WHILE travelling to the funerals of Brendan Ingle and Dean Francis in June, it was comforting to close my eyes and think back to when I had been making the same journeys to visit them when they were alive.
Ingle had been unwell, battling the flu, when I went to see him at the famous Wincobank Gym in Sheffield a few years ago. But he still came and joined in the chat – it always took a lot for Ingle not to want to talk about boxing – with his sons, Dominic and John, who now carry the torch into the next generation.
As I got off the train in Bristol my mind wandered back to when Francis [below] would pick me up at the station, looking terrific as he spoke of the cancer inside him like you or I might grumble about our favourite football team being on a run of poor form.
They would both die on the same day, Ingle after a brain haemorrhage and Francis from that wretched cancer, on May 25, 2018.
The funerals ended with standing ovations yet the mood at each send-off was different.
Ingle’s farewell, inside a ram-jammed Sheffield Cathedral on Thursday June 14 was charged with emotion yet felt almost triumphant as the vast crowd, including a who’s who of the boxing world, paid their respects.
In his 77 years Ingle achieved more than 10 people could have collectively achieved in that timeframe. The clapping started as the pallbearers, including son Dominic, Johnny Nelson and Kell Brook, carried Brendan’s coffin into the cathedral. A city and a fraternity joining forces to say thank you; Ingle will go down in history as not just as one of the greatest boxing trainers of all time, but also as one of Sheffield’s favourite sons and as a humanitarian of some repute. Not bad for an Irishman who struggled to read and write while at school.
The speeches were a joy, loaded with humour and respect. As Brendan’s daughter, Bridget, stood in front of the vast crowd she embraced her nerves, joking about now knowing how Nelson must have felt ahead of his infamously dull draw with Carlos DeLeon. Later, another tribute concluded with a joke about Ingle being up in the Garden of Eden, organising litter-picking. Alma, Brendan’s wife, was regularly singled out for praise.
And at the end, as the coffin was taken back to the car to begin its final journey to the crematorium, onlookers again got to their feet and applauded. The applause continued for minutes, as Brendan Ingle passed the hundreds who had gathered outside in the sunshine and watched the entirety of the service on the big screens. People in black ties and black dresses, people who had made the trip, some travelling hundreds of miles knowing they would not be able to get into the cathedral, to pay their respects.
A little over 24 hours later, at the South Bristol Crematorium it was impossible not to be moved by the tributes to Dean Francis. He had courageously battled with terminal cancer, refusing to believe for a long time that he would have to say goodbye to three children, his wife, his sisters, his parents and countless acquaintances.
In the end, as the all too inevitable goodbye arrived, we heard from his friends who cared for him in his final months. He left the world at peace and joked until the end. Chris Eubank (in attendance) would send him recipes for different health drinks throughout his final months. Francis would make all of them and as he drank, he would smile, put one hand in air. “This will be the one that cures me, Chris,” he would say.
His haul of domestic titles across three weight divisions may have included world belts if not for his injured shoulder. As Chris Sanigar said during an emotional speech, Francis as a young boxer was “simply mustard”. After the service, then-IBF super-middleweight champion James DeGale reminisced about sparring sessions he had shared with Dean. “I hate this,” he said. “It’s so sad. It’s such a waste.”
But when a man touches as many lives as Francis did, one who inspired with his courage, wit and wisdom, it’s not a waste. There is only a limited amount of time to make a mark, and Ingle and Francis did that.
Rarely has the briefness of life become more apparent than in those consecutive goodbye days in Sheffield and Bristol.
Days of tears and laughter and sadness and joy.
Days that should inspire those in attendance to make the most of every minute we have left.