ONCE upon a time in a Greek restaurant called the Phoenix Apollo, a place lost in an old east end, Mickey Duff would not look at, talk to or share calamari with Ambrose Mendy. He would, however, do a deal with him.
Duff was doing business with a man he hated, to finally agree a fight that nobody believed would happen. It was a rare meeting of opposites, but in their silence and absurdity they got the job done and Nigel Benn and Michael Watson had a fight.
There was a similar feeling of distrust and comedy a few years earlier in Charlie Magri’s sports shop in Bethnal Green when Frank Warren and Ernie Fossey arrived to seal the deal for Magri to fight Thailand’s Sot Chitalada. Magri had Terry Lawless, his manager, at his side, but Lawless was sulking. And silent.
In 1985 Charlie Magri’s best days were over, but he was not a finished fighter just yet. He was still fighting for Lawless and the legal cartel, which Lawless was part of with his “revenue-sharing” buddies; Magri fought on the BBC and he ran the sports shop to get a living.
Warren had Chitalada, who was the WBC flyweight champion, a former kick-boxing idol and a veteran of eight fights, five stoppages. Warren had a television deal with ITV and Magri was still an attraction. He had travelled to Italy the previous year to win the European flyweight title.
The offer was 40-grand to Magri for the fight. It would be the second highest purse Magri received in a 35-fight career. Magri wanted the fight, but Lawless told him to forget it, he was adamant he would not do business with Warren. His cartel was at war with Warren.
But, there was a shift in boxing’s axis and the meeting took place. Fossey and Warren went to Magri’s shop and met with the boxer and Lawless. This was big news at the time and it was kept secret, the way all boxing meetings once were.
In the shop, Lawless, who knew Charlie wanted the money, sat with his legs crossed looking at a row of squash racquets. Somebody made tea in the back room and opened a pack of custard creams and the deal was done. It was a bold move by everybody involved, a fight that crossed barriers.
At the time – and this is crucial – Warren and the men from the cartel, Lawless, Mickey Duff and Jarvis Astaire, operated in two very different worlds, separated by more than generations. Warren had made fast progress in five years, he challenged the cartel and he was picking up fighters that would have traditionally signed for Duff and company.
There were daily skirmishes it seemed, comical stunts, brazen acts on both sides. And a lot of lawyers. Life in the other boxing bubble was funny; it was war stations every day from the very start of the Eighties for over two decades.
“Mickey Duff did every possible thing he could to keep me from being a success and I did every possible thing that I could to make him lose sleep,” said Warren. “We would sit around thinking of ways to wind him up. As soon as we got him ranting and raving we were happy.” It was still no laughing matter to talk to another promoter or manager’s fighter and the creative methods used to overcome the rules were often hilarious. Random meetings, innocent kidnapping, mistaken identity, disguises. It was slapstick espionage, I loved it.
Magri lost to Chitalada, but it is not the massacre you have been told. Two judges had it even after four completed rounds and Chitalada was hurt in the opening two rounds. Magri was heroic that night. “You can say what you like about Warren, he was the only guy I fought for who I actually felt gave me a fair whack,” said Magri.
After Magri left the building the battle continued, the tricks, the moves, the threats of legal action, the bids, the deals. All a glory. That fight was a bit like that First World War football match, just a temporary cessation of hostilities.
The story behind the Benn and Watson fight is genius.
Watson was going to be Duff’s new golden boy. He was clean, he could fight and he was learning his trade from the bottom up. In short, he was doing it the right way, the old way. His manager had a British Boxing Board of Control licence.
Benn was the bad boy of British boxing, he was unbeaten in 22, his last 10 had all been knocked out in the first or second round. He was the Commonwealth middleweight champion, he was all over London, he wore mink and he was an attraction. His manager, Mendy, did not have a Board licence, but he could promote a fight.
The players were Mendy, Duff, a lawyer called Henri Brandman and Frank Maloney. And some angry waiters. It was Maloney’s job, as a licence holder, to do the talking. Duff would not talk directly to Mendy. I had that once when Duff had banned me and sued me and I shared a two-hour car journey with him. We chatted the whole time, we just had to go through a fight fixture called Ron Boddy, who was driving the car.
The negotiations started in Brandman’s office with several hours of Duff shouting, Maloney passing messages and Mendy winding Duff up. At about 10pm it was decided to move the continuing offers, deals, insults, compromises and rare agreements to the Apollo. The team were weary from negotiations, but nearly four more hours were required at the meze table. It must have been dawn when they emerged with a shock deal, a tired gang of temporary diplomats; still not talking, still not shaking hands and never shaking hands.
It was a great fight, never forget that. Watson was still a trade fighter, a very good one at that point and Benn was a star. Mendy’s belief in Benn was total, Duff’s belief in Watson was equally solid. Duff bet heavy – he always said that when he won. “Michael will tuck up, throw straight punches and break Benn,” Duff insisted.
Mendy pitched a tent on Finsbury Park for the Sunday night ITV extravaganza. It was a spectacle and Watson tucked up, threw straight punches and broke Benn.
When it was over there was even more hate circulating between the rival promoters, even less respect, but somehow they had delivered a fight that nobody thought would ever happen. You see, it can be done.