I was looking back at some old heavyweight boxing the other day when I came across a couple of videos of the great Herbie Hide in action. Some might quibble with the use of the word ‘great’, but let’s not forget that Herbie’s ‘natural’ weight was generally considered to be between 85 and 90kg, which in today’s terms makes him a cruiserweight. Even when Herbie was in his prime, and the cruiserweight limit was lower (around 86kg compared to 90.7kg today), he was more of a cruiserweight than a heavyweight. Despite this, Herbie was twice WBO heavyweight champion.
Why was Herbie special? He was fast- perhaps without the boxing skills of Ali, but still a decent technician. More importantly, from a spectator’s viewpoint, he could punch. His career record reads 49 wins, 43 by knockout, and 4 losses. When Herbie walked into the ring you knew that something was going to happen, and whatever that was, it was unlikely to be dull! He first won a world heavyweight title at the age of 22, knocking out Michael Bentt. His next fight was against Riddick Bowe, who was then in his prime, and at a very conservative estimate 13kg (2 stone) heavier- some suggested that Herbie’s weight was overstated for that fight. Now, just imagine that for a second- a 23 year-old British ‘cruiserweight’ taking on one of America’s top three heavyweights, a man 4 years older, and looking totally like he should be in a different weight division. It was only Herbie’s second fight outside Europe, and his first in America. Herbie was much quicker than Bowe, and landed some good shots- Bowe later admitted to being ‘out on his feet’ at one point, and told Boxing Insider that Herbie was the hardest puncher he ever faced. However, Bowe also had fast hands for a big man and eventually overpowered Herbie in 6 rounds. Herbie showed a lot of courage in that fight- he was down 6 times, but kept getting up and troubled Bowe to the end.
After the loss to Bowe, Herbie regrouped and a couple of fairly straightforward wins led to him fighting Tony Tucker, who had once gone the distance with Mike Tyson, and was a former IBF champion, for the by now vacant WBO title. Tucker proved to be little threat, and Herbie stopped him in 2 rounds. A couple of swift defences followed, before Herbie was dethroned by a fairly useful fighter from the Ukraine called Vitali Klitschko- another man who should clearly have been in a higher weight division!
There was no sporting reason for Herbie’s career to go into a decline at this point. He was 27 years old, and he had lost two fights, both of them to absolutely top rate fighters who were much bigger than him. However, in his book ‘Nothing but Trouble: My Story’, Herbie explains that the death of his young brother from leukaemia hit him hard, and he was never quite the same after this. He fought just 5 times in the next 7 years, including two losses against journeyman heavyweights (to be fair, he avenged the first of these, and the second was lost on a cut). In 2006, at the age of 35, he relaunched himself as a cruiserweight. 13 unbeaten fights followed, largely in Germany. He was talked about as a potential world title challenger again, but his last appearance was in Sky’s ‘Prizefighter’ series, in which he sustained a bad cut in winning his first fight and was forced to retire from the competition. This put paid to any talk of world title fights, and Herbie’s career seems to have ended there.
Since his glory days, Herbie’s personal life has been beset by controversy, culminating in his being imprisoned for a spell following a sting operation by the notorious ‘fake Sheikh’. However, I don’t want to talk too much about that here: instead, let’s consider Herbie Hide the boxer, and how the public regard him. People tend to say that Herbie could not take a punch- yet in his prime he was only beaten by Riddick Bowe and Vitali Klitschko. These men were vastly bigger and heavier than him. I think it’s interesting that Chris Eubank’s natural weight is similar to Herbie’s. Everyone believes that Chris had a great chin- and indeed he did- but no-one thought that it should be tested by fighting Riddick Bowe or Vitali Klitschko! Herbie did get knocked down a few times by huge opponents, but he never lacked heart and he was the most exciting fighter of his generation. If he had fought at cruiserweight he would almost certainly have been recognised as an all-time great. His only rival in that era would have been the staggeringly durable, technically sound, Evander Holyfield, but I know who I would have chosen to watch!
I think it’s a great shame that the British public never really took Herbie to their hearts. Frank Bruno was widely liked, yet he was nowhere near as exciting a fighter as Herbie, nor was he in many ways as good. If you don’t remember this era, try watching a few Bruno fights on YouTube, and then compare with a few of Herbie’s. Of course Lennox Lewis was around then, and he was Britain’s best ever heavyweight, but he was also much bigger than Herbie- his fights were exciting in their way, but this was mainly as a result of seeing a Briton dominate the division. Lewis was a patient, intelligent boxer with a decent punch, but never a natural entertainer. Herbie was on another level, entertainment-wise, but the public never really seemed to recognise this. There were no big pay-per-view nights for Herbie!
How can we analyse all of this psychologically? When Herbie fought Bowe he looked good enough to win, but Bowe was so much bigger that when Herbie was caught with awkward shots he was hurt to an extent he probably hadn’t felt before. That brought doubt, which seemed to cause him to back off a little when he could perhaps have beaten Bowe. Arguably, that is the problem in putting fighters in with much bigger opponents- eventually they start to lose that iron self-belief which is crucial in combat sports.
By the time Herbie fought Klitschko, he had lost his brother, and that fight and some subsequent performances tended to indicate a lack of focus in preparation. Many sportsmen understandably find it difficult to regain the necessary single-mindedness after suffering a traumatic event in their personal lives.
But why was Herbie never massively popular? I think he never really knew how to express himself to a mass audience outside of the ring. He had a speech impediment, and he always came across as somewhat spiky. As time went by, his personal difficulties resulted in him possibly losing a bit of perspective, and some of his interviews appeared a little eccentric, to say the least. People loved Bruno because he was a superficially straightforward man with a ready laugh- but this was also marketing at work: the interviews he did with Harry Carpenter did so much for his popularity. What would have happened if someone who understood Herbie had helped him to present an image that people had warmed to? Could he now be affectionately regarded as a legend? Many boxers have problems after their career finishes- look at Bruno and Hatton. Herbie is no exception to this, but wouldn’t it be great if people could actually give him the recognition he deserves? Perhaps this would help him in dealing with whatever happens to him in the rest of his life.