MANY CHARACTERS, MANY MEMORIES
of UK West Indian and African boxing
About forty years ago Bunny Sterling, the former British middleweight champion boxer, came up to me at a press reception presented by Arif Ali at the Caribbean Times offices in Finsbury Park, and thanked me for my coverage of some of his contests. In his early days in the sport immigrant/black boxers were usually used, untrained and often at the last minute, to boost the record of some local hero. The press had eyes only for the “home boy” whom they had come to boost. Then one day Sterling said “the promoter told me that there was one writer there just to report on me specifically. That was you from the Gleaner. That made me feel proud”.
I suppose my coverage of boxing has been my most significant contribution to West Indian sports journalism. Yes, I have written many more words on cricket, but there were many other reporters on that scene. Tony Cozier, Tony Becca and Reds Perreira, the giants of the genre, come to mind – however, they did not really cover the game in the United Kingdom. Boxing had been completely ignored, even though the popular pugilists Joe Bygraves and Randolph Turpin were of Jamaican and Guyanese heritage respectively. The former attended a show of which I was co-promoter at Islington Town Hall in late 1980.
My first foray to the ringside was on 14th February 1968 at the Lime Grove Baths, Shepherds Bush. Tommy Miller, the veteran Yorkshire-based manager, had invited me there to meet him. It was a cold, foggy night and the attendance so sparse that the doorman could point out Tommy and beckon him over. As we were making our introductions, his charge, Maurice Thomas, was knocked out in the first round. Miller had higher hopes that his other boxer, Jamaican light-heavyweight Lloyd Walford, would progress at least to the Commonwealth title. He thought that I had the contacts and could generate enough publicity to bring that about.
Walford, who came from the same Jamaican parish as my wife, St Ann, had sufficient talent to suggest that this was possible. He was far from international class, but, in the few fights I witnessed, had some skill if not power. Unfortunately, there was little money in the light-heavyweights and Walford, his family and Miller had to eat. Before our discussions with the Commonwealth champion, Bob Dunlop of Australia, could begin, let alone be completed, they accepted some lucrative matches against full-blown heavyweights. Lloyd took such a beating that his career never recovered.
I had seen enough boxing by then to write, and have published, a letter in Boxing News, the trade magazine, predicting that before long many British champions across the weights would be black. The editor appended a note to the effect that, although he wished very much that it would be so, he could not see it happening. What follows here is merely scratching at the top of ice-berg of the contribution which West Indian and African boxers had made to the British game over the last half-century.
In the mid-1970s taxi driver Phil Coren asked me to get some press publicity for Denton Ruddock, a heavyweight he was managing. He was a Jamaican who lived in East Dulwich, a mere stone’s throw from the house where Hopelyn and myself first met and he worked on a building site. Strength rather than subtlety was his strongpoint. Denton was well enough known for the manager of the Lewisham Odeon to invite him and myself to be guests at the screen showing of the world heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton. It was a tight contest. I thought Norton had won, Ruddock gave his nod to Muhammad Ali. Ah well, he was bigger than me, and, in any case, the referee and judges went with “The Greatest”.
At the same time manager Bevan Walker had a very interesting charge in Ishaq Muhammad Hussein (birth-name Leroy Timothy), a Dominican being groomed with all the glitz to be the country first black heavyweight champion. Walker, who was involved in the property business, had form – he had handled the affairs of several celebrities, including, for a time, cricketer Ian Botham. After I had obtained fortuitously front-page coverage in the Bradford Argus of Hussein’s comparatively minor victory in that northern city, Bevan asked what he could do for me – provided it did involve him handing over money. I was having difficulty in obtaining a mortgage to buy my first house as I had not been self-employed long enough to have the required number of annual accounts. Say no more, within a few days the Leeds Permanent Building Society offered me a mortgage.
In the early weeks of 1977 I travelled on a snowy evening to Reading to report Hussein’s bout with Tony Moore, a Jamaican journeyman. While local favourite Ishaq and his entourage were preparing elsewhere, his opponent had to change in a corridor with only a radiator to keep out the cold. Moore knew that he would lose and would be expected to do so. The fight was not fixed. Tony was out of his class and had been hammered a bit too much over the years. His duty was to stay around long enough, and take enough punches, to “make it look good”. Hussein entered the arena and the ring boosted by a crowd of cheering fans. Tony crept in almost unnoticed, and, yes, he did last long for what he was supposed to do.
That brought the handsome, extrovert Dominican into conflict with the plodding Ruddock for the Southern Area championship at the Seymour Hall, Marylebone. From the opening bell it was clear that the former was the classier contestant by far. Yet he adopted puzzling tactics. Hussein lounged and let his rival peck away and built up the points in the two minutes of every round before unleashing his full talents in the third. Consequently, he surrendered two-thirds of every round and lost decisively. After the decision was announced, the reporters crowded Denton’s changing-room, and ignored Ishaq, alone in his. Hussein’s career crashed soon afterwards, and the publicity prepared for him was inherited by Frank Bruno and, more particularly, Lennox Lewis.
For the few years my hands were too full reporting the victorious West Indies cricket team to give too much attention to boxing. I watched Clinton McKenzie, the first of the Croydon dynasty, whom I followed when he was an amateur, proceed to professional success, and interviewed Maurice Hope, the Antiguan ace, in his brother Enoch’s hairdressing salon at Dalston, shortly after he had won the world light-middleweight championship. Later that day I encountered the formerly brilliant Kirkland Laing, who had beaten the formidable Roberto Duran, but was now down on his luck on the streets of Hackney.
That piece on Hope was to have a major impact on my career. When Edna Fortescue, the formidable Antiguan publisher of LIAT airline brochure, wanted to include a feature on the boxer she contacted the foremost writer on Caribbean sport, Tony Cozier. He declined the offer but pointed her in my direction. Edna and her England agent Ken Jamie liked very much what I submitted. A year or so later Edna was struggling to find an editor for her new prestigious Caribbean Handbook, she remembered the item on Maurice – and myself. Consequently, I had the privilege of being the Handbook’s founding editor.
The years ticked by and towards the end of the century I was interviewing former world featherweight champion Colin McMillan in his office at the gymnasium he ran at Walthamstow. Heavyweight Herbie Hide, a Nigerian, put his head around the door and asked: “Why are you interviewing him and not me?” “Because I work for a West Indian newspaper not African” I replied. “Aren’t we the same - just boxers? Why don’t you try to get me a report in an African publication?” he inquired. Hide is a formidable figure, especially without his teeth and gumshield. It so happened that I had met Baffour Ankomah, editor of the New African magazine, recently and asked him if he would accept a piece. He did and that was the start of a happy relationship with the New African which lasted over twenty years.
That same year I met an exceptional young heavyweight – Audley Harrison. He was unusual as a man and as a boxer. Audley did his best to ensure that reporters obtained accreditation to cover his fights, as soon as he returned from tournaments overseas he phoned through the results, and he supported events within the UK West Indian community. He was one of only two of the leading Jamaican sportsmen to my knowledge to welcome the country’s netball team to England. (The other was cricketer Jimmy Adams). Once he waited in the foyer while allowing rival Danny Williams, already a seasoned professional, take guest honours. Harrison also worked hard for compatriot Courtney Fry to be recognised. On top of all that he seemed to have every skill to succeed at the very highest level. Then Audley Harrison won the super-heavyweight gold medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 and it all changed.
The world of professional boxing – as far as the United Kingdom was concerned – which Audley entered was dominated by promoter Frank Warren. The latter’s public relations manager was the likeable Richard Maynard, one of the “seriously good guys”. He went out of his way to see that the press had access to covering the generation of black heavyweights which included Williams, Michael Sprott, Matt Skelton and Julius Francis. There were some fine fights between them even if they didn’t shake the international division. Harrison declined to be managed by Warren, or anybody, and made his way independently. Somebody, somewhere persuaded him to adapt an arrogant approach and the self-hype backfired when he failed to deliver.
I was appalled by Audley’s attitude at a press conference in the Waldorf Hotel a few days before he boxed Matthew Ellis at the York Hall, Bethnal Green in 2003. Was it meant to be funny? This wasn’t the man I had known. He beat his smaller opponent quite easily. When he leaned over the ropes afterwards to engage with the crowd Herbie Hide, smartly attired, stood up, words were exchanged, supporters were drawn into the dispute, and chairs started to fly. It was little consolation that the fracas outside the ring eclipsed the intensity of that inside.
The most powerful punch I have seen thrown was also delivered at the York Hall. Wayne Alexander, whose uncle, Joe Blake, was co-promoter of the country’s leading West Indian domino competition, and Takaloo each had a point to prove. They were leading light-middleweights who had promised much but were coming off a loss. This was a make-or-break contest with no way back for the loser. Consequently, each was apprehensive of the other’s punching power as they circled each other in the first round. Perhaps Takaloo was encouraged that he had had the better of the action, and in the second round he pressurised his opponent into a corner. As he drew back his arm to deliver what he must have thought would be the knock-blow everybody in the hall, except the boxer himself, saw what was coming. Alexander beat him to the punch and Takaloo was pole-axed.
I have been privileged to report on boxing at all levels up to world heavyweight championship. There have been many characters, and many memories along the way since I braved the cold and the fog to enter Lime Grove Baths on St Valentine’s Day in 1968.
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