MASON STILL ON THE CANVAS

22 April 2001

Brough Scott meets the boxer who fought the up-and-coming Lennox Lewis 10 years ago and has been on the receiving end of life’s blows ever since.

He had it in his hand. To you and me it is just a peeling old video. To Gary Mason it is witness to the night the nightmares began. Wembley Arena March 6, 1991, Mason the favourite to beat an up-and-coming 25-year-old, 14 fights undefeated Lennox Lewis.

Ten years on, here was Mason coming to share the larger part of a Chinese meal next to Sutton station on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon. Wonder what happened to the other fella?

Win or lose in South Africa in the small hours of this morning, several million dollars will have been added to Lennox Lewis’s already bulging bank account. Mason, who was at his prime when the two British heavyweights met and was unbeaten in 35 fights, does not have a bank account. In fact, he does not have a house, a home, a job or anything else but loyal friends, a big smile and an intelligent, ever-engaging, optimistic personality.

“Even when I went down to the job centre, people kept asking for autographs, it was embarrassing,” he said with a deep `ho, ho’ reminiscent of his Terry Lawless stable-mate Frank Bruno. Fame can outlive fortune but that’s not normally the plan.

In the 10 years since referee Larry O’Connell stopped things in the seventh, you would have thought that Mason, 38, had taken enough of life’s knockdowns to throw in the towel. “Oh no, it has been worse than this,” says the carpenter’s son from Clapham with a magnificent laugh. “Last year I was really on the floor. I was like a fighter who had just got used to being battered about. My last promotion in Tooting had lost money, my father had died in America and when I went over to his funeral I wondered about coming back. But as they say, (cue another ho, ho,) I do love London so.”

That failed promotion was part of a long chain of Mason ventures which have flattered only to deceive in the decade since the right eye damage in the Lewis fight ended his fighting career in Britain. It had all looked so promising. The London-raised product of Jamaican parents was a bright boy who could talk and seemed intent on looking after his money. Even before he became British champion he had a jeweller’s shop rejoicing in the name of `Punch ‘n’ Jewellery’. But the luck didn’t last.

There was a burgeoning career as a boxing analyst with Sky which famously ended when he used the `f’ word on TV. There was a three-match rugby league venture with London Broncos. “I scored a try in my first game.” There was a much-hyped arm-wrestling tournament which folded. There was a brief and unsuccessful marriage. “We did it for the wrong reasons.” Only this year there was a security job at Carshalton Hospital which ended because there had been too much chatting up of the female staff.

Sunny optimism can be as dangerous as it is attractive. When his eye had finally healed after the Lewis fight, Mason got himself to America where he wangled a licence, won a couple of rent-a-bum contests and presented himself back to the British authorities as a `licensed fighter’. They laughed in his huge but amazingly unscarred face.

“It’s ironic,” said Mason good-humouredly, “to think that when my Dad first took me to box at Manor Place Baths as an eight-year-old, I didn’t like it. Mind you, it took him a few months to discover I was bunking off before I got there.”

When he was doing television and his relationship with the mother of his now eight-year-old son Jordan was under stress, he got into the habit of going “clubbing” after the show on Thursday and not getting home until Tuesday. “I was a bit frantic then,” he admits ruefully, “I was not into any of the hard stuff but I was doing those little round ones.” Not surprisingly, the woman decamped to Germany and it is now Mason’s great ambition to “get stabilised” so that Jordan can come and live with him in London.

The form book suggests that the chances are not good but the man ladling the duck into the pancakes is by no means the feckless old pug the story might suggest. Big, of course; 6ft 2in and 21st but then Mason was 16st 11lb when he faced Lewis, who was then a lean and honed 16st 3lb compared to the 18st monster in the ring this morning against Rahman. Smart red check shirt and dark blue `puffa’ waistcoat atop tailored blue slacks, there is still pride in his appearance. How much has pride been responsible for the fall?

“I don’t think I really blew it on the night,” he says. “But I had let myself get very hyped up and I was too light, had lost some of my power. Micky Duff had this idea that I should come in under 17st. I went to Florida and worked hard. It looked good but what I needed to do was to get in close to Lewis and have all my weight to bust him up around the body.”

The tape shows all too clearly the tension and the overwhelming early advantage Lewis had in speed and manoeuvrability. But cornerman Denny Mancini remembers the shots that always gave Mason a chance. “He got Lewis on the ropes beside us,” Mancini recalled last week, “and hit him so hard with a left hook to the body that Lennox’s leg came up in the air. You rarely see that. Gary could bang but his eye was bad early.”

The right eye had been cut badly during victory over the splendidly named Everett `Big Foot’ Martin a year earlier. When it came up again in the very first round against Lewis, Mason knew things were desperate and to his credit made Lewis look very tired in the third. And even though his face looked like that of a savaged hog by the seventh round, commentator Harry Carpenter was correctly calling “one last do or die effort” as Mason hammered Lewis against the ropes before the silver-haired O’Connell stepped between them and said “that’s enough”.

Watching the video with the hindsight of the two men’s subsequent careers is a poignant experience. Going in to the fight, Mason was world-ranked fifth with Lewis 11th. “Training for it,” says Gary. “We both knew the real prize [the purse was a mere £276,000] was the ladder to the world title. It should have been very depressing afterwards but the public gave me so much support that made things better. It still does. I am a people person.”

So much so that it is with people, or rather protecting them as well as entertaining them, that salvation may lie. Mason’s first job when he left school was in security and it was to work out that he then went to box at the gym above the Mason’s Arms in Battersea. “I was good at the security,” he says very firmly, “could handle things. There was a skinhead who got into Level One in Euston one night with a sword. . . I am getting a company together, will have people properly trained. We have some support. It could be the answer.”

There is an impressive looking website under development. He has a very sound old friend to review the contracts. Speaking, promotion and broadcasting may follow. “I know Gary has been a bit erratic,” remembers Mancini, “but I do admire him because he is such a great trier. And the funny thing is that he is still a very jolly fellow, while Lennox, for all his money, seems very dour company. I wonder who enjoys life the better.”

Mason could easily be a bitter man, particularly to those who once lauded him so large. But his nature is always to look for the sunny side. And that even includes the boxing game. “I know boxing can be dodgy,” he says with a chuckle. “But I still love it. I just must remember not to call myself `England’s version of Don King’ again. How could I ever have said that?”

Coffee over, we cross the street and in the middle of the road. Mason suddenly bends down and picks up a tiny coin which gleams bronze in the palm of an enormous hand. “A penny for luck,” he says with a final `ho, ho’. You have to wish it.

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