“I wanted a nickname, but I didn’t want to choose it myself. It was Barry McGuigan, after one of my fights, who said, ‘Crawford’s got chilling power.’ I thought, ‘Hold on a minute. Chilling. That can be on so many different levels. I like it.’ That’s what I went with.”
Crawford Ashley retired with an 85 percent knockout ratio in thirty-three wins but has the most relaxed, polite, and endearing personality. “Chilling” is simply the perfect contradiction to have bestowed on the proud Yorkshireman, even if boxing wasn’t originally part of his long-term plan. “I was seven when I started to box, and it wasn’t my choice. My dad told me that I had to go three times a week, or I wasn’t allowed to play. As it goes, I went on to win the Schoolboys and junior ABAs twice.”
Ashley explained how his identity changed during his early amateur days. “I had quite a good amateur career and, where I came from in Leeds, it was becoming difficult to get fights because of my pedigree. The guy who managed me at the time thought it might be easier to get me fights with a different name. I was born Gary Crawford, but we came up with Crawford Ashley. Most people call me Crawford anyway, so it worked well and was simple.”
Boxing alongside his brother Glen, (winner of the 1982 senior light-heavyweight ABAs), Ashley explained his motivation to step away from the amateur ranks. “I got picked to box for the under-eighteen England squad, and the guy that I’d already beaten twice was in my place and, when I inquired why, I was told to shut up and do as I was told. The next morning, I got on the train and came home. I’d done everything I had to do, was the best and was proud to represent my country. When that happened, my motivation went.”
After compiling an amateur record of 60-10, with over forty knockouts, Ashley made the transition into the professional ranks on March 26, 1987, stopping Steve Ward in the second round. By May 4, 1988, Ashley was 5-1 and took on future world champion Johnny Nelson, who was 8-5 at that point. “My memories of that fight were going to a venue and not knowing who I was going to box,” Ashley recalled. “My trainer said, ‘Jump on the scales.’ I started stripping off and he said, ‘You don’t need to worry about stripping off. Just jump on.’ I jumped on fully clothed and weighed about twelve stone, thirteen pounds [181 pounds]. Johnny Nelson comes in, stripped off completely and he weighed thirteen stone and some [182 pounds]. I thought, ‘The fight’s been made. Let’s get on with it.’
“Johnny taught me a hell of a lot in that fight. He put me down in the seventh round and I lost by half a point. If he hadn’t put me down, that fight was mine.”
“Chilling” went on to score four knockout wins in the next nine months, before taking on Blaine Logsdon on March 29, 1989, where he suffered his first stoppage loss. “I smashed both my hands in my previous fight and damaged the tendons in my fingers the one before that. I couldn’t spar or punch a bag for that fight. When I got up to Glasgow to fight Blaine, I passed the medical, and the doctor slapped my hand. The second he did, I wanted to slap him hard. The pain went through me. Then, when I was in the ring, I put him down and thought, ‘I’ve got to finish this.’ Instead, I walked into one, and he put me down. I walked back to the corner, and my brother said, ‘No. You can’t continue.’ I thought I was OK but respected what my brother said.”
Ashley bounced back a few weeks later, defeating Serg Fame, before challenging tough Carl “The Cat” Thompson on October 31, 1989, for the Central Area light-heavyweight title. Ashley went into the fights with ten wins and three defeats compared to Thompson’s undefeated eight-fight run. “I’ve never been an underdog in my life. I never look at it like that. To me, boxing is an art form. The fights I lost, I went back to the gym to correct those mistakes. I had no worries going back into any fight with that winning mentality.
“Carl Thompson hit me in the first round and, I swear to God, I didn’t know where I was. I came back to the corner at the end of the fifth and said, ‘That was a long first round,’ and my trainer said, ‘You idiot. You’re coming out for the sixth.’ I said, ‘Am I winning?’ He said, ‘No.’ Then I stopped him in the sixth.”
Ashley won his next four fights by stoppage, including a defense of his Area strap against Brian Schumacher. “Winning the fight against Schumacher meant everything to me because he was the captain of the England squad in the amateur days. I was a junior and he was a senior at the time, but I always thought I could have beaten him no problem, even at seventeen years old.
“When I had the opportunity to fight him in the pros, it came out of the blue. I hadn’t even been training. I was told with a few days’ notice that I’d be defending my Area title on that Saturday night. I said, ‘No problem.’ I used to walk around at about twelve stone, six pounds [174 pounds], so I never had to worry about my weight until I got older. When I was told, ‘You’re fighting Schumacher,’ a smile came to my face. I thought, ‘It’s time to show the England squad what they missed.
“Although I stopped him in the third round, I didn’t rate the performance that night; I just wanted to stop him. Also, I was absolutely knackered!”
On February 28, 1991, Ashley challenged Graciano Rocchigiani for the vacant European light-heavyweight crown in his backyard of Dusseldorf, Germany. “I found out six days before and got ripped off. I got six grand for the fight. Rocchigiani was a former world super-middleweight champion moving up, so there was this voice in my head which said, ‘How good are you?’ I took the fight because I wanted to know where I fitted in the world boxing picture.
“The night of the fight was brilliant. I’ve never been into a racist arena in my life like I did that night. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. I was in a bubble and all this hatred that came at me, made me buzz. By the time I got to the arena, I must have been ten feet tall, because I felt absolutely invincible.
“I broke my finger in the third round and got through it. When the split decision was announced in Rocchigiani’s favor, the referee came to me and said, ‘That’s the worst decision I’ve ever been involved with, and I’m putting a complaint in to the EBU.’ And he did. Graciano never gave me a rematch.”
Ashley regrouped and won the vacant British light-heavyweight title in his next fight by KO, followed by another two emphatic inside-the-distance wins to claim the Lonsdale belt outright. On September 23, 1992, he fought the Ugandan-born Italian Yawe Davis for the vacant European light-heavyweight strap. Interestingly, all eighteen of Ashley’s previous wins came by stoppage. Davis interrupted the sequence. “In terms of the knockouts, we were taught that boxing was an art form and, if you got hit, you were doing something wrong. I was always told to punch fast. If you want to punch hard, punch fast. If you get hit by a big car at ten miles an hour or by a small car at seventy miles an hour, you want to be hit by the bigger car, because it’s not going to be as damaging.”
“As far as the Davis fight goes, it was absolutely crap. It was in a casino [Campione D’Italia] and it was like boxing in a TV studio. There were people sat around these tables with absolutely no atmosphere and no interest at all in two fighters boxing for a European title. Crazy.” The result was a draw.
Seven months later, on April 23, 1990, Ashley dropped to super-middleweight to take on two-division world champion Michael Nunn for his WBA crown at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee. Nunn was 40-1 at the time, with the only blemish on his record coming at the hands of James Toney.
“I had three weeks for that fight and was asked if I could make super-middleweight, which I could because I was around the light-heavyweight limit anyway. I went out to the US and couldn’t believe the strokes they were pulling. A kid who’s coming with three weeks’ notice, who used to wipe his nose on his sleeve . . . and they felt like they had to get under my skin. I was smiling at them all, because to me it was a load of nonsense. I had it in my head, ‘Nunn can’t beat me.’ That’s not being cocky or arrogant, I was told, ‘When you’re on form you can’t be hit, and to beat you you’ve got to be hit.’
“I was at the press conference, and they were trying to rile me. Then Angelo Dundee stood up and said, ‘I want his hair to be cut. His hair is dangerous’ [Ashley had long dreadlocks]. I looked at him, stood up, and said, ‘If you want my hair cut, there will be no fight. The only thing that’s dangerous on me is my fist,’ then I sat back down.
“In the fight, I staggered Nunn, but it wasn’t a true stagger. Nunn was so good . . . he was doing things at the time that I couldn’t work out how he was doing them. Throwing really good shots and making me miss by millimeters every time. That was very frustrating.” Ashley was eventually stopped in six rounds.
Another ring legend who was cited as a possible opponent for Ashley on several occasions was Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns. Here’s why that fight never materialized: “He kept pulling out. The last time he pulled out really annoyed me because he said I pulled out because of a torn rotator cuff. I’d gone away into a training camp in Tenerife and only found out the last day in camp that he’d pulled out. I was so annoyed. That really got to me.
“When I started in the pro game, I had a few ambitions. Never dodge a fight, never make a return when I retire, and to win the Lonsdale belt outright. They were the three things I wanted. Then I’ve got this man telling me I pulled out of a fight? That really got to me.”
Fresh off the Nunn loss, Ashley’s next fight was hardly a tune-up, as he entered the ring on January 29, 1994, against another Kronk fighter—and fellow Brit—Dennis Andries. “I was in the dressing room and got a migraine attack which affected my vision. I never told anybody. I got in the ring and put him down in the first, but I couldn’t see. He kept hitting me on the blind spot, and I was retired in the fourth. I could have beaten him if I was 100 percent. The only person I’d say I couldn’t guarantee I’d beat was Nunn, even if I was in top form.”
Ten months later, on November 19, 1994, Ashley beat Nicky Piper in Cardiff to take the vacant British light-heavyweight title again. “I found out I was fighting Nicky the day before the press conference! We went outside to do the eyeball to eyeball, and he’s looking up at me when he says, ‘Crawford. How tall are you?’ I said, ‘Six foot three and a bit.’ He says, ‘I’m six foot three a half,’ and I replied, ‘Yeah, but mine’s a fucking big bit!’ His face dropped. If he’d have looked down, he would have seen I had two-inch-high cowboy boots on.
“Winning the British again meant a lot, but after the fight I was just so tired; all I wanted to do was go to sleep. I was shattered for about three weeks after that fight.”
After beating Hunter Clay on April 1, 1995, at Buffalo Bill’s Star Arena, Primm, Nevada, Ashley challenged for world honors again, but at light-heavyweight. His opponent this time was Virgil Hill. “I’m in the dressing room, and the guy comes in and says, ‘You’re on in fifteen minutes. I get gloved up, ready to go, and then he comes in a little later and says, ‘You’re on in five minutes. Next time I come in, you’re on.’
“He comes through the door, and I’m ready to go. He says, ‘Hold on a minute, we’re just putting a fight on. We’ll be back to you in a few minutes.’ An hour and a half later, I fought Hill! They tried to do everything to give Hill the edge. He didn’t beat me that night, but I didn’t do enough to take his title. That should have been a draw. Because it was for a world title, they gave it to him. After the fight, he went to hospital and I went to a celebration party. That says it all.”
Not one to hang around, Chilling was back in the ring three months later to kickstart an eight-fight winning streak. Seven fights in he challenged Spaniard Roberto Dominguez for the vacant European title, at Everton Park Sports Centre in Liverpool. “I was in the office when the phone rang. It was Frank Maloney. We put him on loudspeaker, and the moment he said it was Dominguez I said, ‘I’m going to knock him out in the third round with a right uppercut.’ I haven’t got a clue where that came from, but that’s what I said.
“Training camp was absolutely brilliant. Everything just flew. When I got to the venue, I just knew I was in a different time zone, which was about two or three seconds ahead of everyone else. I just knew what was coming up next, like déjà vu. This went on right through to the fight. I knew what punch he was going to throw before he even knew it!”
As predicted, Crawford stopped Dominguez in the third. “I’m not a betting man, but I told my mate that I’d win in the third round and he put money on the second, then blamed me!”
His first defense of the European strap was in France against Pascal Warusfel, whom he outpointed. “Ah, man. That was a painful night. I broke my wrist in that one. It was either control the pain or sit out whining about it for the rest of your life. I chose to fight on.”
About losing his next fight and his title against Ole Klemetsen on October 4, 1997, at Alexandra Palace, London, Ashley said, “That’s what happens when you box someone with a broken wrist! I shouldn’t have fought him.”
Two stoppage victories later, on September 26, 1998, Ashley regained his European strap by beating Mohamed Siluvangi, who at the time was unbeaten in twenty-one fights. He was now a two-time European champion.
On March 13, 1999, Ashley put his British, Commonwealth and European titles on the line against Clinton Woods. “I was supposed to be fighting Henry Wharton; then he pulled out. I was gutted and picked up a virus. I then couldn’t shift the weight. The day before the weigh-in, I was thirteen stone, one pound [183 pounds]. As I said earlier, as I got older, it became more difficult to shift the weight. I went to the sauna, you name it. I was in no condition to be fighting. Some people said, ‘Why don’t you defend one title?’ But that wasn’t me. If the guy beats me, he deserves them all.
“When I got into the ring that night, I thought, ‘I’ve got one round in me,’ but I lasted until round eight before they threw the towel in. Clinton was one tough kid. All credit to him.”
Ashley retired in 2001 with a record of 33-10-1. “I’m very, very content with what I achieved in boxing. After the Nunn fight, there were about four or five great world champions on the top table at the press conference and when I walked in each and every one of them they gave me a standing ovation. That kind of like said to me, ‘You’re in a league where you belong.’ Even though he took me out in six rounds, I felt like I was up with the elite, and I was happy. That’s how I look back at my boxing.”