He came with a fierce reputation and one of the best right hands in the business. With Olympic honors as an amateur and a world title as a professional, how did Robin Reid, the “Reaper Man,” first end up donning the gloves? The Runcorn resident explained. “I was in a kids’ home until about two or three years old, and then my foster family took me on. My foster dad was big into the boxing, and we always used to watch it on television on a Tuesday night and Saturday afternoon on World of Sport. That’s where all the big fights were on, like Sugar Ray Leonard against Tommy Hearns and all them. That’s where the love of boxing came from.
“In terms of how I ended up in the boxing gym? There was a bit of bullying at school, but I was also a bit of a loner. There was stuff like racism to deal with [Reid’s biological father was Jamaican], and it became tough. So I walked into the gym at eight. In there, nobody cared what color you were, what clothes you wore, it didn’t matter. They welcomed you in. I thought, ‘Wow. This will do for me.’”
Reid continued. “It wasn’t one of those cases where I walked in and thought, ‘I want to be a world champion,’ it was just a case of I found comfort in the boxing gym, because of the bullying and being an outcast. It wasn’t like many boxers when they’re younger that they watch the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and are inspired to become a world champion. I used to just watch him on the telly and think ‘Wow!’ I never thought I could box at world level, though. I joined the gym and it just progressed from there. I took each fight as it came and that was it.”
Reid may not have been looking to engage in world-level boxing, but with hard work, dedication, and pure grit, it certainly found him. Winning around sixty of his eighty amateur contests, most of which were representing England, Reid explained how he went on to have a stellar 1992, crowned with an Olympic medal in Barcelona. “They had the Canada Cup, which was quite a tough tournament back in the day. That was the first year they introduced the qualifying tournament for the Olympics, and the Canada Cup acted as a warm-up, if you like. I won gold and got Best Boxer of the tournament. I beat Canadian Ray Downey [who had won silver at the 1988 Olympics at light middle and gold at the Commonwealth Games in 1990], in the final.
“I then went to the Olympics. I know we’ve had better results from boxing since, but overall, the whole team did well. Linford Christie [100-meter sprint], Sally Gunnell [400-meter hurdles], Steve Backley [javelin] all won gold. It was the first year we’d qualified the full team of twelve in boxing, which included future world champions such as Paul Ingle, and I was the only boxer to get a medal, winning bronze.”
Seven months later, Reid became a professional boxer. Three and a half years into his journey, unbeaten in twenty-two contests and yet to fight for a title of any kind, an unexpected opportunity came his way. “At the time, I was twenty-five years old, chomping at the bit looking for a title fight and I thought my first shot would be at an Area or British title, something like that. Next thing, I get the phone call from Frank Warren. I go and see him, we sit down and he says, ‘I’ve got you a title shot, but you’re going to have to go up to super middle though.’ I’m still thinking, British, Commonwealth maybe. Then he says, ‘It’s for a world title shot. The WBC. The fight will be 12 October .’ I’m then thinking, who are the super middleweight world champions and challengers at the moment? Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, and some tasty Americans. I then said to Frank, ‘Go on then. Who’s it against?’ and he said, ‘Nigel Benn’. I thought, ‘Jeeeessusss.’ I’d watched Nigel Benn fighting, and he was a bit of a hero of mine. I thought, this is going to be tough, but if the job’s got to be done, it’s got to be done.
“So I was now in place to fight Nigel Benn once he’d made his mandatory defense against Sugar Boy Malinga. But then he went and lost a decision to Malinga who then lost to Nardiello, so I ended up fighting the Italian. On paper, apart from the Olympics, I hadn’t won a title, so I was the inexperienced underdog, but I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose. I knew my capabilities, and because of everything I’d won as an amateur at that level, that kind of took the pressure off me to some extent.”
With his model good looks, Reid soon gained the attention of the media on his arrival in Milan for the media jamboree. However, it was a suggestion of his trainer Brian Hughes that propelled him into the limelight. “When we were training, I had a bit of stubble, had my hair slicked back and Brian used to make fun of me and say, ‘You look like one of these Italian gangsters!’ Anyway, we had the press conference in Milan and Nardiello’s got massive support and me and Brian are just sat there twiddling our thumbs as all the journalists are asking him, the big star, all the questions. Also, we couldn’t understand most of it anyway, because it was all in Italian.
“Brian then gives me a nudge and says, ‘Tell them you’re half Italian.’ So I did! We made the story up as we went along. I started telling them about being fostered as a kid and all that, but what I changed was, instead of my dad being Jamaican, I changed it to Italian. I said how he’d come over to the UK, had a roll around with my mum and went back to Italy. I left it there, but that got everyone on board! They straightaway wanted to know where he was from, and I said, ‘Napoli,’ which for whatever reason was the first place that popped into my head. I then said, ‘With my Italian blood, it would be great to win it for Italy,’ blah, blah, blah. They loved it!
“On the day of the fight, Brian said, ‘You’ve got to come down to reception.’ I replied, ‘You know how I am the day of the fight. I don’t want to.’ He laughed and said, ‘You’ve got to come down for this one mate.’ Off I goes and I walked past this old Italian man on the way to reception. I asked the receptionist what’s going on and she points to the old man. Basically, this guy had been reading the paper and thought he could cash in and was pretending to be my dad!”
Reid was in blistering form that night, stopping Nardiello in his own backyard in the seventh round, to become the new WBC world super middleweight champion. One of Reid’s favorite memories of that glorious night was when a certain former middleweight great came over to congratulate him straight after the victory. “Marvin Hagler presented me with a gold boxing glove and said, ‘You’re a great champion. To have come over here and do what you’ve done is fantastic. Well done.’ I’m thinking, ‘Wow. The legend Marvin Hagler has taken time out to speak with me!’ It wasn’t like he said, ‘Well done,’ shook my hand and went off. He took the time to chat with me, and I thought, ‘Nice one!’ He ended up doing the commentary on a couple of my fights after.”
Over the next eleven months, Reid defended his crown three times against sturdy opposition, by way of Giovanni Pretorius, Henry Wharton, and Hacine Cherifi. However, three months after Cherifi, Reid suffered his first defeat, against Thulani “Sugar Boy” Malinga, losing his WBC world title as a result.
“At the time I never mentioned this, because I didn’t want to make out like I was making excuses, but here’s what happened. Straight after the Cherifi fight, I ended up in hospital for three days out of pure exhaustion and dehydration. I remember the doctor saying, ‘If you hadn’t been as fit as you were, this could have been a lot worse. How you lasted the twelve rounds, I do not know.’ This is your body telling you to calm down a bit. You’re doing too much. But I didn’t listen and took the Malinga fight three months later.
“For Malinga, I was training up on the Saddleworth Moor, running in the snow and all sorts every morning, then two weeks before the fight I got a chest infection. I thought it was just a bit of a cold and ignored it. I also thought that Malinga was tough, but I was the younger fighter and was indestructible. It didn’t pan out that way.
“After the first session, I felt like I’d done fifteen rounds. I was sick as a dog. I didn’t want to pull out in the build-up or on fight night because I didn’t want to let everyone down, but looking back, that wasn’t a great decision. If you think about it, going into the Malinga fight, that was five world title fights in fourteen months, with the last three going the full twelve rounds. That’s quite a busy schedule. It’s not just the fights that take it out of you, it’s the training for those fights. You’re grafting for two and a half months and only get a couple of weeks off between fights before you’re back in the ring again. I’d just overdone it, really.”
Fourteen months later, on February 13, 1999, Reid upped his game and took on arguably the best super middleweight of all time, Joe Calzaghe, for his WBO world title. After twelve hard-fought rounds, Calzaghe was the victor of a split decision and retained his title and unbeaten record. Reid recalled the evening. “At the time, and even a couple of years after, I was a little bit bitter. Joe put it down to a bad performance instead of giving me a bit of credit. I’m not saying I’m a better fighter than Joe Calzaghe. Far from it. To go on and do what he achieved, I’ve got the utmost respect for him. He’s a legend and I’m happy to have shared the ring with him. All I’m saying is that styles make fights and on that day in 1999, my style was made to beat him, and he struggled with it. I couldn’t miss with that overhand right that night, especially against a southpaw who comes looking to fight. We’d worked on that punch in the gym over and over again and it paid off. The tactics were spot on.
“I was also a bit annoyed, not just because of the decision, but because the rematch never happened. Nowadays, I see fights that aren’t even as close as that, and the rematch is instantly on. But listen, me and Joe are sound as a pound now. I’ve only seen him a few times since, but we’re good.”
Over the next five years, Reid clocked up a further ten victories, putting him in pole position to challenge unbeaten German Sven Ottke on December 13, 2003, for his WBA “Super” and IBF world titles. Notorious for fighting only once outside of his beloved Germany (and that was in neighboring Austria), Ottke welcomed Reid to the Nuremberg Arena. The “Reaper Man” recalled: “Everyone said you need to knock him out to win in Germany. My understanding in boxing is that you throw punches, you score, and if you do enough scoring over the twelve rounds, that’s how you win. If you go into a fight thinking the only way you’re going to win this fight is to knock him out, you’re never going to win because you’re going to be chasing him all night. I went in there with the intention to box this guy’s head off and win, irrespective if it went the distance or not. In my eyes, that’s exactly what I did. If you look at the fight, the best you could give him was three of the twelve rounds. It wasn’t even close. He hadn’t laid a glove on me. When it came to the end of the fight, I couldn’t believe it when they put his hand up.
“I’ll be honest; I lost faith in the sport after that. I was fighting for two respected versions of the title, and I felt like I didn’t get a fair crack of the whip. Decisions like that are not only bad for the boxer but for the sport in general.”
Six months later, the thirty-three-year-old Reid defeated Brian Magee for the IBO super middleweight strap. “It felt a little bit like redemption. I’d lost against Joe Calzaghe in a close decision, I’d just come back from Germany where I’d been ripped off royally, and now I’m in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and managed to finally win. Turned out to be a great fight. Fair play to the referee and officials out there because they were good as gold. They scored it fairly.”
On August 6, 2005, Reid traveled to Tampa, Florida, and challenged the fearsome Jeff Lacy for the IBF title. “The intention after winning the IBO was to make a few defenses off it and then go back after Calzaghe,” said Reid, “but all I had was one fight against Ramdane Serdjane in fourteen months. That’s when the option of Jeff Lacy came up. I didn’t know much about him at the time. Everyone was saying he was the new kid on the block, the super middleweight Mike Tyson and all that. None of that bothered me, but I’d been inactive and could have done with a few more warm-up fights before going into that one. That was the only option I had, so I took it. Don’t get me wrong, he was a decent fighter, but I could have done with at least one, if not two warm-up fights before that, but it never happened.” Unable to continue, Reid retired in the seventh round.
A confident points victory against Jesse Brinkley gave Reid the credibility to take on the reigning British title holder, Carl Froch. Reid cast his mind back to November 9, 2007. “I was thirty-six at the time, got a phone call to do ‘The Contender’ [USA vs. UK], beat Jesse Brinkley and then it was Froch for the British title. He caught me clean with a big right hand in the fourth. I was clear in my head, it’s just my legs went! I went down and took the count and Brian stopped it. I could have carried on, but I guess Brian knew best.”
Having fought both men, Reid is ideally placed to give an opinion of the outcome between Calzaghe and Froch. “If it’s the Calzaghe that I fought, I think Froch would have done it with his right hand. Calzaghe threw a lot of punches, but they weren’t devastating punches. I just think Froch would have walked through him.”
Reid retired in October 2012, with an impressive record of 42-8-1, boasting twenty-nine stoppage wins. “I’ve been a world champion, done everything I wanted to in boxing, but now it’s all about my little eight-year-old boy Oscar. Everything I do is for him. He’s my life. The other day he asked, ‘Daddy, can we watch one of your fights?’ I said, ‘I’d rather wait until you’re a bit older, but okay, just one.’ We watched a little bit, and that’s when I started to think about the fights I’d been involved with, the era I was around, Calzaghe, Froch, Malinga the back end of Benn and Eubank, Collins, et cetera, and I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.”