Frankel last year and Novellist had never run in England before.

I decided to double my bet on Novellist – as some kind of tribute to such a cool customer in Doctor B. So, despite having won nothing from the first three races, I went for a whopping £4 each-way bet. The last of the big-time gamblers, I was ready to lose a few more pounds in exchange for another erudite defeat at the hands of the bookies.

As the eight horses approached the starting gate, Fergie, Princess Anne, Shane Warne and Liz Hurley entered our small box overlooking the finish line. It was that kind of day. We stood right behind Fergie and Anne but waved instead to the Berglars on our left. Dr B nodded graciously but, yes, he suddenly looked a little nervous.

The King George is a mile-and-four-furlong race for horses that are three years and older. Cirrus Des Aigles looked haughty and highly-strung. Novellist, however, had a canny old fox on his back, a great jockey in Johnny Murtagh, whom I've always wanted to interview. Maybe the doc could swing it for me if Johnny and Novellist had a lovely ride beneath the summery thunderclouds and streaming sunshine that stretched across Ascot – making it look prettier than ever.

Below the posh seats the punters, the lost and the damned of the racetrack, grew more ragged and raucous as they yelled early encouragement to the horses. Novellist was handily placed, lying fourth. Glancing at the doctor I noticed how intently he watched the race. His wife and children, including his lovely daughter-in-law bouncing his first grandchild on her knee in time to the thundering hooves, were much more animated.

They all began to holler with just over a furlong left. "Novellist takes over," the trackside commentator yelped.

Dr Berglar no longer appeared so composed and philosophical. He had actually begun a Grandad dance of amazing elan. His hands did disco-dancing circles in the air, as if he was jiving to Chic in a Cologne night-club in 1983 rather than busting some moves alongside Fergie and Princess Anne at Ascot.

I knew then that Novellist was about to win the King George. Doctor B danced with such sophisticated assurance that victory was inevitable. His hands kept waving above his head as, down on the track, Johnny Murtagh hunched low over the flying black horse, the Irish jockey smiling dryly at the ridiculous ease of another big win.

Dr Berglar fell into the embrace of his family. By the time he rose to also greet us his face was glowing with such happiness that it seemed as if he had been lit up from the inside.

"Thank you," he said, pumping my hand, "thank you…"

Shane Warne galloped into the main box where more champagne was waiting. "I got first and second," Warnie yelped as if this mattered more than the joy he felt after bowling the Ball of the Century all those years ago.

Dr Berglar looked at Warnie in a daze. He had just won almost half a million pounds and the King George with a writerly beauty of a horse. My £27.90 winnings felt pretty sweet as well – if nothing like the apparent golden Warne haul. It still did not seem quite the time to explain the sporting significance of Warnie to Berglar.

The doctor from Cologne turned to me with one last smile before he bounded down the stairs to find Murtagh, Novellist and a trophy-wielding Princess Anne.

"We did it," Dr Berglar said simply, with the awe of a man who, in those wonderful moments, understood that, for all the profound lessons tucked away in defeat, there's nothing quite like an amazing win.

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It now seems fitting that my very first interview for The Guardian was with a poet and writer who loved boxing. Published in December 1991, almost twelve years before I began my current sports interview slot, it was a one-off freelance gig that turned out to be the perfect opening to a strange new world in which two people, who have never met before, sit down and start talking with varying degrees of intimacy. I got lucky. This first apparently serious interview was fuelled by four bottles of red wine and the gravelly voice of Charles Bukowski – the great old American reprobate and spinner of some dark yet beautiful stories and poems. So, instead of interviewing Bukowski in a formal way, I got drunk with him.

Bukowski called me 'baby' most of the time. He instructed me to call him Hank. His wife, Linda, sat with us while Hank made sure we all kept laughing and drinking.

I remember that, in tandem with the increasingly drunken fog in my head, Hank Bukowksi seemed to disappear beneath a cloud of smoke. In the room where he typed out his poems and books, upstairs at his home in San Pedro, not far from Los Angeles, he looked like he does in the above photograph we took as he smoked and drank, drank and smoked.

"Beautiful, baby, beautiful…," Hank kept saying as he talked about writing and women, about being a gifted bum who became the subject of a movie, Barfly, directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Mickey Rouke. "You would've done a better job, baby," Bukowski said, as one ugly man talking to another, knowing that I would avoid the camera at all costs. "That would've been a beautiful result, baby…."

Bukowski told me how, even though he was an old man, women still pressed their naked bodies against the cold glass of Xerox machines so that they could copy blurry images of their breasts and behinds for his imagined pleasure. "It's not always so beautiful, baby…," Bukowksi murmured. "I'm no longer available but they keep sending their Xeroxes to me. It's strange, lying butt-naked on a Xerox machine so you can send the copy to some 71 year-old guy. But, to them, I'm 'Bukowski – the poetic genius…'"

He cackled at the surreal difference between his writerly image and his real self. It was then, after the fourth bottle of red, that I decided I liked this interviewing lark. Bukowski told me that, normally, he didn't do interviews. Linda also explained that she'd been forced to hide a mat that Hank had bought with the intention of placing it outside their front door. It said, simply, 'Go Away'. Linda worried that the mat would upset her mother – more than all the hacks and groupies who wanted to meet her husband.

Bukowski complained that he'd made the mistake of allowing Sean Penn to interview him – in his last disastrous encounter before we met. He liked Penn but the actor was married then to Madonna and she insisted on joining him. "She kept asking me which poets I liked," Bukowski sighed. "You're doing well, baby. You've avoided that question. Keep doing that – because we're getting along fine…"

It might not have been a great interview but Hank, Linda and me enjoyed ourselves. I've hopefully since learnt to keep myself out of most interviews and to talk a little less and ask a lot more questions. But Bukowski also taught me a lot that night. He helped me forget that he was a famous and deeply-mythologised writer. We spoke about all kinds of subjects and, rather than slipping into a creaky question-answer routine, we had a real conversation about horse-racing and books, drinking and homelessness, Germany and America, girls and poets, boxing and old age.

I think of him often when, trying to escape the shackles of the humdrum sporting interview in a very different world, I try to ask the people I meet about different topics beyond the tried and tested. I also strive to listen closely to these almost always impressively sober sportsmen and women. Sometimes I still ramble because, for an essentially shy old man, I do chatter and chunter in an often bizarre way. While I cringe when those moments have to be heard during the laborious grind of transcribing, Bukowski would like those encounters which become conversations rather than interviews.

My interviews in Dark Trade, and those in my third book, Winter Colours, led to the Guardian offer of a weekly sporting slot. So, in September 2003, my first interview in this new role was with Michael Vaughan – who had just been appointed England's cricket captain. It was very different to a drunken night with Bukowski…but it was also interesting. Now, ten years later, I feel just the same. I'm always looking forward to the next interview.

Charles Bukowski, of course, would have liked the fighters and the jockeys most of all…