LAST week, boxing lost one of its great characters, and I lost a beloved grandfather. You’ll remember him as former world middleweight champion, Terry Downes—or perhaps as ‘The Crashing, Bashing Dashing kid’ or even ‘The Paddington Express’. To me, he was simply my Pop.
Pop was a bit like the Terry Downes you know — same trademark winks and growls, same acerbic wit, same captivating charisma—only he’d put down the gloves and picked up a pipe. No longer a fighter, Pop was a family man and fiercely loyal friend. However, he was every bit as entertaining in retirement as he was in the ring.
There have been some lovely obituaries written for Pop, but they can only tell a fraction of his story. If his life was the subject of a Hollywood screenplay, it would be tossed out for being too unrealistic. Here was a Paddington boy who moved to the States after his circus-performer sister lost her arm in a tragic accident. He joined the US marines, where he built his remarkable work ethic and honed his boxing craft. He then returned to England, turned professional and claimed the world title before retiring happy and healthy at 28.
Not content with all that, he dabbled in property, bookmaking and even acting. His sparkling personality, which won him so many fans in the ring, found another home on the silver screen. When people pass away, they hope to say they lived a good life. Pop could argue he crammed in several.
There are so many stories from Pop’s youth that illustrate his sense of humour and sheer zest for life. One that jumps out is the time he asked sparring partner George Hollister if he “fancied going to see the Queen”, before driving his psychedelically spray-painted sports car through the gates of Buckingham Palace and doing donuts in the drive. Fortunately the police recognised him and let him off—although he still had to explain why he had fighter friend Colin Lake locked in the boot.
However, for all the accolades and anecdotes, Pop’s greatest legacy was a personal one: his family. Boxing was undoubtedly his passion, but it was also a means to providing his children with a comfortable upbringing. His kids had everything they could have wanted. He fought so his family didn’t have to.
That’s not to say that having him as a father or grandfather was always easy. His meticulous marine discipline never left him, and he put us all to work at every possible opportunity. He’d sit in a chair on the terrace, watching intently as we painstakingly raked up the leaves from his lawn. His garden fence was Hertfordshire’s very own Forth Bridge: as soon as you’d finished painting one end, he’d have you starting again on the other.
Pop loved his family so much, and showed it in his own inimitable style. When someone upset his daughter Wendy, he tracked the offender to a London nightclub and let them know that if they did so again he’d make amends in a manner that didn’t exactly fall within the bounds of the Queensberry Rules.
I didn’t see him fight, but I didn’t have to: I knew what he stood for and what he represented. The most precious thing he left us all was a belief that anything can be achieved with hard work and dedication. After all, who could fail to be inspired by his incredible story? Pop had eight grandchildren, who were his pride and joy. Their imagination and ambition, sense of fun, and willingness to work towards their dreams is the greatest tribute to him possible.
They don’t give out title belts for being a grandfather, but if they did then mine would have been a world champion at any weight, in any era. We will all miss him terribly. 10 bells could never be enough for my Pop. Our sadness at losing him is matched only by our pride in the extraordinary man that he was.