In many ways, Gary Mason was a victim of timing. Mason was overshadowed by another British heavyweight of the time who grabbed the majority of the headlines when they were both climbing up the ladder of contenders.
Frank Bruno was the man of the moment, the best chance Britain had in over a century of failure on the world heavyweight scene. Bruno, and his career of heroic and brave failures on the world stage until one famous night at Wembley sent everyone happy and more than a little relieved, grabbed much of the newspaper print, Mason was relegated to an afterthought. Mason and Horace Notice, another forgotten heavyweight from the same camp, suffered as a consequence from the Bruno hysteria.
We recall Bruno fondly, but sadly Mason is largely remembered for one defeat, his only loss, to Lennox Lewis in 1991, which effectively ended his career. Boxing a sport of short memories, it soon forgets.
Mason was born in Jamaica in 1962, the son of a carpenter and grew up in Clapham and, after a brief 10-fight amateur career, he turned professional with little fanfare in 1984. Terry Lawless guided much of his early career before Mason left Lawless to go with Mickey Duff.
The early opponents formed a queue of familiarity, the usual names, fighters brought in to serve a purpose. Boxers who are the blood and soul of the sport, names that litter the record of any heavyweight prospect of that era, add in a few cruiserweights who had lost any remaining ambition and desire to make their true fighting weight, the picture isn’t hard to imagine.
The usual suspects who were wheeled out, week in week out, the sport’s fall guys, the vital unappreciated cogs boxing takes for granted. Mason did the expected and served his apprenticeship well. Despite the newspaper copy elsewhere, Mason became a serious contender in his own right. There were the occasional boos to go with the odd ponderous display, a constant battle with the scales, but Mason could punch and was slowly starting to carve out his place on the confusing heavyweight picture of the time.
Former Sky Sports presenter Gary Norman was ringside for Mason’s professional debut, “When I saw his debut in 1984 vs Al Malcolm, I didn’t think then I’d become friends with this giant of a man, this gentle giant, with the million-dollar smile, the man who eventually I’d present a boxing show with,” Norman told Boxing Social.
Norman would go on to form a close, lasting friendship with Mason. It was far more than just a casual working relationship. Norman saw a different side to Mason, the one away from the camera.
“You couldn’t help but like him and I was slightly in awe of him at first, to be honest,” said Norman. “I used to go up to his jewellers’ shop in south-west London, Punch and Jewellery, if I recall, and I’d spend time with him, getting to know him, as you’d expect, following his career and attending the majority of his fights. In so doing I met a lot of people, we found out we had mutual friends, so we ended up going to showbiz parties and clubbing, we had a blast, you couldn’t meet a nicer bloke.”
Ringside on Sky Sports is a forgotten gem, a brilliant show way ahead of its time. Norman was there in the early days and Mason was more than a regular on the show.
“In 1991, when I joined Sky Sports and was offered the chance to produce and present Ringside, I jumped at it,” said Norman. “Boxing at that time was my life and I became friends with Billy Schwer and Nigel Benn, amongst others, but Gary and I were pretty close, so it made sense to have him as a regular guest on the show, the ‘Gary and Gary Boxing Show’ as some used to call it!”
By 1989, Mason was British heavyweight champion, Hughroy Currie was stopped in four rounds and thoughts turned to bigger things. A big win, his best win, over the former Olympic champion and world title challenger Tyrell Biggs in 1989, earned Mason a No.4 ranking with the WBC.
But just when Mason appeared ready to come out of the shadows, disaster struck. Mason suffered a detached retina, surgery followed, a career seemingly at its peak now very much at risk. The heavyweight hopeful assessed the risks, but boxing was what he did best, he had unfinished business. Boxing is an addiction few can let go of and, as with all addictions, there is a price to pay. Mason returned in late 1990, a win over James Pritchard setting up a double-title showdown with Lennox Lewis for the British and European heavyweight crowns in early 1991.
Mason travelled to America to prepare, an appearance on the BBC chat show Wogan helped sell a few more tickets, a possible fight with Mike Tyson or a shot at the world heavyweight title held then by Evander Holyfield was mooted for the winner. A fight of high stakes. Mason could have taken an easier route, Duff admitted he had made a mistake in making the fight. But boxing doesn’t do hindsight, Mason didn’t get a second chance.
Lewis, the 12th ranked world heavyweight contender at the time, was a hard sell despite his amateur pedigree. The former Olympic champion had failed to convince the doubting British public or Duff, the Bruno love affair was still strong. Mason had reached 35-0 and started the fight the slight betting favourite. Duff had bid £270,000 to stage the contest, one of the few times in his career he got it wrong. By the third round, Mason was fighting a losing battle, his right eye swelling and closing, his window of opportunity closing with it. Mason was brave, showing courage beyond the call of duty. One of the best jabs in heavyweight history had done its job, the damage to his opponent’s face grotesque and the same opponent marching forward in desperation made it a hard watch, an uncomfortable watch. More so for Norman, who was in Mason’s corner that night.
“He just didn’t have enough. I was in his corner watching Lennox throw jab after jab in Gary’s face,” recalled Norman. “He was wincing, hurting, incrementally, as the rounds progressed. I remember screaming at him to give up, Mickey too at one point, but he went on, as far as he could, until he knew he was done.
“I remember crying, tears of relief that he was okay, tears of sadness that his career had been overshadowed by Frank Bruno and curtailed by a genius of a fighter in Lennox and that’s why I took him under my wing on Ringside. He deserved to get something back.”
The career of Lewis finally came to life as the career of Mason flatlined. By round six, the right eye was completely shut, a cut over the left eye added to his misery, the end should have come as he walked back to his corner. Mason was hurt early in the seventh, but somehow found something deep within to have one last final desperate go to salvage more than he knew at the time. A sport showing how savage it can be and one that, at times, is incredibly hard to justify. But referee Larry O’Connell had seen enough, we all had, the call which should have come much sooner had finally come.
Mason, with the damage to his eye, would never be allowed to fight in Britain ever again. But in boxing, there is always somewhere else. Three years later Mason returned, still chasing shadows in boxing’s wastelands with little financial reward, the meagre purses a far cry from that pivotal and fateful night at Wembley against Lewis. To the shame of the sport, Mason was somehow granted a licence in America, two wins followed before the road to nowhere finally ended.
Life after boxing was cruel and unrewarding before tragedy cut short Mason’s existence. A brief spell in rugby league with the London Broncos ended after just three games, Mason tried his hand at promoting amongst other things, and he even dabbled in the arm-wrestling world, but nothing seemed to last or work. The stint as a Sky Sports pundit ended when he inadvertently swore live on TV. Mason drove a taxi, he had a period as a security guard in a hospital. The good times well and truly over, Mason was another sad statistic of a sport that leaves so many behind. Norman remembers the infamous swearing moment on Sky well.
“We had fun, got some plaudits, but one day the late nights had caught up with him and he wasn’t paying attention when I told him, ‘We’ll be live in two minutes, mate’ and, after a monologue from me about Lennox being crowned world champion, he uttered those immortal words that I just cannot repeat. An apology quickly followed, but for the management of Sky Sports, that was the last straw.
“We stayed in touch, we met up at fights, but we saw less of each other once I left boxing and turned back to production solely and started following a certain Tiger Woods around America on behalf of the Sky Sports’ Golf department,” said Norman. “I’d bump into him on occasion, I’d get second-hand stories of how he was doing. The arm wrestling, the drumming group, my mum even bumped into him in St. Helier hospital where he was a security guard. I tracked him down to the Roundshaw estate in Wallington where I used to live and, to use his own words, he was ducking and diving, just about getting by.”
Mason enjoyed his money and life itself, probably a little too much. There were also times when he had to sign on, a humbling experience for anyone, let alone a man who once had ambitions of fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. Being asked for autographs as he stood in line, must have been emotionally painful. A bitter pill of a reminder of what he once had. The fighter he used to be.
Mason was only 48 when, in 2011, was he was involved in a collision with a van whilst riding his bike in south London. He was pronounced dead at the scene. A tragic end to a life so young. Norman vividly recalls the moment he heard the awful, tragic news that his friend had passed away.
“And then one morning the phone rang, a mutual friend had called and he told me Gary had been hurt in a biking accident in Wallington,” said Norman. “I went straight over there and saw the scene, heard what had happened and shed a tear, not for the first time. The gentle giant was no more. He’d been riding his bike up a long straight hill, not 400 yards from where I’d had my flat and, in the early morning darkness, with no bike helmet, no ID and no lights, Gary had been involved in an accident with a van and died at the scene.”
Around 1,000 mourners attended Mason’s funeral including the fighter who damaged his fighting future beyond repair. Lennox Lewis paid his respects, along with further boxing royalty.
“With no UK-based family, I helped organise the funeral. There were hundreds paying their respect and rightly so, Frank and Lennox came, Steve Bunce gave a moving and funny tribute, we all laughed and then we cried,” recalled Norman.
“Only a couple of us went to the burial, at the time just an unmarked grave in a quiet corner of Croydon Cemetery. I don’t think anyone else goes to see him, but I do. I even took my Mum last time as she’d met him more than once and, like many, remembered him with nothing but affection. So I go and tend his grave just before Xmas, around his birthday and again in the summer, a grave that now has a headstone with a beautiful inscription and the title, ‘People’s Champ.’
Mason had a career of what might have been, very much a case of being around at the wrong time. In life and in death, Mason deserved better. It is apparent from his comments here, how close Mason and Norman were. The former Sky Sports presenter will always remember his old friend:
“I’ll never forget him and I hope the boxing world doesn’t either, he was a good man, with a kind heart, a twinkle in his eye and full of mischief, but you couldn’t help but love him.”
Main image: Mason (right) takes on future heavyweight king Lennox Lewis. Photo: Reuters/Alamy.