IN the year 2009 we celebrated a huge milestone – 100 years of Boxing News – and our then editor, Claude Abrams, penned this wonderful piece on the history of our incredible magazine in a special 100-year edition [below] – and it’s place in boxing history.
FLASH GORDON, an American writer in the 1970-1980s, was respected and renowned as someone who didn’t mince his words. He produced a newsletter, which he’d often sell outside Madison Square Garden in New York, and regarded Boxing News as the No. 1 publication. In a February 1979 editon, Harry Mullan wrote in his editorial about Gordon’s latest review of the world’s boxing periodicals.
Gordon said: “Boxing News is unquestionably the world’s finest boxing magazine.
“The weekly 24-pager has complete pro coverage of the world, results, new, photos, amateur and pro and all week after week,” said Gordon. “It’s truly an amazing and a super piece of editing well worth the apparent high costs.”
I wonder what Gordon would have made of today’s weekly, twice as deep (48 pages – and sometimes more) on glossy colour paper with outstanding photos, regular columns, strong news pages and more extensive ringside and global coverage on pros and amateurs than at any stage in the 100-year history of the magazine. I am biased, of course, but I feel it’s punching harder than ever.
On September 11, 2009 BN reached an historic and impressive milestone, especially as the paper was severely threatened during the second World War, when the staff still persevered in spite of daily bombings. Even if for periods the magazine could only be published by-weekly and sometimes with even longer gaps – and had to incorporate dog racing and football, it still came out, serving its passionate following.
One front-page editorial in August 1940, just after the paper had again changed hands, captured the mood, labeling Hitler and the Nazis “the most wearisome and lasting bores in human experience.” It continued, “But he [Hitler] will fade away in due course, and cannot be permitted to interfere with that infinitely more important business of boxing championship regularisation.”
In a notice to the readers, the editor said: “We are all at it, in our various ways. Some of us under heavier handicaps and with scantier materials than others.
“With your full aid we shall win through this present pass. A hazardous venture, truly, with the handicap of restriction munitions. With your full aid we can and shall win through, and present to the world a bigger, brighter and better Boxing Bible than any yet visualised in the most honeyed dreams.”
I can’t imagine for a second that the editor could have dreamt of the sophisticated changes through technological advancements that have enabled us to produce the publication we have now.
Even when I first started reading BN, back in 1980 following Marvin Hagler’s victory at Wembley over Alan Minter, the paper was black and white, the ink smudged and there were no staples to hold the pages together. But the content was fantastic – everything a fan of the sport could wish for.
However, whenever I now look back at editions from that period, I can see the strides that have been made, the expansion in coverage on every level. For instance, in 1977, when Matthew Saad Muhammad had his first fight with Marvin Johnson in a thriller, we covered the match in only four paragraphs. Nowadays it would be at least two pages with an abundance of pictures.
Mainstream television played a huge part in my fascination for boxing, though it’s interesting how in the beginning (in the 1950s) promoters fiercely resisted TV coverage for fear of it damaging ticket sales.
During that period, though, there wasn’t the diversity in entertainment that exists today. Times were most definitely tougher and boxing was regarded as a sport that nurtured character, whereas nowadays I’m not convinced that notion remains.
Boxing has taken its knocks – scandals, controversies, deaths, farces, outrage, all of which are covered in this book, the grandest project I’ve worked on since joining BN in 1987 – but always endures.
Like our publication, boxing has a fascinating history. And in the same way BN has seen off its competitors, boxing is likely to survive the challenge of MMA.
I still maintain boxing has to sharpen up its act – as we at BN have done in recent years as changes in the market have been forced upon us – in order to keep its heart pumping. The competition is sterner now than ever I can recall and yet I still sense a resistance to change and modernize from those who can ultimately ensure a healthier future for the sport.
Nonetheless, it’s always heartening for me to meet BN readers and fans and to recognise the sport’s following has a young heartbeat – that a new wave of supporter is still attracted to the Noble Art.
It was my dream from about the age of 12 to one day write for Boxing News and so often now when I meet readers at shows I am told that I have the best job in the world.
I learned my trade under Harry Mullan, a marvellous writer who upheld the firm ethos of the first editor, John Murray.
The first words ever written in this publication still resonate as a resounding chorus of what Boxing News stands for and, I hope, always will.
“Boxing [or BN as it later became and is today] is not offered to the public with an apology,” wrote Murray. “We claim it is wanted, and wanted badly.
“It will stand for good, clean sport. Its success or failure is in the hands of those who believe in sport of that character.
“Our energies will be devoted to giving the best paper that time, thought and money can devise.
“It’s up to you, the reader, to help a good thing along.”
I remember writing in 1999, when we turned 90, about the ‘Friday Feeling’ – the day when Boxing News arrives and is a must for every reader to get his copy (admittedly, at this time, the new publishers had made a catastrophic decision to change BN from a glossy A4 to newspaper tabloid, costing us thousands of readers).
But Boxing News hasn’t always been published on a Friday. In fact, the very first edition was made available on a Thursday with the publishing date a Saturday. In many early years, like from the 1920s into the 1940s, it came out on Wednesdays. Sometimes it was published on a Tuesday.
The demand for that first issue, printed on recycled pink paper, was so high that extra copies had to be reprinted. Some 77,500 issues were sold out in two hours and soon sales, according to the proprieters, reached 150,000. At one stage they hit the 250,000 mark.
How we’d like a readership like that today. But times have changed. Boxing [News] came into being during a period when the sport featured prominently in the national papers (all of which had specialised reporters) and boxing was thriving.
It was then – and is today – the only weekly magazine in the world devoted to the sport and to have lasted 100 years is a remarkable achievement by any standards.
Editors like Gilbert Odd continued Murray’s exemplary work. Gilbert, who contributed several million words to BN’s pages in two stints as editor, wrote in one editorial: “We [Boxing News] have built up an enviable reputation for straight dealing and straight writing. We are independent, but not aloof; critical without being dictatorial; and ready to help all those who have the game at heart, without special favour or obligation.”
It was a great privilege for me to take over as editor in 1996 – to follow in the impressive footsteps of Murray, Odd, Graham Houston and Harry.
It says a lot about the prestige of this job that only 12 men had preceded me.
Although I have worked under four publishers, over the course of a century, since the Berry brothers, three enterprising Welshmen, started the paper, the total is relatively low and I know that on several occasions quite lucrative offers from those with a conflicting interest have been rejected.
Thankfully, BN has always retained its integrity and neutrality, the core value of the mag, even if on occasion a sense of patriotism has consumed its pages. Our opinions aren’t always taken with full agreement, but I like to think the reader at least recognizes we haven’t a tainted agenda and trusts we write from a position of honesty, unfazed by any possible retribution.
It is our job to observe and report with impartiality and to do so with any slant would be an insult to the efforts and standards of all those who have ensured that this innings has lasted so long, not to mention you, the readers.
Inevitably, we have incurred the wrath of many a promoter, manager and boxer. However, I have always been more concerned in knowing that I have acted with a clear conscience than worried about the reaction of the subject of my words.
I know from my time under Mullan – and from reading Murray’s tenures – that accusations of bias are inevitable; nobody wants to be the focus of criticism or to feel they are wrong. But BN’s task isn’t to make friends. We are here to report things as we see them and offer a sense of perspective and analysis.
Boxing may not exactly be booming now as it was in 1909 and for periods following the second World War. In Murray’s day news travelled by newspaper, radio or word of mouth. However, his inspiration for this periodical was the 1908 world heavyweight title contest between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson in Australia that shook the world.
Back then boxing promotions throughout the United Kingdom were more widespread than today. In the mid-1930s, for instance, there were more shows in the UK than ever before – for example there would routinely be up to 12 or 15 shows on a Monday night and many more on the remaining days of the week. In the late 1950s we had terrible difficulty getting all the action into the then-16 pages of the paper even with tiny print and few images.
The two wars, though, had a massive, almost paralysing, effect not just on the sport but also the paper. But BN survived, in spite of its offices being reduced to ashes during the blitzes as Hitler bombed our shores.
After one such attack our front page in June 1942 carried the heading ‘Beating the Count’ and the story said: “In the 32 years and nine months of its existence, the old paper has suffered a few knockdowns, not to mention other shocks, its most recent experience having been the most severe, yet has managed to survive.”
It continued, “We have, we hope, arrived at its end, and can, at least, feel confident of surviving Hitler. A feat which not a few other publications have failed to achieve.”
One morning Odd arrived at the offices in Fetter Lane only to discover a pile of rubble. “The shock brought tears to my eyes,” he wrote. “I stumbled around over the debris trying to realise that everything had come to an abrupt halt. A kindly policeman told me, ‘This place is cordoned off because it’s highly dangerous. Anyway, what are you looking for, mate?’
“’My fountain pen’,” Odd told him. When Odd said it was on the sixth floor, the policeman replied, “Well, you’re a bloody optimist. The sixth floor came down the rest last night, so I should think you are wasting your time.”
That overhand right from Hitler was as close as Boxing News has come to conclusive defeat. During this period, when paper was scarce, the publication was on wobbly pins.
In January 1941, for instance, publication was irregular to say the least courtesy of “Hitler’s destroyers” as editor Odd put it.
“In these days of restricted travel, postal delays and the calling-up of the various age classes, we cannot rely with any sure confidence on the arrival of reports from the provincial boxing centres.”
By May little had improved. “We have been compelled to interrupt our sequence of regular issues once more and our readers will miss a fortnight’s news and comments, but will understand that this was unavoidable,” explained Odd.
“Certainly, the office files, dating from our first number, the general stock of photos etc, have been reduced to ashes, but the old flag is still flying.”
And thus the editor called upon readers to rally round and send in details, entitling his column (on the front page), ‘We Wouldn’t Object to Assistance’.
The following year Odd announced, “there is a present shortage of paper and it must be obvious that space for any full description of the contests cannot possibly be provided, but only sufficient for the bare results.”
The 1947 fuel crisis also posed problems. “Readers have been without news of Britain’s boxing for a fortnight,” said the editor.
“Demand for this journal is unprecedented and coming, as it does, at a time when paper supplies are insufficient to cope with it we must ask those of you who are fortunate enough to get a copy to pass it on to your friend for perusal until such time as we are able to meet the demand in full.”
Earlier, in 1926, times were also trying. “There has been so little to report,” wrote Murray. “Our readers have been deprived of their Boxing for two full weeks and we have decided to make this a composite issue, covering all the events we should have reported and published had matters followed their normal course.”
As you can tell, the fortunes of boxing – and this paper – swayed quite dramatically. When Sid Ackland was editor in the early 1930s, he wrote with great optimism, in one editorial in May 1932 announcing grand plans for “a new, bigger and, I hope, a better Boxing. Today, Boxing has been reborn. Free and untrammeled – Boxing would only be the champion of boxing – it will seek to blow a breath of fresh air whenever the occasion demands, for while it will be tolerant in its criticisms, it will be fearless, showing favour to no one.”
In more recent times Tim Riley took over, improving the presentation, and Houston, who succeeded him in 1972, left his mark by giving the magazine a greater international flavour, especially on the European scene.
Since Houston there have been only two editors, Mullan, who would become a Hall of Fame writer, and myself.
Harry gave BN a presence in the United States by attending major matches towards the end of Ali’s career and then while Leonard, Hearns, Duran and Hagler all fantastically squabbled for supremacy.
I have tried to continue that trend and though BN still isn’t as well known in America to fans as it ought to be, we are highly regarded and include on our subscriber list the major forces in world boxing.
Having been on the staff for nearly a quarter of its life, I feel as strongly today as I did when I started that one cannot seriously be regarded as a genuine boxing fan without Boxing News.
For more on BN’s history, see the ‘About Boxing News’ section at the bottom of our homepage.