Fear Factor: Keith Mullings interview
Desert Storm soldier and former super welter champ Keith Mullings developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the ring. John Evans spoke to the former champion about the anxieties that haunted him...
As the ring clears and the lights dim, thousands of people focus intently on a square of canvas and two suddenly isolated boxers. Some are there to simply enjoy the spectacle. Those with an agenda search for the slightest weakness, aware that there may come a time when they are able to exploit it. All analyse, all pass judgement.
Somehow, Keith Mullings placed himself under that intense scrutiny 25 times during his career despite suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. Even more incredibly, he managed to win a world title. However, at the very moment that a world of opportunity should have been opening up after he relieved Terry Norris of his WBC super welterweight title in Atlantic City in December 1997 and destroyed a mooted mega fight between Norris and Oscar De La Hoya, Mullings’ world began to shrink.
My first feeling when they announced me the winner was fear. It felt like there were a million eyes on me. It felt like the whole world was going to come after me now. It was a developing point of my PTSD but I didn’t know I had it at the time.
“I felt anxiety and fear. I was watching my back and looking around. I was hypervigilant. I was constantly watching people and seeing what was going on,” Mullings told Boxing Monthly. “I cost somebody millions of dollars by winning that fight and my mind would mess with me. I won respect — but are they going to take me out?
“The PTSD really overshadowed the dream. I moved into a nice gated community in Florida [after that fight] because I felt comfortable behind closed gates. I didn’t feel comfortable in large areas and arenas no more.”
As a young man growing up in Brooklyn, Mullings thought little of throwing himself into high-pressure situations. A talented athlete, he relished the challenge of testing himself in front of a crowd. Joining the United States Army seemed the perfect next step for a disciplined and ambitious 20-year-old. Mullings learned to box in the army but his time in the service left scars, physical as well as mental.
“I’d only had about two or three amateur fights before I was called up for Operation Desert Storm,” Mullings said. “I spent about eight or nine months over in the Middle East. I was in an artillery unit. I would shoot the 155 Howitzers. The big boys.
“I had a whole host of issues over there. I had a surgery on an umbilical cyst which was an undiagnosed illness. I got an infection so they had to open me up and impact me and stuff me with gauze. This was all in a field hospital, a MASH unit. I was like: ‘Wow. I came all the way over here for this?’
“I thought they were going to send me home but they sent me back out and I was put in charge of a unit conveying back and forth from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. I got a Bronze Star for my efforts in the Middle East.”
Mullings’ boxing career was over when the true scale of what he had accomplished was revealed to him. Compared to the episodes he lived through in The Gulf or the battles he forced himself through in the ring, entering a room and talking to a group of fellow ex-servicemen may not sound like too much of an ordeal. But it just might be the bravest thing Keith Mullings has ever done.
“After I left boxing, around 2003 I finally got help and started going to PTSD groups. I would see people from the Vietnam era and other conflicts. I learnt how they go about dealing with things and how they avoid putting themselves in certain arenas [that cause them distress]. They keep a close-knit circle of friends. That’s how I combat it nowadays.
“It’s more than a bit incredible,” Mullings continued. “In high school, when I played football there was a slogan on the wall that read: ‘No man is born a winner but desire made him one.’ It was my desire to be a winner that helped me overcome the PTSD, the depression, the isolation and the loneliness. Desire is a strong word.”
Desire was behind Mullings’ decision to chase glory rather than a steady pay cheque after his discharge from the army. For a time, “Brooklyn Keith” considered swapping his desert fatigues for the uniform of the New York City Police Department but the opportunity to chase his dreams proved too difficult to resist.
“I was always good at athletics and I just wanted to make one of my dreams come true,” he said. “I played football and was very good at baseball. Those were careers I could have chased but I never followed the dream. I didn’t want to have regrets in life. I didn’t want woulda, coulda, shoulda on my playlist so I decided to go with boxing and see if I could become a world champion.
“[After] I got back [from the Middle East], in 1991 and 1992 I won every military title there was. I was very dedicated to boxing and I picked up the sport really quickly. Day and night I lived boxing.”
Having spent years operating in the armed forces, where it is taken for granted that the people you need to trust have your best interests at heart, Mullings entered a business where the opposite is sometimes true.
Trust is a cornerstone of any soldier’s life. The conviction that his trust was best placed in military personnel would have undoubtedly taken hold as Mullings closed his eyes and placed his life in the hands of a field surgeon, and solidified every time he returned safely from front-line service having relied on the vigilance and professionalism of his fellow soldiers. As he unwittingly battled the early stages of his still-undiagnosed condition, he once again sought to surround himself with people he could trust.
“I decided to go with a company called Triple Threat. One of the coaches there was at Fort Bragg military base and he helped to sort me out.
“I even had an all-military corner. I had a general as my cut man and every member of my team was ex-military. That was part of my PTSD. I always felt that in large crowds I needed to have soldiers around me to watch my back. They were the only people I could trust.
“Roy Jones was a 154-pounder at the time. I decided that if I was gonna be the best, that was who I’d have to fight. I started watching Roy and tried to devise ways to beat him. I would think about it endlessly.
“One day Roy and his team came up to Triple Threat to train for a fight and we wound up sparring. We went to work. We got boogying and at the end of the sparring we were nose to nose. He gave me a hug and asked if I would be interested in sparring him on a regular basis.
“Roy’s coach Alton Merkerson was in the military. Roy’s father was in the navy too.” So Mullings accepted the invitation to spar with Jones
“I was happy when he moved up to 160lbs,” Mullings laughed. “Sparring with Roy made me a much better fighter. I had to devise ways to hit him. I had to be in shape. I had to counter off my slips. He made me a smarter fighter. You can’t just come in there and fight Roy with brute strength. You have to have a high boxing IQ. Roy raised my IQ up many points.”
Mullings may have been improving in the gym but by December 1997 he had meandered his way to a 14-4-1 record. A series of points defeats — including a split decision loss to then IBF champion Raul Marquez — earned him a reputation as a solid contender rather than a future champion.
“Terrible” Terry Norris retained the air of danger that made him one of the most feared and naturally gifted fighters of his generation. The long-time WBC super welterweight champion — a talented baseball player in his youth — was beginning to catch more than he pitched and Top Rank decided Norris would be the ideal opponent to test a still-golden Oscar De La Hoya at 154lbs.
To drum up a little more interest in the big-money fight, it was agreed that Norris and De La Hoya would share a bill in Atlantic City. De La Hoya would take on Wilfredo Rivera. Norris — it was expected — would look spectacular against the brave, aggressive but ultimately beatable Keith Mullings.
“I know what they were expecting but I knew what I knew,” Mullings said. “Since Roy Jones left the 154-pound division, my sights were set on Terry Norris. He was the man, so, he was the man that I had to go through. Whenever I trained or whenever I shadowboxed, it was always him that I was fighting.
“I’d fought Terry Norris about a hundred million times in my mind already. There might have been one or two draws in there but I won the majority of them.
“I think I won the fight before we fought. We had a lot of confrontation. At the weigh-in and at the pre-fight photos, he was always in my face. I think we were at the HBO studios in Manhattan. We were nose to nose and Bob Arum came to break it up. I put out my hand to shake his and he turned his back on my handshake. That’s when the Brooklyn came out in me. I walked behind him and shoved him. When he just carried on walking, I knew I had the fight.
“I gotta give him his props. There was no other fighter — apart from sparring Roy — who made me dig that deep. I remember about the fourth or fifth round, he came out and set a blazing pace. I thought to myself that if he could keep that up for 12 rounds then I was in a different league.
“It was a Cinderella story. Nobody gave me a chance. People were cheering and my mother was out there in the crowd. I think she won over a great deal of fans. She was in her 60s and she got up on her chair and was shouting: ‘Beat him son! Beat him like I used to beat you!’”
Mullings weathered an early storm and dropped Norris heavily in the eighth before knocking him out in round nine. Instantly, his world changed.
Ordinarily, beating a fighter of Norris’ magnitude to win a world title would stand out as a boxer’s proudest moment. But when Mullings sits back in his South Carolina home and lets his mind wander, his thoughts don’t immediately drift back to that night in Atlantic City.
Although he will never be fully free from the symptoms of PTSD, he doesn’t spend as much time reliving his military service in The Gulf, either. Mullings has realised that the people he can trust and rely on aren’t fellow soldiers or boxing trainers, but his family.
“I’m most proud of my children,” he said. “More than the boxing, or the army. Whatever you go through, your children go through also. They’re accomplishing great things in life.
“I have a daughter graduating from Ohio State with degrees in Spanish and Mandarin. I have another son who graduated from Ohio who is teaching in New York. I have a daughter who graduated who is in the field of psychology. I have a son who was in the military. My eldest daughter is doing well in life and I’m a grandfather. These are my greatest accomplishments.
“That world title is up there too, though.”