Dean Powell: A Remembrance

Boxing - Vinny Mitchell v Shaun Walton - Featherweight Fight - York Hall, Bethnal Green - 26/9/08 Dean Powell - Trainer Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Steven Paston
On this day six years ago UK matchmaker Dean Powell passed away. Terry Dooley, in reworking an old interview with Powell, remembers the Londoner fondly

This is an updated version of a prose piece from 2009 that was approved by Dean then rewritten as a Q & A. It has been restored to as close to the version that he approved as possible:

DEAN Powell sounded tired and mithered when he picked up the phone for a longer talk than our usual “Can you confirm X, Y or Z?” conversations. The quick query ones always took place in the daytime, when news moves fast, and our longer, more drawn-out talks would take place in the evening or later into the night.

Powell would sometimes sound a bit out-of-breath, his evening power walk stopped for no man, and you can often hear the wind rushing by him as he mixed exercise of the body with exercise of the mind; he always seemed more happy when we got beyond the present and future and wound our way right back to his past.

Don’t get me wrong, the veteran matchmaker loves and cherishes his role with Frank Warren, one he inherited when Ernie Fossey passed away in 2003, but it is a hard and it is sometimes, and to quote him, a “Thankless task” — although it is one that can be richly rewarding when things come together. This latest conversation had been planned well in advance, he did not want any distractions as this was the one that went right back to the beginning and then all the way through to this moment, the now.

There is a saying attributed to Nietzsche that is more likely apocryphal which states: ‘When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago’ — it is true. Even if you are doing a job you love it can become arduous at times yet you plough through the tiredness and doubts because you love it so much. People can say this, that and the other about Dean Powell, what you can never, ever say is that he does not love boxing, talking boxing, and working in a key role within the sport.

It started as a dream for the Black Country boy. A lifelong boxing, music — he is a diehard mod — and popular culture fan, Powell would lie on his bed as a youngster looking at the posters that adorned his walls. Years later, and through sheer graft and force of will, he would end up meeting, impressing and working with many of the people that he admired as a youngster.

“I’ve got an idea for a book,” he told me on more than one occasion. “Do you know that song ‘Pictures On My Wall’? Well, my book would be called something like that and each chapter would be about someone I used to have a poster of or who I admired and how I got to meet them. I think it would be a good read, lots of great names.”

Powell’s path was a modest one to begin with, Dudley Boxing Club was the launch pad for a boy who had dreams of making it all the way to London, the epicentre of British boxing in the 1980s. The dream became a reality when he packed his bags in his early-20s and headed to the capital.

“It is still tough now, 22 years later,” he said, speaking in the early days of summer 2009. “It was a case of going down there to live and achieve my dream. I am still living that dream all these years later. I feel very blessed. It was a great period for me.

“At the beginning, I was at the Thomas A Becket, the most famous boxing gym in the world — over a hundred world champions had trained there,” he added, dropping the name of the old boxing pub and gym that he would often talk about in these quite moments. He ended up managing it at the age of 22, much to the surprise of many within the trade at the time.

“Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard — they have all trained in the Becket, too many names to mention. To have on your business card ‘Gym Manager Thomas a Becket’ at twenty-two years of age, it was a great thing for me, a great education.

“Moving on, I went to work at the Royal Oak with Terry Lawless and Jimmy Tibbs, which was something else, a bit of a dream. To go there and work with the likes of Mark Kaylor, you can’t buy that kind of experience. It was another great time for me.

“Terry Lawless left a great legacy in boxing. Don’t forget, he had four world champions in a time when Mexican and American boxing were going through their best period. (I remember that all of) Terry’s fighters would have a picture card and they had have written on them ‘Sole Direction: Terry Lawless’.

“Mickey Duff had a great saying: ‘Eyes and Ears open, and mouth shut’ — I was a good learner, and a good listener. I have also said many times that Jimmy Tibbs gave me an absolutely fantastic education in this business. I also received a lot of help and advice from the late Gary Davidson, who was former landlord at the Thomas A Becket. Joe Devitt, who worked with great fighters such as John Conteh, was also a big help.

“It was always a great experience. Jimmy, Terry, George Francis, Mickey, Paddy Byrne, and Dennie Mancini, the people who would help you were the people who had achieved success themselves. They were secure in their own ability, so they didn’t have to worry about me doing this or doing that.”

Dean Powell
Powell helped some of British boxing’s biggest names (Action Images/Andrew Couldridge)

A role with Frank Maloney, as both matchmaker and trainer, followed his time at the Becket before the ultimate role in boxing at the time came his way when Ernie Fossey passed in 2003 and Frank Warren asked the tireless grafter to fill Fossey’s shoes. It is a role Powell grew into; one that requires time, patience, contacts, and plenty of goodwill on the part of others.

“Matchmaking is the most difficult role, especially now,” he said. “You have fewer fighters, you have got people getting involved who shouldn’t be involved: mothers, dads, brothers, and agents. It is just ridiculous. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t. If a fighter is working in McDonald’s, he wouldn’t take his mum, his mate, and his advisor with him into work.

“Being a Matchmaker is a thankless task, to be honest with you. Mickey Duff used to say: ‘You can please some people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time’ — and it is true. It is not an easy job. If it were easy we would all be doing it. With every passing week matchmaking gets more and more difficult.”

It is a role that never ends. You could be forgiven for thinking that once the final touches are applied to a bill the matchmaker can sit back, relax, and watch the fruits of their labour blossom and unfold. This is not the case, as Powell discovered over the course of one particularly hectic night in July 2005 when Danny Williams — well, his wife, to be exact — phoned in sick on the eve of a fight.

“My job finishes after the bill! The only time when you know a fight is going to happen is when the bell goes. Here is an example of that: Sports Network’s first show back on ITV [16th of July 2005]. We have Danny Williams against Matt Skelton in the main event. Amir Khan boxed that night at Bolton against David Bailey. Everyone weighs-in OK, then at 10 o’clock on the night before the show Danny Williams pulls out of the fight.

“I was alone in the hotel. I had decided to skip having a meal with everyone because I was so tired. I was trying to relax with a sandwich and a glass of wine. I then get a call to say Danny is out of the fight. I just got on with it. I got hold of Richard Poxon [former matchmaker and trainer at Fight Academy] about 6am the next morning. Richard then went and got us Mark Krench.

“That is where you need your network of people all doing the same job. The network that you build up — those that you can trust and you can work with — is something that you rely on. That type of relationship does not happen overnight. If somebody phones up, no matter how late in the day it is, and says ‘So and so is out’ then there is no point ranting and raving or screaming: ‘I’ll never work with you again’. If they are out there is nothing you can do to put that fighter back in again, you are just taking levels of energy out of yourself — energy you need to put the damage right.”

Matchmaking is an integral part of boxing. It is a multifaceted role that becomes almost instinctive. Many have come and gone, with differing levels of success, yet Powell is generally acknowledged as one of, if not the, best in the business when it comes to either spotting when the time is right to step a fighter up or having to shore up a bill when things do not go to plan. There is no manual, no user guide, and no mercy, you just have to get in there and do it.

“Make sure you have got an understanding wife or girlfriend,” was Powell’s advice to anyone who steps into it. “Boxing is 24/7 and don’t let anyone tell you any different. It never stops. I have been very, very fortunate to work with great people. I have had an Oxford level education in boxing, really. Nobody gets on with everybody — in life, not just in this business — but the people I’ve worked with still have a relationship with me.”

As mentioned above, the key to being a good matchmaker is being a good people person. Sure, there are disagreements fuelled by stress and the need to deliver yet Powell and the best of his ilk manage to negotiate that difficult line between assertiveness, which works for you, and aggression, which may work initially only to then have diminishing returns. And, according to Powell, the passing of time also helps.

“As you get a bit older, you tend to take a step back a bit and look at times when you’ve rocked and rowed with people — you look at the good times as well,” he added. “I love coming to Manchester because I’ve got some great memories from years ago.  (Champs Camp’s former head coach) Phil Martin was a great man, someone I had a great relationship with and looked up to. I have some sad but happy memories here, even with Billy Graham, I’m laughing at the memory of it now, but we did have our moments. Another thing with Billy is that sometimes it would be very difficult, you’d have an argument with him, yet there was always a bit of excitement when he was involved.”

Powell’s walk was coming to an end, so our trip down memory lane started to wind down, too, yet there was just enough time left for the types of questions that you have to ask when you have quality time with someone like Powell: best performance, best fighter, and any abiding memories of what triggered a fascination with a sport that went on to define his life.

“The best performance I have seen, in the flesh, from a British performer was Duke McKenzie winning the WBO bantamweight title [on points in 1991] against Gaby Canizales at the Elephant and Castle,” he recalled.

“It was everything, from seeing him working in the gym before the fight to his boxing in the ring. He got everything off to a T that night. It was perfect. Emanuel Steward — I learned a lot from him over the years — was over in the other corner and Canizales did not come here to lose the fight. Duke was absolutely magnificent.

“Mike McCallum is probably the best fighter I have seen in the flesh,” he said, without missing a beat. “He was a consummate professional in everything he did. He prepared himself right. He would come into the Thomas A Becket to train when he fought over here. I saw him prepare for Herol Graham and Michael Watson. His preparation was fantastic. From wrapping his hands to wrapping himself up in a big towelling robe, he was spot-on in everything he did.”

Powell grew up watching The Greatest (The Courier-Jouranl/USA Today Sports)

Like most of us, one man dominates Powell’s early memories of boxing. You did not even have to see Muhammad Ali fight to know he was something huge: bigger than boxing, sport, culture, and even politics. A photo of him that I saw when I was young was enough to spark my lifelong interest in boxing’s biggest idol and Powell’s mind turned to Ali when recalling the very earliest memories as well as the ones that followed.

“The first I memory I have of boxing is Muhammad Ali,” he recalled. “I remember watching Ali and Foreman on a Saturday afternoon on World of Sport, or maybe it was Grandstand — it was a while ago! The first time I remember watching boxing live was watching Sugar Ray Leonard during the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

“I was also a big fan of Charlie Magri, I remember watching Charlie in the amateurs as well. I used to like going down to Dudley Town Hall and watching Pat Cowdell — he was one of the master boxers that this country has produced. I was lucky with the people I worked with right from the start. I have been lucky enough to work with some great fighters.

“Lloyd Honeyghan was absolutely marvellous and I worked with him at the end of his career. Mickey Cantwell winning the British flyweight title. John Graham when he won the Southern Area cruiserweight title in 1991 [a win over Michael Aubrey]. Working alongside Joe Calzaghe, who as a boxer has never really got the credit he deserves. There have been some great nights.”

Powell being Powell, he also recalled two trainers, one high-profile, the other personal to him, who had a huge impact on him from the beginning. “I’ve learned from them all,” he stated. “I’d have to say that in my own personal opinion Jimmy Tibbs and Ronnie Browne, from Dudley ABC, stand out as the two finest coaches over the last twenty-two years in boxing.”

Postscript: Powell’s suicide in 2013 came after a long battle against depression, the silent scream, and was shock to even those who knew he had been struggling with the illness. Our last interaction was not about boxing, I had recently returned from Israel and sent him a message about my experiences there, particularly the sense of tranquillity I felt in and around the Sea of Galilee. A devout born-again Christian, Powell replied that he hoped to make the trip someday. Sadly, it never came to pass. He would have fallen in love with Galilee, of that I have no doubt.

Those who are wondering why I have written this remembrance or who feel uneasy about it have every right to feel that way. But it has been put together in good faith and in the true spirit of that word. Boxing moves quickly. Six-years is a long time. There are people in the trade who may not have met Powell or only vaguely knew him or heard about impact he had on boxing through the many, many major fights he made, as well as all the ones that you may never have heard of.

He was always ready to field questions. However, he was so busy it was hard for everyone who had dealings with him to really get to know him. Those who did still cherish the memory of his name and the words ‘All the Georgie Best…’, his sign off when texting, still prompts fond memories. Hopefully those who didn’t get to meet him or talk to him now know a bit more about one of the chief architects of modern British boxing.

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