How did you first come to work for Boxing News?
I was assistant sports editor of the Stratford Express in East London (staff of two), and boxing was then my first love. We’re talking late 1950s. I’d had the dream to become a British champion like my hero and near neighbour in Stepney, Sammy ‘Smiler’ McCarthy, but brittle wrists meant I could only pound a typewriter keyboard. I was a walking record book on the sport and I jumped at the chance to join the Boxing News staff in 1958 when they had a shuffle following the departure of Editor Jack Wilson. Tim Riley took over as Editor, and we knew and respected each other from covering the London amateur boxing scene. The Boxing News staff was then just three full-time in editorial: Tim, king of the records Ron Olver and myself, with South London freelance Dave Caldwell working as a regular contributor for us. Michael Taub, a talented young writer with good boxing knowledge, joined as a junior soon after me.
Happy as I was on the Stratford Express, I just couldn’t resist it when Tim invited me to join his small team at 92 Fleet Street, bang opposite the Black Lubyanka Daily Express building that was an anthem to the best and the worst of art deco when built in the 1930s. Little did I know that before the 1960s were halfway through I would be looking out on to the Boxing News office from the Express.
Was it a huge salary rise that took you to Boxing News?
Oh yes, I was lured to boxing’s famous trade paper by a weekly wage of £8.10s (£8.50), and the promise of projection as a columnist on my favourite sport. These were the days when staff bylines were considered pretentious, and I was given the nom de plume Ross Martin, taken from an empty Martini Rossi box resting under Tim’s desk. ‘Around the Gyms with Ross Martin’ became my passport to drop in on all the major gymnasiums and get to know just about every major boxing personality of the time, including the visiting overseas champions. The most awe-inspiring of them was Sugar Ray Robinson, most modest Floyd Patterson and most moody Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston.
Editor Tim Mocock, aka Riley, wrote under the pseudonym of Broughton (Jack Broughton, a bare-knuckle fighter, the first to introduce boxing rules in the 18th century) and was a world authority on amateur boxing. He was first to say the name to me, Cassius Clay. He had just won a Golden Gloves title at light-heavyweight in the United States. It was the start of my fascination with the greatest sporting personality of my lifetime, and before most people in Britain even knew of his existence I became a Clay watcher and, later, an Aliphile and also, briefly, his European publicist. Sorry, racing ahead of myself.
What was the boxing scene like at that time?
Hustling and bustling. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there were more than 10,000 registered amateur boxers in London and the South alone, and the professional game was booming as the likes of Mickey Duff, Harry Levene, Jarvis Astaire and Mike Barrett moved in to challenge the one-man promotion domination of Jack Solomons. Jack hated his territory being invaded and started a years-long verbal, and often legal, battle with his one-time friend Harry Levene. Boxing News was dragged into the war and found itself being sued by Jarvis Astaire for suggesting he was the ‘Mr X’ of boxing and running a ‘Syndicate’ against Solomons. We had to run a full-page apology. Oops.
I stayed well clear of the politics and was best friends with a young, up-and-coming manager called Terry Lawless and we worked closely together over the next 20 years, with me as a quiet advisor to Terry and his boxers on matters of PR and projection. Under his wing were future world champions Charlie Magri, Maurice Hope, Jim Watt, John H. Stracey and the unique Frank Bruno.
Can you recall any of your early Boxing News articles?
One of my first Boxing News assignments was an early morning meeting with a boxer who was to become the most popular of all British sportsmen. I clearly recall that it was 5.15am on a freezing December morning and Henry Cooper was standing alongside me stark naked, apart from a pair of heavy-duty size eleven army boots.
No, I am not uncovering a sordid, kinky secret from Henry’s past. I had asked for an interview for a feature I was writing as Ross Martin, and Cooper’s manager Jim Wicks told me in raw, unadulterated Cockney: ‘The only time Our ’Enery’s got to rabbit to you, my son, is when he goes on his early morning gallop. So get a pair of strong daisies and join ’im on the old frog if you want any nannies.’ It was like listening to my Dad, who spoke fluent Cockney. So I got my daisy roots (boots) on and joined Henry on the frog and toad (road) to get some nanny goats (quotes).
This, of course, was The Bishop – Jim Wicks, the most influential and important man in Henry’s life and boxing career. Jim was not just his manager. He was his minder, mentor and best mate, and an unknowing master of malapropisms. Very misleadingly, he was called ‘The Bishop’ because of his distinguished, benign looks and bald dome that would have fitted perfectly into a mitre. But ex-bookmaker Jim’s church was the betting ring and his altar rails were at the racecourse. My Dad had run street bets for him and Jack Solomons when they were operating as bookmakers before the war.
My meeting place with Henry for the early morning road run was the Thomas à Becket gymnasium, deep in Del Boy territory down the Old Kent Road, where Henry was training for an upcoming British and Empire heavyweight title fight against his old foe Brian London.
I had just stripped off and was about to pull on a tracksuit when The Bishop arrived, looking immaculate as if he were on his way to morning prayers. A smart, grey trilby protected his bald head from the cold morning air and he was sheathed in a fine-check Crombie overcoat. He had probably just come from a Mayfair casino or an all-night card school.
‘Bleedin’ ’ell,’ he said, catching sight of my skinny-as-a-pipecleaner, nine-stone featherweight frame. ‘I’ve got greyhounds fatter than you. You need a good meal rather than a good run. For gawd’s sake, Enery, don’t let him fall down any drains.’
Henry came to my defence. ‘Don’t listen to him, Norm,’ he said. ‘You can’t fatten thoroughbreds.’
From that day on it was a catchphrase between the two of us, as what started out as a working relationship blossomed over the next 50-plus years into strong friendship and encompassed four books together.The ‘can’t fatten thoroughbreds’ line came back to me when I got the exclusive story that when he first fought Ali in 1963, crafty Jim Wicks slipped racing handicap weights into the soles of Henry’s boots for the weigh-in. He didn’t want Cassius to have the psychological advantage of knowing that Cooper weighed just 12st 12lb. That was the fight when he knocked Ali down and scattered his senses with his famous left hook ’ammer. ‘Hit me so hard,’ Ali later told me, ‘that he shook up my kinfolk in Africa.’
Henry’s official weight for the fight was announced as 13st 4lb. ‘It was just a case of self reservation,’ said Jim, whose delightful, unintended malapropisms deserve to be preserved for all time.
The Bishop took it upon himself to offer me advice about my new Ross Martin column. ‘You’ve got to be bold and write what you think, son,’ he said. ‘No good being a shrinking violation in the old pen and ink business.’
’Enry and Jim, a priceless pair of characters.
I’ve heard that in times past, boxers, managers, etc, would frequently pop into the Boxing News office. Was that still happening in your time there?
There were frequent visits by overseas managers and boxers, who believed the slogan that Boxing News was ‘the Bible of Boxing’, and Britain’s answer to The Ring magazine. They could never hide the surprise on their face that we operated in just one editorial room about the size of a couple of boxing rings. I can recall meeting Cus D’Amato, Angelo Dundee, Rocky Marciano and Carlos Ortiz before his 1958 fight with Dave Charnley in the final show at the old Harringay Arena. I’ve got a lovely story to share with you about that promotion.
Only one person in the land could match Ron Olver for statistical and historical ring knowledge, and that was former Editor Gilbert Odd, who became a role model for me in the way he freelanced after leaving Boxing News.
He had nostalgia columns syndicated in more than 30 newspapers in the days when Saturday classified evening papers were massive sellers in every major town. This all brings me to a warning to any sportswriters who might be reading this of how what you have written can years later come back to haunt and, in Gilbert’s case, hurt you.
My tale of the unexpected revolves around Jock McAvoy. His real name, of course, was Joe Bamford. He fought under an assumed name so that his mother did not know he was a professional boxer.
Many good judges rate him the greatest middleweight we ever produced. He was nicknamed the Rochdale Thunderbolt, and after he had won the British and Empire titles in the mid-1930s, he put out a challenge to the then world champion Ed “Babe” Risko.
The American’s management would only agree to a non-title fight, and when they had picked Risko off the floor after being flattened six times in the first round, they decided that the thunderous-punching McAvoy would be avoided at all costs.
Jock moved up to light-heavyweight and campaigned in the United States, finally earning a title tilt at exceptional world champion John Henry Lewis, who outpointed the Lancastrian at Madison Square Garden in 1936. Gilbert Odd was less than complimentary when reporting McAvoy’s later performances during defeats by Len Harvey and Freddie Mills.
Fast forward 20 years to October 1958, and the final boxing show at the old Harringay Arena. Promoter Jack Solomons invited a gathering of old champions to parade in the ring, including McAvoy, who was by then confined to a wheelchair suffering from polio and could only wave to the fans from the ringside when introduced. The veteran Odd, on reporting duty for Boxing News, was invited by one of McAvoy’s entourage to visit Jock in the hospitality room.
Gilbert duly paid homage to the old champion, and as he bent down to shake his hand, McAvoy half rose from his wheelchair and threw a right hand that landed on Odd’s chin and sent his spectacles spinning across the room. ‘That’s for saying I was rubbish against Freddie Mills,’ McAvoy snarled.
Gilbert was badly shaken as he picked up his glasses, but managed to say as hurtfully as possible: ‘So sad to see you’ve lost your punch, Jock.’
He then made as dignified an exit as he could, with McAvoy’s wild eyes burning a hole in his back. ‘I went to the nearest toilet,” Gilbert later told me, ‘and sat in a cubicle for 10 minutes while I recovered. Jock had not lost his punching power, but I was not going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. It had been years since I had criticised his performance against Mills, and it had festered with him all that time.’
So, you sportswriters out there, when you are penning criticism of today’s heroes, think of Gilbert Odd and the way his words came back to haunt him.
What are your outstanding memories of your time at Boxing News?
I was lucky to be there at a very exciting time for the fight game. Tim Riley was devoted to his amateur boxing, so gave me my head to write about the up-and-coming champions of the time, including Henry, Joe Erskine, Dave Charnley, Peter Waterman, my good mate Terry Spinks, the intelligent and dignified Bobby Neill and another close pal, Terry Downes, who loved Boxing News because we helped him get exposure in his early days after his return from the United States, where he was known as the Fighting Marine (long after Gene Tunney, of course).
It was 1959 when Boxing News celebrated its 50th year of publication, and I worked on the special souvenir edition. We had scores of goodwill messages, and one I recall from Reg Gutteridge (for whom I worked as a copy boy on the London Evening News in the mid-50s) summed up the omniscient presence and status of Boxing News when he wrote: “When all the hullabaloo and hype is over and the fighting done, we turn to Boxing News to find out what really happened.”
Our huge best-seller every year was the Boxing News annual that was mainly Ron Olver’s baby. In all my time in the journalism game – 65 years and counting – I have never come across a more conscientious and dedicated man than Ron, a shy, courteous Devonian whose only major weakness was an unfathomable love for the Arsenal (I have Tottenham Hotspur leanings). Ron’s encyclopaedic knowledge of boxing records was staggering, and he used to spend hours and hours working on his cards and keeping up to date with boxers in every weight division and in every country in the world where they staged professional boxing.
They were lovely relaxed times at Boxing News. Ron was an amateur singer with the famous George Mitchell choir and we used to sing harmonies on duets in the middle of a working day. Tim used to use it as an excuse to go out for ‘a quick snifter’ at the nearby Punch Tavern. These were the pre-breathalyser days when Fleet Street was as much the Street of Drink as Ink and iconic sports columnists like Peter ‘The Man They Can’t Gag’ Wilson (Daily Mirror), Des ‘The Man in the Brown Bowler’ Hackett (Daily Express), Tom ‘I put my shirt on’ Phillips (Daily Herald) and the ‘Man at The Times’ Geoffrey Green would think nothing of polishing off a bottle of wine a day before moving on to the strong stuff. At the Telegraph Don Saunders was nicknamed ‘Saunders of the Liver’, and Laurie Pignon and Roy Peskett at the Mail could drink most people under the subs’ table. It was another age. Another planet.
Tim and Ron gave their heart and soul to Boxing News and it was so sad to see them fall out with the management over their miserly wage structure. They decided to quit and start a rival paper called Boxing World, in which I had a regular ‘Boxing Corner’ column. But the venture flopped because they had done such a great job over the previous decades establishing Boxing News as the newspaper to trust for the best in ring reports and balanced news items. And it remains so, even in this often surreal digital world of ours.
What happened to you after Boxing News?
I had two enormously happy years at Boxing News before going off in another direction as sports editor of the Stratford Express sub editor at the London Evening Standard and Daily Herald and then 10 heady years as chief football writer for the Daily Express in the golden age of the 1960s, with the highlight covering the 1966 World Cup finals. I was the only reporter to get into the dressing-room after the final until England manager Alf Ramsey turfed me out because even in that moment of euphoria he considered the dressing-room as private as a woman’s boudoir.
For the next 10 years I was fairly prominent in the fight game as PR for Harry Levene and Mike Barrett, and for Jarvis Astaire on his ViewSport satellite shows. This took in working with Muhammad Ali as one of his PRs for his European fights. That lovely big man needed a PR like Einstein needed a calculator. People always ask me what Ali was like away from the ring, and the answer is the complete opposite to the public performer. He was quietly spoken, polite, very inquisitive with more questions than answers, and he was ultra sincere in his religious beliefs. Put a camera or microphone near him and he quickly changed back to the showman and braggart. It was all an act.
I was a scriptwriter on This Is Your Life for 14 years, including among the subjects I brought to the screen Jack ‘Kid’ Berg, Reg Gutteridge, Harry Carpenter, Jim Watt and the one and only Frank Bruno, with whom I was brotherly close all the time he was under the caring, careful management of my dearest friend, Terry Lawless. Between us, Terry and I worked on Frank to always be a gentleman and in all my years around sportsmen I’ve not met anybody who could match Frank for an obsession with physical fitness and self improvement both inside and outside the ring. Our major challenge in the early days was to stop him saying ‘y’know’ at the end of every sentence. One day he arrived at the Royal Oak gym in Canning Town all smiles. ‘I’ve cracked it,’ he announced. ‘I no longer say y’know at the end of my sentences … know what I mean?’
Frank was a diamond of a man who performed beyond his limits as a boxer.
I continue to be a full-time author and have just completed my 114th book, My 70 Years with Spurs. Ron Olver would hate it!
It just so happens that I have some of my Ali Files books left, which is distinctive in that it is the only one that tells you what happened to each of Muhammad’s opponents. By all means contact me by email at email@example.com if you wish to ask any questions.
Long live Boxing News.