WHEN Mike Tyson was getting ready to defend his world heavyweight titles against Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams in July 1987 I saw an opportunity for myself.
Carl Williams was not only my namesake, but we also had the same body structure. Our boxing styles were similar, and we even boxed in the same colours. Because of those similarities, I knew I’d be the perfect sparring partner for the fearsome king. I was confident in myself and knew I would make a good impression.
My objective was to force my way into boxing’s pantheon, to get my name out there and appear on the big promotions. It worked. At the time my manager was Mike Barrett. He had been a partner with Mickey Duff of Barrett/Duff Promotions and, together, they had lot of influence in boxing.
I asked Mike to get me into the Tyson camp. The arrangements were made, and I was on a flight to the USA. The world heavyweight champion was scheduled to be at King Training Camp in Orwell, Ohio.
Joe Ryan, who had been training Kirkland Laing, had only recently started working with me and he accompanied me to training camp. We were scheduled to be there for six weeks.
After arriving in Orwell, we learned that the camp had been moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey where the fight with Williams was to be held. So, we travelled there and at the hotel, we met some of Tyson’s other sparring partners. The line-up was impressive and it included Oliver McCall, Greg Page, Mike ‘The Bounty’ Hunter, Phil Brown and Warren Thompson. All were good fighters.
Tyson had not arrived in Atlantic City yet. So, along with the other boxers, we travelled across town to a Police Athletic League (PAL) boxing gym. Former world light-heavyweight champion, Matthew Saad Muhammad was there. He was in the ring. I did not know the boxer in his opposing corner, but they were trading big, heavy punches. At first, the sparring appeared to be a war, but on closer observation I soon realised that it wasn’t. It was just very technical onslaughts, actioned with solid punches.
Muhammad was looking for openings and landed good clean shots. In return, he was made to defend and deflect punches by parrying and skillfully turning his body at slight angles to avoid being hit. Neither of them took a backward step. They stood toe-to-toe and threw accurate shots at each other.
I watched the sparring with a keen eye. That is how I learned. After a short amateur boxing career, quality sparring was crucial to my development. Later that week, it was my time to climb into the ring and to spar against Mike Tyson. I was excited.
A boxing ring and a heavy punching bag platform were set up in a banqueting room at the Trump Plaza. Tyson boxed three rounds with Greg Page, and then he boxed three rounds with me.
I scrutinised his rounds with Page. Both boxers were focused, and the session was tense. With Page being a former WBA heavyweight belt-holder and Tyson, the current champion, they were both trying to make a statement. It was about bragging rights. On a few occasions, Tyson became slightly agitated after getting caught. He reacted by getting rough.
I was afforded the chance to see Tyson at close proximity. I observed his movements and considered the strategy that I would utilise when I entered the ring with him. Page grappled with Tyson whenever they were close, thus preventing any quick combination or outburst being hurled at him. I did not hold Tyson as much. During my sessions with him, I got to understand the value of having a good jab. The jab is exceptionally effective against forceful pressure fighters like Tyson, as James ‘Buster’ Douglas would prove in front of the world the following year. I used a crisp jab, at distance. I learned to block and defend against body punches by tucking my elbows into my obliques. After all, Tyson had wreaked havoc on sparring partners before. I was not about to become another casualty.
During my career, I valued such quality sparring. I frequented a lot of gyms and travelled wherever I had to. Boxing training, just like other factors in life, is always evolving. New methods are incorporated for development. I understand that but the essentials like running and sparring must not be discarded.
Some trainers find alternatives for replacing some training methods, but you cannot substitute sparring. I understand that there are risks, however. Especially if the sparring sessions are hard and tortuous. It should never be forgotten that the same serious injuries that sometimes occur in a prize fight can also occur in sparring. Therefore, the sessions must be controlled and supervised by trainers who know the difference between an unnecessary gym war and hard quality sparring.
Sparring is not about attempting to throw the hardest punch in an effort to knock out your sparring partner. It should be the platform where a fighter and their team put into practice what they have been working on during those long arduous weeks and months in training camps. It’s the closest action that you will get to an actual fight. During training, boxers must identify their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses; and then try to work at nullifying and exposing them.
Fighters inform me all the time that they have been having good sparring sessions and invite me to come and watch them. Too often, all I see is a slugfest with both sides attempting to knock lumps out of each other. It is those types of sparring sessions that do more damage to a fighter than actual fights because, in a fight, boxers are more alert whereas in sparring they are relaxed and take more risks.
Often, both boxers are preparing for a fight. Moods are erratic due to the sacrifices you’re making. You can be grouchy, the sparring can get out of control and that’s when the damage can occur. But to get the most out of sparring, it’s important to remember what you’re trying to achieve and what you want to learn. It’s about good rounds, it’s a dress rehearsal but it’s not the real thing. It’s about working on specific tactics and scenarios.
When I trained in Philadelphia, I used to talk with boxing manager Ivan Cohen. He told me that Marvin Hagler would get knocked down in sparring. I was surprised at hearing that, so I asked him to explain. He said that Hagler would work on a manoeuvre during training and tried to perfect it. If he was unable to get it right in sparring, he’d come back to it later until he got it right.
Sparring, when done correctly, is where you learn your trade.