YOU could say that we were not having the best of times when I first met Alan Minter. I was 18 and just about to be sacked from my job at Bristol’s Grand Hotel. He was 29 and had recently had his undisputed world middleweight title unceremoniously wrenched away from him by someone called Marvin Hagler.
I was sporting a lightly stained purple waiter’s jacket and delivering bottles of overpriced wine to his table. He was wearing a mask of cuts and bruises delivered by Hagler’s slashing fists and polished forehead. Are you going to fight him again? Came my stuttering question as I topped up his glass. Yeah I’ll get him next time, came the less than convincing response.
Fully 37 years later I find myself squinting into the sunshine at the man whom Alan Minter has become. We’re sitting in the garden of a country pub in Surrey with his partner Elizabeth (‘call me Betty’). Those cuts may have long ago healed but there is ample evidence embossed onto the ex-boxer’s face of the battles he has waged since he last threw a punch in anger. It’s no secret that the ex-boxer has had his problems with the demon drink since he decided to put his gloves into storage. The lows have more than matched the highs that he experienced under the spotlight. But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about…
“Winning,” Alan informs me, when I ask him what he misses most about boxing, an obvious starter for ten. “I enjoyed winning. When I used to get beat in the early days I never went to school afterwards. Then one morning I was in assembly and the headmaster came out and said: ‘Well, well, well, Alan Minter’s in school – he must have won his first fight. Alan stand up.’”
As we sit and sip our drinks – me on shandy, Alan on orange juice and lemonade – it is clear that there are two widely contrasting perspectives in evidence here this afternoon. There’s me: dutifully clutching a threadbare Alan Minter autobiography that I bought way back in the early 1980s; fawning, over-impressed by the ex-boxer’s not inconsiderable achievements, every inch that wide-eyed waiter from all those years ago. And there’s Alan: trying not to appear bored by the same old questions, not so much nonchalant as pragmatic in his attitude towards his personal history.
“It wasn’t the cheering,” he remembers. “But to all of a sudden be able to achieve a win…”
I’ve probably not begun our conversation in the best possible way, reminding Alan how he lost his first three fights as an amateur. He fixes me with a stare and pauses for a few moments, forcing me to wonder if I might already have gone too far. Then his face breaks into a smile, an unmistakably genuine smile. He will do this a lot over the next couple of hours.
“Boxing didn’t come naturally to me,” he slowly admits. “But winning my fourth fight against a kid who wasn’t bad released something in my body. I wanted to win more – and that was it.” That stubborn will to win transformed Alan Minter from an awkward and unspectacular southpaw neophyte to an Olympic Bronze medallist in 1972, to British and European titles and ultimately to the very summit of the middleweight division eight years later. It was a bumpy old ride: littered with cuts and bruises, a few losses, and even an ignominious No Contest – when he and his opponent were unceremoniously booted from the ring back in 1974 after referee Harry Gibbs tired of the apparent lack of animosity on display.
Looking at some of the many YouTube videos available of Alan Minter in action it is no small feat trying to figure out exactly what it was that made him such a high achiever. He didn’t have the hardest punch, his defence – I use that word in the loosest possible sense – left much to be desired, while his cut resistance was notoriously non-existent. Somehow, however, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
It is only after spending a little time with Alan Minter, however, that one begins to appreciate the unique quality that separated him from the majority of his peers: it is – in my admittedly dilettante opinion – his very ordinariness, his grounded attitude to life, that somehow conspired to bring him such success. Ask him, for example, to tell you what his biggest purse was and he simply shrugs. “I haven’t a clue,” he says in a disinterested voice cut from gravel. “My manager arranged it all. There was money there and I wasn’t bothered…”
The manager in question was Doug Bidwell, whom Alan first met when he was a 14-year-old novice. Assisted by Bobby Neil, whom Alan calls “the greatest trainer in the world” the team hit the boxing motherload in 1980 when Alan Minter ground out a well-deserved win over reigning undisputed middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo.
Ask Alan about Minter’s, however, the swanky restaurant that he co-owned with Bidwell for five or six years in the 1980s and he is equally vague: “I don’t know where he got the money from,” he says.
“And you don’t know what you made from that, or what you lost?”
“Cor blimey… No.”
It’s easy to ascribe Alan’s perfunctory responses to forgetfulness, or perhaps to worry that such memory lapses are related to the thousands of punches that he received in the ring. But this is not the case – the ex-boxer’s many friends will tell you that his approach to life has always been this way.
And Alan carried this insouciance into the ring with him: being a fighter who considered his cuts and lumps as merely an occupational hazard.
“It was a blood clot near the brain,” he says, referring to an outsized swelling that he picked up during an amateur fight with the late Larry Paul. “I had to go to hospital and I think they cut it to let the blood out.”
Alan reflects on that life-threatening injury in a manner that most of us would reminisce over a pimple that we once squeezed. Moreover, when you bring up any of his numerous career highlights there is a refreshing lack of hubris on display.
On his epic trilogy of fights with friend and great rival Kevin Finnegan: “In the second fight with him I went back to my corner and they said to me, ‘If you don’t win this last round big the loser goes nowhere.’ So I gave it everything – it was such a hard round – and walked over to the referee to have my hand put up and he said ‘There’s one more round to go’.
“I couldn’t believe it. And I’m shattered and I had to fight one more round. And I was dead. And a dead man can’t fight.”
On his final losing fight against Tony Sibson in 1981: “I used to get well marked up during my fights,” he remembers. “But there was no physical pain. The only pain I ever had was from my nose when Sibson hit it.
“I was laying in bed and the pain I was in was excruciating… I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror and my nose was enormous. So I phoned an ambulance and went to hospital in Brighton. That’s when they told me I had an infection in my nose heading to my brain. So I told Tony he’d done me a favour by beating me. He saved my life.”
That defeat to Sibson was enough to persuade Alan to retire at the relatively youthful age of 29, a decision that he was never tempted to retract.
“Enough was enough,” he reflects. “Running and running and running, and being in the gym. I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve there was nothing else I could do.
“I’d been British and European champion and undisputed middleweight champion of the world. When I won the world title and defended it and then lost it, it was in my brain that enough’s enough.”
It is the third time that I’ve talked to Alan Minter since that aforementioned occasion all those years ago in Bristol; and people pass by our table not giving a second look to the anonymous looking figure in their midst, making it easy to forget just how big a star the ex-boxer once was.
In the pre-digital days of the 1970s Alan Minter was almost omnipresent on television. When he wasn’t stripped to the waist exchanging punches with people he could be seen regularly on programmes such as Punchlines, Family Fortunes, A Question Of Sport and Superstars. Indeed, his life story was even the subject of Eamonn Andrews’ This Is Your Life. “At the time he was as famous as David Beckham,” Alan’s promoter and ex-boxer son Ross once told me.
In his day Alan counted the likes of Bobby Moore, George Best and Oliver Reed as drinking buddies. As a boxer he fought on the undercard of his idol Muhammad Ali, when The Greatest outclassed Britain’s Richard Dunn in 1976 in Munich. He also numbers Mike Tyson as an admirer of his skills.
“Ali was lovely to be with,” he remembers. “And Tyson would never call me Alan. He always called me ‘Mr. Minter’. He said he had too much respect for me.”
“Should I have been calling you Mr. Minter?” I ask.
Alan and his partner laugh.
“What about when you won the title,” I ask. “Did you find lots of new celebrity friends appeared, and those same people disappeared as soon as you lost it?”
“No. No. No,” says the ex-boxer. “When I lost the world title the people I had with me were still there. And there were never any celebrity hangers-on.”
The mention of the loss of Alan’s world title inevitably brings up the subject of Marvin Hagler, who stopped the British fighter in three rounds amid chaotic post-fight scenes at Wembley stadium in September 1980. What does he remember of the night almost four decades later?
“I thought – hand on my heart – that I would beat him,” he replies. “What I didn’t realise he could do was go from southpaw back to orthodox. He was switching all the time. I didn’t know what punch to throw. I was bemused by it all.”
“Hagler did that when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard,” I say. “But it actually worked against him.”
“Yeah but I had Hagler winning that fight,” says Alan.
Even now, however, it’s almost impossible to mention Marvin Hagler without bringing up the controversial quote from the Briton that made headlines prior to their encounter: ‘No black man will take my title’.
“Tell me to shut up,” I say, “but the only reason I ask is that I read an interview with you recently, and you said that somebody else had told you to say that. Is that true?”
“Yeah. That’s right. I said it because somebody told me to say it.”
“Do you remember who?”
“No I don’t have a clue.”
“Hagler sent you a poem afterwards,” Betty suddenly interjects.
“What? He wrote it?” asks Alan.
“I assume so,” says Betty.
It is at this point that Alan spots his autobiography lying in front of me on the table. He picks it up and begins to flick through it.
“I’ve never read it before,” he says.
I sit and watch Alan Minter lose himself in his own life story, struck by the bizarre spectacle of this former world champion boxer suddenly reintroduced to the thoughts of his younger self. Finally, he asks for a pen and almost four decades after I first purchased the book as a spotty teenager I find myself holding a signed copy.
Later, Alan drives me to the nearest train station. He smiles as we chit chat, Betty sitting at the rear of the car. Again, I can’t escape the very ordinariness of this extraordinary man: the fact that despite inhabiting one of the most notoriously cut throat industries known to sporting man he cannot find it within himself to utter a single bad world about anybody he has encountered, not a boxer, not a manager, not a promoter.
There is nothing contrived about this. Just as there was nothing contrived in his outlook in the days when he gave and received punches for a living. Before we part company I remind him of another of his quotes, less notorious than the previous, one he made during his second career as a boxing commentator: “I had Bernard Taylor five rounds ahead going into the fifth round,” he had said.
Alan Minter laughs heartily.