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Maurice Hope – The world champion in a Hackney beer garden

Maurice Hope
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In 1981 Maurice Hope lost his world title to Wilfred Benitez after a brutal knockout. The next time they met the circumstances were wildly different

IN the beer garden of The Globe in Hackney, Maurice Hope is biting down on an imaginary gumshield and whaling away with boulder-like fists, complete with sound effects – “BAM! BAM! BAM!” People watching probably think he’s an old toughie telling tales of street fights, but the truth is rather different.

The man on the end of those blows is – and was – the great Wilfred Benitez, whom Hope fought in Las Vegas in 1981. That afternoon at Caesars Palace was the best and worst of times for Hope, a fabulous payday that ended with a brutal defeat, the loss of his world title and a miserable night in hospital. But Hope had been hit with harder things than Benitez’s wand of a right hand.

Born on Antigua, Hope was nine when he joined his parents and six siblings in London in the summer of 1961. His dad was a porter at the Royal London Hospital and saved up enough money in five years to buy his family a house, which says as much about property prices at the time as the old man’s spirit. One day at work, Hope’s dad met and shook hands with the Queen (Hope still has the photo on his wall). But not everyone in London was as cordial.

“London was not a welcoming place,” says Hope, whose accent remains defiantly West Indian, shot through with Cockney. “The prejudice was unbelievable, and surprising. Houses would have signs up saying ‘room to let – no dogs, no kids, no blacks’. And I’d regularly get beaten up on the streets.”

Some will tell you that boxing gyms have always been safe havens for immigrants of all colours and creeds, but such recollections are rose-tinted. At Repton Boxing Club in Bethnal Green, Hope was called every racial epithet under the sun, spat at and urinated on. Somewhat incongruously, the 65-year-old Hope laughs loud at the memories, but his eyes betray his real feelings.

“Of course it still hurts me. But eventually I learnt how to use that hate to my advantage. I was the softest of all seven kids, very sensitive. My big brother Lex [also a pro boxer] was a different character. He used to rough me up and take me round to neighbours’ houses and make me fight them. I only agreed to because I was more scared of what my brother might do to me if I said no.

“It was my big brother who dragged me down the Repton. I hated boxing, I just wanted to enjoy myself with my mates. But he was thinking about the future, making sure I had a career. He saved me and I didn’t even know it.”

Hope became proficient with his fists and won a National Schools Championship in 1968, before studying leather working. But when he fell in love, he quickly realised that knocking out opponents in the ring might make him a more eligible proposition than knocking out handbags and wallets.

Hope boxed for Great Britain at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, losing in the quarter-finals, before Repton trainer Tony Burns pointed him in the direction of Terry Lawless, who ran a gym above the Royal Oak pub in Canning Town.
That black British fighters struggled to catch a break in the 1960s and early 1970s wasn’t necessarily down to rank discrimination on the part of managers and promoters, but for a more pragmatic reason, namely that black fighters didn’t sell as many tickets as white fighters. But Lawless, whom Hope describes as “a wonderful human being”, was rather more enlightened: “Terry worked with black fighters when others wouldn’t. He welcomed me into his home. He got me on shows, fought to get me more money and never took a penny from me until I won the British title. Terry treated me right.”

Hope won the (then) newly-minted British light-middleweight belt in 1974, a year before Lawless led John H Stracey to the WBC welterweight title. But when Hope unsuccessfully challenged for Bunny Sterling’s British middleweight title in 1975 (Jamaican-born Sterling was the first immigrant to win a Lonsdale Belt, in 1970), he doubted if he could go any further in the horrible old game.

“He cut my eye in the first round and by the eighth I didn’t want to know. I just gave up. Before that fight, he was sticking pins in a voodoo doll, telling everyone it was Maurice Hope. It seemed to work.”

Maurice Hope

Four knockout wins later, Hope got the chance to prove himself wrong, against Tony Poole, the Southern Area Champion.

“I thought I could beat him with one hand, so took liberties with myself. After the weigh-in, I had steak, a glass of orange and a glass of milk, and it curdled in my stomach. I was picking him off in the first half of the fight, but suddenly in the eighth my belly started killing me and I was out on my feet. I remember thinking: ‘Wow, when I lose this, I’ll have to go back to the handbag factory…’

“Luckily, Terry knew what to do. All boxers want to be the blue-eyed boy in their stable, and Stracey thought Terry was giving too much of his time to me, so there was friction between us. So before the ninth, Terry said to me: ‘What’s the matter with you?! He’s touching you and you’re falling all over the place! Johnny Stracey would never box like this!’ That’s all he needed to say. I was wild and, in the 12th, he ran out of resistance. I never took anyone for granted again – that was the making of a world champion.”

Six months later in Rome, Hope challenged rugged Italian Vito Antuofermo for the European light-middleweight title. Knowing he’d have to knock the champion out to have any chance of victory, Hope did just that in round 15. Next up was Germany’s Eckhard Dagge in Berlin, for the WBC title. Never let it be said that Hope had it easy. This time Hope couldn’t finish the fight early and it ended in a questionable draw.

Hope got a second world title shot against Italian-Australian Rocky Mattioli, who had dethroned Dagge in Berlin in 1977 (by knockout, naturally) and thereafter avoided Hope for almost two years.

On March 4, 1979, at a hostile Teatro Ariston in San Remo, the 27-year-old Hope put Mattioli down with his southpaw left hook after only 10 seconds. The champion also broke his right wrist in the first round, rendering him virtually one-handed, and called it quits at the end of the ninth.

“Oh boy, it was like the best orgasm you could possibly have. I fell down on my knees and said: ‘Thank you, God. After all I’ve been through, this poor little boy from Antigua, a child of the soil, you’ve finally rewarded me.’”

Hope, the first naturalised Briton to win a world title, was given a hero’s reception in Hackney and invited to Downing Street. Finally, he felt accepted in his adoptive country. When he was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE from the Queen, he thought his parents might explode with pride.

“They were big fans of ‘The boss’. So when we met, I told her I wanted to show her something. She said, ‘Not now, later’. I thought that was that. But afterwards, I was taken to the biggest room I’d ever seen, with huge windows and chandeliers, and I was sat there thinking, ‘Boy, if my friends from Antigua could see me now…’ Next thing I know, the Queen was standing there. She said, ‘now, what have you got for me?’ I showed her the photo of her and my dad, and said, ‘I’m proud of this picture and I’m proud of you’. I’d done the lot of them, hadn’t I? A private audience with the Queen! Such a nice lady.”

Hope defended his title three times before being lured to Vegas for a match against Puerto Rico’s Benitez, who had won his first world title at 17 and his second at 20, before losing his unbeaten record to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1979. Benitez was nice as pie during the build-up but riled Hope by pushing him during the referee’s instructions, causing the champion to lose his head.

“He got me mad, so I went out and tried to do him – using my head, kicking him, everything. But after five rounds he started making me miss a lot – that’s why they called him ‘The Radar’ – my body started getting tired and I couldn’t breathe. By round 12, he could have blown on me and I would have fallen over. That’s when I realised 15 rounds was too much for any human being. He pushed me back, threw the right hand and that was it. Lights out. I didn’t feel anything, he just switched me off. Next thing I knew, Terry was kneeling down beside me saying, ‘Maurice, better get up, they’re coming with a stretcher’.”

Hope, whose name was usually an understatement, had arranged to be married the following day but resolved to tell his family at the post-fight party. Having gone straight from the hospital to the chapel, his parents turned up halfway through the ceremony. His dad didn’t speak to him for a year.

Hope had one more fight, losing to European champion Luigi Minchillo in 1982, before reading the runes and retiring. “I was still feeling the effects of that one punch [from Benitez]. It took something from me, made me gun shy.” Benitez, never one for planning ahead, went on for far too long.

“I visited Puerto Rico in the ‘90s and a friend said to me, ‘Benitez lives around the corner, do you want to go and see him?’ I said, ‘go and see that b*****d? No!’ But he convinced me. His mum answered the door and kept us waiting for about 15 minutes. When Benitez finally appeared, he was shuffling and bent over like an old man. I couldn’t believe it – I suddenly felt sorry for him.

“He was looking at me, but I couldn’t tell if he recognised me or not. After a while, he pointed at me and said: ‘M-i-c-k-e-y D-u-f-f!’ Mickey probably owed him some money! Tears were pouring down his face and he told his mum to go and get that crown he used to wear so he could put it on my head. If he could have swapped the title he won from me and all the money he earned for my health, he would have done. He won the fight, but I won the war.”

Life hasn’t always been easy for Hope since he hung ‘em up. He tried his hand at management, only to have his best boxers picked off by more ruthless rivals. His marriage fell apart – “the wedding was a bad omen” – and his only son (he also has three daughters) died in a car crash in Antigua, causing a pain that will never leave him. But he has also reaped the benefits of getting out young.

A dapper pensioner who still pounds the roads and makes his biceps dance to order, Hope weighs not much more than in his fighting days. He’s clearly a popular local, and is still sharp enough to regale them with his stories.

“I’ve got my health and my strength,” says Hope, who still coaches the Antigua boxing team after almost 30 years and mentors his nephew Justice Brooks, a 19-year-old from Hackney who dreams of doing what Hope didn’t do in practice but did in spirit, boxing for Antigua at the Olympics. “I like to think I’m a thoroughbred – and you never saw Arkle getting fat in the pasture.”

In the beer garden of The Globe, the sun rages so hard it feels like we’re in Hope’s old country. And now it’s time for some poetry: “Boxing is an art, the study of a lifetime; In which you may exhaust yourself, but never your subject…” Minutes earlier, Hope was trying to take Wilfred Benitez’s head off, suddenly he’s William Wordsworth. Boxing is a mad old sport, and downright dirty, but men like Hope, and days like this, are what make you love it.

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