In memory of ALAN MINTER (17.08.51 to 09.09.20)

In memory of ALAN MINTER (17.08.51 to 09.09.20)

I interviewed Alan almost 20 years ago for my first volume of Sweet Fighting Man.  We had so much fun that day, and I will never forget the waiters in the restaurant closing the doors at the end of the lunchtime session and allowing us to stay and finish our conversation.  Alan was over the moon with his chapter.  He used to tell people that I was “the best boxing writer in Europe,” which always made me smile.  Now that he has passed away, it feels right to share his beautiful words one last time.  Rest easy Champ.  It was a pleasure to know you.

***

“He wants looking after sometimes.  You’d have to nail him to the floor to beat him, know what I mean?  Alan could go on to be one of the greatest fighters we’ve ever had.  The boy’s something special.”  (Doug Bidwell)

ABA champion and Olympic bronze medallist, British champion and outright owner of a Lonsdale Belt, European champion, and finally undisputed middleweight champion of the world, Alan Minter was indeed “something special”.

Blue eyed boy

I arranged to meet Alan for this interview at Bertorelli’s in Covent Garden.  It was a crisp and sunny October afternoon and, while I waited in the nearby square watching an exquisite mime artist who was made up like a porcelain statue, I suddenly sensed that someone was watching me and there, smiling from across the crowd, was Alan.  I walked over and we stood quietly for a few moments before he said “Just down there, you’ve got the Opera House.  There’s a really beautiful dome inside, but years ago it started coming apart.  I had a plastering company and we got the contract for it, so we went in there and put it right.”  I replied, “Oh, and which bits did you do, the cupboards?”  The reason for my audacity will become obvious as this story unfolds, but, suffice to say, I received a sharp look from Mr Minter as if to say “I see somebody has been doing her homework, madam!”

Alan’s eyes are a clear, piercing blue.  Every now and then, they light up as he flashes the disarming grin which must have got him out of a fair bit of trouble over the years.  As we made ourselves comfortable in the restaurant and I began to ask him about his career, those eyes were not looking for any escape routes.  For some reason, his brutal honesty, particularly about what he saw as his own shortcomings, took me by surprise.  Before he answered certain questions, he became thoughtful almost to the point of being distant, but then the blue eyes became focused and the stories flowed.

Smiler

Alan was born in Penge on 17 August 1951.  He spent the first two weeks of his life in an incubator.  “Yes, I was dying.  I had my last rites read to me and everything.  They got the vicar in and they said ‘He won’t survive.  He won’t come through.’”  His father was a Londoner called Sydney and his mother, Annalisa, was from Germany.  They met while Sydney was doing his national service, and they were both supportive of Alan’s boxing ambition.  “I remember when I’ve gone home after boxing with black eyes, all banged up, and my mother has cried her eyes out, but she never once said to me ‘You don’t want to do that.’  She never said nothing.”

Alan, who boxed as a southpaw, initially discovered boxing at the Sarah Robinson School in Crawley.  “I was always in trouble.  I spent most of my time being put outside the classroom.  Then one day my PE master, Mr Hansom, bless him, asked me to get a boxing team together to represent the school.  Anyway, we all got beat, and that was when I joined Crawley ABC and I lost seven fights in a row.  I boxed on a Tuesday, so I’d never go to school on a Wednesday because the kids would say ‘You got beat.’  One day, I’m in school on a Wednesday, in assembly, and the headmaster’s come on the stage and he’s gone ‘Well, well, he’s in school for the first Wednesday in many, many weeks.  He must have won his first fight.  Alan Minter, stand up.’  So I stood up and the whole school applauded and cheered.  It had never happened to me before, but it happened then, and that was it.  That’s what made me carry on.  I’ve always sad it’s sad for children who are doing something and they don’t get a pat on the back.  Mr Hansom has written to me since, not recently, but when I achieved what I achieved.  I sometimes wonder if he’s still alive.”

Alan left school at the age of 14 to work in his father’s plastering business, but unfortunately plastering wasn’t really his bag and he rapidly found himself relegated to the cramped world of cupboards.  Hence, the reason for my earlier impertinence.  He confirmed “For years, I was known as ‘The Shoe Cupboard Kid’.  I was in the cupboards for years!  But, see, a lot of plasterers, when they’re doing cupboards, they aren’t bothered, but my cupboards were spot on!”

It was at Crawley boxing club that Alan met Doug Bidwell, who became a major force in his boxing life and eventually his father-in-law.  “Doug was the competition secretary at Crawley and, as I progressed as an amateur, he became my trainer.  We stayed together all through my boxing career, amateur and pro.”  Tucked firmly under Bidwell’s wing, Alan’s boxing skills blossomed and, in February 1970, he was selected for the England training squad, which involved spending a weekend every month at Crystal Palace training centre under the watchful eye of national coach, David James.  “David James was very much like a headmaster.  We were young, we were boisterous and we didn’t really want to listen to what he was saying.  But the thing was with him, although he had never had a glove on in his life, what he said was spot on.  Everything he told you to do was 100 per cent right.  He was like Doug Bidwell, in the sense that, if Doug told you to do something, you’d do it and it worked.  There is the trust.  There is the belief in the guy.”

One of the pranks that used to drive David James to distraction was the night-time escape committee, headed up by Alan, John Conteh and Larry Paul.  Every Saturday night, they would diligently plan their breakout via the fire escape and head for the Crystal Palace Hotel.  “Yeah, we used to sneak out and have a drink, and it was nice.  But we did train hard, honestly.  They got us on a Friday and a Saturday and, by the time we left Sunday lunchtime, we couldn’t walk!  So a few pints of light and bitter at the Crystal Palace Hotel, it was beautiful.”

It was in May 1970 when Alan was christened with his ring-name of ‘Boom Boom’.  He was representing England at the Multi-Nations tournament in Holland, and he was boxing in the first leg against Peter Lloyd of Wales.  “See, I used to make this grunting noise when I threw a punch and the referee kept warning me, ‘Don’t make that noise.  You’re making the noise again.  If you keep making that noise, I’ll disqualify you.’  But it was a habit and, even if I didn’t throw a punch, the noise was still coming out!  Whenever I was boxing after the warnings fight, as I would climb into the ring, all the crowd would shout ‘Boom Boom!’ and it was lovely.  I ended up winning the Multi-Nations silver medal and, after all the warnings and everything, I got the trophy for best boxer of the whole tournament.”

Alan boxed 30 times for England, winning 25, but the blue eyes were firmly focused on the 1972 Munich Olympics.  “It was funny, because I’ve got to the Olympics and I’m still working for my dad’s plastering company, still in the cupboards!  So my dad’s come round to the site to tell me that I’ve had a letter to say I’ve been picked for the Olympics and he couldn’t find me because he didn’t know which fuckin’ cupboard I was in!  When he did manage to find me, the whole site closed down.  Everyone got booze in and we had a party because I had just been picked to represent my country.”

“We went out to Munich and I had my 21st birthday out there.  All the trainers and everything, we all went out for the night and it was brilliant.  When we got back to the Olympic Village, we couldn’t get back in.  All the doors and gates were locked.  The security was phenomenal.  There was helicopters, guys with machineguns, and we couldn’t get near.  There had been a terrorist attack.  There had been a massacre, and all the Israelis were killed.” 

In his first fight of the games, Alan stopped Reggie Ford of Ghana in the second round.  His next opponent was Valery Tregubov, a Russian southpaw who was twice European champion and nine years older.  “Tregubov was the only one I was worried about.  I had respect for his reputation.  He was a good fighter and he was powerful.  He would walk through anyone, and I couldn’t sleep at nights.  I knew they’d drew me against him, and I was worried.  Anyway, I nicked it on points and, from that day forth, it was very difficult to get motivated because he was the most dangerous man there in my weight class and I beat him.  So I couldn’t get no butterflies or nerves boxing anyone else.” 

Next came the quarter-finals against Loucif Hamani of Algeria.  The referee gave Alan three cautions and a public warning for grunting.  But, aside from that, he got the verdict and he was now assured a bronze medal.  His opponent in the semis was Dieter Kottysch of Hamburg, and this would be Alan’s final fight as an Olympian, and as an amateur.  “He never won that fight, and the crowd knew he was beaten.  I’ve seen the film since, and I can’t get over how tiny I was.  I was like a little boy.  I’m standing there and they announced the majority decision to him.  He jumped up in the air, and I just couldn’t believe it.  The crowd booed and jeered and, when they presented me with the bronze medal, the crowd erupted again because they knew!  After that, I turned pro with Doug Bidwell.”

The Olympic semi-final against
Dieter Kottysch

Alan made his professional debut on 31 October 1972 at the Albert Hall against Antiguan born Maurice Thomas of Bradford, who he stopped in six.  “I was with him the other day.  I’m speaking at this venue and I’m in the room before I go in and they’ve gone ‘Alan, this is Maurice Thomas.’  I’ve gone ‘Jesus Christ, Maurice!  How are you?’  He’s gone ‘Alan, I’ve never told anyone that I boxed you.  Nobody knows.’  So, when I finished speaking, I said ‘Before I sit down, I would just like to make a tribute to somebody I didn’t realise I would ever see again.  This is the guy I fought in my first professional fight, and everyone in this room knows him so well.  Gentlemen, can we have a round of applause please for the one and only Maurice Thomas?’  He looked at me and he’s stood up, and everyone was applauding and saying ‘I never knew you fought Alan Minter!’  Afterwards, all these people were going up to Maurice and asking for his autograph, and I’ve even gone up to him and said ‘Maurice, can I have your autograph?’  He said ‘I’d love to, Alan,’ and I thought that was nice.”

During the following five weeks, Alan notched up another four wins before going the distance for the first time against Pat Dwyer at the Albert Hall.  “He was a good fighter, Pat Dwyer.  He was tricky.  You see, they’d all had more experience than me.  They’re all there to test you.”  In his next fight, he stopped Pat Brogan in seven at York Hall, becoming the first man to stop that durable journeyman, but not before getting cut for the first time, in the first round.  “I didn’t even know I was the first man to stop him.  Look, he’s there to be beaten, like I’m there to be beaten.  I’m not bothered if I stop him or if I beat him on points, as long as I’ve won.  And that’s probably why I’m never a guest at his promotions!”

After four more wins, Alan suffered another cut which resulted in his first defeat as a pro, when he was stopped in the eighth and final round by Scottish veteran, Don McMillan, at the Albert Hall.  McMillan was down three times during the fight and Alan was well ahead on points, but his eye damage was too grim for Harry Gibbs to allow the fight to continue.  “That was a bad cut.  It was at least two inches long.  Clash of heads.  You get a clash of heads like that and someone’s going to be cut.  All the cuts that happened to me, they’ve been brought on by myself.  Frustration.  Instead of boxing when I should have boxed, I’d be having a fight.  They used to say ‘Walk in there, hit Alan Minter, and stand back and wait for him.’”

During the next year, cuts would cause major problems for Alan.  He had six fights, three wins and three losses, all of the defeats coming as a result of eye damage.  Two of those defeats came at the slicing fists of Jan Magdziarz, a Southampton-based Pole.  In October 1974, Alan shared the ring with Magdziarz for the third time, and Harry Gibbs disqualified both boxers halfway through the fourth round.  “I was frightened I’d get cut again.  It was an eliminator for the middleweight championship of this country and we was both disqualified, both slung out of the ring.  I’ll tell you what he had, that right hand, and it was so fast and straight that he couldn’t miss me with it.  I shouldn’t have fought him.  Every fighter has a bogeyman, and he was mine.  He was coming forward and I went back.  I was coming forward and he went back, and neither of us threw a punch.  The crowd were going berserk.” 

In November 1975, after a winning run of five fights, Alan had his first of three epic battles with Kevin Finnegan, the popular Battersea boy who had held the British and European titles the previous year.  The prize on the line at the Empire Pool (later Wembley Arena) was the vacant British middleweight title, and the clash between these two was eagerly anticipated.  “Me and my wife went to London and I wasn’t disciplined.  I was in Harrods drinking milkshakes.  I wasn’t even thinking about the weight.  On the morning of the fight, we went to the ‘Becket and I was six pounds over the middleweight limit.  Doug Bidwell done his nut!  I had an hour and a half to get six pounds off.  I worked and worked, skipped and skipped, and I had three plastics on me and the sweat was pouring out.  I jumped back on the scales and I was bang on the 11st 6lb limit.  That night, I boxed 15 rounds to become the middleweight champion of Great Britain, and I beat Kevin Finnegan by the smallest possible margin of half a point.”

After an eight round stoppage win over Trevor Francis, Alan made his first defence of his British title against Billy Knight at the Albert Hall in April 1976.  As amateurs, Alan and Billy had been firm friends.  “My best mate of all was Billy Knight.  He and I were roommates for years and years.  I went to his wedding and he came to mine, and it was beautiful.  He was a lovely man.  They said to me ‘How can you fight a friend?  How can you defend your title against your mate?’” 

“In those days, champions and former champions were introduced into the ring at boxing shows.  One night before I fought him, they introduced us both.  I walked down the aisle shaking everyone’s hand, and Billy walked down the aisle shaking everyone’s hand.  He’s got in the ring and I’ve gone ‘All right, Bill?’ and he’s gone ‘Fuck off.’  He’s stood beside me and I thought about what he had just done in front of everyone, and I thought ‘That’s the finest think you could have ever done to me.  Now you’ve got a problem!’  He was a good all-round fighter, Bill, a typical class fighter.  He had fast hands, accurate punches.  Doug says ‘Whatever you do, don’t let him get into a pattern.  If Billy Knight gets into a pattern, you’ve got a problem.  As he start’s settling down, you’ve got to break his style.  Break it.’”

Alan floored Knight twice, backed him into a corner and tore into him, which prompted referee, Sid Nathan, to stop the fight right on the bell to end the second round.  A jubilant Alan hugged everybody he could get hold of, including Sid Nathan.  Knight subsequently needed six stitches in a cut over his right eyebrow, and his trainer, Frank Duffett, confirmed that he was going to pull him out at the end of the second round anyway.  For the record, this was the quickest finish to a British title fight in almost 13 years.

A month later, Alan travelled to Germany to stop Frank Reiche in seven rounds.  “Frank Reiche was so powerful.  In the whole of my career, that was the best I ever boxed.  That was the night when Ali boxed Richard Dunn and, after my fight, I’m at Muhammad Ali’s dressing room door and I wouldn’t knock on it.  Bob Arum came round and he says ‘Do you want to go in and see him?’  I said ‘Oh, I’d love to,’ and we went in and he was laying there on the couch.  I had two black eyes, and he said ‘Hey, you been fighting, man?’  I said ‘Yeah,’ and he said ‘How did you get on?’  I said ‘I won, thank you,’ and that was it.”

In September 1976, Alan made his second defence of his British title in his second fight with Kevin Finnegan at the Albert Hall.  As in their first fight, Alan won the decision over 15 rounds, and the decision was, once again, by a margin of half a point.  “He had me in the second one.  I was bashed up in the eleventh round and in the last round.  At the end of the thirteenth, my corner told me ‘You’ve got one round to go.  This is the last round.  Go and win it big.  If you don’t win this one, we’re going nowhere.’  When the round was over, I went over to the referee to have my hand put up, and he says ‘There’s one more round to go.’  I went out for the fifteenth, and I was drained.  I thought it was the end of the fight, and now I’ve got one more round to go.  There was nothing there.”  When the fight was over, Finnegan offered his hand to Roland Dakin, who smiled gently, shook his head and moved across to lift Alan’s glove.  Alan had won his Lonsdale belt to keep. 

With three-time rival, Kevin Finnegan

After two more wins in 1976, in February 1977 the opportunity came to challenge Germano Valsecchi for his European title in Milan.  “I was the first Englishman to beat an Italian for the European Title in over 50 years.  We went over there and we had a lot of people with us from different parts of London, and I stopped him in five rounds.  So I won the European title, and then I fought Ronnie ‘Mazel’ Harris, the most feared American middleweight.  He won a gold medal at the Olympics, he’d been a pro for about eight years, and no one wanted to fight him.  He was too dangerous.  Anyway, I’ve took the fight.  I saw it on film the other day, and I didn’t remember until I watched it that I was stopped sitting down in my own corner.”  At the end of the eighth, Alan’s lip was split in half.  The referee went to his corner and stopped the fight.  Meanwhile, in the opposite corner, Harris had double vision and his jaw was broken in two places.

In July 1977, Alan travelled to France to trade leather with Emile Griffith.  At the time he shared the ring with Alan, he 39 year old American had been a professional for 18 years and had boxed over 100 times.  Alan won on points over ten rounds, and Griffith never boxed again.  The blue eyes glowed with pride as he told me “I boxed Emile Griffith in Monte Carlo.  He knew everything.  He was champion of the world at welterweight, light-middle and middleweight.  After the fight, I told him ‘Emile, I’m proud to have fought you.’  He said ‘Oh?  Maybe we can do it again sometime.’”

Alan returned to Milan to defend his European title in his next fight against Gratien Tonna.  In the sixth round, Tonna opened up a two inch cut on Alan’s forehead and he was stopped round eight.  After the disappointment of losing his European title on cuts, Alan went back after the British title.  Once more, it was Kevin Finnegan in the opposite corner at the Empire Pool.  Once again, Alan won it by a half a point.  Once again, it was close, but not so close as the others.  “The third one?  No, it wasn’t so close.  It was more of a comfortable win.  I still one it by half a point though, but it was much easier for me.”  They never shared the ring again, but, in his autobiography, Alan described Kevin Finnegan as “One of the cleverest fighters I ever met, one of the toughest and classiest fighters ever to lace up a glove.”

In February 1978, Alan had his first professional fight in America.  He stopped Sandy Torres in five at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas and he had a smashing time in tinsel town.  But, five months later on 19 July 1978, Alan experienced every fighter’s worst nightmare.  He travelled to Italy to fight Angelo Jacopucci for the now vacant European middleweight title, a belt that both had held and both had lost.  As the pair stepped through the ropes at the Municipal Stadium in Bellaria, Jacopucci had lost only two of 35 fights, but he was not well respected by the Italian fight fans.  They called him a coward.  But, the night that Jacopucci shared the ring with Alan, he fought like a tiger.  In the twelfth round of a fight that left Alan bruised and cut, three right hooks sent Jacopucci backwards and a final massive left put the Italian down.  As Jacopucci lay against the ropes, he was still conscious, but he failed to beat the count.  That night, the proud and brave Italian finally won the respect of his countrymen that he had craved throughout his career.  He collapsed in the early hours of the following morning and he died two days later after unsuccessful brain surgery.  The blue eyes were dulled by sadness as Alan explained “Anyway, he died after I boxed him.  See, the Italian press were saying that he was the worst fighter they had ever produced.  They geed him up and he geed himself up to prove them wrong, and he gave me a tough fight.  I was marked up and everything.  Afterwards, we went out for a meal and he said ‘Minter, you good fighter.’  I said ‘Thank you.  I’m honoured to have fought you.’  When he sat down at the table, he was all right.  I woke up the next morning and they told me that he was in a coma.” 

Less than four months later, Alan defended his European title against Gratien Tonna at the Empire Pool and avenged his previous loss to the Frenchman with a six round stoppage win.  “When I boxed Tonna in Italy, he came in with a massive entourage, showing his power, and he’s gone to me ‘Minter, I kill you!  I kill you!’  He had me worried, because I didn’t know he’d go to the extreme of saying that.”  The blue eyes turn to blazing ice.  “So now I’m fighting him in London.  He’s come to my country, my weigh-in, my people.  Anyway, he’s come up to me at the weigh-in and he’s gone ‘Minter, how are you?’  I’ve gone ‘Fuck you!  You’ve got a problem tonight.’  He’s gone ‘Minter, we friends.’  Anyway, they’ve pulled us apart and, when we got in the ring, I stopped him.  He’s turned his back and thrown his arms in the air.  He swallowed.  He was a bully, and I’ll tell you, fight fire with fire and bully a bully.”

Later that month, Alan relinquished his European title to concentrate on securing a world title fight, but first there was other business pending.  A February points win over Rudy Robles was followed in May by a nine round stoppage of Renato Garcia, who later declared “I felt like General Custer saying ‘Where are all those bloody Indians coming from?’”  The following June, Alan stopped Monty Betham in two and, in October, he outpointed Doug Demmings, and finally the opportunity arrived to challenge the undisputed middleweight champion of the world.

His name was Vito Antuofermo.  He was a rugged and aggressive Italian who had lived in Brooklyn.  Hugh McIlvanney described the pair in The Observer as ‘Mary Poppins versus the Wolfman.’  But, when Alan climbed through the ropes at Caesars Palace on 16th March 1980, there was nothing Disney-like about his performance as he outboxed Antuofermo over 15 rough rounds.  “There was a big contingent of English supporters who came over.  At the end, the crowd all jumped in the ring, ‘cos, in those days, the crowd could get in the ring.  As they dispersed, the bell went, ding, ding, ding, and it happened, a split decision.  Anyway, the judge from Germany scores it 134 Minter, 133 Antuofermo, so I’m one up.  The second judge scores it 134 Antuofermo, 133 Minter, so now we’re level.  Then the third judge all the way from England, Roland Dakin, scores it 130 Antuofermo, 136 Minter, and I thought ‘That’ll fucking do me!’”

In the heat of battle with Vito Antuofermo

After the decision was announced, Alan dropped to his knees and cried with relief.  Among the ringside crowd was a delirious Terry Downes, who had screamed at Alan throughout the fight, and Joe Louis, who declared “That Minter is one helluva good fighter!”  Frank Sinatra visited the new champion’s changing room afterwards, sang ‘My Way’, and gave his hotel suite to Alan by way of congratulations.  “When we got upstairs, there was no beds, there was no television, no nothing.  It was an empty room he give me.  So I phoned downstairs and I said ‘There’s no bed in the room!’  They said ‘Press the button.’  Then – boom! – and everything happened.  A television screen came out of the wall.  It was beautiful.”

“The next day, Larry Holmes was working out in the gym, and all the English people were there to watch him train.  The gym was packed and, before he started, he got in the ring and he says ‘I’d just like to say to all you English people here today thanks for coming to watch me work out, but I’m proud to say you have the new undisputed middleweight champion of the world, and you tell Alan Minter, don’t wee in the street, don’t spit in the main road, do everything a world champion should do.’  With that, I’ve walked in and he said ‘Alan, congratulations!’  It was marvellous.”

The citizens of Crawley turned out in their masses to welcome their champion home.  “Gatwick Airport!  The crowds and the bands and the music.  Ah, Christ!  It was packed.  It was something that I never expected, ever.  The next day, I don’t know how they kept it a secret, but they picked me up, my management and my family, and they drove me through Crawley to the council depot and there was a stagecoach with four grey mares and all my family got on it.  I felt totally embarrassed.  As they took the stagecoach out, I’m sitting on top and there’s a few hundred lads going ‘Well done, Alan,’ and I thought ‘Well, I’m not going to sit on this stagecoach much longer, there’s no one come to see me!’  Then, as we get into Langley Green where I was brought up, there was all people.  You couldn’t see a bit of grass or pavement or road.  The roar!  As we’ve gone through Langley Green, they were 12 deep on the pavement.  They was in the road going up the hill towards the M23.  Thousands!  Cars were stopping.  Going down the High Street, 15 deep in the road.  Then, into Queen’s Square, the finale.  People!  Thousands and thousands of people.  I’ve got photographs, and I can get out my magnifying glass and go ‘Yeah, that’s so-and-so!’  It was unbelievable.”

Welcome home Champ!

Less than three months later, Alan defended his world title in a rematch with Vito Antuofermo, this time at Wembley Arena.  Antuofermo was cut in the first round and, by the time that fearless warrior was finally pulled out by his corner at the end of the eighth, his craggy features were a pitiful mess.  “I watched it the other day, and they would never, ever have let it go on today.  It should have been stopped earlier.  The eighth round came, they called the doctor to have a look at the damage, and he’s let the fight go on.  So the ninth round came, and his cornermen pulled him out.”

Alan was a world champion on top of his game and he was flying high, but he also needed a rest.  “See, what you’ve got to remember is that, when a champion wins his title, he can bask in the glory of being champion.  He can choose who he wants to defend against and make a lot of money.  After I won the first fight with Antuofermo, I got a letter from the WBC and the WBA saying I had 60 days to defend against Antuofermo.  So I beat him at Wembley, and then I had another 60 days to defend against the number one contender or be stripped of the title, and Marvin Hagler was the number one contender.”

On 27 September 1980, Alan defended against Hagler.  The menacing switch-hitting southpaw had drawn with Antuofermo in a challenge for the world title ten months earlier.  He was furious that he had been denied the decision, and he let it be known that he regarded himself as the uncrowned middleweight king.  The air at Wembley was thick with tension that night, fuelled by the rumours that, during the build-up to the fight, Alan had uttered the words “I’ll never lose the title to a black man.”  This quote has been documented so many times over the hears, and I asked him if he actually said those words.  “Yeah, I said it.  You see, Marvin Hagler was slagging me off, so I said that and, all of a sudden, everybody’s jumped up and they’re on the phone.  It’s the way the press built it up.  That’s the problem.”

Battle commenced and Hagler cut Alan’s left cheek early in the first round with his razor sharp right jab.  In the second, Alan shook Hagler briefly with a right hook and called him in, crying out “Come on!”  As Hagler responded, Alan caught him with a right to the chin that buckled Hagler’s knees for a split-second.  But, aside from that moment, despite Alan’s game defiance, Hagler ripped into him with wave after wave of ferocious attacks, fists landing with excruciating regularity.  Halfway through the third round, Alan’s face was cut to ribbons and the referee stopped the fight. 

Hagler dropped to his knees and, as he did so, the first missile flew over the ropes, the start of a spiteful cascade of bottles and beer cans from every direction.  Hagler’s cornermen leapt upon him to form a heroic human shield, and the new champion was rushed from the ring under a heavy police escort while the ringside reporters dived for cover.  Back in his changing room, Hagler was calm as he praised the policemen who had rescued him and the referee who had stopped the fight as he felt that Alan was unable to see because of his injuries. 

Looking back at that bloody night, Alan philosophically declared “I could see.  I was getting hurt though.  I wasn’t too happy that they stopped it, but I think they probably did me a favour because he couldn’t miss me with a shot.  When I think about it now, I should have let them strip me of the title.  I’m not saying if I’d have been given a rest I would have beaten him.  I wouldn’t have done, I don’t think, but I fancied my chances.  If he couldn’t beat Antuofermo and I beat Antuofermo comfortably, then how could he beat me?  It doesn’t work like that, but that was my plan.  I thought he couldn’t beat me, but he couldn’t miss me.  I mean, I was cut in the first round, the second and the third.  I couldn’t avoid the man.  I don’t think that at any time in my life or in my career, no matter what I decided my tactics would be, there was no way that Alan Minter would ever have beaten Marvin Hagler, and that’s a fact.”

Six months later, Alan was back with a points win over Ernie Singletary at Wembley and, three months after that, he returned to Caesars Palace where he lost a controversial points verdict to Mustafa Hamsho, a Syrian who was based in New York.  “I was working in Birmingham and I was out getting drunk.  I got a phone call saying I’m fighting an eliminator for the championship of the world against Hamsho, and I took the shot.  I was tired.  I wasn’t right.  I was walking around at 12/13 stone and I had three weeks to get the weight off.  In Las Vegas, it’s a dry heat and you can’t sweat.  I was dead at the weight, but I won it and they gave it to him.”

Six months later, on 15 September 1981, at the age of 30, Alan stepped through the ropes for the last time to fight 23 year old Tony Sibson for the European middleweight title at Wembley Arena.  Sibson stopped Alan in the third round, putting him down twice in the final moments before the referee put an end to it without taking up the count.  “After Hamsho, I’ve got to fight Sibson for a title that I’ve won twice.  Why do I want to fight for the European title to fight again for the world title, which is governed by Marvin Hagler?  I’m getting old now and I’m fighting for titles which I’ve had and vacated, at 30 years of age.”

“Tony Sibson never knocked me out.  The referee stopped the fight when I was on the floor.  See, when you’re boxing, you train for a fight whether it’s 12 or 15 rounds.  I would never look to see what round it was.  In Wembley Arena, they had a big blackboard that tells you what round it is.  I’m sitting on my stool, I don’t know how many rounds have gone past, and I’ve turned round and I’ve looked at the blackboard and it said ‘Round Three’.  I’ve still got nine rounds to go, and I was gutted, demoralised.  I’d had enough, and that was it, full-stop.”

These days, at 50 years old, Alan still looks in great shape, but he was quick to point out “When I go running on my own, I feel like nothing has changed.  When I run with Ross, I’m out of it, and I’ve had that kid turn round to me and say ‘Dad, we should have stayed at home, shouldn’t we?’  You don’t think you’ve slowed down, that it’s still there, and it’s not until you’re running with an athlete, someone that’s much younger than you, somebody who’s active, that you realise what a dope you are!”

Alan and his son, Ross (former Southern Area and English welterweight champion

“Winning the world title was the greatest moment of my life.  But, saying that, when I think back to when I was a child watching telly, I remember watching a pro having that Lonsdale Belt wrapped around his waist and thinking ‘That must be the greatest thing that could ever happen to me.’  So, if I’m honest, when I look back at everything that I’ve done, I couldn’t say that one thing tops the other, because everything was an achievement, British, European and world.  It was just a lovely moment in time, and you know something?  I’ve only got to walk into the Albert Hall or Wembley and, even now, I get dreadful butterflies.  It’s the smell.  You walk down the steps to where the dressing rooms are and you can smell the same smell that was there when I was boxing.  Even driving to Wembley the way I used to go when I was boxing, it’s the same thing.  It’s like now, when the air is getting cold and it’s wintery, autumnal, that’s the start of the boxing season.”  The blue eyes shine brightly.

MEETING CONOR BENN     (by Melanie Lloyd)

MEETING CONOR BENN (by Melanie Lloyd)

The interview

Most debutants might dream of being chief support to Anthony Joshua versus Charles Martin at the O2 Arena in front of 20,000 people.  By virtue of his name, Conor Benn has been thrust into the spotlight straight from the start.  But, as the 19 year old Londoner marched out to the haunting melody of ‘Ready or Not’ by The Fugees, a song released the year he was born, it was a surreal experience, more akin to a deer transfixed by oncoming headlights.

His story is driven by destiny, a bit like a leaf in the wind.  He didn’t even want to be a fighter when he was young.  When he arrived in the rock-hard town of Hyde to train with Ricky Hatton, he had no deep-seated desire to emulate his dad.  Conor explained “There was nothing much for me in Australia at the time, so I thought I might as well give boxing a go.  Before I left Australia, I was a painter and decorator, not that there’s anything wrong with painting and decorating.  I was good at it actually.  It’s the only thing where I’ve had a delicate touch in my life.  Everything else, it’s like I’ve got led in my hands.  If boxing doesn’t work out for me, I’ll probably start my own painting and decorating business.”

“Ricky Hatton’s last fight was the first fight I ever went to, and I love Ricky’s style.  He always brought it.  So that’s why I chose Manchester.  At first, I lived in a flat next to a nut-job.  He had slabs of wood hammered into his window frames.  I kept hearing stuff next-door and I couldn’t quite work out if there was someone living there or not, and then I see this geezer come out and he’s looked at me and I’ve looked at him, and I’m thinking ‘What am I doing here?’  Then I moved into a house with Nathan Gorman, Reuben Arrowsmith and Sam Evans.  It was all right.  It was fun, but they all used to go home on the weekends and then I’d be on my own, and obviously I was in Manchester, so I couldn’t even understand people!”

“When you watch my fights and I’m skipping to the side, left hook to the body, Ricky got me doing that.  He was there at my debut and, after I knocked the guy out in the first round with a shot he that taught me, I looked at him and I said ‘Thank you, Ricky,’ because obviously I left Ricky and moved to London to sign up with Matchroom.  But I will always be grateful to Ricky for taking me in.”

“Eddie Hearn has done an amazing job on me.  Don’t get me wrong.  He’s not doing it for charity, but, if I was with any other promoter, I don’t think they would have done this well with me.  I’ve got the name, so obviously that makes it easier, but I back it up in the ring and Eddie is an unbelievable promoter, and his dad is such a nice man.  Barry has stuck up for me a few times on Twitter and I’m like ‘Go on, Barry!’”

“Tony Sims knew my dad back in the day, and he knew my mum before my dad even knew my mum.  Me and Tony have got a great relationship.  I’ve had to go through a lot of discomforting things here, things that have made me not want to stay in England, just life, I guess.  But my loyalty to my coach goes beyond that, because I can’t see Tony not being my trainer.  He’s shaped and moulded me into the fighter I am today.  He’s very old-school.  He’s got that hardness, that toughness.  I know I live a luxury life, but, when I get to the gym, it’s spartan, and that’s how Tony trains me.  On fight night, I’ve also got Mark Seltzer in my corner, who is an excellent cuts-man, and Dan Lawrence is my S&C coach and he’s worked wonders with me.”

“When I first walked into the Matchroom gym, the boys were very welcoming, which was nice.  We’re all working for the same thing and we’re all in it together.  Doing the sprints early in the mornings when its freezing cold, that’s the worst thing.  We’re all out there, but we’re not competing with each other.  We’re all just trying to stay alive!”

“There’s a brilliant man in my life called Luke Chandler.  His little boy, Jackson, comes in the ring with me sometimes.  Luke sponsors the gym, but he sponsors me individually as well.  I wouldn’t be where I am without this man, without a shadow of a doubt, and I don’t say that lightly.  When I first came to Matchroom, he’s gone ‘Let me know if you need anything.’  I didn’t even ask, but he put me in an apartment in Brentwood, right near the gym, and then he got me my first car.  I was 19 at the time, and I hadn’t even passed my driving test.”

“Before I turned pro, me and Luke were in his car, and he had the sickest car!  We were driving to Kal Yafai’s fight, who is another fighter he sponsors.  So then the song comes on the radio, ‘Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide’ and I was thinking that is so relevant.  That’s my walk out tune, and Luke also has his own history with that song.  So that’s where ‘Ready or Not’ came from.  Then I thought I’m going to bring back some old music, so in my last two fights I’ve come in to ‘Dangerous’ by Conroy Smith, which was my dad’s music for his last fight.”

The price of fame is that everybody wants a piece of you, and Conor’s memory tends to serve as a buffer against the chaos.  “I meet so many people these days, thousands of people, so why would I remember everything?  You meet all these different people, but, everywhere I’ve gone in the world, I’ve met the same sort of people, nothing new.  But I don’t seek emotional comfort via people.  The important things stay with me, the things that I want to remember.”

“I was pleased with my debut.  It weren’t bad.  I got him out of there.  But, to be honest, I couldn’t quite believe it was happening and, when I look back at it now, it’s all a bit of a blur.  One thing I say to fighters coming along now is absorb it.  I didn’t really absorb it.  I was just stood there thinking ‘What am I doing here?’”

“The only thing I remember about going to Glasgow to fight Luke Keleher was that Tony has gone to me ‘Con, go to the counter because you’ve got to change your money.’  So I’ve gone to the counter and asked to change my money, and the girl behind the counter has started wetting herself!  They done me dirty, and all the boys were watching and laughing.  So that’s all I remember about Scotland, that you don’t have to change your money if you go to Glasgow!”

Leaving Lukas Radic on the canvas.

In his third fight, Conor blasted Lukas Radic away in one round, but it was the nonchalantly defiant way that he dealt with Chris Eubank Senior at the pre-fight press conference that stole the show.  “If he wanted to pull me aside from the cameras and have a chat with me, I’d rate that.  Thank you.  Your advice is gold.  But don’t be doing it in front of the cameras and all that to a 19 year old boy.  I don’t respect that at all.  To the extent that you’re wanting to make yourself feel a certain way, don’t use me to try and do that and don’t think I’m going to sit here and tolerate it either, irrelevant of who you are.”

“As fighters, we see boxing through a different lens to everybody else.  People don’t realise how tough boxing is.  When I broke my jaw eight months into my career, I’d been sparring with John Ryder and I think I got a hairline fracture from Ryder, because I had pains in my jaw for ages every time I sparred, but I’m hard and I didn’t tell anyone.  Then Ohara Davies finished it off.  He went crack straight on my jaw.  I flinched, and I never flinch, and then I carried on.  Then Ohara hit me again, and I’ve had to say ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ because I couldn’t feel my teeth.  Then I spat and I expected teeth to come out of my mouth, and there was just blood everywhere.  Part of my jaw is still numb now.  When I went back to sparring after my jaw had healed, Tony said to me ‘I bet you’re going to be a little bit worried.’  But I was like bang, wallop, come on!  If it’s gonna go, it’s gonna go.”

Upon his recovery, Conor hit the ground running with four swashbuckling stoppages on the trot, the latter being his first fight in America when stopped Brandon Sanudo with a brutal body-shot in the second round, which left the Mexican laid out in agony on the canvas.  “New York was cool.  It was exciting.  We stayed at the Dream Downtown Hotel, and I went out the night after the fight to a club called 1 OAK.  I thought I’m going to party.  I thought this is sick.  I was with a few of my boys, and my pastor from my church came out with us as well.  We all had a great time.”

Posing for a Reebok photo shoot.

“When I got back, I was jetlagged.  I had a three day commitment to a Reebok shoot.  I’d put on a stone and a half in weight, because I thought I weren’t fighting for a while and I ate loads of Dunkin’ Donuts.  Then, four weeks later, they put Cedric Peynaud in front of me.  I looked at his record and I thought I’ve just knocked out five geezers on the trot.  Bring it on!  I thought I was sweet, but I weren’t.”

“That was the first time I ever got put down in my whole life.  He put me down twice, I put him down twice, and I was on autopilot in that fight, 100 per cent.  I was a state.  That’s the only time so far that I would say I’ve ever really been in the heat of battle.  That’s the only time I was ever oblivious to absolutely everything.  Tony was slapping me in the face, but I was just sitting there in the corner and I didn’t even hear a thing he was saying.  I was just in this fight, and it was as if everything was in slow motion.  Peynaud could have knocked me out that night.  He didn’t, but he could have.”

“In my next fight, I stopped Chris Truman in Liverpool, and then I wanted to fight Peynaud again.  Tony was saying to have another warm-up fight, but I said ‘If I’m going to fight him again, I’ll fight him now.’  I think everyone was a little bit worried, but I didn’t feel that I needed to wait.  I thought I’m better than that.  I’m better than him.”

“I had the best training camp I’ve ever had.  Then, on fight week, I’ve injured my right hand and I’ve had cortisone injections, and I could still feel the pain when I was on the pads.  They were suggesting that I pull out of the fight, but I said no way, because I thought I’d knock him out with my left.  But then, when he’s come out, he’s switched to southpaw, and the only punch that is really effective against a southpaw is the backhand straight down the middle.  I managed to put him down three times in that fight with the bad knuckle.  Then I went to the hospital after, and I’d torn my tendon.”

“The second fight against Peynaud might have looked easier, but it was just as hard.  If anything, I thought the first fight was easier, I swear, because I’d never done ten rounds before either and concentration was a problem.  Sometimes, when I’m boxing, I can be thinking about anything that enters my head.  I could see someone recording on their phone and think ‘I wonder if that’s going on his Instagram.’  I might think ‘Who’s that geezer talking to my bird?  Stop the fight!’”

With Jussi Koivula after the fight.

“One of my favourite fights yet is Jussi Koivula at York Hall.  It was my first time as top of the bill and I thought I was in for a long night with him, so it felt very good to bang him out in the second round.”

“Then, in my last fight against Steve Jamoye, I couldn’t believe it when the referee took a point off me for hitting low.  I said ‘That weren’t low,’ and he went ‘Keep boxing!  Stop when I say stop.”  But I didn’t care about the referee.  I knew the geezer didn’t like it to the body, and I just kept winging them in there.  Afterwards, I said to the ref ‘Are you sure?  I’ll watch the fight and, if it weren’t low, me and you are falling out.’  Then I watched it and it was low, so me and Steve Gray are still good friends.”

“I got married on 2 January last year.  Me and Victoria met on social media and we were friends for a couple of years.  Then she just ended up living with me and she never left and, by the grace of God, everything’s good.  My prayer always was to meet someone when I was young, so that we could advance together.  We’re having my career together.  I ain’t got to do it on my own.  She’s only ever known me since I’ve been boxing and she’s seen me in some states in the changing room, which is hard for her.  But, at the end of the day, we go on a lovely holiday afterwards.  Thanks to Luke Chandler, we now live in a two-bedroom house with a beautiful garden for my two dogs, Solomon and Levi.  So we’re living a nice life.”

Father and Son.

“People on social media can say I’m ducking this one or that one, but I don’t give a toss.  I fight like my dad, and that’s it.  I don’t have to try.  Name a dull, boring Conor Benn fight.  There ain’t never been any.  I’ll fight anyone who’s put in front of me, and I know somebody is going to have to knock me out or be a lot better than me to beat me.  If they ever get in the ring with me, they’re going to have to work hard just to keep me off them, but I don’t think about them.”

“I believe it’s important to be in control of your feelings.  When I’m in training camp for a fight, I listen to rap and hip-hop.  But, after a certain point, I listen to Mozart.  I like the violins.  It just chills me out, because otherwise I end up in an always aggressive state.  What makes me happy is being peaceful, and my faith is what gives me peace.  Say there’s a massive storm and a big hurricane, all crazy, and there’s birds in their nest on a cliff and the birds are peaceful amongst all the madness that’s going on, that’s how I envision it.  Everything may not be smooth sailing, but you can have that peace.”

“I pray every day for God to give me the strength of Samson, the humbleness of Joseph, the wisdom of Solomon and the ferociousness of David.  God has a plan for me and, even if I lost, it’s God’s will, which means I haven’t lost.  I’ve won, even though it may seem like I’ve took a loss to everybody else.  All I’ve got to do is make sure I train hard, make sure I do everything I can, and I only bother to worry about what I am in control of.”

Hard at work in the gym.

Thus far, the Conor Benn story has been highly enjoyable, for us on the safe side of the ropes anyway.  Unpredictability is a key element of our fascination with fighters, and Conor’s pulling power in this regard is absolutely irresistible.  He could take a tumble in his next fight.  We may be witnessing the dawn of a future people’s champion.  In the meantime, the diamond is rough.  The talent is raw.  The prospect is electric.

 
LARRY O’CONNELL

LARRY O’CONNELL

Larry O’Connell, a strong man in the ring.

Being one of the best known and most recognisable British referees we have ever had, it is sometimes easy to forget that Larry O’Connell had an exceedingly prolific amateur boxing career before he became the third man in the ring.  When I put that point to him at a recent meeting of the London Ex Boxers Association, he treated me to one of his kindly smiles that we all know and love.  “I had about 155 fights in total, and I won 130 of them.  I was 11 years old when I started boxing, and I never finished until I was 29.  I had so many amateur title fights when I was young.  Then I went in the army.  I was in the Royal West Kent Regiment in Maidstone, and I was Army Light-Welterweight Champion.”

“I boxed for the Fitzroy Lodge during the 1960s.  I boxed Dick McTaggart three times, and I beat him once.  That was a non-title fight.  But he stopped me from becoming ABA Light-Welterweight Champion twice.  He beat me in the finals in 1963 and 1965.   The thing was with Dick, you’d fight him and you’d miss him by just that much every time, and that would put you off because he was very, very fast, very quick thinking.  He’s a lovely man.  Every year, the first Christmas card I always receive is from Dick.  I get a Christmas card from him in November!”

“When I packed up boxing, I decided to become a referee.  The first fight I ever refereed was in November 1976 in London, and the last one was in 2007 in Berlin.  I wasn’t nervous or anything going in to referee my first fight.  If you’re not ready for something like that, don’t do it.  But I was ready for it.  One of the most important factors in being a good referee is you have to be a good mover on your feet.  You must use your feet to be in time with what’s going on in the ring, and, you have to remember, I was fit in those days!  I believe also that you have to have had experiences of your own to take into account.  I really do believe a good referee needs to have boxed himself.  Another thing is you learn from other people and listen to what people say.  I was very fortunate to have people looking after me and thinking after me, because it’s not easy.”

“Doing a fight that’s very, very close, and you know you’ve got to give a decision on it, that’s one of the worst jobs of the lot.  But, having said that, you shouldn’t be frightened of that.  You make a statement, and that statement has got to stand.  Integrity is more important than anything else.  And, if the crowd gets partisan, you should never be intimidated by people like that.”

“If you stop a fight early, you must know there is something going wrong.  What you do is you look after the boxers’ health, and that’s the most important thing of all.  If you let people stand up there and get knocked about, then you should be asked questions, definitely.  The main thing is, if something is going wrong for a fighter and you want to stop it, you want to get close well before it gets that bad.  You mustn’t run at anybody.  That’s the most important thing.  Don’t let a man get hurt.  When a boxer is really hurt, he hides it and tries to come back out, and he get hurts again.  So you finish it.”

“When it comes to a trainer throwing in the towel, the first thing you must do is take that out of the way, obviously to avoid any accidents, and then you should stop the fight straightaway.  You’ve got to do that.  If the trainer doesn’t want his boxer to fight on, he knows him better than I do.  In other words, what I’m trying to say is that, if the trainer feels that I’m being too long with his fighter and he wants him saved, I’d stop the fight immediately.”

“Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn, I refereed the two of their fights and I got a lot of fun out of them.  They were both very professional and they both had so much talent.  When they boxed at Old Trafford in October 1993, that was one of the best fights I ever handled.  That was terrific, that was.  Quite frankly, I know Eubank talks an awful lot, but he’s really a lovely guy underneath.  Eubank was a bit special, and he treated me like God.  When I walked into a show and he was there, he would never walk in front of me and he would never call me Larry.  It was always Mr O’Connell.  I talked to Eubank very well, very easy.  Benn was, in his own way, a bit of a character.  He was a nice guy, but he was hard.  It didn’t do him as much good as it should have done, you know, but he was a certainly a character.”

“I’ve made a lot of friends in the boxing game, and I’m often surprised by the way people always seem to speak so highly of me.  The only problem I ever remember was when I was judging the first Lennox Lewis versus Evander Holyfield fight.  I think a lot of people thought, because it was in Madison Square Garden, that I bowed to the Americans.  Well, that’s a load of absolute nonsense.  It wasn’t like that at all.  I never, ever thought about anyone else outside, people calling and shouting and bawling.  There’s always somebody who doesn’t like what you did at one particular time.  When it came to judging that fight, Stanley Christoudoulou called it for Lewis, Eugenia Williams called it for Holyfield, and I called it right in the middle.  So how can that be such a bad place to be?”

“Honestly and truthfully, the best thing I ever done was to go refereeing, and I’ve been very, very fortunate.   I’ve done 1,700 fights as a referee and judge, and 200 of those were World Title fights.  I’ve done six World Title fights in Las Vegas.  I think that’s where I felt that I’d done very well, to get that far.  One of my favourite places that I ever refereed was on the Caribbean island of Saint Maarten.  That was Pernell Whitaker’s split-decision win when he defended his WBC Welterweight Title in April 1996 against Wilfredo Rivera.  That was such a beautiful place.”

“I had a wonderful time.  Mind you, I was always strong.  By that, I mean, when the fighters came in, I was strong with them.  Even with people I knew very well, it made no difference.  But I think I done all right.  I met some wonderful people, and it took me all over the world.  I might have made mistakes.  There may be something I didn’t see obviously, because I only see what I see.  Honestly and truthfully, I think there are an awful lot of very, very kind people who actually do a bit too much, if you know what I mean.  But I feel that British referees over the years gone by have been very, very good, and I hope I’m one of them.”

If Larry O’Connell had an official fan club, it would be fully subscribed in five seconds flat.  The late, great Joe Somerville, a jovial journeyman and booth boxer back in the day, once told me, “Larry O’Connell was one of the best referees I have seen.  You wouldn’t know he was in there, unless you tried to pull a fast one!”  Another London Ex Boxers member who was fully prepared to second that emotion was former British and Commonwealth welterweight champion, Sylvester Mittee (pictured with Larry below), who declared, “With Larry O’Connell, there was an open sincerity about him.  So, when he told you off, you never felt like you were being scolded.  You simply felt like you were being reminded that this is the way you should be doing it.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (A tribute to Will Jones, lifeboat man of 30 years and father of Ivor ‘The Engine’)

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (A tribute to Will Jones, lifeboat man of 30 years and father of Ivor ‘The Engine’)

Will in his days on the Holyhead lifeboat.

 

 

 

 

 

They say “like father, like son”, and that is certainly true in the case of Ivor ‘The Engine’ Jones and his amazing father, Will.  If anyone were to meet Ivor for the first time and they didn’t know anything about him, if they were to watch a film of Ivor fighting men like Billy Hardy and John Dorey back in the eighties with his ferocious and fearless fighting style, if they were to understand how his army of fans would follow him anywhere and fill out any hall at the drop of a hat, people could be quite shocked about that because Ivor is a quiet man who has nothing to prove to anyone.  Ivor gets the strong, silent side of his demeanour from Will.  Will is the source of where that comes from.

Will Jones was the coxswain on the Holyhead Lifeboat for over 30 years.  But, if you ever met Will and you didn’t already know that, he would never tell you about it.  My favourite story about Will in this regard is the one where he saved the same man’s life twice in one night.  It happened on 2 December 1966.  There was a terrible hurricane raging out on the Irish Sea, with the wind blowing at speeds of 100 miles an hour and waves reaching titanic heights of 35 feet.  A Greek ship named Nafsiporos was in big trouble off the coast of North Wales.  Her engines had failed and she was drifting helplessly towards the rocks with 19 crew members on board.

Three lifeboats were despatched to battle their way through those hellish waters to rescue the Greek crew, and Will’s boat was one of them.  Nafsiporos was a cargo ship and she weighed almost 1,300 tonnes, so the lifeboats were tiny by comparison.  When they found her, they managed to manoeuvre Will’s boat as close as possible to one side of the ship.  But, by now, a rigid life-raft that had been attached to the side of Nafsiporos had broken away and it was swinging about wildly in the ferocious wind off a single wire.

 

Painting depicting of the Greek ship, Nafsiporos, and the Holyhead lifeboat going to its aid.

As Will’s crew struggled against all the odds to maintain their position, members of the Greek crew started to make their way down a ladder on the side of the ship.  They had to dodge the swinging life-raft as they climbed down, and they took it in turns to leap from the ladder on to Will’s boat.  The first four made it, but the fifth one nearly didn’t make it.  Will managed to grab hold of the man and drag him on board, and then Will looked up and he knew that the life-raft was about to come down.  Will dived on the man who he had just saved and shoved him clear out of the way.  A couple of seconds later, that rigid thing smashed down on to the deck right where the Greek sailor had been standing, badly damaging Will’s boat in the process.

 

Between those three little lifeboats, they managed to rescue 15 of the 19 Greek sailors.  Very sadly, the final four refused to abandon ship.  The rescue operation took 24 hours, and it has been described as one of the most remarkable in the entire history of the RNLI.  Will received a rare medal for his gallantry from the Queen for his part in the Nafsiporos rescue mission.  He also met the Queen twice more during his three decades on the Holyhead lifeboat to be awarded further medals for his participation in other epic rescues.  But, if you ever met Will for the first time and you didn’t know about it, he would never tell you any of that.

Will with his medals that he was awarded by the Queen for his gallantry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, there is one thing that Will Jones definitely didn’t mind anyone knowing, and that was the fact that his family meant absolutely everything to him.  He once told me that, when Ivor went to Newmarket at the age of 15 years old to become a stable lad for the Armstrongs, taking Ivor there from Holyhead and leaving him behind was one of the hardest things that Will ever had to do.  He said that going out to face a bad sea was nothing compared to that.  Throughout his life, Will was right behind Ivor supporting him in everything he ever did, regularly making the trip from Anglesey to London to be in his son’s corner.  Will passed away on New Year’s Eve 2018.  He was 91 years old.  He was a wonderful husband, a terrific father, and a lovely grandad and great-grandad.  Our heartfelt condolences go out to Ivor and his beautiful family at this very sad time.

Like father, like son, Will and Ivor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BRIAN HUDSON (Former Southern Area lightweight champ and British title contender)

BRIAN HUDSON (Former Southern Area lightweight champ and British title contender)

Don't mess with him (Brian in his boxing days)

Don’t mess with him (Brian in his boxing days)

 

 

 

 

 

 

He was born in Woodford on 28th December 1945 and christened with the surname Hudspeth.  However, he is universally known and respected as Brian Hudson, the name he boxed under as a professional.  As with the majority of ex boxers of a certain age, Brian is the possessor of that certain old fashioned calm courtesy that makes one feel instantly comfortable in his presence.  His affable nature is underpinned by that matter-of-fact mode of expression that comes naturally to those who feel they have nothing to prove.

“My dad’s name was Tom.  He was born in Blackwood in South Wales, and he always kept his Welsh accent.  My mum was Florence, but we used to call her Flo.  She was born in Woolwich, and then she moved to East Ham.  When my mum was 17 years old, she was walking down East Ham High Street when they started dropping bombs on the docks.  So she ran all the way home, because they had an Anderson air raid shelter out the back garden.  Then her whole family got evacuated to Wales, and that’s how my mum met my dad.  My sister, Lorraine, was born in Wales.  Then, after the war, they came back to London where me and my younger brother, David, were born.”

“In 1950, I was supposed to go to my first school on a Monday, but it caught fire on the Friday.  So they put us on buses to an old prisoner-of-war camp in Chingford where they’d set up another school.  Of course, by the time we went there, all the prisoners had gone.  But, when we’d get on the bus to come home, I used to see a German helmet on the roof of this building.  There’s a golf course there now.  I still go by it now and then, and I think back to what it was like.  I always tell people I never learned much at school, but I was very good at digging tunnels!”

Brian did not come from a traditional boxing family, but his father was a fan.  “My dad had a mate, a Welsh fella called Billy Thomas who turned pro at the age of 16.  So my dad liked the fight game and, when I was 11, he introduced me into it.  I started off at the Woodford Boxing Club and, when they moved, I went to the Woodford Garden City club where I stayed until I turned pro.  The gym was in the Barnardo’s home, and quite a few Bernardo boys used to box.”

“I lost my first five amateur fights.  My fifth one was against Jimmy Tibbs.  Jimmy was a good schoolboy boxer, and he stopped me in the first round.  When I went back to the changing room, a tall fella followed me in with his big Crombie on.  He said ‘You’re a little bit short and dumpy for your weight, ain’t you, boy?’  I said ‘Do you think so?’  So he said ‘Yes, when you go home tonight, tell your old man to put some horse shit in your boots,’ and I found out later that it was Jimmy Tibbs’ uncle.  After that, I started winning a few and losing a few, but I always liked it.  In the end, I had 93 bouts and I won 64.  In 1967, I won the ABAs at light-welter, and I boxed for England in the European Championships the same year.  It was over in Rome, and I beat a fella from Switzerland.  Then I fought Valeri Frolov, the Russian who won the gold, and he beat me on points.  But, if I was going to get beat, it was nice to get beat by a gold medallist.”

Upon his return from Italy, at the age of 21, Brian decided to do away with his amateur vest.  “Towards the end of my time in the amateurs, Freddie Hill had a gym at York Way above a pub called the Butcher’s Arms, and he trained all Bobby Neill’s boys.  There was Alan Rudkin, Frankie Taylor, Peter Cragg, Johnny Pritchett, and I used to spar with all of them.  When I turned over, Freddie became my trainer.  I always wanted to go pro, and I thought I could get a few bob.  All I really wanted to do in life was get a house, where I could say ‘That’s my house that I bought.’  I was married at to Susan when I was 19 and she was 17, and we lived with my in-laws for four years.  Susan didn’t mind me boxing when I was younger, although, in the end, she didn’t like it.  When I was 23, we got a nice council house, partly because I did well winning the ABAs, so they pushed me up the queue because I put Wanstead & Woodford on the map for sport. But I always wanted my own house, and I got it in the end.”

When Brian turned professional, his manager was Sam Burns, who was the instigator behind the name change.  “Sam told me ‘When they send these reports through over the phone, there’s only office boys listening to the results and they don’t know one fighter from another.  Hudspeth would be too much of a mouthful.  Would you shorten it?’  I said ‘I don’t mind.  Do whatever you want to do.’  So he came up with Hudson, and I said ‘Yeah, that would suit me.’”

In September 1967, Brian made his professional debut against Ken Richards at Shoreditch Town Hall.  “I felt terrific, especially with it being at Shoreditch.  They used to lean over from the balcony and nearly touch you.  It was a great place to make my debut, and I stopped him in four rounds.  My favourite place to box was Shoreditch, and then York Hall.  The Albert Hall was very grand and it was a lovely venue.  But, at Shoreditch and York Hall, the crowd was practically on top of you, which was great.  A lot of people used to come and watch me box.  My dad used to sort all that out.  He used to sell a lot of tickets because I was a crowd pleaser.  I stopped 15 out of the 18 fighters I beat, but I wasn’t really a heavy puncher.  I used to throw a lot of punches, but I don’t think I was aggressive enough sometimes.  I had to be hit.  In most of my fights, I started off on the floor.  I would say I was more of a fighter than a boxer.  I’d be bobbing and weaving, getting in and letting them have it.  I could always hear the crowd when I was in the ring, and that would urge me on.”

Brian was a natural light-welterweight, but the Board of Control changed the rules and left him in a dilemma.  “My natural fighting weight was about 10 stone.  In 1969, because I went up the ladder a bit quick, they fixed me up with Vic Andretti, who was British light-welterweight champion.  But Vic packed the game up before I got the chance, and the Board did away with the in-between weights.  Sam Burns said I should go down to lightweight, because there weren’t so many boys about at lightweight.  So I had to lose 5lb before every fight.  It doesn’t sound a lot, but I was like a greyhound anyway.  So, a week before a fight, I was on a cup and a half of liquid a day, with no bread and no potatoes.  Back then, I was working on the Water Board digging the roads up, so I’d get very dehydrated, but it was a good job.  We used to get out early in the morning, get the work done as quickly as we could, and in the afternoon I used to shoot up to Battersea and train.  It was only a small gym above a pub, but Billy Walker was there, Chris and Kevin Finnegan were there, and it was a terrific atmosphere.  Then, after I retired, they brought the light-welterweight division back, which was just my luck!”

In May 1969, Brian won the vacant Southern Area lightweight title against Jackie Lee, stopping the Hoxton southpaw in three rounds at the Hilton in Mayfair.  “Winning the Southern Area was terrific.  It’s not like winning a British title, but it’s the next best thing.  I hit Jackie Lee with a right hand, and I heard Freddie Hill in the background saying ‘He won’t get up,’ and he never made the count.  I defended my Southern Area title against Jackie Lee about a year and a half later at Shoreditch, and that time I stopped him in four.  They used to say you’ve got to catch a southpaw with a right hand, although I always found it easier catching them with a left hook myself.  But Jackie Lee was a terrific boxer.”

Old opponents and firm friends, Brian and Colin Lake

Old opponents and firm friends, Brian and Colin Lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of Brian’s old opponents who he is always delighted to see is Colin Lake.  They boxed at Shoreditch just before Christmas 1969, and Lake was retired in the seventh because of a cut eye.  “Lakey was a crafty boxer.  He’d draw you back on the ropes, he had all the old skills, all the old moves, and I was still up and coming really.  There was a five year age gap between us and, when you’re young, that’s quite a bit.  I don’t think there was much in the fight until he had to retire.  It’s great that we see each other regular at the London Ex Boxers Association all these years later and, what’s more, we’re not hitting each other!”

In May 1970, Brian challenged Ken Buchanan for the British lightweight title at the Empire Pool.  The outstanding Scot prevailed in the fifth round, but not before Brian had lured the ‘boxer’ into a fight.  “He caught me in the first round with a right hand, I think it was, and I was stunned.  I went forward, and normally, when you go forward, you don’t get up.  I got up and I was a bit dizzy, but I could hear them in my corner shouting ‘Claim him!’  So I claimed him and got through that round, and then I got back into the fight a bit.  I’d say that he dominated the opening two rounds.  Then I got him at close quarters and I was whacking him, and I think I won the third and fourth rounds.  Then he came back with the experience and he knocked me out in the fifth.  But Ken Buchanan was so quick.  I couldn’t believe how many times he was hitting me.  The only thing I can say is that, in his next fight, he won the world title.  So, if you’re going to fight someone like that who’s at their best in their career, that’s good for you.”

Brian’s penultimate contest was a swashbuckling upper and downer against Jimmy Anderson at the Albert Hall in February 1971.  Brian finished it in the sixth, knocking the former British Light-Welterweight Champion flat on to his back.  Anderson rose at the count of nine, but Harry Gibbs stopped the fight.  “Now, that was a fight, a proper battle!  Before I stopped him, he had me down four or five times.  Funnily enough, about 20-odd years ago, I was driving through Enfield and I saw him going round this corner.  I said to Susan ‘There’s Jimmy Anderson.’  So we’ve shot round the corner and he went into a phone box.  We’ve got out of the car and stood there.  When he came out, he was so surprised to see me, and then he told Susan what a good fight we had.  He’s a lovely fella and, cor, he could bang!”

Brian stepped through the ropes for the final time in April 1971 at the Grosvenor House Hotel.  He was defending his Southern Area title against Willie Reilly, and Brian was retired in round eight.  “About three weeks before the fight, I was in Freddie’s gym at Lavender Hill, and I must have hit the bag wrong and my left hand blew right up.  Freddie said ‘Don’t do no bag-work, sparring or nothing.  Just do general fitness, and the fight will go on.’  On the night of the fight, I’ve gone out and, the first punch I threw, I hit Willie Reilly on the chin and the pain went right up my arm.  I came back after the first round and I went ‘Freddie, my left hand has gone.’  Please excuse my language, but he said ‘So use the other fucker!’”

“Me and Willy Reilly were both cut, and the referee didn’t know who to stop.  Every time I threw the left hand, the pain was terrible, but I didn’t want to give up.  They should have pulled me out after the first round, got my hand better, and then had a return with him, but they never.  When I came out of the ring, I said ‘I’m going to pack up, Fred.  I’ve had enough.’  I was proper gutted, thinking they were pushing me out when I was injured.  So I retired and I was only 25, but I never regretted it.  It’s just one of those things that happen in life, and it’s all water under the bridge now.”

“After I packed up boxing, I went back to Woodford Garden City as a trainer, and I helped out there for about four years.  But, by now, I was self-employed working on the building sites, and I was training the boys three nights a week and then going out to shows, so I had to pack the training up and concentrate on my work.  A while after I finished at the club, they had a tribute night for me at the Prince Regent and so many boxers turned up.  It was a lovely evening.  They called me up into the ring and gave me a nice big silver plate.  Then they’ve only brought out Ken Buchanan!  He travelled all the way from Scotland just to be there.  I couldn’t believe it when he walked in, and it was terrific to see him again.  It was around that time that I joined the London Ex Boxers Association and, in all these years, I’ve always tried my best never to miss a meeting on the first Sunday morning of the month.  I love seeing all the old fighters and people I know.  Sometimes, I have fellas come up to me and they’ve turned up there just to see me, and they end up joining the organisation, which is lovely.  It’s the camaraderie, that’s what it is, all of us friends together.”