THERE is no mistaking the noise of funeral horses in Bermondsey on a wet Tuesday morning. And the silence of the hundreds dressed in black outside the Fisher club.
Steve Hiser devoted his life to the Fisher and his funeral was all about the devotion of his fighting faithful. His exit from the church, carried high on the shoulders of the boxers he made in the gym was breathtaking. A solitary clap, then another, a third and then the loudest possible standing ovation as the coffin slowly made its way smoothly down an aisle of grieving men and women. They reached out to touch it, they wiped away tears, they held each other in loss. They surrounded the coffin; it looked like it was moving on its own through the hands of his flock. It was shattering to witness from the seats on the balcony.
They filed out, heads low, shoulders shaking to find some comfort in each other. There is nothing like a boxing funeral for bringing together boxing people. The noise on the church steps only dropped when Lloyd Honeyghan, arguably Hiser’s greatest find, was wheeled out.
They all came it seemed, every single one of the hundreds that Hiser made in the Fisher gym during a lifetime of devotion. The champions, the contenders and the forgotten. Especially the forgotten, the fighters with no names; men who never won a title, but still thank Steve each night they sit down to eat with their families. He made that possible, people stepped forward in the church and told a version of that story. Everybody in our game has a version of that timeless and endless story.
They told a lot of stories, it was south London, a great boxing man’s funeral and that tends to bring out the storytellers in the group. They swapped long and short and tall tales. Some produced ancient pictures on their phones. The images were incredible. Some of Hiser’s boxers stayed back in the church vestibule, their tears impossible to stop. It happens at every boxing funeral; the quality fighters were all boys again. Tim Driscoll was in a doorway, overwhelmed. “He just gave and gave,” he managed.
The sound of sadness had been loud against the backdrop to Denzel Bentley ringing the ten-bell salute. Denzel’s ten bells was deliberately slow, a perfect rehearsal for the coffin’s final journey down the aisle. It seemed like ten minutes to cover the 60 feet through the rows and rows of men and women paying their final respects. “Like a father,” Dave Walker said – everybody said the same. The boxers giving testimony in the church and outside thanked Hiser’s wife, Sandra, and Karen and Natalie, his two daughters, for sharing their dad/husband. “He had a thousand sons; thanks, Sandra, for letting us have him as a dad,” Trevor Thirwall said. The final ovation was relentless. Not a dry eye in the place.
And then in small groups the lost stories came out. Nights in rings when Hiser made them all Fisher boxers. It was always about more than fighting ability, always. “He just wanted us all to be better people,” said Ted Cheeseman, a coffin bearer and one of the last club idols.
There are thousands of anonymous boxers and they have a tale. “And it was the kid’s first proper spar and he cried. Yeah, cried. Steve saw it and went over to him: ‘You from the Walworth Road?’ He said to the kid. ‘No, Bermondsey.’ ‘You sure, son?’ ‘Yeah,’ said the kid and gave Steve the address. Steve shrugged and turned to the kid: ‘I wasn’t sure – they cry in the Walworth Road, we don’t cry in Bermondsey.’ The kid never cried again. It was f***** magic.” No names necessary.
Somebody else had seen Hiser in the gym recently. He was gravely ill, but he was off in a corner showing a girl of about eleven how to throw a proper jab. “He kept on, worked on it. Showed her, watched her, showed her again.” He was a master at work, make no mistake. During the final, sad months his old, ancient and new fighters made their way to his home and to his bedside. It seems like hundreds made the essential pilgrimage. They sat and talked and if they got it wrong, he told them. His memory was solid, he knew them all. If they wore the distinctive black and white vest of the Fisher at anytime since the Fifties, Hiser knew them. He probably changed their feet, their hands and their heads in his gym. Hiser started coaching and changing lives at the Fisher in 1973. That is a life of sacrifice.
“I knew you would be here, look at this.” It was a brilliant and stylish junior called Terry Franklin. Man, at about fifteen he was beautiful to watch. Hiser was very proud of him. He went on a magical run in the schoolboy championships in 1985. Stage after stage, trains and car journeys and wins all the way to the finals in Derby. Hiser, Franklin and his dad. We were a tight group. Terry beat JonJo Irwin in the final. There was an official picture taken after, but I had never seen it. Terry came over on the steps of the church. “Look at this, Steve.” It was the picture and Hiser’s face is set like a man who means real boxing business. A hard-fighting man. Franklin looks like a choirboy. What a memory.
And, by the way, Steve Hiser could really fight. He walked away from the pros after back-to-back defeats on cuts after eight straight wins. It was 1965. He was also part of the long-gone amateur scene from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies when good club boys were local idols. That history is considerably thinner with his passing. He joins too many giants. There will never be another Steve Hiser. It was a privilege to know him.