” I knew Terry Norris was afraid of me. Oscar De La Hoya wanted no part of me!” — Brooklyn warrior Keith Mullings had just 25 pro fights and a small handful of amateur bouts, yet he made a big impact on the sport nonetheless. The tough light-middleweight who began boxing whilst in the Army, shocked the world twenty years ago last year (December 6, 1997) when he TKO’d Terry Norris to capture the WBC crown.
Having had “two of three amateur fights before I was sent to The Gulf and Desert Storm,” and turning pro in the summer of 1993, Mullings had experienced a lot during his time in the services – and he had a huge sense of urgency to “make the absolute most out of life” as a result. Having been “blessed” with being able to return home alive from The Middle East, Mullings was now determined to become word champion.
Here the 49 year old who walked away with a modest-looking but deceptive 16-8-1(11) record in 2001 after a shock stoppage loss to London’s Steve Roberts at Wembley, recalls his career in speaking with ESB:
Q: Can I start with your biggest career win, the shocking upset KO of Terry Norris, which was twenty years ago on December 6, 1997?
Keith Mullings: “Oh, my God – all that time ago (laughs). I was a 10/1 outsider in that fight. Norris was the man, he was the pound-for-pound best at the time, whereas I had suffered some split decision losses and they looked at me as though the fight was swayed in his way in a big way. The thing is, I had sparred Roy Jones Junior a whole lot, and he always told me how my style would beat Terry Norris. Roy told me he wanted to see me fight Norris. I told Roy that after he left the 154 pound division, I set my sights on Norris.
“Every time I trained, on the bag, everything, I had Norris’ face in my eyes. By the time I fought him, I had fought Norris a thousand times already! The thing is, he tried to intimidate me at the final press conference. We were nose-to-nose, forehead-to-forehead, and there were ‘oohs, and aahs’ from the crowd. Bob Arum had to come in a break us up. Then, as we were moved apart, I extended my hand to try and shake his hand, and he turned his back on me. So – maybe the Brooklyn bad boy came out of me – I shoved him and he stumbled and he just walked away. I knew then he was afraid of me, that the fight was mine.”
Q: How tough was the fight?
K.M: “He made me raise my level, my game – a whole lot. It takes a great fighter to bring out the greatness in you. He came at me at a blazing pace. I had to keep tight, defensive, and I invested in body work, to slow him down. Look at the fight and you will see how I threw short punches, up close, hooks and straight rights. I had to wear him down. Every trick that is in the book, I had to use in that fight (laughs).”
Q: Norris was supposed to fight Oscar De La Hoya if he had beaten you. How come you ever got Oscar?
K.M: “Because De La Hoya wanted no part of me. I wanted it and I believed in my heart of hearts that I would beat him. De La Hoya had speed, but I don’t think he was a great, great puncher. I think he would have come at me and been aggressive, and anyone who fought me that way, I beat them. I think I’d have retired De La Hoya. I think I’d have cut him up, bruised him badly and that I’d have stopped him in the later rounds. The big fights never seemed to come for me and I kept seeing the dollar bills fly out of the window.”
Q: You feel you had a few bad decisions go against you in fights?
K.M: “The Raul Marquez fight, before I beat Norris – oh, gosh, that was the robbery of the year (Mullings losing a split decision in an IBF light-middleweight title shot). Even Norris was there for that fight, and he had me winning every round. I think Marquez had something like 77 stitches in his face after that fight. And the [Javier] Castillejo fight (Mullings’ second defence of the WBC belt he had ripped from Norris), well, I should never have been over there [in Spain] in the first place. De La Hoya wanted my belt, but he didn’t want to go through me to get it (De La Hoya later defeated Castillejo by decision to take the belt). That is what you could call business.”
Q: What about the Winky Wright fight, which you lost via decision? How tricky was Winky?
K.M: “It wasn’t so much that he was tricky, it was more that I had been off and my timing was off. He wasn’t aggressive towards me at all in the fight, which I hoped he would be. That fight, it was more like a spar session. He was a nice guy. I really do wish he had come right at me. But even so, I still I think I won that fight. Look at his face and mine after the fight. He hit me with one clean punch the whole fight, all the rest was just pitter-pat stuff.”
Q: What happened in your last fight, in England, when you were stopped for the only time in your pro career by Steve Roberts – who managed a two-round stoppage over you?
K.M: “You know, I’ve never seen that fight, anywhere! I have never seen a tape of it. I was called for that fight, on short notice, and I looked at the guy and thought I would definitely beat him. He looked very beatable to me. All I can say is I think there were shenanigans in that fight. The guy who was working my corner at the time, I didn’t feel I could truly trust him. Something was not right with that fight. You’ve seen me, in all of my fights I had a good beard. But in that fight even little nothing punches, even grazing punches, they had me doing an Elvis Presley – I was all shook up. All I’ll say is this, you know that saying ‘when you’re overseas, just don’t drink the water!’ I’m very suspicious of that fight all this time later. Anyway, I lost and I also lost faith in boxing and I walked away.”
Q: You sound fine, your speech and your spirits and everything, but Terry Norris today, he is in quite bad shape.
K.M: “You know, that fight, I wanted to win so much, but I was so glad the referee stopped it when he did. I had Norris on the ropes and I saw his eyes roll back into his head. People told me after the fight that he would never be the same again. I rooted for Norris in the couple of fights he had after losing to me; I liked him. We were supposed to have a rematch but he was just a shell after our fight.”
Q: Did the time you spent in the Gulf, and all you must have gone through, see to it that you basically had no fear in ring?
K.M: “The thing is, when you’re at war, there is a real possibility you will not return home. It’s like you are facing your mortality. So after I did come home, being blessed to have done so, I said to myself I was going to go for everything I wanted to achieve. People told me I was too old [for boxing] at 27, that I should get a regular job, in security or something. But I said no, that I would be a world champion. Life is short and you have to live it to the fullest. Today I give inspirational talks to people and I tell them to go for it. Go for whatever you want to accomplish in life!”