Life, as they say, can be a funny old game. When Tony Rabbetts was eight years old and his father sent him down the boxing gym to follow in the footsteps of his brothers, Tony was far from over the moon about the prospect. However, the way things worked out, Tony’s dad did boxing a hell of a favour.
Founder of the Twickenham Brunswick Boxing Club, for 30 years Tony has worked hard at the grassroots level of our sport. On a personal basis, Tony is very much one of the lads, although he freely admits that he loves a game of bingo. He is a straight talker who doesn’t beat around the bush and, in his own opinion, he is one of the stricter types of trainer. At the same time, Tony has solid compassion for the young men in his charge, men being the operative word, as he doesn’t hold with women boxing because he thinks they should look nice and he doesn’t believe that they should have flat noses.
“I was born in Whitton in Middlesex on 22nd June 1960, and my childhood was great. I started boxing because my two older brothers were doing it. I had to follow them because my dad said so. My brother, George, boxed in the ABAs and he won the London Finals, and I’ve got another brother called Roy who boxed, but he had to pack up because he had bad ears. I boxed for Southall ABC, which became Hogarth Boxing Club. My trainers there were Harry Monger and Harry Holland. Me and Harry Monger were very close. He was the one who showed me the ropes as I’ve gone along, and that’s why I’m a boxing coach now. He taught me about everything, and he was always there for me until he died in February 2009. Harry Holland was a mate of my dad’s, so that’s why my dad took us to him when we were kids, and me and Harry are still friends to this day.”
“I had my first bout when I was 11 years old. I fought a boy called Paul Kettle from Kingston at Battersea Town Hall. I only went to watch, but I was carded by then and there was a boy called Steve Tennant and I borrowed his shorts and vest. Anyway, I won on points. By the time I got to 13 or 14, all of a sudden it just fell into place. I can’t remember how many amateur fights I had altogether, but I think I had about 40. I boxed in the Schoolboys and I was Middlesex Champion four years on the trot, from 1971 to 1975.”
“After I finished in the amateurs, I was working at Smithfield Market. I was having a break from boxing. Then I started doing a few unlicensed fights. They called it unlicensed, but it’s just that it wasn’t recognised by the Board of Control, but we always had paramedics there and everything was just the same. That was in about 1980 and I used to train up the Thomas A’Becket. I was up there one day and Harry Holland walked in with Rocky Kelly and Gary Hobbs. I think I was sparring with Terry Marsh at the time. Terry Marsh was absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t even get near him in sparring, he was that talented. He wasn’t rough in sparring, but he was just too clever for me, and he was a very nice person.”
“I hadn’t seen Harry Holland for a few years, and he said ‘What you doing?’ I said ‘I’m doing a bit of unlicensed.’ He went ‘Don’t be daft. Come and do it the proper way,’ and that’s what I done. Harry was our trainer as well as our manager, and he was a good trainer. I was training with Rocky and Gary, and we used to have a great time. We all got on really well. Me and Gary have been friends since we were kids. Me and Rocky used to spar together, and we used to have a pint and a fag after training every night on the way home, and a lot of people didn’t know that. Harry certainly didn’t.”
“When I first turned over, Gary got me in the ring and he bashed me up in sparring, and he went ‘This is what it’s all about. Are you going to do it or what?’ and I went ‘Yeah.’ There was this one time, I’d had a fight in a car park and some bloke had kicked me, and I was being stitched up at West Middlesex Hospital, and then I saw Gary in there. Some bloke had hit him over the head with a bottle. So we’d both got into fights at different places at different times, and there we were, both of us professional boxers, both getting sewn up in the same hospital!”
“After a while, I left Smithfield and I became a dustman, and I’m still there now. I’m a driver, and it’s a good job with good hours and good money. While I was boxing, I had two supervisors who loved me. I might be fighting on a Wednesday night, and on the Monday they’d say ‘Go on, Tony, we’ll see you next week. Make sure you win.’ They used to give me loads of time off.”
“I think I had my last fight at light-middle, but, apart from that, I was a welterweight all the way through. I made my professional debut against Sean Campbell in October 1982. He was a southpaw and I hated fighting southpaws, but I felt brilliant that night and, to be honest, I thought I won it. I put him down in the second round, I think, and again in the fourth, and I got a draw.”
“I had 15 professional fights and the only time I ever got stopped was in my second fight with Sean Campbell. We boxed at Hornsey Town Hall and the referee stopped it in the third round. What happened there was I slipped, I got up and the referee just stopped it. I had the right hump! I wanted to attack the referee at the time, but that’s just the way it is and you’ve got to accept it.”
“One of my best fights was against Dave Harrison when I beat him on points in the Lyceum Ballroom in February 1983. We got £64 slung in the ring for nobbins that night and I’d really like to meet him again, but I don’t know where he is. There were times when I took a fight at a day’s notice and that was fine with me because we were fit all the time, and at short notice you didn’t have to sell any tickets, so it took the pressure off. I just loved everything about boxing, getting in the ring, the adrenaline, the nerves, the lot. It was all there. The excitement of performing, it’s just really fantastic.”
Tony’s last fight was against Newton Barnett at the Merton Civic Hall in Croydon. Having drawn with the London-based Jamaican the previous year, this time Tony conceded a points decision. Incidentally, after boxing Tony, Newton Barnett shared the ring with the likes of Derek Grainger, Robert McCracken, Kevin Lueshing and Kirkland Laing. “I knew that was going to be my last fight, because I had married my wife, Colleen, and we had two kids, Robert and Sarah. I had a good job on the dust and I was happy. I think I’ve been really lucky to have been a professional fighter, and I’ve got to say I had a pint with every single one of my opponents afterwards.”
“After I packed up boxing, I started doing a bit of karate. But I missed competing, I started to miss it so bad, so that’s why I thought I’d go and get my own club and do the boxing. I done all the courses and I founded the Twickenham Brunswick Boxing Club. In 1995, I persuaded Harry Monger to come and join me at the club, which was lovely. I’ve got two other trainers working there with me, Ford Davey and Lee Williams. I do all the pad work, I teach them the technique of boxing and I take all the sparring. Ford and Lee do the physical fitness side of it, and Lee is our competition secretary as well. I tell every kid I teach that the hardest fight they’re ever going to have is going to be their first fight and, once they’ve got over that, they’ll either love it or hate it. Every lad I’ve had who has got in the ring has come out and asked ‘When am I fighting next?’”
“I look after all the kids I train. If they’ve got anything to tell me, if they’ve got problems, they come and see me and it goes no further. I’ve had kids come down my gym from broken families, and the mother has said to me six months later ‘What have you done to my boy? He’s turned out to be really nice now.’ Mind you, I don’t have parents in the gym. I tell the parents to drop their kids off and, if they don’t like it, they can take them somewhere else. I’d say I’m definitely a strict coach, because I think the idea of the sport is discipline. If a boy keeps turning up late, I’ll send him home and I’ll say ‘Come back Tuesday.’ The class has already started, and they should all know that.”
“I do the judging on amateur shows as well. I’ve done the course and I go to shows, and sometimes they say ‘Can you do a bit of judging tonight?’ Sometimes I say ‘Yes’ or sometimes I say ‘No,’ I like judging actually, but they’re changing it again now. In the amateurs, we’re seeing changes all the time. One change that’s good is the rules about head-guards. Personally, I think head-guards are more of a target. When I was boxing as an amateur, I didn’t wear a guard. A lot of the time they don’t fit properly, and the referees are always pulling the boxers apart and sending them back to the corner to strap up. My boxers all prefer to box without head-guards, but I make sure they all spar with guards on. I don’t have no sparring without head-guards on.”
“Every time a kid is in the ring, it’s me in there again. That’s the way I look at it. What I love about it is I can get a kid come down my gym and he don’t know the difference between his left hand and his right hand, and all of a sudden he’s going in the ring and he’s fighting. We’ve had a few boys over the years who have been really good and we’ve thought we’ve had a star on our hands, and it just hasn’t happened. You put all the work in, and they get to an age and go, and that’s the way it goes. But, from the day I started coaching, I’ve loved training kids. I absolutely love every minute of it.”