LIKE many another young man before me, I fell in love in a dance hall … but in my case the object of devotion was not a girl, but a sport, and the affair has endured more than 30 years.
I was eight years old at the time, and like most of my contemporaries in County Derry, I hero-worshipped Billy “Spider” Kelly, the Derry city stylist who held the British and Empire featherweight titles. I was growing obsessed with a sport I had never seen, nor had any realistic prospect of ever seeing, until one happy Wednesday I saw an advertisement in the local paper for an amateur show to be held that weekend in Palais de Danse, a long, low hall at the end of the promenade in my hometown, Portstewart. My pocket money at that time was 6d a week (2.5p). It bought a lot more then than it would now, but it was still a long way short of the admission charge. Until the night of the show I did not know whether or not I would be going, although I had talked of little else in the preceding days.
But that evening my father gave me half a crown (12.5p), a fortune to my eight-year-old eyes, and sent me off to watch the boxing. He cannot have guessed what he was starting. I was instantly captivated by the sport, by its atmosphere, its colour, its excitement, its humour, its passion.
When I was 11 I went to boarding school (St Patrick’s College, Armagh) and my pocket money was increased to one shilling a week (5p). Nine pence of it was invested in Boxing News, which had to be smuggled into school for me by an obliging day pupil called Eddie Smith. I became an authority on the game, in the sort of obsessive detail familiar to schoolboys everywhere. In truth, I knew far more about boxing’s history then than I do now.
After finishing his education, Harry travelled to England and begun work as a civil servant, still refusing to give up the dream. Boxing then, as now, was an expensive sport and my meagre civil service salary did not offer such hope of progressing to a ringside seat. The solution, as ever, was simple.
Gilbert Odd, Britain’s best-known boxing historian and a former Boxing News editor, had encouraged me to launch the British Boxing Supporters Club, a county-wide network of boxing addicts which was designed to put like-minded fans in touch with each other. It was a modestly successful venture, but it took up too much time to run on a voluntary basis and eventually just faded away.
But my friendship with Gilbert lasted, and with his backing and advice I started looking for freelance work. I asked the Irish News whether they would be interested in a ringside report on a fight (of Frank Young’s) at the Albert Hall. They were, and they made the necessary arrangements … and I have never paid for a ticket since.
There has never been a day when I felt that I was going to work in the morning; the number of men who can say that with total honesty are few, and I know just how lucky I am to be one of them.
How can you seriously call it ‘work’ when you are lunching beside the swimming pool at Caesars Palace, or drinking lager in Copenhagen, or sipping boulevard coffee in Paris, or meeting characters like Kevin Finnegan, Don King, Billy Aird, Bruce Strauss and all the other larger than life individuals who populate the sometimes seedy, often immoral, but endlessly fascinating world of professional boxing?
- WHILE Mullan’s memoir remains unpublished, his 1996 book, Fighting Words, a compilation of his favourite articles, is available to order for £10 (inc P&P). Not available in the shops – Order via email at Siobhan.firstname.lastname@example.org. Payment via PayPal.