Chilling Effect: Crawford Ashley on his longest, toughest fight

By Oliver Fennell

“I WAS riding my motorbike. I overtook a lorry and saw the road bend round. I saw this barrier and thought ‘if I hit that, I’ll be dead’. I looked down at the speedometer and it was at 80mph, so I just hit the throttle.

“I went into the side of the barrier and everything went black. Next thing, a guy is holding my head saying ‘you’re OK, you’re OK’. I thought ‘how messed up am I? Even God doesn’t want me’.

“Next thing, I’m in an ambulance, then in hospital. It’s all blackouts in between. I had five or six operations in the first three days; I was in high dependence for four or five weeks. When I came round, the doctor said ‘we were gonna chop your arm off, it was that bad, but someone recognized you and said you’ll need that’.”

While that hospital worker correctly recognized Crawford Ashley the boxer, he no longer needed the limb for competition. The crash – deliberate in its deadly intent – came precisely because Ashley was no longer boxing. The Leeds light-heavyweight was, like so many before and after him, struggling to find purpose outside of the ring.

“I just felt like I didn’t belong here, and everywhere I looked, I didn’t see nice people,” he says. “I was too tired.  I just wanted to go to sleep, I just wanted out.”

He’s not entirely sure when the crash happened – “Me and time don’t really have a relationship,” he says – but it was a few years after his career ended in 2001. “I went traveling,” he says of how he initially filled the void. “Everywhere I went, people said ‘what do you do?’. When you say ‘I do nothing’, they don’t know where to put you, what social standing you are, how to talk to you. In this world there’s a lot of pressure to be; to do. Do you have to do something to be someone?”

Well, Ashley certainly did something, and was someone – and still is. Many ex-boxers may be haunted by the past tense of their status, but not even time can erase names from record books. What Ashley did defines what he is: a champion.

He’s also a man of his word. Speaking about when he turned pro, Ashley says: “I told myself all I want from boxing is a Lonsdale belt and, when I retire, to make no comeback.”

He achieved both, and then some. In addition to six British title wins, Ashley also reigned over the Commonwealth, twice over Europe, and twice attempted to rule the world, losing only to two of the very best of their generation in Michael Nunn and Virgil Hill.

As for the “no comeback” vow, wasn’t it tempting as Ashley struggled to come to terms with retirement? “No, I just can’t break my word. That’s something I can’t do,” he says.

“I didn’t even know I was going to retire until it came out of my mouth,” he says of the announcement that followed his 2001 defeat to Sebastiaan Rothmann. “But once it left my mouth, that was it.

“During the fight, things just wasn’t right. Afterwards, I had a banging headache. Bob [Paget, trainer] said ‘you were ahead on all three cards, you can have a return’. I said ‘no, I’m finished, mate’.

“I could have got up. I got up five times against Michael Nunn.”

That he didn’t against Rothmann was the sign, at 37, that he was done.

“Best decision I ever made, but the hardest to stick to.”

Yet stick to it he did, until any potential decision-making was rendered moot anyway by that high-speed collision with a barrier.

“People don’t see broken minds, they see broken arms and feet,” he says, and while indeed I can’t see inside his head, he rolls up his right sleeve and trouser leg to show me the exterior evidence of his suicide attempt. There are swathes of scar tissue, misshapen bones and a missing finger.

“My right arm was shattered and it took me four years to walk properly again,” he says. “But you know what? It was brilliant. If I had to live my life over again, the accident has to be in it. I found a lot of things out. It shows who your friends are; how people disappear. People say ‘if you’re ever in trouble, call me’. Forget that… they won’t pick the phone up. But that gave me some focus. I said to myself ‘I gotta get better’.

To do so, he went travelling again. “I went to Cambodia and then Laos. Beautiful, warm people. Then I stayed in Thailand for a couple of years. It was the end of the Mayan calendar [2012]; I’m a big believer in that. I thought if a solar flare hits and takes everything out, I wanna be on a beach when it comes.

“I was living on £6 a day in Pattaya. My room was £75 a month. I was in the gym five days a week. I were happy. They call it [Thailand] the Land of Smiles. It gave me my smile back.”

Jamaica, another travel destination of choice, has been good to him too. “My dad is from Jamaica,” he says. “I’ve got uncles and cousins there, and 80-odd acres of land seven miles outside Mandeville, up in the mountains, proper bush.

“I want to build an eco lodge there. It would be ideal for ex-boxers. I could put a roof over their head if they work a couple of hours a day.”

Ashley will turn 60 in May and intends to mark the occasion with an extended stay in Jamaica. Not a bad place to spend the milestone, and not a bad age for someone who grew up as a “kid with a death wish”.

“Life was brilliant, ‘cause I did what I wanted to do,” he says of his childhood. “Dad was a workaholic, so I never seen him, but I always had a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food in my stomach.

“But I was a kid with a death wish. We’d play chicken, or some kid would say ‘jump off a roof on to a mattress’… ‘OK, no problem.’ And every time we went on holiday, I ended up in hospital.”

That appetite for danger was what led the seven-year-old lad then known as Gary Crawford into boxing, following his older brother Glen, 11, to the gym. But not quite everything was “brilliant” for young Ashley after all, which is why he is now better known by a different name to that which he was born with. So, how did Gary Crawford become Crawford Ashley?

“I don’t like the name Gary,” he says. “My mum gave it to me, and I didn’t like her.

“My first memory of her, I was four and she told someone she didn’t want me. How would that make you feel?

“So, when I turned pro, I was told I could use a different name. I’ve always liked the name Ashley, so I became Crawford Ashley.”

He turned pro in May 1987, after a bout of disillusionment with the amateur ranks was followed by a brush with the law.

“I weren’t that bothered [about turning pro], but some lad I knocked out got into the Commonwealths. I asked why and they said he had more experience. I said ‘more experience at what, getting knocked out?’”

And then another form of unpaid fighting led Ashley to get serious about the official form.

“A bouncer attacked me and came off second-best,” he says. “I was outside the pub and the bouncer hit me from behind. He lied and the witnesses only saw me hitting him back. I was looking at five years inside. [My solicitor] wanted me to plead guilty, but I wouldn’t. It went to trial. Guilty, but only a £100 fine, plus £25 compensation. So, I put myself in prison – gym, home, gym, home, gym, home.”

And so the pro journey began. Over the course of its 14 years it took in plenty of big names and highlights, win or lose. On the way up, he split results with a young Johnny Nelson (l pts 8) and Carl Thompson (w rsf 6). He lost a controversial decision to Graciano Rocchigiani when challenging the hugely popular German in Germany for the European title in February 1991. (“A fair decision? I don’t care; I know I beat him. The same Germans who were spitting on me and calling me schwarz [black]-this and schwarz-that were hugging me afterwards. I asked him, in English, ‘can I have a rematch?’, and he said, in English, ‘I don’t speak English’.”

The first of two British reigns began five months later. Two defences – including a 55-second annihilation of Jimmy Peters – elevated his stock, while another controversial European title shot on away soil, this time against Yawe Davis, did nothing to damage it. But if you were bothered by the drawn verdict Ashley was handed after boxing an Italian in Italy, he wasn’t: “How could I be bothered? I know I won. It was in a casino with like 40-50 people in there, no atmosphere. It was shit.”

A rematch was ordered, but negotiations foundered. Frustration soon led to elation, though, as the contractual manoeuvring effected a shot at the big time.

“Purse bids went in and [promoter] Barney [Eastwood] won it,” says Ashley. “He said he could only pay me 10 grand but the fight would be in Leeds.  I said ‘fine’. Then later he said ‘I can’t get a TV date; I’ve sent it back to the Italians’, but I’d still only get 10 grand. I said ‘no, and if I ever box again, it won’t be for you’.

“I got a call from Frank [Warren]: ‘I heard you left Eastwood – can you make super-middle? We’ve got you a title fight with Michael Nunn in 21 days’ time.’ I went ‘yeah, no problem.’

“I just trained hard and didn’t eat. I wasn’t bothered, because I was buzzing with excitement. ‘How good is he? How good am I? We’re gonna find out.’ I just felt ready to fight.”

Maybe too ready – Ashley weighed in at just 163lbs for the April 23, 1993, shot at Nunn’s WBA 168lbs belt. Unsurprisingly, body shots put an end to Ashley’s brave challenge inside the Pyramid in Memphis, with five knockdowns all from hooks to the flanks of a 6ft 3ins frame that was already lean even up at light-heavy.

It was a painful experience, but one that Ashley enjoyed. “Man, it were brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” he says. “He were the best fighter I’ve boxed by a long way. He made me miss by millimetres, then I’d get hit with three or four. He’d get me on the ropes, hit me, I’d look up, and ‘where’s he gone?’ But I’d have loved a rematch at catchweight – him at his best weight, me at mine.”

He wouldn’t get that wish, but a second WBA shot would come two years later, in his more familiar light-heavyweight surroundings. But if Nunn had sapped his strength with that punishing body attack, Ashley says Virgil Hill – or at least his event organizers – sapped his enthusiasm before the first bell in Primm, Nevada.

He lets out a big sigh at the memory: “The guy comes to my dressing room and says ‘you’re fighting in 20 minutes’. I start getting ready. Then he comes and says ‘next time I knock on the door, you’re on’. Then he knocks on the door and says ‘you’re on after the next fight – don’t worry, it’ll be over quick’. It goes the distance. Hour and a half later, still waiting. By the time I got in the ring, I just couldn’t be bothered.”

Hill would win a wide unanimous decision and Ashley would not get another ‘world’ title shot. However he was by then a two-time British champion, courtesy of an impressive points win in a good fight with Nicky Piper five months before the Hill challenge, and in March 1997 would, at the third attempt, win the European title.

“I dreamed I would knock him out with a right uppercut in the third round, and that’s what happened,” says Ashley of how he finished Spaniard Roberto Dominguez. But finally winning a belt he’d first fought for six years earlier was, apparently, “no big deal – it just felt like I’d won what should have been mine a long time ago”.

But any remaining ambitions of once more challenging for world honors were unceremoniously dashed by a two-round stoppage loss to Norway’s Ole Klemetsen in October 1997. “My mind weren’t on the job,” he says. “My first wife called me up and said one of my kids were on the street because of me. It was the wrong mindset to go into a fight.”

There would be a second wife (“but I’m not married now”), a second European reign, a Commonwealth championship, and more defenses of the Lonsdale Belt, as Ashley’s rollercoaster career rattled towards its final stop, via one last big fight, a blood-soaked Yorkshire derby with Clinton Woods (l rsf 8, March 1999).

Now, more than 20 years on, possessed of a record that is testament to the thrills he generated (33-10-1, with 28 early wins) – and heaps of life experience, Ashley can proudly say one of his kids is not on the street because of him – he’s in the ring.

Theo Crawford, the middle of Ashley’s three children, is an aspiring boxer, and one for whom his dad is predicting big things will happen quickly.

“He’s only had five amateur fights – four wins – but I think he’ll be world champion within five years,” he says of the 21-year-old who trains at Bethlehem Boxing Club in Leeds, where Ashley is now a coach. “I want him to go pro right now. It’s just a case of finding him the right manager and promoter. I’d like him to fight for a Central Area title on his debut.

“He went to school, college, uni, got a degree, now he’s working for a good company. He’s never been in trouble with the police in his life. He hasn’t got any of that street cred or badness, but he doesn’t need it. He’s got something that not a lot of people have, and that’s a desire to find out how good he is.”

Much like his dad, then.

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