The boxing careers of Spencer Oliver, Jerome Wilson and Gilbert Eastman all ended prematurely due to brain injuries. But their lives still had to go on, writes Elliot Worsell
THERE have been countless songs written about the folly and fallout of war, though I’d argue no song has better captured the feeling of coming back from war than the Bill Withers’ song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”, which he performed live at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972.
With a title alone superior to most other contenders, the image of a returning soldier having to figure out how to write – and function – without a part of him he once took for granted is a simple but powerful one, not only when viewed through the lens of war, but also when considered in the context of boxing, a pastime no less damaging and therefore equally questionable.
For it is of course on the return, after the initial euphoria of coming home alive, that the real work begins for a fallen fighter. It is then, when the adrenaline wears off and the visits of well-wishers start to peter out, they must come to terms once and for all with the new shape of their life.
Clueless at first, this shape will invariably be formless, meandering, with all the routine and structure of old now belonging to someone else; another young fighter convinced they’ll be one of the lucky ones. Yet still the fallen fighter must go on, hopeful of one day looking back on their injury and saying, by comparison to the fates of others, “No, I was one of the lucky ones.”
PART I: Wiped Out
SHEFFIELD’S Jerome “Wipeout” Wilson was 29 years old when injured in a 2014 fight against Serge Ambomo and, eight years on, remains legally classed as disabled, a term he dislikes as much as understands. “I’m still able,” he said. “But at the same time I’m not ignorant to the fact I’m not the same person I was before.”
Ask him how he’s doing and, rather than sugar-coat it, Wilson will always be straight, often saying, simply, “I’m managing.” It is an answer refreshingly transparent and refreshingly honest, serving to adequately sum up both Wilson’s aim and level of ambition on a daily basis.
“I started by setting unrealistic goals after the injury,” he admitted. “I thought I’d be up and working within a few months. I was a bit deluded, to be honest.
“Right now, I’m more realistic. If I can do something, I’ll do it, but if I can’t, I won’t. I’m not putting on a show for anyone anymore. I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone but myself. I made mistakes before, acting like I could manage my own money and stuff, but I couldn’t. I used to fritter it away and make stupid decisions. I’d stay out late and for the next four or five days wouldn’t eat or be able to talk properly. That’s damaging and destructive. I had no control.
“But I’ve found ways to manage and adapt. I’ve been adapting for eight years now and it’s been difficult. It’s broken me time and time again. I’ve made stupid decisions because of the way my brain is functioning. Sometimes I struggle finding words. But my speech has improved massively and so has everything else.”
Everyone’s adaptation process is different, of course. A year after Wilson’s first operation, for instance, he found himself needing to have a second one to fit a titanium plate in his head, and until then had to carry on with a quarter of his skull missing. It was after that he embarked on a two-and-a-half-year rehabilitation programme, which helped, he said, in terms of talking to people, expressing his emotions, and rediscovering his diminished confidence.
So fruitful was that experience, in fact, and so impressive was Wilson in that environment, he was later invited back to mentor others who had survived brain injuries. That, as it happened, was Wilson’s first taste of “work” since the injury and now, eight years on from the incident, he is on the verge of a signing a contract on his first proper job post-boxing.
“I sent my CV out about eight months ago and three months ago was invited to do an interview to become a tutor on a traineeship course, teaching English and maths and employability skills to 16- to 21-year-olds,” he explained. “I’ve been in the job now for three months and I got told last week I’d be signing a new full-time contract. It’ll be two or three days a week and that’s another big stepping stone.”
Likewise, given for three years after his injury Wilson was unable to drive, a recent 11-hour round trip to Portsmouth for a sponsored fire walk held by the Ringside Charitable Trust was similarly monumental. He returned from it both exhausted and proud. “It was a difficult challenge but I did it,” he remarked. “I felt good that I did it. I prefer doing things like that by myself. If something does happen, it just happens to me.”
As good as his progress sounds, Wilson’s battle is an ongoing one, his final round never in fact a final round. Rather, in Wilson’s case his final round is one stretched from one day to another, with the timekeeper asleep and the bell misplaced. His progress may be constant, but the pain never ends.
“I have excruciating pain that I have to deal with on a daily basis,” said Wilson, who still has a blind spot on his left side. “It has become a friend but it’s also unbearable. I feel like chopping off my spine or my head sometimes. My head feels like it’s going to explode and my spine feels like it’s on fire because of all the nerve damage. It comes in bouts, with different intensities, but it’s horrible. You control it with breathing techniques and medication, which is a necessary evil just to cope. There’s no alternative. I feel good today, but tomorrow could be different.
“I’ve been around my family more because I haven’t been working, but I’ve felt like less of a person because of the injury. I felt useless, a bit of a burden, depressed. But it could be worse. I could be dead. I could also have more severe or visible disabilities.”
His goal now is to one day get back into personal training, the job he did alongside his boxing career when more physically able. More than that, though, he wants to rediscover the biggest thing he has lost during the course of the past eight years: himself.
“I just want to rebuild and get some pride back,” Wilson, 8-3 (2) as a pro, admitted. “I want to become somebody again and not just be a ‘nobody’.
“Everyone has an ego but I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. I’m also not someone who sits on their arse. I always strive to do my best.”
PART II: Hurricane Season
GILBERT EASTMAN wakes up at two o’clock most mornings in order to drive Londoners in his big red bus, exhausted yet mostly thankful for an opportunity he didn’t think he would ever again have.
It was, after all, back in October 2008 that Eastman boxed for the last time and was later told that he would never again be able to walk, much less drive. Of that night, which took place at York Hall, Bethnal Green, all he can remember is being stopped by Sam Webb, complaining to the referee about the stoppage, and finally on his way back to the changing room requesting a glass of water. Other than that, though, his mind is blank. He remembers little of the following hours, days, or weeks, and rarely thinks about the night in question, even now.
His preference, in fact, is to instead cast his mind back further than that to a time when his problems, he believes, all started.
“That wasn’t the cause of my accident,” Eastman said of the Webb fight. “It wasn’t the boxing that did it. I wish it was.
“Prior to that, say, 10 years before that, I had a car crash by Clapham Common station. I finished work and spun out on black ice. My car did a three-sixty into oncoming traffic and they had to rush me to hospital.
“At the hospital, they told me they got all the glass from the windscreen out of my eyes but they didn’t. There was a piece of glass left in my head and it was going round and round in my head for over 10 years.
“That’s what caused me to collapse after that fight in Bethnal Green. A lot of people thought it was Sam Webb’s punches, but it wasn’t. I’d been hit harder in sparring than I was that night. I could have just as easily one day been walking home from work and collapsed and died. It just so happened I was boxing and the medical team were all right there. People say boxing is dangerous, and it is, but boxing actually saved me that night.”
It’s a unique way of looking at things, certainly, and one that has no doubt helped Eastman’s relationship with boxing in the years since. It comes as something of a shock, too, to hear a reason other than the brutality of a boxing match attributed to the enforced retirement of a boxer due to a brain injury.
“When I tell people that they act shocked,” Eastman said, “but that’s because nobody ever asked me. They just assumed it was because of boxing that I collapsed. It was only after my operation that the doctor mentioned the piece of glass.”
Although, like any fighter, he protested the stoppage at the time, Eastman can see now that the referee stopping him that night at York Hall possibly saved his life. As a result, he feels like a man who was given a second chance, a belief only strengthened in light of his experience in the hospital in the days and weeks following the incident.
“I was on a life support machine and minutes away from them turning the machine off,” he recalled. “When I was in the coma, I could hear what was going on but my body was lifeless. I could hear the doctors and all my family and the doctors were telling my family to gather round and say their goodbyes. I heard them say that they had done everything they could for me and now couldn’t do anything else.
“I then remember my older brother, Nigel, saying a joke and I started laughing. I can’t remember what the joke was – my memory comes and goes – but I found it funny and my reaction to it stopped them turning the machine off. They saw that I was smiling.”
Known for his smile, Eastman’s would that day help to keep him alive. It afforded him a stay. Additional time. Another chance. In that moment, when in stasis, and with life – his old life – going on all around him, “Hurricane” Eastman was prepared to grab whatever he could touch.
“They had to cut my skull and that piece they sent off to clean, so I was walking around with a hole in my head,” he said. “You could poke the left side of my head and touch my brain. The piece of skull then got infected, so they couldn’t use it, and I was walking around for even longer with part of my head missing. I was always feeling unstable because the left side of your brain controls your balance.
“In the end, they got a piece of ceramic from Italy, the same shape as the piece of skull they had to throw away, and they put that there instead, using bolts and screws to make sure it didn’t drop out.”
Thankfully, his skull stayed in place. More importantly, so did Eastman. Which is to say, rather than give up, he chose to stick with it, he kept the faith, and he used a lot of what he had learned as a boxer to aid his eventual recovery.
“I struggled at first because I couldn’t do anything for myself,” he said, “and I was stopped doing the two things I loved to do: driving and boxing. I remember the doctors telling my family I would never walk again and, although I didn’t say anything, I thought, No, I will walk again.
“I went to physio but said I didn’t need to because I’m very strong-minded. I knew the boxing exercises and circuits I used to do would help me. When they told me at the hospital, ‘Eastman, you’re looking good,’ I said to them, ‘Yes, because I’ve been doing my circuits.’ Honest to God, my circuit was better than the physio work and I never stopped doing it throughout the whole process.”
While accepting he would never box again, Eastman, 20-7 (13), endeavoured to stay involved in the game, and still often appears at his old Battersea boxing club, helping both the kids and the coaches from time to time. His pining to return to the ring has never abated, or even dulled, but he knows it cannot happen, so instead distracts himself by driving his bus and deriving satisfaction from “helping other people get to and from work”.
“If I couldn’t drive a bus again, I wanted to at least drive a car,” he said. “I was passing all the tests set by the doctors and by the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) and eventually they sent back my licence. After that, I got my professional driving licence back. It was a blessing. I was so happy.”
PART III: Good Omen
IT wasn’t hunger that motivated Spencer Oliver’s decision to one day discharge himself from hospital, jump in a black cab, head towards Chinatown, descend a flight of stairs, and eat in a Chinese restaurant at a time when he was recovering from a brain injury, with 98 staples in his head. It was instead this: desperation.
By then, having recovered from the injury sustained in a 1998 European super-bantamweight title fight against Sergey Devakov, Oliver, known as “The Omen”, couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t take the waiting around. He couldn’t take the headaches. And he couldn’t any longer stomach the idea of being debilitated.
“I had wanted my own room because all I could hear were these groaning noises all the time,” he said. “I had this bloke called Dave sitting next to me and this geezer was a bit of a hippie type. One day I was feeling sorry for myself and walking back to bed and I asked him how he was doing and we were chatting for a bit. Then he offered me a bunch of bananas that weren’t actually there. I was looking at him thinking, What are you doing? Then he offered me something else, like spaghetti Bolognese, and again there was nothing actually there. I looked at him and said, ‘What the f**k?’ I then jumped up and put on a tracksuit and said, ‘I’m f**king getting out of here.’ I was going mad, swearing all the time.
“My manager comes walking down the corridor and says, ‘What’s the matter, Spence?’ I said, ‘Jess, I’m f**king leaving this place. I can’t handle it. I’m getting out. It’s full of nutters.’
“I discharged myself, even though the doctors were all telling me I couldn’t, and we both got in a cab and went to Chinatown. I had a Chinese, then got back in a cab and returned to the hospital. It was mad. At the time I was front and back page of all the papers, so when I got in this cab, there were loads of people clapping and wanting pictures and Jess was s**tting himself. I had 98 staples in my head, remember. When we went in the Chinese we had to go downstairs and there was this really steep set of stairs. He said to me, ‘Spence, you can’t go down there! Be careful!’
As well as desperation, no small amount of denial fuelled Oliver’s prison break that day. He knew at that stage little of what had happened but had a far better idea of what was to come.
“Things like mental health didn’t exist back then,” he said. “It was a case of you really having to deal with it on your own.
“I had just turned 23 at the time and was number two with the WBC and three with the IBF. The world was at my feet. But on May 2, 1998, I remember travelling to the Royal Albert Hall and then on May 14th waking up. I don’t remember anything in between.
“It was a really bizarre time in my life and a very difficult period. It was something I kind of had to deal with on my own. The people who were close to me, like my mum and dad, were all saying, ‘Look at how lucky you are, Spence. Look at how you’ve turned out. Look at what Michael Watson went through.’
“It’s true: because of what happened to him, and the way the medical side of things had improved, it did effectively save my life. But at the same time my life, the life I knew, had ended. Yeah, I was lucky I came through at the rate I did, but on the other hand I was saying, ‘Why me?’
“I had all these people telling me how lucky I was but inside I was dead. I’d put on a show and try to be this happy-go-lucky, bubbly guy, but when the door closed there was a very dark side. Depression was terrible for me. The whole thing got dark.”
As with any boxer in this unfortunate position, there were, for Oliver, two moments of awakening: the first, his emergence from a two-week coma, and the second, his realisation that it was all over.
“I didn’t realise for the first two or three days the extent of the injury,” he said. “But then I started walking again with a Zimmer frame and, because I’d been lying down for a couple of weeks, my legs had totally gone. It was like there was nothing there. I knew then that it was serious.
“I thought because of the drugs and everything else I’d just have to take a year out and would then come back. I didn’t realise the extent of what had happened. Nobody would tell me at that point. I’d ask Jess, my manager, how bad it was, and he would say, ‘Don’t worry about it, mate. Just get yourself better.’ So, I didn’t realise my career had ended.
“The first time I went to the toilet after they had taken the catheter out of me, I had half of my head shaved and these staples going around my head in a sort of tennis ball shape. I just thought, Wow, this is all over, isn’t it?”
To coin a phrase used by Gilbert Eastman, now the battle was to take place inside his head, and for Oliver, fortunate enough for it to be an option, this would mean staying both active and relevant.
“Vic Wakeling,” he said, “was the head of Sky Sports at the time and Jess Harding was like, ‘Spence, why don’t you contact Vic?’ So I wrote him a letter and said, ‘Look, I still love the sport, and I still want to be involved. Could you give me the opportunity to come on as a pundit or a commentator or whatever.’
“Because my (Devakov) fight was on Sky, I think they saw that as a good advert, given all that had gone on with me. Incidents like that always bring boxing into disrepute and you get your non-boxing fans saying it’s a barbaric sport and wanting to ban it. A lot of that was going on, but I had bounced back from it. I was a good advert for them and they used me.
“Here we are now, some 24 years later, and I’m still plugging away, which is great. That was my saviour, if I’m honest. It kept me involved.”
Like any other recovery, whether it’s addiction or tragedy, Oliver’s was no straight line. Indeed, even with the help of Sky, he would occasionally find himself slipping, or relapsing, often in full view of others.
“Sky gave me the opportunity, then three or four years in I was going off the rails a little bit,” he admitted. “I was drinking a lot and partying a lot. I reached a stage where the boss at Sky called me in and said, ‘Look, Spence, you’re putting on a lot of weight and not looking too good.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll sort myself out.’
“I looked in the mirror after that. You have to carve out your own destiny, I believe. Lots of people get dealt a rough hand in life, but it’s about how you deal with that. You either feel sorry for yourself or you bounce back. I reached that stage and that’s when my life changed.”
With this change came the opportunity to reframe the night of May 2, 1998 in Oliver’s mind. Somehow, in time, he would find himself able to view it not as something devastating or debilitating but instead something that opened doors he would otherwise have never even known existed.
“Every May 2nd, probably for the first 10 to 15 years, I used to cry and really struggle with that day,” Oliver said. “But now I celebrate it.
“As I’ve got older, I’ve recognised that boxing has actually given me a good life but I just happened to have gone in a different direction with it. I’m still heavily involved in the sport and it still feeds me. I’m very, very grateful for that. I feel blessed really. I’ve realised, as I’ve got older, just how fortunate I was.
“Because living life without boxing was tough. It was my life. How am I going to fill this space? I thought. What am I going to do with my hours? I’ve done this since I was a seven-year-old kid and my life revolved around boxing. You eat, train, sleep, repeat. That’s it. There’s no social life. Also, when you stop being a boxer, you lose your identity. And when you lose your identity, that’s very difficult to deal with.
“Even the kids who box today, they don’t know that I was injured. They just think I’m this ex-champion who now commentates. When I tell them I had a blood clot on the brain, you see their face change.”
It’s perhaps the one loss of identity a former boxer like Oliver, 14-1 (9), doesn’t mind. For such is the fullness of his recovery, nobody who sees or listens to Oliver nowadays would ever associate him with someone whose life was temporarily derailed by the very sport he today advocates and promotes, and has done since ’98.
“I had my accident in May and did my first show for Sky in August,” he said. “I also ran the marathon the following year for the National Neurological Hospital, where I was operated on, and the Brain Research Trust.
“Once I got out of that hospital, I got myself going again. I was back in the gym doing workouts and was determined to get myself right. I set myself goals all the time.
“I never felt that I had a disability or anything but I did have some short-term memory loss. For example, if I was working for Sky, doing a fight between, say, Érik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, we’d watch the fight and Paul Dempsey (the former Sky Sports anchor) would throw it to me and say, ‘What did you think?’ I’d then say something like, ‘I thought Barrera did a great job, he was pushing forward all the time, but Morales matched him every step of the way.’ Then I would completely forget what I was talking about, so I’d just go, ‘So, yeah, that’s it really.’
“Chris Brown, the Head of Boxing at the time, came to me one day and said, ‘Spence, it’s great, mate, but you need to lengthen your answers a little bit.’ I never had the heart to tell him why I couldn’t, though.”