Carl Thompson: A conversation with 'The Cat'

Danny Winterbottom
08/05/2015 11:44am

After the Moss Side Riots of 1981, a man called Phil Martin decided to open up a boxing gym above a burnt out Co-op on Princess Road and he called it ‘Champs Camp’.

Martin, who tragically lost his battle with cancer aged 44, was a former light-heavyweight contender and a revered figure in the local community, welcoming would-be fighters into his gym and teaching them the art of the sweet science.  So good was he as a trainer that the gym became the first in Britain to house four British champions at the same time - Paul Burke (lightweight), Frank Grant (middleweight), Maurice Core (light-heavyweight) and Carl Thompson (cruiserweight).

Carl ‘The Cat’ Thompson arrived at the gym in the late 1980s after a successful career in Muay Thai that saw him rise to world champion status under the guidance of the legendary Master Sken.  So horrifically battered and twisted were his legs following years of crippling Muay Thai kicks that Thompson decided a career in boxing would be beneficial for his long-term health!

“Muay Thai was destroying my legs, I couldn’t walk,” Thompson told Boxing Monthly. “There were four of us doing the Thai boxing; Oliver Harrison, Humphry Harrison, Phil Nurse and myself.  We all came over to boxing at the same time, but I was the only one who stuck it out! Of course, Oliver (Harrison) has gone on to be a successful coach and I think Phil Nurse is over in America training cage fighters.”

Having made his professional boxing debut in 1988 with a second round stoppage of Darren McKenna at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, Thompson remained with his Muay Thai coach, Master Sken, for ‘three or four fights’ but when the Master told the novice pro he wanted to concentrate on Muay Thai he searched for a new trainer and that was to be Phil Martin.

“When you hear the word ‘hungry’ that was the Champs Camp, everybody in the gym wanted to get to the top. The sparring was tough.  I used to have brutal wars in the gym with Maurice Core who later became my trainer,” said Thompson. “I packed in work to concentrate on boxing because I desperately wanted to be a world champion.  When I lost for the first time, I cried because it meant so much to me to be successful.”

After a series of eight victories to start his career, Thompson was matched with Crawford Ashley for the vacant Central Area light-heavyweight title on October 31st, 1989 at the Bowlers Exhibition Centre, Manchester. Thompson was given a rude awakening at the fists of Ashley, eating the Yorkshire man’s jab all night long before being stopped in round six.

“In Thai boxing, we have our guard open and I sure got a lesson from Crawford Ashley!” Thompson said, his quiet voice suddenly bursting into life. “He out jabbed me all night because my guard was too wide. He taught me that I needed to improve my defences!”

Thompson, a native of Cheetham Hill, Manchester, was very much a work in progress at that time, but a fighter who would travel anywhere and everywhere to earn money and gain experience, the latter proving to be a vital commodity later in his career. “I went to Belgium and lost to (Franco) Wanyama and Monaco where I lost to Yawe Davis but these fights, you’ve got to understand, made me battle-hardened and I didn’t want to lose again.”

In 1991, Nicky Piper was an unbeaten prospect.  His only blemish in 10 contests was a draw with Thompson’s gym mate Maurice Core a year earlier at the City Hall, St Albans. Piper had dropped Core twice in the opening two sessions, but the six-round bout was scored 58.5 points apiece under the old half-point scoring method.

Coming off a stoppage loss to Davis, Thompson was viewed as an easy touch by the men controlling the career of Piper when they enquired about the availability of Phil Martin’s man for an eight-threes contest at the York Hall, Bethnal Green. But what they hadn’t considered was the improvements made by Thompson and the master stroke pulled by Phil Martin when he told Team Piper that his man had been on holiday when in fact he was working like a Trojan in the gym and was as fit as a fiddle!

“I didn’t want to fight Nicky Piper, I was scared, and I didn’t think I was ready,” revealed Thompson. “Winning fighters always want to fight a losing fighter and they only gave me a week’s notice for the fight. Phil Martin had to persuade me to take the fight because as he said: ‘You don’t know when the next payday will come.’ Piper had drawn with Maurice Core and I remember Maurice saying to me ‘Carl, make sure you duck because Nicky always comes out and throws a right hand’. Maurice was talking to me wearing sunglasses so I knew that I was in for a hard fight!”

Piper, in light blue shorts, did indeed throw a right hand on the bell, but as advised by Maurice Core Thompson remembered to duck and the pair traded heavy jabs and right hands in a lively opening three minutes. Piper was giving away over 9lbs in weight to Thompson on the night, 12st 7lbs vs 13st 3lbs, and in round two the Manchester man was beginning to physically man-handle the unbeaten favourite before stunning him with two heavy right hooks in the third. Piper bravely made it to his feet but the referee took one look at his eyes and called the bout off as Thompson punched the air in delight and celebrated his unexpected victory with trainer Phil Martin. “When I beat Nicky Piper things began to change for me,” recalled Thompson.

In his next contest, Carl challenged for the vacant British cruiserweight title in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, against Steve Lewsam on June 4th, 1992 and he made history when he stopped Lewsam in round eight to become the first British champion to emerge from Moss Side ABC. “I think that was the first British title fight held in that particular part of the world. I stopped him with body shots, I just kept pounding away. That victory sort of paved the way for Frank Grant, Maurice Core and Paul Burke and the next thing you know the gym had four British champions!”

With his first championship belt secured, Thompson claimed the WBC International cruiserweight title in his next bout, some eight months later, when he halted Arthur Weathers, a southpaw from the same town as Muhammad Ali, in two rounds. Suddenly, Thompson’s career was gathering momentum and three fights later he travelled to Ferrara, Emilia Romagna, Italy to challenge for the European title against former WBC champion Massimiliano ‘Momo’ Duran and Thompson stopped the champion in eight rounds to add the European title to his collection. “I was used to travelling and being on the road at that particular stage of my career. I enjoyed it to be honest because it helped motivate me and I was always treated well, never had any problems,” said Thompson.

Carl made one successful defence of his European crown when he travelled to Palais Marcel Cerdan, Levallois-Perret, France on June 14th, 1994, and knocked out Akim Tafer in six rounds before two more victories set up a dream fight for the Cheetham Hill man, a shot at the vacant WBO cruiserweight world championship against Ralf Rocchigiani at the G-Mex Centre, Manchester. This was Thompson’s career crystallised into one night.  Could he, from modest and humble beginnings, become Manchester’s first world champion in 60 years? It wasn’t to be. In a gruelling contest that saw Thompson travel the furthest he had ever done in a professional ring a damaged right shoulder that occurred in round 10 forced his retirement in round 11 after suffering a knockdown. “I just couldn’t continue with a dislocated shoulder,” said Thompson who had his shoulder popped back in to place on the ring canvas.

“It took me over two years to get a rematch with him (Rocchigiani) and when I went over to Germany I didn’t go there trying to knock him out - I went there with the intention of completely outworking him and that’s what I did, but I still only won on a split decision!”

At the Stadionsporthalle, Hannover, Germany on October 4th, 1997, Thompson finally realised his dream of becoming a world champion with a split decision victory over champion Rocchigiani. Judges James Condon and Dave Hess saw the bout wide for the Englishman, 119-109 and 117-111 respectively, but Jose L. Sousa carded a frankly ludicrous 115-113 in favour of Rocchigiani. “At that particular time, it was really difficult to go over to Germany and get a decision on the cards.  Even if you knocked ‘em out you might still lose!” joked Thompson.

Carl had escaped from Germany as the new WBO cruiserweight world champion and bigger, more lucrative fights against Chris Eubank were just on the horizon. On April 18th, 1998, some 17 years ago, Thompson and Eubank met for the first time at the Nynex Arena, Manchester, with Thompson’s WBO cruiserweight title on the line and Eubank, who in his previous bout had lost to Joe Calzaghe, attempting to become the third British fighter in history to win world titles in three different weight divisions.

Despite Eubank dropping Thompson to the canvas in round four, a knockdown that Thompson vehemently denies to this day, the Manchester man made a successful defence of his world title amidst a partisan atmosphere. “Everybody to this day thinks Eubank knocked me down in our first fight, but he didn’t. He thought he could hurt me but I played possum all the way through the fight to make Chris fight harder as he went looking for the stoppage and to tire him out, it worked! Chris loved to go walking around the ring posing, but the fact is he was a lazy fighter and the way to beat a lazy fighter is to keep ‘em busy,” explained Thompson.

Three months later, the pair clashed again at the Sheffield Arena, but this time Thompson emerged a more convincing victor as he closed the left eye of Eubank resulting in referee Paul Thomas calling a halt to the bout after the conclusion of the ninth round on the advice of the doctor. “Eubank was being told how great he had done in the first fight by his ‘yes’ men, but in the second fight I decided to not mess about as much,” said Thompson. “He caught me with a cracking uppercut and I remember just shaking it off and telling him he couldn’t hurt me. That’s heart-breaking for a fighter to know. I couldn’t lose to Chris.  If he did beat me coming up in weight, what kind of champion would that make me? I couldn’t have walked the streets with my head held high if I had lost to him!”

If Thompson had beaten Eubank decisively in their second meeting, it would be a controversial ending to his world title reign against Ingle gym trickster Johnny Nelson some eight months later – a fight that still haunts the Manchester man today like boxing’s equivalent of a bad dream. “Oh yeah, Johnny knows he got lucky that night!” said Thompson. “It was a mistake by the referee, but I do understand that they have a hard, almost impossible job, but he (referee Paul Thomas) didn’t give me time to defend my title like a champion. I was the champion, stopping the fight in the fifth round? Come on, man! When you see Carl Froch stopping George Groves in their first fight, it was a worse decision than that in my opinion. I’d say more about the Nelson fight but I’d get myself in trouble!”

After reclaiming the British and European titles in separate bouts following his loss to Nelson, Thompson faced American puncher Ezra Sellars, in defence of the IBO cruiserweight title he picked up with a victory over Uriah Grant, in one of the most thrilling fights you could ever wish to see. Sellars, who faced Bruce Seldon in his debut in 1989, had been involved in a terrific war with heavyweight Alex Stewart a few years earlier but nobody could envisage the six knockdown, edge-of-your-seat thriller served up by a slugger from Manchester and a dangerous veteran from Pensacola, Florida. “He’s got to be THE hardest puncher I ever faced in my career,” said Thompson who was ironed out in spectacular style by a huge counter right hand in round four after trading knockdowns with Sellars throughout the contest. “I remember that I hurt my ankle early in the fight so I had to stay inside and fight him. He got lucky in the first round because I had him badly hurt and then the bell sounded.”

After a cagey beginning to the contest, Sellars landed a chopping right hand that sent Thompson to the canvas, but Carl had a surprise for the American; a blistering counter right of his own as Sellars looked for the finish! “Looking back, I probably should have jumped on him in the second round but you know what? Fair play to him he took me out in good style!”

Ezra Sellars sadly passed away in 2014, at the age of 45, after suffering heart problems and Thompson remembers spending time in his company at the BBBofC Awards when their epic fight was named ‘Fight of the Year’ for 2001. “He was a gentleman,” recalled Thompson. “We spent time with each other at the awards and we both got presented with a trophy.  I was really shocked to hear that he had passed away at such a young age.”

Carl Thompson was a fighter you just had to watch, a one-man highlight reel. His thrilling bouts turned him into a drug any boxing fan couldn’t resist and his vulnerability, coupled with his ability to recover seemingly impossible situations in the ring, made his appeal even greater.

His incredible powers of recovery were demonstrated for a final time in his 2004 bout with South African Sebastian Rothmann at the Ponds Forge Arena in Sheffield when, miles behind on the scorecards and desperately tired from the thudding blows inflicted upon him by the IBO champion, Thompson suddenly and quite shockingly uncorked a spectacular right hand that sent Rothmann to sleep in round nine. “He was beating me up mate! I was absolutely knackered, I had nothing left,” said Thompson. “He caught me with a cracking shot in the ninth round, but I was more exhausted than hurt by the punch. He came after me and I did him with a perfect ‘one, two’!

“I could survive terrific punishment and comeback,” said the Manchester warrior when I asked him why boxing fans loved him so much. “But I suppose that there was an air of vulnerability about me, too. I might get knocked out and I think that the fans liked that excitement.”

At the age of 40, Thompson had one last trick up his sleeve when he was matched with unbeaten prospect and future world heavyweight champion David Haye in defence of his IBO title at Wembley Arena on September 10, 2004.  Haye had scored five first round knockouts in his 10 victories and was expected to be too much for the Manchester veteran but Haye succumbed to Thompson’s skill and experience in round five. “I wanted to take David Haye to places he had never been and I did that,” said Thompson when explaining his mind-set going into the bout. “He’d never been in a hard fight but he got in a hard fight with me and failed. I should never have beaten him, I was 40 years old and he was 23, but I took his heart away. Why do you think he didn’t ask for a rematch? He didn’t have the guts to call me out, but really I can’t blame him because I would have beaten him again. I could take his punch you see. He didn’t have a plan ‘B’ and I hope I taught him a lesson that in boxing you can’t knock everybody out.”

Now aged 51, Thompson retired from boxing with a 34-6 (25 KO) record in 2005 following a points victory over Frederic Serrat at the Hallam FM Arena in Sheffield, citing injuries that left him unable to train properly. “Funnily enough, about two or three years ago I actually managed to cure that injury and I was considering a comeback, but I stayed away for family reasons,” revealed Thompson. “I miss making money, but I don’t miss fighting - it was just a job. Winning titles kept me going but once I knew that those days were gone that was it for me.”

Thompson’s fighting days may be over, but he would return for one man. “If Johnny Nelson wants that rematch he just needs to give me some time to get ready and we can do it!”