THERE was something eerie about York Hall during the series of Queensberry Promotions events staged inside the all but empty arena at the height of the pandemic. One could almost hear the old hallowed venue creaking and groaning without spectators inside to enliven it.
After a break of 16 months, York Hall is preparing to welcome fans up its stairs and inside its walls to watch boxing again. To celebrate its return to life, Boxing News – courtesy of Darren Rees – has produced a 90-minute audio documentary on the spiritual home of British boxing.
“If you’ve never been to York Hall, I’d say, for goodness sake, go,” revered commentator John Rawling says in the documentary. “The East End of London has been the heartland of boxing for decades and York Hall is still there and still provides those atmospheric nights… You get so close to the fighters, you’re right there in the heat of the action, you can feel the intensity of the punches landing.”
York Hall was once one of many small halls around London that would stage boxing. Since 1980, forty-one long years ago, it has stood alone. But the iconic boxing stage, which opened for business in 1929, was of course designed for a very different purpose.
“People would attend these places [public baths] to stay clean,” historian Miles Templeton explains. “They would not go along to swim for fun, it was to stay clean and healthy. It performed a very vital public service.”
Though it’s believed that boxing of some kind would have taken place at York Hall before World War II, it was the 1950s and 60s when it really became a regular haunt for fight fans. They would queue round the block to watch the early stages of the amateur national championships and youngsters like Joe Bugner would throw their first punches for pay long before David Haye and co regularly appeared inside the old building.
During pre-production of the documentary, Rees canvassed opinion on the most memorable contests to take place inside York Hall. Mickey Hughes’ stunning knockout of Gary Jacobs in 1990 was among the frontrunners. “I had Chris Eubank in my ear the whole fight telling me I had to pull my boy out,” the promoter of Hughes, Barry Hearn, remembers about that fight. “Eubank was telling me Hughes was going to get killed, accusing me of being a very unfair person and I should protect my fighter. Then, wallop [Hughes wins with one shot]. That’s part of the reason I was so happy. Yes, I was delighted that Mickey won but it was great to get one over Eubank…
“It was one-way traffic for seven rounds then it showed you what boxing was about; one punch can change a fight.”
Johnny Tapia’s pilgrimage to York Hall in January 2002 remains the event that fans talk about the most. Richie Davies was the official who raised the legendary fighter’s arm in victory after he thrashed the mismatched Eduardo Alvarez inside 90 seconds.
“I remember arriving at the venue and I’d never seen so many people at York Hall and I’d been going there for 50 years,” Davies recalls about Tapia’s showcase.
“[Before the fight] I went up to Johnny’s dressing room and there was only him and his promoter in there. As I opened the door he came running across to me and gave me a hug. He said, ‘Hello Richie, I’m so pleased you’re refereeing my fight.’ I was thinking, ‘How the bloody hell does he know who I am?’ I was astonished. We ended up speaking about our families, I really had to pinch myself.”
Being the man in the middle at York Hall is no easy task. Stationed directly above the ring apron is the balcony containing vociferous fans with the best view in the house. Inside the ring, the feeling of being surrounded is difficult to ignore.
“You get in the ring and your stomach is churning,” former top class referee Mickey Vann explains. “It’s not that you’re excited, it’s because you’re thinking, ‘I better not make a balls of this, I must be on song.’ When you’re in York Hall, you’re nervous. You stand in the ring and it’s risen. You go up them three or four steps and you’re nearly there at the balcony.”
Refereeing a contest brings its own pressure. But Sam Maxwell, who has fought at the venue several times as an amateur and professional – including against the formidable Vasiliy Lomachenko in the World Series of Boxing – describes how the inescapable claustrophobia of York Hall heightens the terror of one-on-one combat.
“It is insane,” Maxwell remembers. “I remember being in the changing rooms. There’s no room to move round, you’re in this little box. You can hear the crowd because you’re right near the entrance and you can hear everything outside.
“Because the rooms are so small you can hear your opponent in the room next door doing the pads. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, now I’ve got to fight this kid.’ You could hear the speed and power of his punches. It was like a machine gun going off.”
Frank Smith of Matchroom Boxing is acutely aware of those changing rooms and the compressed and gritty nature of the entire building. It can’t last forever. “It will need to have work done [to survive],” he says. “The changing rooms alone are tiny. You have eight or 10 fights and those rooms are crammed with fighters and their teams. The venue itself, the access points, the bars will need work done. It essentially needs to be brought forward into the new generation. But it will always be that gritty, grimy venue in East London. I don’t think that will ever change.”
Steve Bunce says it best: “You’re going to be stepping back in time and into something that, if you squint your eyes and ignore the glow from mobile phones, you’re going back to the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, to some of the greatest names in British boxing appearing there…
“You’re stepping back in boxing history.”