LARRY O’CONNELL was my best friend in boxing. He helped me enormously when I first became a referee, but that was Larry. He’d go out of his way to help anyone.
My first memory of Larry is watching him box Dick McTaggart in the ABA final in the 1960s on the television. I thought he won that – but he didn’t get the decision.
He was a lovely boxer. Even in the ring he was a gentleman. He could fight but he preferred to box. Certain fighters get in the ring with the intention of having a row, but Larry got in the ring with the intention of defusing an argument. Everything about him was elegant and classy.
He was the same as a referee. He was always so smart and focused. He wasn’t like me; I came from a showbiz family and I don’t mind admitting I was a bit of a show-off in the ring as I danced around but Larry strolled, taking everything in his stride. Without doubt he was among the best referees the world has ever seen.
He was upset when he got criticised so much for scoring the first Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield fight a draw in March 1999. He was honest and truthful – almost to a fault – and he would have scored that fight exactly as he saw it at that moment. Just because few people agreed with him doesn’t make him wrong, either. He was the only one sitting on that stool with that view, don’t forget. Too often we watch from our screens and presume we have a better view than anyone.
There are so many memories of Larry that put a smile on my face. So many that highlight his sense of fun and what incredibly good company he was. We were in Madrid with other referees at an EBU Convention. I used to take a little rugby ball with me, and Richie Davies and I were throwing it to each other. All of a sudden, and seemingly out of nowhere, this body comes flying through the air in an effort to catch the ball. It was Larry. He misjudged it completely and ended up flat on his face, rolling down a little slope towards a garage. Next time I saw him he was all bandaged up! The image of him flying through the air will always make me laugh. Not sure what his wife, Beryl, thought of it all though. A few years later I went to Larry’s house and I was joking about him and his infamous ball-catching skills. Beryl stopped what she was doing and said to Larry, ‘Oh, so that’s how you did it? That’s not what you told me!’
There was another at the WBC Convention in Las Vegas. We went over the there with the sole intention of voicing our concerns that British referees were not getting the chance to officiate in world title fights as often as we believed we deserved. The day before we were due to be heard we got invited out by some American referees for drinks. Well, one drink led to another and it’s suddenly 5am and we’re stumbling back to our rooms. Next thing we know it’s 8pm and we’ve completely missed the meeting we went over there for!
The next day at the airport, myself, Larry and Welsh referee Adrian Thomas had $7 left between us. We played slot machines with it. My money disappeared quickly. So too did Adrian’s. But Larry won $1,600 and he insisted on sharing it between the three of us. That’s the kind of bloke he was.
I’ll never forget him tearing into a fellow referee who took the p*** out of my own boxing career, jumping to my honour out of the blue.
He was so talented, too. There’s a huge painting of his of a horse on the wall in a pub in York. But he was an even better engraver, which was his business – he had a shop on Maddox Street in London. He engraved for the Royal Family, for the Pope, for famous people all over the world. He even designed the cutlery that was used at Prince Charles’ wedding to Diana in 1981.
Whenever I was in London I’d go and see him at his shop. “Hello Mickey,” he’d say when he saw me, smiling from ear to ear. How I wish I could see that smile now and say thank you for all that he did for me.
I wouldn’t have been the man that I am without him – he taught me to appreciate life and all that comes with it.
The funeral of Larry O’Connell, who passed away aged 81 on December 30, will take place on Tuesday January 21 at Thames View Crematorium, Gravesend Road, Gravesend, DA12 3JH. It starts at midday.