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‘I started in fairground boxing booths at 16, no headguards, small gloves and I’d get a pound a fight.’ The life and times of Big Ron Gray

Ron Gray
Cigar chomping Black Country giant Ron Gray rose to become chief matchmaker for Mickey Duff, Barry Hearn and Frank Warren. He reflects on his life sentence in the hardest game

Big Ron Gray of Cannock assumed a virtual monopoly over the Midland fight scene during the final quarter of the last millennium. A former scrapper on the fairground booths and one-time Midland Area heavyweight challenger, the cigar chomping Black Country giant rose to become chief matchmaker to London fight faces Mickey Duff, Barry Hearn and Frank Warren in the 1980s before quietly bowing out of the game in 2001. Louis Daniel tracked down Big Ron, now 77, to reflect upon his life sentence in the hardest game.

I DIDN’T start with the boxing until I was 15. Previously I played football. My Uncle Ron was the right-hand man to Bobby Robson at Ipswich Town.

My dad, a pitman, was a huge boxing fan. I was the eldest of five brothers and we’d have a little knockabout in the house for him. Then Dad learned of this boxing gym in Walsall above a pub. Two sides of the ‘ring’ had ropes, the other two sides were the walls of the gym. If you got hit on the wrong side of the ring your head smashed against the wall.

At 16 years old, I was the youngest pro in England at the time. When I got in the ring for my first fight at Thimberville Baths in Smethwick, my legs just ‘went’. I’d never boxed on canvas before. How can I do six rounds on this?

I lost on a cut when I was well in front. As the doc stitched me up in a cubicle afterwards, a voice behind said: “You showed a brilliant jab, son.” I turned around and it was [ex-world middleweight king] Randy Turpin, my idol. He invited me to sign with George Middleton [Turpin’s ex-manager] in Leamington and I ended up living with Randy for three months. He even worked my corner a few times… what he could see was incredible.

In the closed season, I started on Ron Taylor’s fairground boxing booths at 16, a wonderful life. No headguards, small gloves. I’d get a pound a fight… plus nobbins. The hardest place of all, Durham Miners’ Gala. It’d be midday till midnight and you could have 20 fights a day. That was your training. I once fought the same guy six times, same day!

Starting as a 16-year-old middleweight, I only lost four of my first 20 but, by 24, I’d fallen into the role of a 17-and-a-half stone journeyman. Out in the sticks in Cannock, it was hard to get sparring. Instead, I was used as a sparhand for all the top British lads, Henry Cooper, Dick Richardson, Joe Erskine, Brian London…

I went to Gothenburg with Richardson when he challenged Ingemar Johansson for the European title [in 1962] and fought before 60,000 on the undercard. Hard man, Dick. But the hardest earned money of all was Erskine; couldn’t crack an egg but he’d hit you with a thousand punches every round.

When Ali fought London at Earls Court [1966], I sparred with Brian and my brother Bill, a former national junior champion, sparred Ali at the Beckett. When they had a press conference beforehand, they asked me who’d win. I replied jokingly: ‘Ali, easy. I’ve been knocking Brian about for the last three weeks!’

Ron Gray with Muhammad Ali

I had the privilege of boxing on both Cooper- Ali bills. On the first at Wembley Stadium, I lost twice in a heavyweight competition. Second time, at Highbury, I outpointed Billy Wynter from Antigua [w pts 8].

I also fought [British and Commonwealth champion] Jack Bodell twice. Jack was a better fighter than given credit for, champion of half the world and look what he did with Joe Bugner. Bodell beat me on points for the Midland heavyweight title in Solihull. Prior to that, we’d fought in an eliminator and I was fit. He jumped up in the air when I threw a body shot and I got disqualified! George Biddles in Jack’s corner cries: ‘Low blow, stay down.’ We didn’t speak for years after, when we both served on the Midlands Council because I thought he’d took a dive but I liked Jack.

That was the first of four disqualification losses I had within 10 months (May 1963-March 1964). All jumpers! The last was against Freddie Mack, a dangerous American, in Leicester’s Granby Hall. I was actually matched to fight Bodell again but, the night before, the promoter Alex Griffiths phoned and told me I’d got Mack for the same money and my manager George Middleton had accepted as ‘it’d be a good learning fight for me!’ I wanted proper dough. I managed to negotiate up from £125 to £220.

It was scheduled for eight but, early doors, Freddie smashed me with a good left hook and I thought: ‘He might be too good for me’ so I belted Freddie low. The ref said: ‘Do that one more time and you’re out.’ I didn’t need telling twice. Within moments, wallop. I’ve hit Freddie just above the knee…

When called before the Board, I expected to be stopped 25 per cent but the chairman of the Board was Alex Griffiths the promoter! They ruled my manager should receive his 25 per cent as he wasn’t at fault and the promoter (Griffiths) would get 25 per cent for damage to his bill. It had been fight of the night! The other half went to the Boxing Board’s Benevolent Fund. I never got a penny, and never did it again! Peter Wilson of The Mirror wrote it was ‘the dirtiest two minutes he’d ever witnessed in a British ring!’

Funny story. A while after, I was matched at short notice against a heavyweight prospect (Vic Moore) managed by [ex world middleweight champion] Terry Downes. Beforehand, Terry quips: ‘Who’s this Ron Gray? I see lost DIS, lost DIS, lost DIS. I think they’ve got us a bleedin’ discus thrower!’

Top of the bill Brian London slipped down a step and the fight’s put back a month, allowing me to shed two stone and get myself in shape. Seventh round, I knocked the kid down in his own corner and won the fight well. Not bad for a discus thrower, I told Terry!

‘They say Pat Cowdell’s crowd went wild but the worst thing that happened was a woman threw a box of Cadbury’s chocolates at the referee’

I was done as a boxer by the age of 24. I’d got married at 21 and had had two broken jaws. Like a quality racehorse, I started early and finished early. Reflecting, I thought I could’ve done better. Danny Vary, a top London trainer of the time, once said when assessing me as an opponent: ‘It all depends which Ron Gray turns up.’ That hit the nail on the head.

When I got my promoter’s licence, I was always told, don’t promote in Birmingham because you’ll do your cobblers so I targeted the Black Country. Every year I’d put on six commercial shows at the Wolverhampton Civic and four at Dudley Town Hall.

I also went four times a year at the Park Hall Hotel in Wolverhampton. Between that, I did Sporting Clubs in Stoke and Nottingham, The Arden Sporting Club at The Albany, Cleethorpes, Evesham. One year I did nearly 50 shows. It wasn’t uncommon for me to have three running the same night!

A failure to secure TV was always my biggest obstacle. I even promoted Bunny Johnson and Pat Cowdell in British title fights without TV, something that’d be unheard of nowadays. Presenter Gary Newbon promised me two or three shows a year on ITV’s Fight Night but later claimed he couldn’t deal with me because I was working with Mickey Duff. That was my biggest disappointment.

In 1976, I began managing fighters, starting with heavyweight Terry O’Connor, now doing very well for himself as an international referee. I can honestly say I was always as interested in the welfare of a six-round kid as I was a 15-round championship fighter.

I manoeuvred Peter Till to a British lightweight title fight against a Steve Boyle but the show at Walsall Football Stadium just wasn’t selling so regrettably I had to pull it. That cost me £21,000, my biggest loss. Mind Board Secretary John Morris told me I must be a good manager because I’d got Peter so high in the ratings without fighting anyone in the top 10. I’d done my job. Peter never did get his shot and we parted.

The best fighter I was associated with was Warley’s Pat Cowdell. Pat was a consummate pro who had superb boxing ability and fighting brain power. But it was hard for us. Had Pat been from London, he’d have been on the back page every other day but, though he’d captained his country and won an Olympic medal, the national press were never interested.

When Pat first challenged Dave Needham for the British title at Wolverhampton Civic [September 1979], the national press wanted 22 phones around ringside leaving no room for the local press who’d followed Pat’s career from day one. So I banned all the nationals!

No regrets. I don’t want people reading what a cracking show it was, I wanted them reading what a great show it was going to be. The only national pressman I allowed was Dave Field who worked for Reuters and farmed it out everywhere anyway… I wasn’t as daft as they thought I was!

That night, Pat got robbed blind. They say his crowd went wild but the worst thing that happened was a woman threw a box of Cadbury’s chocolates at the referee Sid Nathan! 

Besides, we got a return straight away at the Albert Hall which Pat won, though Needham actually gave him a far closer fight second time.

Then Pat was ordered to defend against Jimmy Flint, a murderous London puncher, whose manager Terry Lawless was insisting the fight went on at the Albert Hall in the capital. But having packed out The Civic for the first Needham fight, I told Terry I was putting it on in Wolverhampton and bluffed that I’d two good sponsors.

I knew Pat would stand Flint on his head wherever it happened so went to purse bids – I bid £8005, Mickey Duff bid £26,000! It was the biggest ever payday for a British featherweight defence at that time, with TV and everything else to come on top. As expected, Cowdell schooled him. They should’ve stopped it two rounds before they did [round 11].

After claiming his Lonsdale Belt in a then record time, we got Pat a world title shot in the Houston Astrodome, against the great Mexican Salvador Sanchez. And had it been a 12-round fight, Pat would’ve been world champion. He was in front on all cards.

But Sanchez came on strong and dumped Pat heavily on his back in the final 20 seconds. We knew Pat had no chance of bagging a decision over there but, badly cut, he somehow crawled up and steamed straight back into Salvador. It was easily the equal of Tyson Fury against [Deontay] Wilder last year. I’ve never been prouder of being English [Cowdell dropped a split decision after 15 rounds].

Secret to being a good matchmaker? Back then, Boxing News! You couldn’t do without it. I still read it cover to cover for a couple of hours on a Thursday and woe betide anyone who interrupts me!

It’s not always about matching the two best fighters. It’s about understanding styles. I kept no records at all. I just studied and remembered boxers. Puncher v a boxer is always a good fight.

At one stage, I managed 48 pros – and there were a lot less about then – and worked closely with Nobby Nobbs who also had plenty. We looked after our lads, stopped them getting knocked about, whereas if they fought as opponents for Mickey Duff’s flying machines in London, there was a danger that they’d be knocked out and suspended.

With all the fighters booked up for my own shows, it became difficult for the big London promoters to get access so, out the blue in 1980, Mickey Duff phoned me up: ‘Do you think you could do our job in London?’

‘No problem, delighted!’ I can’t remember anyone from outside London being asked before. Mickey knew I’d not overspend because I’d be dealing with the same boxers I needed for my own shows in the Midlands.

Previously, we’d been at loggerheads because I was struggling to get a bit of tele and nobody seemed interested about anything that wasn’t London but I learnt so much from him. He was easily the most knowledgeable matchmaker this country’s produced. His timing of when to step his lads up and which champions to target was out of this world. And the Albert Hall was the most atmospheric venue. It was a pleasure to be sat ringside.

But Mickey started to spend an increasing amount of time in America with champions like Boza-Edwards and John Mugabi. In his absence, Mike Barrett [promoter] and Terry Lawless [manager] didn’t get on at all. Mickey once told me that when he came to Britain, the happiest thing was the drive to the airport to catch his next US flight!

I had six great years with Mickey but it wasn’t all plain sailing. I almost got a young, rising Michael Watson, then unbeaten in seven, bumped off by matching him with James Cook [a future British and European super-middle champion who upset Watson on points after eight].Darkie Smith who managed James quipped afterwards: ‘Were you looking for the sack when you made that match?!

The end came after I put together the Frank Bruno-Tim Witherspoon bill at Wembley Stadium. I couldn’t believe my name wasn’t on the poster or the programme as matchmaker. That hurt me a little bit. My name had been on all the other bills but not the one for a world heavyweight title fight at the national stadium?! Mickey personally apologised but I could see the cartel were coming to an end so thought ‘What’s the point?’

Ron Gray
Ron Gray has worked for the major promoters of his day

I became Barry Hearn’s first matchmaker, putting together Bruno-Bugner at White Hart Lane and was then approached by Frank Warren at a charity show at the Café Royal.

At the time, I didn’t put Frank down as a boxing person but he’s proved everybody wrong with the fights he’s made, the matchmaking he’s done. He compares to anybody. He broke the cartel and became number one. Frank really knew how to put a show on.

Then in 2000, I had a heart problem so thought I’d better slow down. I was only in me late 50s. I gave the cigars up and had a stent fitted which saved my life. I counted myself lucky that I could do what I loved for so many years. Even without television, I earnt a few bob. Everything I have is because of boxing and the contacts I’ve made.

It’s 60 years since I took out my first professional licence. Boxing has been my life and I’ve loved every minute of it.

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