Finding the Will: Kevin Lueshing on Fighting for Survival

Kevin Lueshing lands a right to the head of defending champion Chris Saunders on his way to victory in a British welterweight title bout at Bethnal Green's York Hall on February 13, 1996. (Tony Harris/PA Images via Getty Images)

“My dad used to tell me, ‘Go and pick a belt for me to beat you with.’

“That was more psychological than anything. Like the fear and anxiety you get with boxing in the changing room before the fight, the ring walk. When I started to box, all that brought back memories of my dad telling me, ‘I’m going to come and beat you in half an hour.’ Five minutes before the beating there would be a knock on the door and he’d say, ‘Five minutes.’ Later in life, that fear undid all the potential in me because I never had the confidence to go with my ability.”

Kevin Lueshing’s motivation to start boxing was not idyllic. ‘The Look,’ as he was known on the professional boxing circuit, took time out from his busy gym in Spain to discuss his turbulent life. “Before I went boxing, I’d probably had forty fights. Fighting on the street and in the ring are very similar. The adrenaline, the fear that you get, the butterflies are all very similar, as they prepare you for that pain—and I was used to pain. Also, I could hit people in the ring and not get in trouble for it, whereas in school I’d get expelled.”

As well as the countless vicious beatings from his father, Lueshing was groomed at the age of ten by a man, not related to him, who attempted to rape him after a few weeks of friendship. “You can read about it in my book [The Belt Boy],” he says, and it’s obvious that chapter in his life was too uncomfortable for him to even reminisce about. “Harrowing is not a strong enough word for what I went through. Every day I was reliving the abuse that I’d gone through.”

Thankfully, there was some solace in the noble art. “Boxing for me was all about getting away from home life and all the beatings I’d get from my older brothers, but mostly my dad. Also, boxing was a good way for me to channel my aggression, as I used to like fighting on the street, which I started from about the age of eight. It was a progression to boxing.

“When I was on the street and somebody gave me a dirty eye, I’d go over and fight them. I was confrontational. I was the hardest in my primary school. I just liked fighting. Walking into a gym at the age of twelve and hitting bags was natural for me.”

The discipline of the sport was unfortunately not enough to change the mindset of young Lueshing. “I was expelled for beating someone up when I was thirteen, but I’d been beating up a lot of people, so it was the icing on the cake when I got me expelled. After getting kicked out, I never went back to school, mainly because no schools would accept me.

“Because of what I’d been through, as a teenager I was selling drugs, stealing, fighting, robbing people, being promiscuous, aggressive, and generally reckless. No different from any other working-class kid who hasn’t grown up with stability or love in their life.

“The other thing was, I was brown. When I was growing up, in the 1970s, it was either black, Paki [Pakistani], white, or Chinese. It didn’t matter where exactly you came from on the planet; you fell under one of those categories. Paki was classified as the worst for some reason. If you were Sri Lankan, Maltese, whatever, you were a Paki. I was a Paki, because my dad is Chinese and my mum is Jamaican, and it would drive me mad. I grew up listening to people saying, ‘We’re going Paki bashing,’ so I had to fight. My brothers wouldn’t help me if the kid I was up against was my age or one year older than me, only if they were two years older, then they’d jump in. So I was always having to defend myself. I couldn’t go home and say, ‘Dad, I’ve been beaten up,’ because he’d beat me a lot worse than the kid I’d just fought.

“By the age of sixteen, I left home because I’d had enough of getting beaten by my dad. I lived at my sister’s for about nine months, while I was working as a laborer at a building site. Then I moved to a bedsit and, at the age of eighteen, I was selling drugs. Big drugs. Cocaine to celebrities, you name it.”

Lueshing ’s motivation to continue with his boxing was not ambition. “I only boxed because it was something to do which I liked. Did I ever think I was going to become a professional? No. As an amateur, even when I was rated third best in Great Britain as a welterweight, I didn’t think that. I was feared as an amateur because I was a banger. People would go out of their way to not fight me. They’d go up or down a weight to avoid me. In total, I fought eighty-nine times and lost eleven. As a senior, I had about forty fights and knocked out thirty, and I mean proper knockouts like you saw me doing as a professional. I boxed for England once and London many times. I was one of the best welterweights in the country from about 1986 to 1989.

“The problem was, I didn’t believe in my ability. That’s the difference in making a champion and a challenger. Naseem Hamed believed in his ability. All the top champions believed in their ability. I didn’t. It was hit-and-miss. Sometimes, psychologically, I couldn’t get myself to the next fight. I’d get to a quarterfinal or semi- and then lose against kids that shouldn’t have even been in the ring with me because they were levels below. But my head wasn’t switched on.”

On September 30, 1991, at the age of twenty-three, Lueshing turned professional, stopping John McGlynn in two rounds. He also made another statement shortly after. “The NSPCC [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] had just done a Christmas advert, where this little boy was being shown as an abused child, and that triggered my mind. I decided I’d get their logo on my shorts and was asked if I wanted it in green or red. I told them red. I wanted to get people’s attention.”

Lueshing reflected on the moment. “Abuse, it stays with you and scars you. The anger and pain. I’d go into sparring sometimes and go really hard to get hit on purpose because I wanted to feel pain. I was used to that and receiving pain made me angry.

“Even though I had NSPCC on my shorts, nobody knew why. I just passed it off as it having to do with my ‘old man,’ but it was the sexual abuse as a kid. That’s why I supported the NSPCC. As I started to climb the boxing ladder and become more famous, my interviews were in greater depth, so I started telling more detail but only about the beatings, not the sexual abuse. If I told the media that, everyone would think when they saw me, ‘Oh, he’s that kid that got abused.’ Who wants to fight an abused boxer? You don’t really, do you?”

After his debut, Leushing went on to beat his next nine opponents including Chris Eubank’s brother, Simon. Armed with a record of 10-0, with eight stoppages to his name, “The Look” took on “The Gifted One,” Kirkland Laing, on June 23, 1993, for the Southern Area junior-middleweight title. Lueshing recalled the bout. “That fight was at 154 pounds, but we both weighed just over the welterweight limit. We only took the fight at the weight because there was a title on offer.

“If you think about it, I’d never been the distance, never been beyond six rounds, and here I was against a former European champion who had also beaten Roberto Duran. Laing was an incredible fighter. He kept dropping his hands, and I just couldn’t catch him. Then my trainer Gary Nickels said to me, ‘Aim for his neck!’ I started to aim for his neck, because it didn’t move so much and started to catch him. Then he said, ‘When you are in close, punch the eye that’s bleeding.’

“Sometimes you have a bit of luck in your career, and that fight is where I had it. Had I not stopped him in the fifth round . . . he was starting to get the timing right and I was beginning to blow. If you remember David Haye versus Carl Thompson in 2004, that was me. Carl Thompson came back and stopped Haye. Laing was starting to come back, but I managed to stop him on cuts, and that was my luck.”

Nine months later, Lueshing incurred his first loss as a professional, a fourth-round stoppage to Chris Saunders. “I didn’t have my normal trainer, Gary Nickels. I’d moved to Roger Levitt, who was financing me. He picked Graham Moughton, who was training about six of us, including Alfred Kotey and Spencer Oliver, but Graham couldn’t cope. I wasn’t getting that individual attention for my style. I’m a counterpuncher who needs more than just pads, and I started getting lazy. We even had to pay Saunders a couple of hundred pounds because I was overweight for the fight. My discipline had slipped and I paid the penalty.

“However, losing that fight was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It made me realize that I couldn’t just jump into a ring and knock everyone out, irrespective of what condition I was in. It was a wake-up call. I went out and got a decent trainer and kickstarted my career again.”

After racking up five successive wins with four stoppages, on February 13, 1996, he was back in with Saunders, but this time for the British welterweight title. Lueshing explained his approach to the rematch. “More experience, more confidence, more on the line. Also, since the last fight, I’d gone to Wales and beaten a kid called Michael Smyth, which was a final eliminator for the British title. That gave me a real push. Smyth was unbeaten, 16-0 and had knocked out most of his opponents. He was the last guy to beat Joe Calzaghe. When I stopped him in the third round, my confidence soared. Also, I had a different trainer, Colin Smith, who had been with three-weight world champion Duke McKenzie. Colin gave me undivided attention, and that’s exactly what I needed.”

Lueshing stopped Saunders in three rounds. “It wasn’t so much avenging the loss, it was how I did it and the fact that it was something that could never be taken away from me, being part of British history. I was content and really proud. I’d won something important. After that, if I’m honest, it was all about money in boxing. I’d won the British title and all I’d ask was, ‘How much am I getting paid?’ I wanted the big house, the nice car, because I came from a really poor family.

“I turned professional to stop me from selling drugs because I knew I was going to end up getting caught. However, I was still selling drugs until the day I ended up winning the British title. I’d go to the gym with half an ounce of cocaine in my glove, meet someone in McDonald’s, then go and do ten rounds of sparring. That’s how my life was up to that stage.”

Two fights later on July 17, 1996, Lueshing fought Nino Cirilo in New York for the IBO world welterweight title. “Again, it was all about money. In my contract, which Roger Levitt had made up with an American billionaire from Texas, if I won a world title of any status, I’d get another $200,000. I got paid about $5,000 for the fight, but the title got me the sponsorship money. The IBO was new at the time, and they were giving the belts away. Don’t get me wrong, I still won it and against a reputable boxer, but a couple of months later I bought a big country house, which is what it was all about for me. For my debut, I got £400. If I didn’t have Roger Levitt with me, the maximum money I would have made out of boxing would have been £80,000. He was a financial wizard who was paying my phone bills, medical bills, private doctors. Unheard of in those days.”

On January 11, 1997, Lueshing challenged future-Hall-of-Famer Felix Trinidad for the IBF world welterweight strap. “I got paid £150,000 for the Trinidad fight. That’s twenty-five years ago. You could buy houses for thirty grand back then. I also had a sponsor of a hundred grand a year that Roger Levitt got for me. I was making lots of money.

“My training camp was fine, but I was mentally on and off. I’m going to win, I’m not going to win. Doubt started to take over. Doubt breeds doubt and it started to rub off. In the buildup I was overwhelmed by the occasion. You’re in a press conference in a hotel, walking past pictures of Trinidad knocking out people and everyone’s saying, ‘Oh my God. You’re fighting Trinidad.’ You have to remember, Trinidad was the equivalent of Floyd Mayweather. He was an outstanding champion. Look at his record and who he fought. I was his eleventh defense, and he had a high knockout ratio.

“The only person who believed in me was Colin. ‘Kevin. You can win this, son. You have that punching power and speed, which makes a difference.’ We practiced on the pads . . . to knock him down. Colin would say, ‘Rush to the corner,’ then he’d say, ‘Make contact. You’ve got to make contact.’

“In the fight, you could see the respect Trinidad had for me in the first round, because he hardly threw a punch. That’s what happens when you put two counterpunchers in against each other. One has to take the lead, and he made that mistake and got clumsy in that second round. I dropped him and should have finished him off, but I didn’t. I had about twenty seconds to finish him off, and he recovered. That’s what separates the challenger from the champion. The champion adapts and comes back. I might have been as good as him, but I wasn’t as confident as him. I’d only had nineteen fights by this stage. So when he dropped me in the third, that’s it. It was over for me psychologically. I was only getting up to get knocked down again. I wasn’t experienced enough to weather the storm and come back.

Boxing News predicted I’d knock him down, but he’d get up and knock me down! But you know what, I’m not ashamed about it. What an outstanding fighter he was. Had I beaten him, I don’t think I would be alive today, because there would have been too much money and fame for me and I would have got reckless. I didn’t like pressure, and when you get to that level, you’ve got pressure on you all the time. The limelight would be on you, and there’s no escaping at that level. I wouldn’t have had a life and wouldn’t have been able to adapt to that I don’t think.”

Six months later, on July 19, 1997, Lueshing attempted to recapture his British welterweight crown against Geoff McCreesh. “When I fought Chris Saunders, my mate was taking creatine, and he was ripped. I then started taking that stuff. You know what creatine does for you? Yes, it makes you ripped, but it puts weight on you because it also retains a lot of water. I didn’t know that!

“I’d been taking that creatine for three weeks up to that fight. I was working hard in camp, but I was struggling to make weight and couldn’t understand it. In those days, you didn’t tell your trainer what food and nutrients you were eating, you just cracked on and did all that yourself. I started to eat less, thinking, ‘I don’t need food, but I need creatine because this will give me the energy.’ I remember coming out of the sauna skipping to make the weight of ten-stone-seven-pounds  for the McCreesh fight. Madness.

“Would I have beaten him without taking creatine? Absolutely. I know I would have because I would have been stronger over ten rounds without being drained. But you know what, good luck to him. He became British champion.”

Lueshing won his next two contests before having a final crack at world honors, against unbeaten Namibian Harry Simon for the WBO junior-middleweight title. “Simon beat ‘Winky’ Wright before he fought me and never lost a fight in his entire career. In those days, you were lucky to challenge for a world title more than once, whereas these days they seem to be giving these opportunities away with bubble gum machines. When I fought, you had to earn that right. He was a beast. He was like John Mugabi.”

Unfortunately, the passion that had gained him the British and IBO crowns was no longer burning inside him. “It wasn’t win, lose, or draw. It was lose. I didn’t want to win. I didn’t want to box no more. Even though I wobbled him in the second round, my heart wasn’t in it. If I’d have knocked him down with that punch, I would have been world champion, but I wasn’t in love with boxing and didn’t look to capitalize. Even in training, I remember hitting the bag, looking at the mirror, sighing, and thinking, ‘This is hard work.’

“Everything was an effort, whereas before I’d get up whatever the weather and train hard. I enjoyed it. Making weight, sparring, press conferences, all of it. By this stage, everything was a hassle. It’s hard to train for a fight when you know you don’t want to win. If I won, I knew I had to carry on, and that’s not what I wanted to do. There’s lots of fighters out there when I’m watching them, and I know it’s their last fight. Nigel Benn said to me when he fought Steve Collins, ‘That was for the payday. I’m allowed to have that Kevin, because I’ve had a lot of hard fights.’”

Did boxing save Lueshing’s life? “I’m looking around at the posters on the wall in my gym in Spain and thinking, Mike Tyson without boxing, you’d be dead. Floyd Mayweather same thing. Ricky Hatton, no, you had a family, so you’d have been alright. Lennox Lewis same thing. For me? Yeah, boxing saved me. But it’s not just fighters, the sport itself saves lives. It saves people from becoming alcoholics by giving them that discipline, saving lives by making people fit and saving those kids who are not educated but who can fight and make money to secure their future. Boxing definitely saves lives. It’s after boxing that it becomes tough. Boxers themselves really struggle, that’s why you see so many comebacks. We need something government-run or a union to help boxers with pensions once they retire.”

Lueshing finished his professional boxing career with a very respectable 21-4 record, with three of his four losses coming in title fights. “My only regret in boxing is that I didn’t give it one hundred percent with Trinidad. I quit. I surrendered. Not like Rigondeaux against Lomachenko, I went down three times and went out fighting, but I wish I didn’t go that way and had given it everything I had like I did in the Saunders fight when I won the British title. That was a war. We both went down and got up, but I just had that will to want to win. That’s my only regret.”

Kevin Lueshing’s autobiography, The Belt Boy, is available on Amazon.

 

About Paul Zanon 19 Articles
Paul Zanon has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the number-one bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport and has been a pundit on London Live Boxnation.  He is a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly and a number of other publications. Paul is member of the British Boxing Writers Club. Paul is the author of the forthcoming book, The Ghost of Johnny Tapia, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Paul on Twitter.