“We didn’t have a gym. We had a room above a fruit shop, one punch bag, no toilet, no spit bucket, and I won the British, Commonwealth, and IBF world cruiserweight titles. The ‘Rocky’ story is one of riches to riches compared to mine!”
Glenn McCrory’s boxing career was anything but smooth sailing, but he admits that being steeped in a boxing family certainly rubbed off on him. “My granddad was a champion in the British army and my granddad’s younger brother, Jim Palmer, the name he fought under, became a pretty prolific featherweight. My dad also did a bit in the army.
“Up in the North East [of England], it was always, football, football, football. Growing up around Irish catholic schools, my hero was always George Best, but then someone came along who blew Bestie out of the water. That was Muhammad Ali.
“My first boxing recollection was Ali versus Foreman, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ This man [Ali] was supposed to get beaten, hammered, and not only did he win, but he also picked the round. For a kid, it was unbelievable to watch. Fascinating. I used to cut up pictures of Ali and put them on my wall, and I got my mum to stitch ‘Bear Hunting’ on the back of a second-hand Wrangler jacket that I had. I became totally Muhammad Ali crazy.”
McCrory reflected upon his amateur career with fond memories. “I had sixty-four fights, fifty-six wins. I became Junior ABA [Amateur Boxing Association] champion at 74 kilograms, at the age of sixteen and then at seventeen I boxed for young England, alongside Chris Pyatt, Errol Christie, and Duke McKenzie. What a great squad that was.”
On February 6, 1984, he made his professional debut, knocking out Barry Ellis in the first round. “I was absolutely scared to death against Ellis and thought I was going to have the shortest career in history. I think fear just made me attack him nonstop and I had him out of there in ninety seconds. I attracted the national papers and was on the back page of the Sun newspaper, with an article from Colin Hart. The headline was, ‘The White Bruno’ and it mentioned that I had the sweetest left hook since Henry Cooper.
“Knocking Ellis out though was probably the biggest mistake I made. My amateur trainer got me in with Doug Bidwell, and I thought we’d done well to carry on with Alan Minter’s manager and trainer, but little did I know that Doug had never trained anyone in his life. Bobby Neill trained Minter.
“So when I fought Ellis, he probably took a look at me and thought, ‘Here we go. The next big heavyweight.’ The last fight I had as an amateur was at twelve-stone-six-pounds, boxing against the United States navy. Ellis outweighed me by seventeen pounds, whereas I was barely touching the cruiserweight limit. I should have turned pro at light-heavy and moved up to cruiser after.”
Despite fighting in a division above his natural weight, McCrory clocked up thirteen consecutive wins. However, over his next six fights, he only won one. “I had a great start to my career and in my eleventh fight beat Angelo Dundee’s kid, Alex Williamson, who was undefeated, but in training, things weren’t great. Doug Bidwell kept training me and putting me in with heavyweights. My training was, ‘How much have you eaten today? Get on the scales. How heavy are you?’ I was always light, so I’d be told to drink three pints of gold top [full-fat milk] a day, eat fry-ups, drink hot chocolate, and eat Maltesers. I had no advice on diet or fitness whatsoever. It was horrendous.
“All I was doing in training was eating and eating, which meant I was getting heavier and slower. Doug was saying, ‘Great! You’re getting bigger,’ whereas I was finding the fights were getting harder and harder. I fought John Westgarth at 208 pounds and was sluggish. It was no surprise I didn’t win.”
With a record of 14-5, McCrory persisted and embarked on a winning streak. Now campaigning at cruiserweight, on September 4, 1987, he beat Zambian Chisanda Mutti, to become the Commonwealth champion. It’s worth noting that in Mutti’s previous four fights, he’d challenged for the IBF world cruiserweight strap twice, losing to Evander Holyfield and winning the Commonwealth title. “It was amazing to get the chance,” McCrory said. “The only thing was, in sparring I’d dislocated my thumb hitting my sparring partner on the elbow. When I took the glove off, the thumb was pointing the opposite way it should have been. I went to hospital and, after operating for about four hours, they put a plaster cast on. Doug said, ‘We’ll have to cancel the fight. It will be a while before you get another chance like this.’ I said, ‘Don’t cancel it. I need this fight. I need this title.’ I cut my cast off two days before the fight, whereas it was actually due to come off the following week. The first time I landed a left hand further to the dislocation, was against Mutti. It was a tough fight, but thankfully I won OK.”
Seven months later, on January 21, 1988, McCrory added the British strap to his collection, beating Ghanaian-born Brit, Tee Jay on points. “Straight after the Mutti fight, I got a call from James Tillis asking if I’d like to spar in America. I said, ‘Yeah. Who with?’ He said, ‘Mike Tyson. He’s knocking everybody out, but you’ll be OK as long as you keep moving.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I got paid $200 a week and they didn’t think I’d last the first day. In the end, I stayed there for five weeks and for his next fight against Larry Holmes, which was the day after I was scheduled to fight Tee Jay, I became his chief sparring partner. At the time I didn’t have the money at home for a training camp to fight Tee Jay, so when they asked me over, I thought, ‘Fantastic. Who’s a better sparring partner than Mike Tyson?’ Tee Jay had no chance with the sparring I had! I got a points decision win over twelve rounds in the end.”
McCrory sparred ninety-six rounds in total with Iron Mike, and on one occasion gave him a black eye. “That’s true, but he made me pay for it, trust me! He gave me six rounds one Saturday, and he didn’t knock me down, but it was very, very tough. That black eye pretty much got me a world title fight. Mike Marley did a full page in the New York Post, which got me international recognition. At that point I wasn’t really promoted by anybody, then Cedric Kushner picked up on that story and picked me up.”
After a further three more victories, on June 3, 1989, McCrory challenged Patrick Lumumba for the vacant IBF world cruiserweight crown. “Kushner gave me a call to say I might be in the running for a world title shot. I was on the dole [unemployed] at the time, so I was so excited, but more so because nobody had ever won a world title before in the North East of England. Just being in the mix was unbelievable.
“I then started to weigh up the different fighters at cruiserweight at the time, and there wasn’t any fearful ones. The only one I knew to avoid was Lumumba. I’d seen him beat Alfonzo Ratliff, knew he was a bit of a bad boy and his ringwork was incredible. He was similar to Lomachenko as an amateur. He’d lost about eight fights in over three hundred. He’d also been sparring with Mike Tyson and giving him problems, so he was the one I was hoping, of the bunch, I wouldn’t have to face. Then the phone went. ‘Who am I fighting?,’ I’ve asked. ‘Patrick Lumumba,’ was the reply. His nickname was the ‘Killer’ and I was called the ‘Gentleman!’
“The reason why there had never been a world title fight staged in the North East, never mind producing a world champion, was because we didn’t have the venues. Where I’m from in Derwentside, County Durham, that area was the biggest unemployment black spot in the country. We had the steelworks there, the mines, the shipbuilding, but Margaret Thatcher shut down the lot, so there was no work whatsoever. Then the local labor council decided to give the area something to cheer about, by bidding for a boxing match, which was unheard of back then.
“It was at Stanley Leisure Centre, and I lived three hundred yards down the road. I’d had a great training camp and was bashing everybody up in sparring, so, come the day of the fight, I felt a million dollars. I bought the Sun newspaper that morning, and I looked for Colin Hart’s column on the back page, which said, ‘Glenn’s a Goner!’. I thought, ‘For fuck sake!’ Lumumba was a Don King fighter, and they took the fight in England to basically pick the belt up. To them, it was an easy fight and almost a done deal. I wasn’t supposed to win.
“On the night of the fight, I said to myself, ‘How much do you really want this Glenn? Tonight you have to be prepared to die for this.’ At that moment, I had this massive lift as if I knew my desire to win unbreakable. I went to see my wife at the time and gave my little daughter a kiss, then walked up the street with my bag over my shoulder to the venue.
“I lived around some rough old streets, but I started seeing people wearing dickie bow ties. I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on in Stanley tonight?’ Then when I got to the top of the street, there were TV trucks and crowds cheering my name out. That’s when I realized it was for me.”
Despite being spurred on by his own personal achievement, McCrory always maintains he was trying to win the world title for his brother, David. “Growing up, we were a low-income family. My mum had six kids, and when I was six years old, she fostered David. I wasn’t happy about it as he took my bed! I ended up sleeping with my two brothers until the age of eighteen, so me and David didn’t get off to a great start.
“I was about a year older than him, and we used to walk to school together. After a bit, we noticed that he started walking a bit differently. I used to say, ‘Come on, David. We’re going to be late,’ as we had a couple of miles to go to get to school. Eventually, I said, ‘Get on my back,’ and I started carrying him. That was kind of the beginning of a love affair. He needed me, and I became very close to him, as brothers do. I used to look out for him and became protective over David.
“Then he started getting worse, and we took him to hospital, and it turned out he had a pretty bad case of a muscle-wasting disease called Friedreich’s ataxia. We were told he’d be dead by the time he was fifteen, which was heartbreaking to hear.
“His muscles started to get weaker and he was having bad choking fits. Day by day, it was a case of slowly watching your brother die. It was very traumatic with a brother that you love, knowing you could lose him at any given day. But he kept going. His sixteenth birthday came and he hadn’t gone, then his seventeenth and he kept going. He was such a fighter, and that’s why I had that spirit on the evening against Lumumba of never giving in, because he would never give in. He’d climb up the stairs and fall down and pick himself back up. You’d be crying watching him struggle up the stairs, but his determination and will to live was beyond inspirational. It was breathtaking. That night I fought for the title, [David] was pulling me along. He stopped me from even thinking about quitting.
“He couldn’t go to the fight because my mum looked after him and, by this stage, she didn’t come to my fights because the stress was too much. Mum said to David, ‘Let’s go a little bit closer to the venue,’ then wheeled David to my auntie’s house, my mum’s sister, who lived about half a mile away from the venue. So there they were with no TVs or radios on, nothing, and David is miserable as hell because he wants to know what’s going on.
“Then a police car pulled up outside the front door, with its siren blaring. My mum started thinking the worst. ‘Everything is OK. Get your coats. We’re taking you to the fight. He’s winning.’ The police got them into the venue and to this day we don’t know how the police knew my mum and David were at my auntie’s house, because they’d made that decision themselves without telling anyone.
“As we got announced in the ring, the crowds started going mad. Commentator Ian Darke said it was one of the best atmospheres he’s ever known. Just imagine the capacity of St. James Park [the football stadium of Newcastle United which had a capacity of 36,000 at the time] had been shrunk into Stanley Park, and that gives you an idea.
“Then Lumumba gets introduced and walks out in the center of the ring with his hands by his side all arrogant. At that moment, I thought, ‘I’m going to fucking knock your head off.’ I was so fired up. Everybody had told me, ‘Box him, because he’s a big puncher. Use your jab, move, box, move, box,’ but when he stood in the center of the ring, that changed my tactics for the fight. That’s why I went for him, and he just wasn’t ready for that. For the first six or seven rounds it carried on that way, and then he recovered and started to get back into it. He hit me with two right hands and perforated my eardrum, which nobody had ever done to me before.
“About round eight, it started to get hard. Then I got into a clinch and looked over and saw my brother at ringside smiling, waving his arms about and being as animated as hell. I thought to myself, ‘Come on, son. Here we go.’ It was just at the right time when I needed to lift my spirits. Then the crowd started stamping their feet, and the rest is history.” McCrory won a very wide points decision over twelve rounds to become the IBF world cruiserweight champion. “My speech in the ring after I’d won the title was, ‘Stanley dole office. I’m not coming back!’
“The thing after that fight—that was it for me. I’d done it. Against the odds, I’d become the first world champion in the North East of England. I’d reached the pinnacle. I went to bed that night with the belt around my waist, lying on the bed, the happiest I’d ever been. Then I woke up the next morning and it was the worst morning of my life. My dreams, David’s dreams—we’d done it. What now? My career had been really hard. Sparring the likes of James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith at nineteen and Trevor Berbick and Tyson, and here I was at twenty-four years of age, absolutely done. If I’d made over a million quid at that point, I would have walked away, but I signed off the dole and got paid £7,000 to fight for the world title and came away with half of that. I had to fight again.”
McCrory’s first defense was on October 21, 1989. “Ideally, I wanted to pick a few opponents and make some money,” McCrory recalled, “but the next fight was against Siza Makathini from South Africa, who knocked out Paul Lister [another North East hopeful] in the first round, eleven months earlier. I tried to box him, but he was bashing me up for six rounds. Then he hit me around my perforated eardrum and my ear was blazing. I couldn’t hear. I went back to the corner holding my ears and sat down thinking, ‘I’m going to get knocked out here. This guy is walking through me. No more boxing. If I’m going to get knocked out, then so be it.’ So I went out next round [eleventh], pushed him on the back foot, and stopped him.”
Five months later McCrory put his belt on the line against Jeff Lampkin, from Ohio. “I went out to the US to sign for the fight and was a guest ringside to see the punching preacher, George Foreman, against Gerry Cooney. Michael Buffer started to introduce all the celebrities, ‘Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, Glenn McCrory.’ Everyone was looking around saying, ‘Glenn who?’
“After the Foreman fight, I sat down with Cedric and Beau Williford and signed a deal, expecting good money as the world champion, but that wasn’t the case. I got stitched up again. Also, the fight was brought forward to March 1990. It was soon after Christmas and I was massively overweight and told them it wasn’t possible, but they gave me no option. I spent the next five weeks wearing plastic bags, next to heaters. I honestly thought I was going to die. I wrote letters to my then-wife explaining if I made it through this fight alive, that sort of thing. I was genuinely worried.
“I had the fight and thankfully didn’t get killed! He hit me with a body shot in the third round, and I’d never been hurt with a body shot before. That showed how weak I was. That probably did me a favor though as I could have been on the end of some heavy headshots if I’d have been in that ring longer. I was an easy target.
“I never got paid for the fight. Beau Williford fucked off with the money and went missing for four days after. We tried to stop him at the airport and got a few quid off him, but it wasn’t great. I retired after the fight.”
McCrory returned to the ring eleven months later at a career heaviest of 217 pounds, knocking out Terry Armstrong in two rounds. Next up was Lennox Lewis on September 30, 1991, for his British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles. “Coming back and fighting the likes of Lewis wasn’t about being ballsy, I got a tax bill which needed sorting. Eighty grand! I was working at a pub at the time and called up the tax people and said, ‘How can that be? I’ve never made anywhere near eighty grand in my whole career.’ They said, ‘Prove it.’ Beau Williford had all my paperwork. I never saw him after the Lampkin fight. No idea where he is to this day. [Williford died on July 31, 2019, of lung cancer.] The only way I could get eighty grand was to pick on the best fighter out there at the time and that was Lennox.” Lewis stopped McCrory in the second round.
Having shared the ring with both Tyson and Lewis, McCrory gave his opinion on who would have won at their respective peaks. “Tyson. Absolutely. A twenty-year-old Mike Tyson I think was practically unbeatable. He would have been too much for Lennox.”
After Lewis, McCrory fought four more times, with his last fight on July 16, 1993, back at cruiserweight against Alfred Cole in Moscow, in an attempt to recapture his old IBF crown. “By this stage, I was fighting for pride. Just to prove to myself that I was still world-class. Cruiserweight was still my weight if I made it properly. For the first time in my life, I got a nutritionist on board, trained correctly, and made the weight the most sensibly I’d ever done before. I lost on points to a good world champion, but I proved to myself that I was still world level. That’s all I needed to know before retiring.”
McCrory signed off with an air of calm. “With the correct management team around me, I could have been world champion longer at the time, but with my assistant amateur coach and another one of my brothers, who had never boxed and was half deaf, in my corner, I think we kind of did alright.”
David McCrory died in 1996. He was twenty-nine years old.