If ever there were a time for Herol “Bomber” Graham to win a world title, this would be it. He had only lost decisions to Mike McCallum and Sumbu Kalambay and his opponent in a fight for the vacant WBC middleweight strap, Julian Jackson, had repeated eye issues and lacked a sturdy chin.
Graham moved to Sheffield, Yorkshire from Nottingham in his teens and shortly thereafter wandered into a gym run by famed British trainer Brendan Ingle. He was apparently a natural — so good, he would later say, that Ingle modeled his gym’s signature style after that of Graham’s.
In “This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own,” late British writer Jonathan Rendall said of Graham, “He was impossible to hit. His trainer only called him Bomber to confuse opponents. He’d developed his skills in working-men’s clubs in the pit villages. He’d have his hands tied behind his back and challenge anyone to hit him. But no one ever had.”
In rattling off 38 straight professional wins, Graham picked up European and British titles at both super welterweight and middleweight. But he didn’t have a world class win under his belt, and Kalambay pushed him back to the regional scene by handing him a commanding decision loss. He came much closer against McCallum, but still fell short.
This time could be different. Graham, 43-2 and the WBC’s number one contender at middleweight, would have a slight edge in size over Jackson, a career super welterweight who had been inactive after having surgery on both eyes in 1989. Jackson’s only loss was a stoppage at the hands of McCallum, which itself was nothing to be ashamed of, but he had been down or hurt several other times as well.
The problem, of course, was Jackson’s record: 40-1 with 38 knockouts.
The British Boxing Board of Control declined to grant Jackson license to fight in the U.K. because of his severe eye issues, but Jackson’s promoter Don King would figure something out: in mid-September of 1990, Jackson-Graham was announced for October 13 in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Azumah Nelson, another King fighter, was to fight Juan LaPorte in Australia the same day. The announcement came one week after King paid six figures to place ads in that read “Only in America!” in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and more.
After some deliberation the fight was rescheduled for late November in Benalmádena, Spain. Both men were a long way from home but Jackson had never fought in Europe at all. More importantly, his opponent was skilled, awkward and motivated.
Graham kept Jackson off-balance with his jab in round 1, making the slugger miss wide as he tried in vain to catch the southpaw Briton. Jackson couldn’t get away from Graham’s jab and spearing left hand, and a combination rocked him early in the 2nd. Worse, Jackson’s left eyelid drooped as a result of the punches and by the end of round 2 the eye was nearly closed.
A glimmer of hope remained for Jackson, as Graham kept wading in with his chin high and hands low. “The Hawk” kept missing with a counter right hand, but not by a lot. Still, Graham fought how he needed to and was piling up points. Jackson tried to create opportunities to land a big punch by turning southpaw himself in the 3rd, and he stayed that way for the entire round. It was Graham’s game, though, and his flat-footed approach was too slow for a fighter bouncing away from him.
“The referee Joe Cortez came to my corner [after round 3] and told me that if I didn’t do something in this round he was going to stop the fight,” Jackson said in a recent interview. “Just hearing that I knew I had to do something fast.”
Not only did Graham continue to excel in round 4, but he backed Jackson to the ropes between eluding big shots. After two minutes, Graham looked to be on his way to a stoppage win and his first world title.
A point deduction for throwing cost Graham a draw against McCallum in May of 1989, and they would likely have rematched for the vacant belt they fought over. This time against Jackson he made a different error that cost him even more greatly.
“My only regret is when boxing Julian Jackson, if I only kept my hands up at the stage when he threw the shot, it would’ve hit my hands, not my chin and I would’ve been world champion,” Graham told The Voice in 2013. “But that’s a part of life I have to accept.”
As Graham surged, pushing Jackson to the ropes in an attempt to seal his win, he lowered his guard just enough for Jackson to seize upon. A right hand borne of pure destruction smashed across Graham’s chin and sent him to the canvas. He would wake up a few minutes later.
Graham’s infamous knockout loss became just one part of Julian Jackson’s tale, albeit a memorable one. To this day Jackson still considers the win one of his best. And he can even see a bit without wearing glasses.
The loss signaled a serious downturn for Graham; he fought eight times in as many years following the loss, going 5-3. In his final bout for the IBF super middleweight belt, he dropped Charles Brewer twice before succumbing to Brewer’s power in the 10th round. Graham is remembered as one of the greatest British fighters to never win a world title.