In 1999 I sat down in a bar outside of Toronto to interview John Part. He'd won the Embassy in 1994, was ranked 6th by the World Darts Federation and was holding down the number one spot in Canada, a country somewhere near America.
We'd met a few years before at a tournament and become friends. When business had me headed to Toronto I'd call ahead and we'd arrange to meet. We'd have a few beers and throw a few games. I remember him stepping up once and throwing in a 180. I followed it with a two. I had him just where I wanted him!
I didn't learn much that night we sat down to talk. That's because John Part isn't cut from the same stereotypical mold as most darters. He wasn't much interested in talking about gambling, women or his favorite beer. Okay, that's a lie.
But one thing he said made a lasting impression.
It wasn't long before Part was quoting Ernest Hemingway and talking about writing a book, and only a little longer before he tried to turn the interview around on me. "Santiago had a goal," he challenged. "He hung in there for days, baking in the sun and nearly dying, to land his dream, eh? You gotta have goals, eh?"
Realizing I had none, at least none which Brittany Spears would agree to, I popped the question right back at him. Trying to find common ground, I even spoke in his native tongue. "Hey, I'm doing the interviewing here, eh? What are your goals, eh?"
IMPORTANT NOTE: The word "eh" (pronounced "Ay") is significant in Canada and pretty much forms the basis of all Canadian communications. Loosely translated it means: "I have a hockey puck stuck in my nose."
Anyway, that's when Part, now 36, glimpsed his future. "My goal is to be the dominant player in the world before I turn 45." Yep, I've always remembered that. Apparently so did Part.
I thought about this conversation two years ago when Part was pummeled 7-0 by Phil Taylor at the World Championships. I thought about it last year when he went down to defeat to Taylor two more times, at the Stan James World Matchplay and the Paddy Power World Grand Prix.
So I dug out and re-read my old copy of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. "Fish, I love you and respect you very much," remarked the compassionate Santiago at one point in his epic battle with the marlin. "But I will kill you dead before this day ends."
Santiago remains one of literature's finest examples of a character exhibiting what Hemingway called "grace under pressure." Even though only his marlin's carcass is left by the end of the story, Santiago was a winner because he never quit, valiantly fighting off the sharks until there was nothing left to fight for. John Part reminds me of Santiago.
I wasn't present at the Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship at Circus Tavern in Purfleet this past January 5 when Part "snatched the first leg with a 121 checkout and roared into a 3-0 set lead" over the ten-times World Champion. Taylor, widely recognized as the greatest-ever in our sport, was the 7-1 odds favorite to make it eleven in a row.
I can only imagine the excitement, the thickness of the drama, as Taylor, the marlin - who hadn't dropped a single set in a world final in three years - fought back. He evened the match up at 4-4 and then, checked-out a spectacular 167 to take the lead at 5-4. The Brits must have been swinging from the rafters. And like Santiago, Part must have been roasting under the lights of the stage.
If it had been me, I'd have peed my frickin' pants right then and there.
There's a memorable scene in Maya Angelou's autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Uncle Willie's store, the black community's gathering place in the small Arkansas town where Angelou grew up, is crammed. Their hero, Joe Lewis, is defending his heavyweight championship against the white contender, Primo Carnera. The mood is electric.
It had to be just like this at Purfleet. Darth Maple versus The Power. The Canadian contender versus the British Champion of the World.
I can hear The Power's fans...
"I ain't worried 'bout this fight. Joe's gonna whip that cracker like its open season," boasted one patron at Uncle Willie's. "He gonna whip him 'till that white boy call him Momma," said another.
I'm just sure that's what they all thought, the Brits. But then the first dart was thrown...
The bell rings. The announcer begins to call the action. "A quick jab to the head. A left to the head and a right and another left." They're in a clinch. Lewis is trying to fight his way out."
"Carnera's got Lewis against the ropes. It's a left to the body and a right to the ribs. Another right to the body; it looks like it was low. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the referee is signaling but the contender keeps raining blows on Lewis. It's another to the body, and it looks like Lewis is going down."
Part had Taylor on the ropes from the opening dart. The Power was going down.
But then, Lewis bounces off the ropes. The announcer continues. "And now it looks like Joe is mad. He's caught Carnera with a left hook to the head and a right to the head. It's a jab to the body and another left to the head. There's a left cross and a right to the head. The contender's right eye is bleeding and he can't seem to keep his block up. Louis is penetrating every block. The referee is moving in, but Lewis sends a left to the body and it's an uppercut to the chin and the contender is dropping. He's on the canvas, ladies and gentlemen."
Suddenly, just like a snake strikes, Taylor moves into his stride. They don't call him The Power - he's not ten-times Champion of the World - for nuthin'. Down 3-0 and then 4-1, Taylor goes on a tear. He rips off eleven straight legs at one point, including a twelve-darter, in a display that would (which HAS for years) brought down lesser men. Darth Maple's commanding 3-0 lead has been transformed in a flash. It's now Santiago who's on the ropes.
The men in Uncle Willie's store lean closer to the radio...
"Here's the referee. He's counting. One, two three, four, five, six, seven. Is the contender trying to get up again?"
The men at Uncle Willie's jump up and shout, NO!"
"...eight, nine, ten. The fight is over, ladies and gentlemen. Let's get the microphone over to the referee. Here he is. He's got the Brown Bomber's hand. He's holding it up. Here he is."
And then, to the world, the familiar voice of the referee proclaims, "The winnah, and still heavyweight Champeen of da World, Joe Lewis."
But that's not quite they way it went down at Purfleet...
Santiago fought back. He evened the score at 5-5 and then recaptured the lead. At 6-5 he was just a set away from his dream.
But the great fish was still strong. He jumped to a quick 2-0 lead in the 12th set and, although Santiago notched up the 3rd leg, Taylor tied the match at 6-0, forcing a deciding 13th set.
And that's what it all came down to.
One set for the Championship of the World. John Part versus the great Phil Taylor. Darth Maple versus The Power. The Canadian versus the Brit. Primo Carnera versus the Brown Bomber. Hemingway's Santiago against the marlin he loved and respected.
In the first leg of the deciding set Part broke Taylor's throw straight away. Two legs to victory...
Part then took the second leg. One leg to go...
But Taylor struck back! He closed 98 to push the set to the fourth leg.
And then, John Part shocked the darting world.
"Set. Stroke. Release. 19."
"Set. Stroke. Release. 18."
"Set. Stroke. Release. TOPS!"
"Leg. Set. MATCH! The match is over, ladies and gentlemen. Let's get the microphone over to the referee. Here he is. He's got the Canadian's hand. He's holding it up. Here he is."
"The winnah, and NEW Champeen of da World, John Part."
A lot's been written since John Part did what no one else could do.
The match has been described a "breathtaking contest." An "epic." The "greatest final of all time." A momentum-shifting roller-coaster of a ride that ended in the passing of the torch and a big, fat 80,000 Dollar deposit in John Part's bank account.
"I was almost in tears on the stage at the end," Part was quoted. "I really had to fight it."
"January the 5th, 2003," wrote the legendary John Lowe, "will go down in the darting world as the end of the reign of King Phil Taylor and the beginning of the reign of King John Part." Just like at Buckingham Palace, the guard has changed.
But maybe not.
As the inimitable boxing commentator Larry Merchant once put it in 1990, as only he can, after Buster Douglas knocked out the 42-1 favorite Mike Tyson in Tokyo, "The Japanese came to see Godzilla, but the wrong person turned out to be Godzilla."
Perhaps this was just more of the same?
Can Part now wrestle away Taylor's number one ranking? Can he defend his World Championship in 2004?
Has the torch really been passed? Has the guard really changed?
Only time will tell.
The John Part I know is a realist. The goal he set for himself was to dominate the world of darts. He knows he ain't quite there yet, eh?
But one thing's for certain. John Part is a fighter. He's drawn strength from his defeats. On January 5th he exhibited the sort of grace under pressure that, at least for now, has him perched firmly on top of the darting world.
My bet is that he stays there for a long, long time.
From the Field,