AFTER four decades as a ringside commentator, John Rawling probably didn’t expect to face any new challenges. Covid-19 has changed everything and since British boxing returned to BT Sport in July, Rawling has been commentating without a crowd. “The difference is that, because there’s a lack of crowd noise, you have to be more animated,” said Rawling, described as ‘The Smooth Voice of Boxing’ by Steve Bunce and chief commentator for BT Sport since the channel started showing boxing in April, 2017. “You need to project yourself a bit more. There are good things about it. You hear the reaction of the corners better and their instructions.
“Sometimes I think television can sanitise boxing, but when there isn’t a crowd making a noise, you can hear just how hard these guys are hitting each other.”
The sound reaches Rawling, who has been sitting around 15 yards from the ring at both the BT Sport studios in Stratford and the York Hall where Frank Warren’s shows have been held. “This is how it’s going to have to be until we get crowds back,” he said. “I’m just glad to be busy again after a few months of inactivity. Boxers need to earn money, promoters have television dates to fill and we need to maintain the profile of the sport.”
The challenge Warren threw out to Eddie Hearn was the subject of plenty of tabloid ink recently. “It’s in the interest of boxing that these fights happen,” said Rawling. “If we can’t have big international fights because of the restrictions, we need to make these big domestic fights happen. In the current climate, having egos and tunnel vision isn’t the way forward.”
Rawling says the competition between Sky Sports and BT Sport is good for boxing. “We’ve seen ITV take boxing off the BBC and then Sky took boxing off ITV,” he said. “Now we have two channels competing to show big fights.”
Rawling still loves pugilism as much now as he did when he first fell for it, back in February, 1964. “When you’re a little boy you like people who are what you want to be like and Muhammad Ali was funny, good looking and a great fighter,” he said. “He was my boyhood hero, bar none. I would have loved to have had a go at boxing myself, but I come from a family of school teachers and university lecturers and boxing wasn’t encouraged. My dad wanted me to be a cricketer.”
Rawling says his earliest sporting memory was of the night when Ali, then Cassius Clay, shook up the world by defeating the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston, and two decades on, he met his hero when he visited London. “It was so sad,” said Rawling. “He still looked like Ali – but the lights were off. I felt like saying to him: ‘Look what you have done to yourself.’ I really envy Michael Parkinson and Colin Hart for knowing him for what he was.”
Rawling was at ringside during another top heavyweight’s reign. “I missed out on Mike Tyson’s peak years between 1986 and 1989,” he said, “and Lennox Lewis was the best of my time. I remember Wallace Matthews writing in the New York Post that Lennox was ‘grape juice masquerading as fine wine’ – and Lennox rammed it down their throats. He was the best of his era.”
Rawling covered Lewis’ career for BBC Radio having started out as a print journalist in the East Midlands. From Sheffield, and very much a Sheffield United supporter, Rawling started at the Mansfield Chad newspaper before being snapped up by an agency that covered football, cricket and rugby in Leicester and Nottingham.
He ended up as sports and news producer at Radio Leicester and towards the end of 1983, headed to London to work for national radio. “As soon as I got to London, I started going to watch as much boxing as I possibly could,” said Rawling, a father of three who won the Royal Television Society’s Sports Commentator-of-the-Year award in 2007 for his work on ITV’s The Big Fight Live. “Ian Darke was the BBC radio’s commentator at the time. I became his understudy and he gave me a lot of advice. I learned you don’t strap your voice to the ceiling from the start, you let your voice grow with the excitement of what you’re watching. You go through the gears and never forget the fighters are the important ones, not you.”
The first big fight Rawling covered was in April 1986 at Picketts Lock Leisure Centre where Dennis Andries wrenched the WBC light-heavyweight championship from JB Williamson. “I loved radio,” he said. “Every time you are talking to a blind person and I loved painting pictures with words for them. The late Peter Jones was a star of radio and someone asked him once why he didn’t go into television. He answered: ‘Because, dear boy, there are better pictures on the radio.’”
Duke McKenzie helped Rawling paint pictures for listeners and he found the three-weight world champion easier to be around than he was during his boxing career. “Duke is a good friend now,” said Rawling, “but when he was fighting he was a tough interview. He was 5ft 8ins tall and trying to get down to flyweight and he was surly and monosyllabic. Mickey Duff would invite you to go to a plush casino and lay on spectacular food – and then Duke would come out and ruin it! He was almost impossible.”
Mike Tyson was also a tough interview – “He was so unpredictable” – and Tyson gave Rawling one of the busiest nights of his career. “After the second Evander Holyfield fight [in 1997] when Tyson bit his ear I was in demand,” he said. “I had to do pieces for Radio One, Two and Four.
“I was there in the MGM Grand when gun shots went off afterwards and there was a stampede. We were told it was champagne corks, but I was there and they didn’t sound like champagne corks to me. There were a lot of bad guys in town who weren’t happy that Mike Tyson lost.”
Memorable for rather better reasons was the night Ricky Hatton battered Kostya Tszyu to defeat at Manchester Arena in June, 2005. “I remember walking away from the arena that night with a few of the guys I was working with and saying: ‘It doesn’t get any better than this’,” remembered Rawling, also a writer who covered the sport for The Guardian and says he learned much from the late Boxing News editor Harry Mullan. “I still think that now. That was as good as it gets. People ask me to name the best fight I’ve commentated on and Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan has to be up there with Hatton-Tszyu. That fight had every emotion boxing can provide. There was drama, bravery, savagery and ultimately, tragedy.”
The Hatton-Tszyu fight was Rawling’s last commentary for BBC Radio. He made the switch to ITV after being offered what he describes as “life-changing money” to work on Frank Warren’s shows . “I have known Frank for 35 years,” said Rawling, “and we’ve had our differences, but we have never fallen out. He has never told me what to say – and that is not universal in boxing.”
Rawling remembers eight-million viewers tuning in to see Danny Williams burst Audley Harrison’s bubble on ITV, but the star of that era on terrestrial television was unquestionably Joe Calzaghe and for Rawling, his greatest night was when he bounced more than 1,000 punches off Jeff Lacy in Manchester in April, 2006. “Showtime interviewed me and genuinely couldn’t believe I picked Joe to win,” said Rawling, who currently owns a 32-year-old Bentley and has owned several other classic cars.
“They were convinced Lacy was the new Mike Tyson, but I had seen him box in Britain before and though he could definitely punch, he was slow. I thought he was made for Joe to look good and afterwards the Americans said to me: ‘You were right.’ I don’t think Joe was ever better than he was that night.
“If he had been better at the media game, he would have been a bigger star, but Joe wasn’t one for big events in London. He was close to his dad and liked being at home. He didn’t like crossing the Severn Bridge.”
Rawling was also a believer in Tyson Fury from the start. “I remember saying on ITV: ‘He has got every punch in the book and all the moves’,” he said. “People were telling me: ‘Don’t go over the top,’ but it was all there and Joe Gallagher saw it from the start as well. I remember Joe telling me: ‘Technically, Tyson is very good. He can go all the way.’
“I have never seen anyone come back from the sort of problems Tyson had.
“I remember interviewing him in Scotland when Box Nation were there for Billy-Joe Saunders- Artur Akavov (in December, 2016) and Tyson was literally twice my size. I’m about 5ft 10 ½ ins tall and weigh 13 stones – and he was 6ft 9ins and had to be 29 stones. To go from that to an athlete capable of doing what he did against Deontay Wilder is astonishing. I will never know how he got up in the 12th round [of the first fight]. For sheer drama, that fight was amazing and the rematch was also astonishing.
“Nobody thought Tyson would go out and do what he did to Wilder in the rematch.”
The heavyweight scene is vibrant, with the Daniel Dubois-Joe Joyce clash among the fights Rawling is looking forward to. It’s obvious Rawling enjoys his work. He shows an interest in all fighters from novices to champions and usually spends the hour or two before the shows go on air watching four and six rounders. He is a boxing man.
“I have no intention of walking away just yet,” said Rawling. “I still get the same buzz I did when I started – and I still admire the people.”