It may sound like a grizzled cliche, but no one ever cuts corners at the business end of boxing and ends up smelling of roses. There are those who, through a mixture of natural talent and perfect timing just happen to align the cosmos up and have their time in the blue centre light. That is before the fleeting moment of brilliance disappears down the plug hole of ordinariness again.
If ever that adage was true for a boxer it was Kirkland Laing. Fleeting of brilliance, fleeting in application, the Nottingham fighter always somehow managed to eventually grip defeat from the jaws of victory wherever he went. It wasn't that Laing was born under a bad sign, he was really just born under a bad off licence. His lifestyle choices were the main problem. Discipline and dedication were never really Kirkland's thing. He loved the trappings of being a boxing face for sure, the trouble was that he loved them a little too much to keep himself there.
On his night however (and there were a few), Kirkland Laing could also look like an absolute superstar. He had talent to burn as a welterweight, collecting a British title on the way and generally exciting boxing audiences with a style that veered from the poetic to the downright audacious. Often hanging his arms down by his sides, Laing would rely on his natural, lightning reflexes and brilliant hand speed to bamboozle opponents. When he got it right he looked like a cross between a street tough and a Latin dancer. Truly, on occasions like those he surfed the muse of the sweet science perfectly.
By the time he was lined up to fight boxing legend Roberto Duran in 1982 however, the antithesis of that silhouette was in view. Laing was seen as little more than a sacrificial lamb to the Panamanian legend. Duran, who was in the process of re-building his superstar status following defeats to Sugar Ray Leonard and Wifred Benitez, saw the erratic Laing as little more than bullseye practice in front of a watching American crowd. In truth no one really gave the British boxer a chance anyway. With his best years seemingly behind him and his punch stamina called into question after two crushing losses to Colin Jones - it was a fight that everybody in boxing thought would only go a couple of bloody rounds. Well, everybody but Laing himself.
For a start the Duran fight had focused Laing more than any fight had done before, mainly out of fear. The Panamanian had a nefarious reputation in the fight game with his win at all costs tactics that often had him going way beyond the Queensberry rules to get his own way. His nasty streak was legendary. He'd even once kneed Ken Buchanan in the unmentionables during a fight to give himself a superior edge and wasn't beyond biting, elbowing or using the kitchen sink to bludgeon an opponent merciless on the blind side of the referee.
It was these tactics which really caught Laing's attention. As he skipped to the ring in Detroit that night in 1982, to a chorus of boo's, he'd already decided he wasn't about to be mugged that way. From the opening bell in fact, as he danced around Duran without being drawn in, the Panamanian might well have shuddered as a tiny flashback of his boxing Altamont came back to him. Leonard and the night of the 'no mas'. A fighter with the dreaded slick movement he was never comfortable with. An evening of chasing ghosts.
Not that the fight really played out that way. A sluggish Duran was simply beaten to the punch too many times by Laing and each time he was, Laing grew more in confidence in his ability to trade with the Panamanian. A huge crushing right by Laing in the seventh round even threatened at one point to sensationally end the contest early. Although Duran managed to stay on his feet, it seemed to drain what little energy he had left in him. At the business end of the ten round contest, Laing simply and imperiously won the last three rounds with ease. It hadn't even slightly been that difficult a night for him.
By the time the result was announced and Laing had scored a majority decision, the shock waves were flying around the arena and the boxing world. An infuriated Don King, no doubt seeing one of his future cash cows going up in smoke, called for Duran to quit. He didn't of course because that was never in the Panamanian's make up and eventually he'd take his retribution out brutally on Davey Moore and lift a world title again with consummate ease a short while later.
As for Laing? Well he drank a bit and romanced a bit and never really built on his sensational win in Detroit with any great ambition. In fact he pretty much disappeared into the shadows for the next twelve months to enjoy himself. But what did anyone expect from a man who used to turn up to sparring sessions with a rolled joint behind his ear? Discipline and abstinence were never in Kirkland's corner.