AMATEUR boxing in the UK is functioning very nicely these days. There are a huge number of amateur boxers and amateur clubs, as there always has been. There are successful fighters, both male and female, who are achieving great things in the elite championships around the world. This may have much to do with the restructuring of the amateur game that has occurred over recent years, but in my view, this restructuring has come at a cost, as it has adversely affected many of the long-standing traditions associated with the amateur game.
I well remember just how important the London Divisional Championships were not that many years ago. The Divs, as they have always been known, were an integral and hugely popular part of the London amateur scene, but the aura associated with them has diminished in recent years and they are not nearly as competitive, or well regarded, as they used to be.
The Divs commenced during the 1920s and they were organised by splitting London into four regions – North-East, North-West, South-East and South-West. The four winners would then meet to contest the London Championships, with this event usually being held before a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall. For an amateur boxer to become a London Divisional champion was a great achievement. There were so many boxers in the capital and only the very best would be considered worthy of entry into the Divs.
Let us take, as an example, the Divs and the Londons from 1976 to show what sort of quality was on offer. The North-Eastern representatives were decided at York Hall in Bethnal Green, where Charlie Magri, Sylvester Mittee, Ray Tabi and Dave Odwell were among the winners. From the North-West, Lloyd Lee and Herman Henry were the standouts. The South-Easterns took place at that iconic venue in Walworth, the Manor Place Baths, and Gary Davidson, Cornelius Boza-Edwards and Clinton McKenzie were all victorious. The South-Westerns were contested at another famous old venue, Battersea Town Hall, and Terry Henderson, Derek Hollyoak, Billy English and Bob Hennessy all progressed.
The 39 winners, at 11 weights, then competed at the London semi-finals, and in 1976 these were held on March 18 at the Seymour Hall in Marylebone. At light-heavyweight, Steve Crosby (New Enterprise) outpointed Repton’s Johnny Waldron in a contest that was also an Olympic trial. Boza-Edwards came through against another Repton lad, Moss O’Brien. Roy Hilton, John Seymour, Mittee, John McGinnitty, Tabi and Odwell more than compensated for Repton, that illustrious Bethnal Green club, by making sure of their place in the finals.
Exactly one week later, the finals of the London Championships were held at the Royal Albert Hall and it was, of course, a sell-out. At light-flyweight, Seymour won by walkover as there was no one else to fight him – there was quite a dearth of little men at this time. At flyweight, the final was contested between Magri and Ignatius Jano. The brave Jano proved no match for the future world champion and was stopped in two.
The next four winners, at bantam, feather, light and light-welter, were all men of real quality. Davidson, Boza-Edwards, Mittee and McKenzie all became champions of London after beating Hilton, Henry, Dave Laxen and Jeff Clarke respectively. At welterweight, Lee (Middle Row) defeated McGinnitty on a cut eye in less than a minute. Odwell, whose grandfather George was one of the hardest-punching professionals in the 1930s, won at middleweight, and Billy Gray, Crosby and Tabi completed the list of champions.
Three of the winners, Magri, Mittee and McKenzie, went on to secure the ABA title in 1976 and all three became British champions as professionals. Magri went on to be one of Britain’s finest-ever flyweights, claiming the WBC crown in 1983. The reason that they were all so good in the pro game was because they had had a proper amateur grounding in the tough London circuit during the mid-1970s, when to become London champion, or even just the champion of one of the Divs, it really meant something.