It was sad to hear that Keith Mullings, who shockingly upset Terry Norris to win the WBC super welterweight title in December 1997, has passed away at the age of 53.
That it happened around Memorial Day weekend is especially significant because Mullings was a proud U.S. Army veteran who had honorably served in the Gulf War and paid a heavy price for his devotion to duty.
His death was announced by Gary Pippa, the head trainer at Be First Boxing in Peekskill, New York, where Keith Mullings had been a trainer for several years prior to his passing. Pippa had been told of Mullings’ death by the fighter’s daughter, but no cause of death was given.
Mullings was an overachieving boxer whose path to the title was unique by any standards. The Brooklyn, New York, native had served in the military as an artillery man in Iraq in the early 1990s.
Having done most of his fighting on the road, the relatively unknown Mullings was a 10-1 underdog against Norris, even though he had lost a competitive 12-round split decision to IBF junior middleweight champion Raul Marquez three months earlier.
Norris, who was looking forward to a multi-million-dollar payday against Oscar De La Hoya, was looking past Keith Mullings. Way past!
That proved to be a very costly mistake. Mullings, who described himself in 2005 as “a non-denominational religious person who is as comfortable in a mosque as I am in a church,” utilized his faith in the Story of Job to attain what might have seemed like the unattainable to a man of lesser grit and determination.
“Job endured a lot but kept having faith through so many trials and tribulations,” Mullings said. “Like Job, I never have any doubts.”
Keith Mullings had entered the Norris bout with a nominal record of 14-4-1 (9 KOs), having won just one of his last six outings. He left the ring with a title and the newfound respect of the boxing public. Sadly, his title reign did not last long.
As a new champion, he made only one successful defense, an HBO-televised fifth round TKO over David Ciarlante of Italy in Atlantic City in March 1998.
In his next defense, in January 1999, he lost the title by majority decision to Javier Castillejo in Castillejo’s home country of Spain.
Mullings still found himself somewhat in demand, but once again the breaks were not coming his way. He lost decisions to then undefeated David Reid, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist, and Winky Wright.
The bitterness, distrust, and cynicism he was feeling was totally at odds with his seemingly warm, friendly, and trusting nature. He retired after being shockingly stopped in two rounds by then undefeated Steve Roberts in London in April 2001.
It was only time he was stopped in his professional career, which ended with a deceptively nominal record of 16-8-1 (11 KOs). At the time, Keith Mullings had no intentions of ever coming back.
“A lot of things were happening to me, and I didn’t even realize what some of them were,” Mullings told me in 2005.
“But I had a lot of issues. Everything was suspect to me, my management, my training, tainted water. My mind was running away from me.”
Seeking help at a Veterans Administration hospital, Keith Mullings was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress-disorder (PTSD) from his days on the battlefield, where he often waged war in 145-degree heat.
Some of his paranoia was traced to a time some army colleagues messed with his gas mask. While he concedes that they might have done it as a joke, he says the lingering horrors of war sometimes made his mind do “funny things.”
“I was really hyper-vigilant, to the point where I needed to deal with my issues,” said Mullings. “I joined a group of war vets and found out that I was not alone. There were lots of vets from the Gulf War – even the Vietnam War – who had the same problems as I did.
“I always thought I was the only one,” he continued. “To find out I wasn’t alone was a godsend. I’ve learned how to trust again, not just in boxing but in every aspect of life.”
Keith Mullings took a job in food services at a Westchester County veteran’s facility and concentrated on raising two of his four children in the Bronx. He and his ex-wife Ruthie, who was also a U.S. Army veteran, had separated in the early 2000s.
Despite those current issues, Mullings said he always had a lot of opportunities in life.
“I was a good baseball and football player in high school. That could have taken me places. When I graduated from James Madison High School in 1986, I barely had a 70 average, but my classmates voted me the most likely to succeed.
(Other notable alumni from James Madison High School are senators Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg).
“I had the opportunity to join the NYPD, but passed that up for boxing,” continued Keith Mullings. “I made a decision a long time ago to go into boxing with my heart and soul. Even though I won a title, I didn’t feel that I got out of boxing all that I could have. I didn’t really have time to enjoy my title, and I didn’t leave the game on my terms.”
While training for a 2005 comeback that never materialized, Mullings put his career in perspective.
“I’ve been underestimated my whole career,” he said. “In the past, it has helped me more than it hurt me. If people underestimate me, I think they are making a big mistake, but I hope they continue to do so.”
Mullings was a class act, a friendly soul whose personality was at odds with his profession. Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to him was by HBO commentator Larry Merchant in describing his destruction of the heavily favored Norris during the live broadcast.
“How would you like to go to war with a few thousand (Keith) Mullings?” Merchant said.