BOBBY NEILL had held the title of Britain’s oldest surviving British champion until coronavirus landed the ultimate KO last week. The dapper Scottish featherweight was 88, one of the fight game’s old school and proud of it; a true gentleman of the ring, respected as both a skilled boxer and later even more so as an intuitive coach.
It was Bobby, impressively intelligent and articulate, who inspired me to pursue my own career in boxing writing. I was a cub sports reporter on a newspaper in South London when I was sent to cover my first pro fight at Streatham Ice Rink in July 1958. Topping the bill was Bobby Neill, fighting a Belgian named Aime Devisch whom he dispatched in six rounds with a sharply delivered left hook that had become one of the most powerful pieces of armoury in the featherweight division.
You might say I was hooked by his hook. I interviewed him afterwards as he was then living locally and we struck up a friendship that endured for well over half a century. He came to my wedding and my late wife and his first spouse Lauri, a professional dancer, became firm friends too, but the mother of his two children tragically was to die in his arms from a brain haemorrhage while in her early 40s.
After he beat Devisch, Bobby went on to become the British featherweight champion, dropping fellow Scot Charlie Hill to the canvas 10 times en route to stopping him in the 10th round in Nottingham. Unfortunately when matched with the world champion, the brilliant American Davey Moore, it was brief and brutal with Bobby knocked down four times within a round.
Following his fighting days the Edinburgh-born Scot carved a successful career for himself as a manager, coach and trainer, rated among the best of that breed Britain has ever produced.
He was admired by his pugilistic peers not least the great Angelo Dundee, who masterminded the progress of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and others in the way of the sweet science.
Bobby was his British disciple and his book, simply called Instructions to Young Boxers, was a classic of its kind, lucidly imparting technique and training knowledge and advice both to young amateurs and pros. It was clear from his erudite fistic tutorials in the busy gym above the Butcher’s Arms in Islington that Bobby truly believed in fostering the noble artistry of boxing. He would often shudder at the toe-curling hype which bedevils so many marquee events today.
I covered the majority of his 35 contests and was in his dressing room at Wembley in November 1960 when he collapsed and was rushed to hospital after clashing again with the 1956 Olympic flyweight gold medallist Terry Spinks to whom he had previously won and lost. It was a harrowing fight with an even more harrowing aftermath. After being KO’d in the 14th round by the relatively light-punching Spinks he was in a coma for seven days and close to death following surgery to remove a blood clot from the brain. He thankfully recovered though never to fight again. Bobby had succumbed to a quickfire but not apparently hurtful barrage of blows, and sometime after he revealed to me why. He said he was terribly dehydrated. He had starved himself for three days to make the nine-stone limit. More crucially his only liquid intake came from a pebble he sucked incessantly to create saliva, which he swallowed.
His story remains one of the most remarkable in British boxing. In 1951, aged 18 while returning from an amateur training session at the Sparta Club in his hometown, where he was a trainee accountant, he was run down by a motorcycle and suffered a career-threatening shattered hip. He battled back to star for Scotland’s international squad 18 months later.
In 1957, the year after winning the Best Young Boxer award he was seriously injured in a car crash and told that he would never box again by surgeons who had shortened one of his legs. But he stormed back to win that British title. Yet within five years, and following his fight for life on the operating table, the redoubtable Scot had embarked on a new career as a world-class coach, corner man and manager of a London-based stable of the nation‘s finest young prospects, among them Frankie “Tiger” Taylor, Alan Rudkin (whom he took to four world bantamweight title challenges), Johnny Pritchett and Vernon Sollas who all were to collect the same award from the Boxing Writers’ Club.
He steered Alan Minter and Lloyd Honeyghan to world titles. He was Minter’s trainer for 11 years and guided him to victory in Las Vegas over Italian Vito Antuofermo. He changed Minter’s still amateur-like style, eliminating the “Boom” grunt whenever Minter landed a blow. He was also in Honeyghan’s corner when he became one of the first British boxers to win an undisputed title on American soil, sensationally defeating hot favourite Don Curry in Atlantic City. Bobby’s calmly mouthed “Nice…nice” from the corner became a trademark, encouragement for his fighters in rings from London to Las Vegas until incipient arthritis caused difficulties.
Although he lived in London since turning professional in 1955, the bookmaker’s son Bobby remained immensely proud of his Scottish heritage and had a spell as his country’s national boxing coach.
He was always my principal guest at the Boxing Writers’ Club annual dinner and well into his 80s – despite the odd memory lapse – he remained as dapper and dignified as ever, and barely a few pounds over his fighting weight.
Bobby leaves his lovely Italian second wife Maria, son Fraser and daughter Michelle. He also leaves us with many happy memories. His funeral will be at Enfield Crematorium on Thursday March 10 at 2.30pm.
Alan Hubbard is a former sports editor of The Observer and boxing correspondent for the Independent on Sunday. He now writes regularly for Inside the Games.