WHEN did you first start following boxing?
Let’s put it this way, I’m a Jewish boy from East London, so boxing has been a part of my life since almost before I could walk. My whole family was into boxing, as most people in the East End were. When I was 10 years of age, I was taken to see my first professional fight, at West Ham Baths, by my maternal grandmother. She grew up with Ted “Kid” Lewis and knew all the Jewish boys from that Stepney area. She ended up in the Jewish care home on Nightingale Lane in Clapham. In there at the same time was “Kid” Lewis. I’d go to visit her and she’d be in the lounge chatting away with him.
I was steeped in boxing from a young age. I got my love of the sport from my old man. When “Kid” Lewis won the world welterweight title for the first time in 1915, he came back to the East End and went on a tour of honour in an open-top car. The kids were following the car and he was throwing pennies out for them. One of those kids who was scrambling around for the pennies was my father, who was then nine. So you can say that boxing is in my DNA. I boxed at school and at the youth club, but I realised very early on that I wasn’t very good at it. I got sick to the death of being given nosebleeds!
Who were your favourite fighters when you were growing up?
I had two great boxing idols when I was a kid at school – Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. And when I became a big boy, I ended up interviewing both of them. Of course, I knew about Freddie Mills, Bruce Woodcock, “Kid” Lewis, [Jack] “Kid” Berg and all those guys, but it was the Americans that I was most fascinated by. Reading about guys like Willie Pep. We never got to see them really. We’d sometimes get to see a 60-second clip of them on the Pathé newsreel when we went to the pictures, but that was only if we were lucky.
How did you get started in the industry?
I worked for the East London News Agency from the age of 17. Then I went into the Royal Air Force to do my national service when I was 20. I finished my national service in 1957 when I was 22, and I went back to the news agency where I learned the business. About a year later I got a job on the Daily Herald as a news reporter. [The Daily Herald ceased publication in 1964 and was relaunched as The Sun, in broadsheet form, that same year.] I moved over to the sports department in 1962. In my first year it was all about having my eyes and ears open, and my mouth shut.
I was the dogsbody really. I’d do the quotes at the big shows, like the [Royal] Albert Hall and Wembley. I’d go to the dressing room after the fight and then run back to ringside and feed the quotes to the boxing writer. I also used to go to the gyms and do bits of news. Then I started covering the small shows at the bath halls like Lime Grove, Manor Place, Hoxton and Leyton.
In 1967, the boxing writer, who also used to write about golf, decided that he only wanted to write about golf. The paper, now known as The Sun, said that they couldn’t employ him just doing the one sport, so he left. When he left, I was offered the job of boxing writer. My first world title fight was at Wembley that year. It was Walter McGowan against Chartchai Chionoi. Then when the old broadsheet Sun folded and [Rupert] Murdoch started the tabloid Sun in 1969, I was the boxing correspondent from day one. I had to retire in 2000 when I reached retirement age at 65. Thankfully, The Sun asked me if I’d like to be their boxing columnist, and I’ve been doing that ever since – for 20 years. Of course, I don’t travel anymore. I used to go all over the place covering big fights – [Las] Vegas four or five times a year.
In the early days, what was the procedure for writing a fight report?
On fight night, believe it or not, sometimes there’d be three British championship fights on the same bill. And this was in the days when British championships really meant something. I’m not trying to denigrate British titles now, but it seems that these days, everybody’s a bloody world champion. So British championships and European championships don’t mean as much now.
Let’s take, for example, a show with three British championship fights, all over 15 rounds. You’d dictate a running report of the first fight over the telephone to a copytaker, who’d take it all down on a typewriter. Then when that was over, you’d do a re-write – a more considered piece. Then you’d add in quotes from the fighters. You’d then do the same with the second fight. Then you’d do it all again with the main event. You’d be on the phone from around eight o’clock until midnight, near enough. It was very stressful on a big fight night, but let’s face it, we all loved it. And the facilities for reporting were better back then than they are now. We’d always have our own telephone and a desk to work on. There were obviously no computers and mobile phones in those days. I’ve never had a mobile phone. I think I’m the only person left on the planet who doesn’t want one!
What is your most memorable experience from ringside?
The first world heavyweight championship fight I covered was in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. It’s imprinted on my brain. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I. I’ll never forget, about 20 minutes before Ali and Frazier were due in the ring, the whole of The Garden stood up and started to spontaneously applaud. It got louder and louder. I thought to myself, ‘What the f**k’s going on here?’ Eventually, I caught a glimpse of Joe Louis – one of my boyhood heroes – making his way to his ringside seat. All 20,000-plus fans in the arena were applauding him. It made the hairs on the back of my neck go up. There’s just something special about The Garden. It’s the Mecca of Boxing.
Which fighter has impressed you most from ringside?
To me, the most outstanding pound-for-pound fighter I’ve ever covered is Sugar Ray Leonard. I’ve always maintained that he would’ve beaten Floyd Mayweather. I never covered Mayweather live, because he was past my era, but he was an absolutely brilliant defensive boxer. However, not only was Leonard a great defensive boxer, he was also a great attacking fighter, which is something Mayweather wasn’t.
In my opinion, Leonard would’ve beaten Mayweather on points.
What performance you witnessed from ringside shocked you the most?
Zaire. Muhammad Ali, at 32, winning back the world heavyweight title from George Foreman – the man who was supposed to put him in hospital. The whole bizarre promotion and exotic location made it a sensational occasion.
What is your most memorable interview?
Ali. I was in Las Vegas to cover Julio Cesar Chavez against Edwin Rosario at the Hilton, and also to interview Mike Tyson, who was the world heavyweight champion at the time. While I was out there, I was standing by the newsstand minding my own business when Ali came along. By this point he’d been retired for six years and it’d been made public that he had Parkinson’s disease. We started talking and I said to him that I was sorry to hear that he had Parkinson’s. Without any prompting, he said to me, ‘I’m a man, not a god. And I’m not afraid to die.’ When he walked away, I ran up to my room and wrote everything down that I could remember from our conversation. As you can imagine, that was one hell of a splash in The Sun the next day. Often, the best interviews are the ones you don’t plan for.
On that same trip, I also got a terrific interview with Tyson, who was only 21 at the time. I was having a cup of coffee with him and we were talking about his girlfriend, Robin Givens. He was saying how she wanted to get married but he didn’t. He mentioned how they kept having terrible rows and she was vicious and she hurt him. I said to him, ‘Mike, how the f**k could she hurt you? She’s 112 pounds [a flyweight] soaking wet.’ He replied, ‘Oh, she hurts me alright. She kicks me in the balls!’
Is there one particular fight that never happened that you wish had?
Danny McAlinden-Joe Bugner. They were with promoters who were bitter rivals – McAlinden with Jack Solomons and Bugner with Harry Levene. They’d signed to fight each other for what was big money back then [in 1973]. But then McAlinden got stopped in a warm-up fight against Morris Jackson, and that was the end of the McAlinden-Bugner fight.
What has been the best part of your job?
Being able to mix with and get to know some of the greatest characters who’ve ever lived. Not only the fighters but also the trainers and promoters. Guys like Ray Arcel, Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, [Emanuel] “Manny” Steward, George Francis, Terry Lawless, Mickey Duff, Don King and Bob Arum. You couldn’t invent these people.
And the worst part?
Having to write about the tragedies that have occurred in the ring – the boys who have died as a result of boxing. I was at Alan Minter’s fight with Angelo Jacopucci in 1978. It was for the European middleweight title in Italy. After the fight, which Minter won, I remember the two of them were chatting and laughing at the post-fight reception. Three days later, Jacopucci was dead. I couldn’t believe it.
What is the best change that you’ve witnessed in the sport since you’ve been covering it?
The medical side of boxing has improved considerably. We all know that boxing can never be made 100 per cent safe, but especially in this country it’s as close to safe as it can get. Boxers are far better looked after now.
And the worst change?
The proliferation of world championships, which has resulted in the most absurd world champions. Some of the champions of today would only have been Area title level in my time.