I AM so proud when I look back on my boxing career. Even the bad times are good times now I’m older and have the time to reflect. Getting picked for your country, wow, what an honour. It wasn’t just that I was competing in the Olympic Games, it was what that meant and what that stood for. Actually getting selected made me the happiest. I loved going to Munich in 1972. The whole world knows you’re the best in Britain and you’re representing your country – that sense of pride feels terrific.
Winning a bronze medal is nice but I should have got the gold. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.
Dieter Kottysch didn’t beat me out there in Germany even though the judges said he did. That’s not sour grapes, that’s a fact. When I watch that fight now, and I still do from time to time, I have no idea whatsoever how they gave it to him. But you can’t let these things get you down too much. Back then, we went out and celebrated. We didn’t get the decision but you still have to make the most of it!
On the way back, I was picked up at Gatwick Airport by a coach and four horses. They took me all the way through Langley Green and Crawley High Street and the crowds were everywhere. It was unbelievable. In Crawley town centre there was a bandstand overflowing with people cheering for me. I think back to that now and all those people and it puts a huge smile on my face.
I remember fighting Maurice Thomas in my professional debut. I was on the undercard of a John H Stracey fight at the Royal Albert Hall. There were some nerves before that fight. It was different as an amateur, there wasn’t the pressure somehow, you just got on with it. But then you’re suddenly a professional and you’re fighting in front of people who have been around the game and who are watching you make your debut. I certainly wanted to impress and I think I did that. It felt good to show everyone what I was like after the Olympics.
The Kevin Finnegan trilogy was one of the highlights of my career. I used to spar him and his brother, Chris Finnegan. Two great fighters and really good men. Not to mention characters. I remember going to the Thomas A Becket for sparring with them. It was lunch-time and I had to be there to start the sparring at 1pm. To get to the gym you had to pass the bar downstairs and Chris and Kevin got a little sidetracked. I walk in, ready to spar, and Chris and Kevin are there necking pint after pint of Guinness at the bar. It didn’t seem to affect them in the ring.
Kevin was one of my toughest opponents. He used to spar his brother too, and from that he worked out how to fight me because Chris was a southpaw like me. I won each of them by half-a-point which sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Three fights for the middleweight championship of Great Britain over 15 rounds and they couldn’t separate us by more than a half-a-point in any of them. They were hard, hard fights but I deserved to win them all.
I’ll never forget going out to Las Vegas in 1979 to challenge Vito Antuofermo for the world title. Kevin and Chris were there too. We got out there three weeks before the fight. What immediately struck me was that desert heat. I went out early in the morning to do my roadwork and I couldn’t breathe. It’s a different kind of air over there, it’s almost like there’s no air. That worried me a bit, but I soon got used to it.
The atmosphere in Caesars Palace was incredible. The amount of English fans who travelled out was phenomenal. I got a sense of it in the week leading up to the fight. Everyone I was talking to was English it seemed. But that moment when I stood in the ring for the first time and I heard the crowd and their reaction to me is one of those things I’ll never forget. You can’t buy memories like that.
When you’re fighting in your hometown, you expect the crowd. But when you’re thousands of miles away in Las Vegas, it’s fair to say you don’t. It was a tough fight but the fans helped me through it. That Las Vegas feeling really is something special.
It was another close fight. I think the bookmakers in Las Vegas were hoping Antuofermo would get the decision but he didn’t. I felt I’d won at the final bell. I thought I’d done enough. As soon as they announce me as the winner I turn round and who is the first person I see? It’s Kevin Finnegan. He’s smiling. “I’m next,” he says.
We went out that night to celebrate, blimey. Can you imagine what it feels like to be in Las Vegas and be world champion? You win a fight in England and the atmosphere drifts away but in Vegas it follows you around somehow.
Antuofermo wasn’t happy with the decision. So we gave him a rematch in England and I stopped him in eight rounds on cuts. There was no arguments after that one.
I used to suffer from cuts myself. That used to drive me mad and I went to see the doctor about it. There wasn’t anything I could do about it apart from not get hit in the first place and in boxing that’s not easy! It would always be at the back of your mind when you were in a fight. ‘Don’t get cut, don’t get cut.’ But I had to get used to it. It really was as simple as if I got caught with a punch, I got cut. I was like Henry Cooper, who suffered in the same way that I did. It makes you tougher. Mentally, you know you can get through it.
But to lose the world title on cuts was frustrating. I watched that 1980 fight with Marvin Hagler again recently. All the time his head is in my face and he wasn’t warned. But he was a special fighter, very intelligent in the ring. I didn’t know he was a southpaw until I was deep into training camp for that fight. Someone had seen him training in London. He was going from orthodox to southpaw to orthodox to southpaw. He did that in the fight and, believe me, it’s hard to fight someone like that. What a fighter. His sense of timing and distance was perfect. He hardly missed with any of his punches and because he was always switching his stance you didn’t know what was coming next.
Right now, I am looking at a huge photo of myself that Hagler presented to me. It was long after we’d fought at a function out near Dartford and he was the guest of honour. The photo sits about three-foot high and it’s two-foot wide. I’m wearing all my belts: The British, WBA, WBC, European. On it says, ‘To Alan, Best Wishes in life and health, Marvelous Marvin Hagler’. Ain’t it lovely? I told him, ‘When I fought you, you were shorter than me but now you stand so tall.’
After that fight, I knew the end of my career was approaching. I had done it all. But I went out to Las Vegas again to fight Mustafa Hamsho. Again, there were so many British fans over there. I think about seven or eight plane-loads came out to support me. I couldn’t go anywhere without getting recognised. That wasn’t a bad thing, I remember walking through Caesars Palace and the British fans were all over the place. Hamsho was tough. Another close fight but he nicked it and got the decision after 10 rounds.
By the time I fought Tony Sibson in my last fight, I was worn out. Look at my reign as world champion. As soon as I won the title I was back into training camp for the next fight. I had three world title fights in quick succession, not like today when fighters get months and months between fights to rest and recover.
But Sibson got the better of me. I hit him and he didn’t budge. He hit me and my nose nearly exploded. After the fight I went to hospital and the doctors found an infection that would have killed me. If it hadn’t been for Tony smearing my nose all over my face it would never have been found.
Before that fight I wanted to pack up, I’d had enough. But I gave Tony a chance knowing if I won I’d get another world title shot. Though deep down, I’d lost that fight before it began. I knew it was all over even though I was still a young man. It made it easier to retire and I never missed it. I certainly don’t miss it today. It’s a hard, hard sport.
If you can walk away after winning and defending a world title, you’ve done something special.