The life and times of Henry Cooper

This article first appeared on BritishVintageBoxing.com

Two minutes into the opening round of Henry Cooper’s first fight with Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, the proud Englishman snorts hard and draws deeply, he is beyond Clay’s reach and permits himself a momentary pause. He knows he has started strongly. His eyes narrow, focussed on the American quarry before him, his nostrils flaring wide as he sucks air from the cool London night. His pale chest heaves.

Thin black leather shoes mold tight to his feet, glistening like wet paint. They slide and sweep, hop and reset to the doctrine of boxing, those strangest of dance steps. Cooper’s body is taut, narrow and sinewy, his gloves small and almost cuff less. Thinning hair is cropped short, pointing skyward, exaggerating the urgency of his actions. Battleship grey eyes glare from the shadows of a chiselled brow above. A wedge of protruding bone that juts forward, straining skin and tissue. It is a genetic anomaly that has betrayed him before and would again, in countless wars as yet unfought.

Continue reading “The life and times of Henry Cooper”

Honeyghan destroys Bumphus. 34 years on, the memories remain

Much time has passed since last I was ringside for a boxing match. A break exacerbated by the pandemic of course. The joy of people watching, a pastime inherited sitting besides a Grandad waiting “near the Spinner” in Doncaster for a Grandma browsing in Marks’, is sweetly fed in a press seat. From those middle-age men assigned to chaperone ring card girls, to the fighter’s moll, tightly wrapped for later, the polo shirt security blinking into the darkness beyond the apron, to the men in silk pyjama jackets, bent noses all, a stray towel flung on their shoulder, boxing employs a diverse troupe of characters.

One of the most glorious attendees at any London event is the former Welterweight champion, Lloyd Honeyghan. The Ragamuffin Man is a man of sartorial individualism. From the fur coat, the spats, to the ‘Chicago’ trilby, to the cane with a leaping cat, his presence is felt the moment he enters a room. Any room. He was once afforded the front row seat directly in ahead of me at a fight card I’ve long since forgotten. Or to rephrase, I was sat behind him. That seems more respectful. Star struck, I failed to speak.

The aura to which I was prisoner that night, began 34 years ago.

Continue reading “Honeyghan destroys Bumphus. 34 years on, the memories remain”

Revisited: Quirino Garcia, the elephant and the castle.

We have no time to stand and stare. And stare as long as sheep or cows. No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

W.H. Davies, poet, ‘Leisure’

Parking had been difficult, as was finding the venue itself, and as a result, I was late for the show. It was long since dark and the city still intimidated me despite my tailored attempt to project self-assurance and belonging. I broke into a jog between the pools of street light on my way to the Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre, London. It was late March, 2002. A cool night, I missed the entrance. Twice. No fluorescent signs, no limousines. Just a door, in the shadows, almost turning away from the glare of potential passers by negotiating crossings, blurting horns and the choke of car fumes.

Boxing inhabited a different world twenty years ago. One of Leisure Centres and bootlegged world titles. Smaller. Seedier. And virtually unrecognisable from the gigantic events we now enjoy.

Continue reading “Revisited: Quirino Garcia, the elephant and the castle.”

‘It’s not your night’. Why did Jake LaMotta have to lose to Billy Fox in ’47?

Article first appeared on Gambling.com

June 14th 1960. A warm summer’s day in Washington DC. The air is sweet with the city grind and the hustle of a country racing toward adolescence and the associated rebellion.  Chatter spills from sidewalks, shoes are shined, a soft percussion to the chaotic jazz horn of taxicabs and the last of the capital’s iconic street cars. Morning sunshine glints from a mile of Buick chrome. 

This commercial idyll and the blue sky of the American dream belies the pulse of political tension that throbs beneath the surface. Impatient for ignition. It is a time of ideology, the battle for civil rights, of JFK and crusaders for truth and equality. 

Former Middleweight champion Jake LaMotta is in town. A name from the smoke and shadows of the monochrome America wrestling against technicolour progress and the dawn of an age more recognisable to us today.

Continue reading “‘It’s not your night’. Why did Jake LaMotta have to lose to Billy Fox in ’47?”

Spoiling for a fight: The Arv Mittoo story

Article first appeared in Boxing News (£) 30th May 2019

There are no easy lives in the boxing business. Even among those changed for the better, the ones saved, the ones directed away from the darkness, from the cells, from the ground. Every professional fighter complicit to boxing’s unspoken truth; that something of themselves must be sacrificed, perhaps only temporarily, perhaps permanently, in order to access the financial and emotional benefits derived from success, however modest or fleeting they may be.

This grittier reality swiftly overwrites those cinematic show reels, composed in the imaginings of their adolescence, that novice professionals may still cling to when they enter the paid ranks. The dream is nevertheless important, prizefighters are not enticed to lace up the gloves as willowy ten-year-olds, or encouraged to punish and curate their bodies into adulthood, with the expectation of losing or moreover, choosing to, being paid to.

But losing is half of the boxing story. Continue reading “Spoiling for a fight: The Arv Mittoo story”

Sliding doors; Donaire and Burnett move on

There is no luck in life. Things happen. Things don’t. Some expected. Some not. Fighters don’t always get what they deserve, sometimes they get things they don’t – if anyone is qualified to make the determination.

If there are individuals of the required integrity and absence of ego to adjudicate, as yet, they haven’t found employment amid the racketeers running the sport’s sanctioning bodies, but I digress.

The coincidence of Ryan Burnett retirement announcement, a unified champion at 118 pounds before injury stole his prime, aged just 27, in the same week Nonito Donaire boxes Naoya Inoue in the final of the World Boxing Super Series Bantamweight competition seemed inescapable. But boxing is too cold a science to contemplate the ethereal presence of a hand of fate or any misplaced sense of destiny. Continue reading “Sliding doors; Donaire and Burnett move on”

All that glitters is not coal; Doncaster heavyweight Dave Allen and a century of struggle

By David Payne

When popular British heavyweight Dave Allen ambles to the ring on Saturday as the unofficial headline act in a show far removed from his Doncaster home, he will, as all of us do in some shape or form, seek to step in to the spotlight and beyond the shadow cast by his forefathers and the whisper of self-doubt amplified by their deeds.

Across the ring will stand the Liverpudlian giant, David Price. A man who denies the presence of such demons, with fighting pedigree the Yorkshireman can not yet requite and tangible advantages of height, reach and experience too. The O2 Arena in London plays host to this battle of could, would and should. A venue repurposed from inauspicious and self-conscious beginnings as the Millennium Dome and therefore an apt stage for the pair to find out a little more about each other, themselves and the realism of their respective ambitions.

It is a heavyweight contest with much to endear it to the boxing fraternity, the thousands promoters Matchroom Sports will urge to make the pilgrimage to the gate and the wider public too. Fighters like Allen and Price, flawed, with the bruises of life’s slings and arrows evident but not ruinous, with opportunity or obscurity waiting for the victor and the vanquished, often provide more entertainment and are more relatable heroes than those garrulous fellows of untainted preserve. We can admire Floyd, but we love Arturo. Continue reading “All that glitters is not coal; Doncaster heavyweight Dave Allen and a century of struggle”

Moving on up. Ali, Mayfield and Joshua’s all too familiar crossroads

“We planned and worked hard, from the very start
Tried to make him better, than all the rest
But the brother proved to be so much less.”

‘Eddie Should Know Better’ by Curtis Mayfield (1972)

Curtis Mayfield would’ve been 77 today, like his friend Muhammad Ali he was born in 1942, and the “gentle genius”, as he was often referred, passed away on Boxing Day in 1999. His legend, as one of the greatest musicians, songwriters and innovators of the century, was secured long before being struck by falling rigging while performing in Brooklyn in 1990. An accident that would paralyse him from the neck down.

He and Ali were both powerful social commentators, transcending their area of excellence in lives in the public eye that ran in parallel and through some of the most turbulent episodes in modern American history. In 1958 a 15 year-old Mayfield joined The Impressions a short two years before the then Cassius Clay flew off to the Rome Olympics, the musical pioneer’s passing came just three years after Ali’s iconic opening of the 1996 Atlanta games. An event that marked the beginning of the end for the century’s most famous face, for one last time he was able to demonstrate his courage and defiance, fighting, inch by inch, the symptoms of Parkinsons to deliver the Olympic flame.

Continue reading “Moving on up. Ali, Mayfield and Joshua’s all too familiar crossroads”

Fury, Wilder and Joshua; the normality of avoiding risk

Coincidences can prove jarring, awakening us from the mundanity of our rituals, sometimes they’re not evident without the spectacles of hindsight and occasionally the happenchance of concurrent events or unexpected meetings of people, things, occurrences pass by unnoticed. Just such serendipity brought together two different eras in the heavyweight division for me today and in doing so offered a salve to my throbbing suspicion that Tyson Fury’s alignment with Top Rank and ESPN will steal away a heavyweight era barely rediscovered beneath a layer of Ukrainian dust. Continue reading “Fury, Wilder and Joshua; the normality of avoiding risk”

The night the Raging Bull fell

Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;

O Death in Life, the days that are no more

Alfred Tennyson, poet 1809-1892, The Princess (1847)

No hush fell within the domed ceiling of the Miami Coliseum, the crowd’s hub-bub continued. Neither interrupted nor escalated by the sight of one-time boxing superstar Jake LaMotta slumped to the canvas for the first time in his then 103-fight career. Referee Bill Regan, his once Welterweight frame thickened by twenty years of retirement, took up the count as LaMotta, 31 and fighting at a career high of 173 pounds, pawed for the bottom rope with his right hand.

Danny Nardico rushed to a corner, the adrenaline pumping through his body, the enormity of what he’d just done with a thunderous cross-cum-hook, the last of a flurry of clubbing shots, writ large before him. Whether he mouthed through his gum-shield; “stay-down” was never asked, all eyes were on LaMotta, the man who had once, if only once, beaten Sugar Ray Robinson, now desperately over-reaching for the second rope, his spatial awareness scrambled by fatigue and the weight of the shot that put him there.

Regan’s fingers splayed wide in front of the bruised fudge of his face, “FIVE, SIX!”. LaMotta’s right glove, short-cuffed and glistening like a ball of wet tar on a hot roof, found the rope. Regan whispered something unreported in LaMotta’s left ear between the metronome of his public voice; “SEVEN, EIGHT“. Nardico glanced to his corner for reassurance as his senses were assaulted. The laconic, darkened lids of trainer Bill Gore blinked back at him, no expression was offered.  Gore’s experience with Willie Pep and Joe Brown, and a hundred other pugs, helping him resist the contagion of excitement that coursed through those at ringside.

Continue reading “The night the Raging Bull fell”

Fury returns from the abyss

“when you stare into an abyss for a long time, the abyss also stares into you.”

Nietzsche, 1886

As the thick black oil of sleep flooded through Tyson Fury’s gigantic body, the crackle of nervous energy that had powered his wit and reflex silenced, his senses immersed in unconsciousness; time, possibility and life all fell silent too. His body and mind in a temporal abyss, a place he had travelled close to in the darkness of the past three years, a destination boxing, until that moment, at the fists of her purest puncher, had saved him from.

In those moments, those precarious and precious seconds, Jack Reiss’ two palms and six digits casting a pale shadow over his blank, peaceful expression, something inside the 30-year old former champion stirred. Defining or quantifying the force or personal quality that drew Fury from the depths of the slumber Wilder’s right cross and left hook had plunged him in to is as close to impossible as the act itself. Continue reading “Fury returns from the abyss”

Ciao Enzo. Another boxing giant departs

Article first appeared in issue 22 of Knockout London Magazine

Biadu quie ischeddat in palas anzenas*

Sardinian Proverb

It is a sign of the passing of time that the heroes we hold most dear are leaving. The great talismanic figures we revere; totems within their chosen landscape, their accomplishments and influence reaching far beyond the lives they physically touch, are, one by one, beginning to depart. Earlier this year, boxing bade a sad farewell to the beloved Irish sage Brendan Ingle and now, with the autumn barely upon us, his death is compounded by the loss of a similarly diminutive colossus; Enzo Calzaghe. Continue reading “Ciao Enzo. Another boxing giant departs”

Brendan Ingle. Some things are meant to stay.

Some things are meant to stay, to remain, to defy. Offering an unconscious, if often illogical reassurance to the otherwise transient chaos of our day-to-day human experience. The things themselves, they’re different for all of us. They may be a person, a principle, perhaps a place, a truism you clutch or a collage of them all but regardless of their form, or on which premise they were collected, they provide foundation for the sandcastles of our lives. When one of these tumble and succumb to the tides of time to which we thought them immune, it resonates more deeply than ever we may have anticipated it might.

A few of these manifest in the relationship I have with boxing. Some are vague, abstract concepts like my belief that boxing’s gilded stories of redemption and salvation outweigh the physical damage and tragedies it facilitates, others are more tangible and, as in the case of late Brendan Ingle, an individual figure. Continue reading “Brendan Ingle. Some things are meant to stay.”

Worn out tools and the last If of David Haye’s career

Introspection can be a dangerous folly in your mid-forties, leading as it does to the contemplation of regret, of the unfulfilled, of the opportunity missed. All of us seek to resist the intrusion and the creep of negative thoughts; realigning our index of success to reflect the wisdom accrued in triumph and disaster or, perhaps, less constructively, by dismissing those failures as the fault of others or a conspiracy of circumstance. Neither is a panacea, and even for those enjoying the conspicuous fulfilment of their life and professional goals, irrespective of how well they aged into adulthood, there is no absolute protection from the often withering darkness of middle age.

For those of us not tied to a profession dependent on our physical supremacy, the battle is just as real but nevertheless softened by the elongated nature of our careers and the extended opportunity for achievement and respect that offers. Strikingly less acute than the challenge facing professional sports people, for whom the denouement is played out in the public eye, and worst still for boxers for whom the fall is frequently irreversible and often manifestly stark.

There are few grey areas in a boxing ring, where binary outcomes are most common, after all.

Continue reading “Worn out tools and the last If of David Haye’s career”

Archive: Old man Thompson stops Unbeaten Haye in 5

With yet another David Haye comeback appearing on the horizon I’m always nudged to remember the night he lost his unbeaten record. It is staggering to consider 13 years have lapsed since Carl Thompson did what Carl always did better than anyone – survive a shelling and then win by stoppage. It was a pulsating evening, hotly anticipated and perhaps the beginning of the golden era we are now enjoying. After all, only ‘flat-earthers’ could deny Audley, Haye, Hatton and Amir were the forefathers of the sport’s  current popularity and the inspiration for many of the Amateur champions and emerging professionals superstars fans flock to see.

David Payne reports from Ringside (10/09/2004):

Veteran cruiserweight Carl Thompson tore up the script last night, knocking out British boxing’s pin-up star David Haye in the fifth round of a tumultuous, absorbing and often punishing contest at Wembley Arena, London.

The baying crowd loved every second of the most eagerly awaited all-British encounter of the year.  Imaginatively billed as ‘Don’t Blink,’  the contest pitted two of boxing’s biggest punchers together for the IBO belt Thompson secured with his characteristic last gasp, fight saving knockout of Sebastian Rothmann in February.

But the fight meant much more than the peripheral belt. This was a battle of generations, of styles, of pride. A crossroads bout, the gnarled old champion, the photogenic young buck. Name the cliché and you could hang it on the fight.

Continue reading “Archive: Old man Thompson stops Unbeaten Haye in 5”

Dreaming, Believing and Achieving with Wayne Elcock

An interview with then British title challenger Wayne Elcock proved of sufficient interest to feature in the venerable British publication, Boxing News a fortnight ago. It was a moment of great personal satisfaction to appear on the pages graced by the great and the good over the past 98 years. Should it prove the most read piece I ever pen, it will represent a satisfactory pinnacle. Of course, I hope it will not , but in years to come the words committed to the page will remain in tact long beyond features I’ve written for the web. In an act of self-indulgence the unedited interview is included below. Continue reading “Dreaming, Believing and Achieving with Wayne Elcock”

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