THE loudest cheer at Leicester’s Morningside Arena on Saturday night (October 6) could well be for a fighter who retired three decades ago. Expect Tony Sibson to hate every moment of his – thankfully – brief return to the spotlight.
“I never could read about myself,” “Sibbo” told me once, “not even in the local paper.”
The occasional appearance at a charity or amateur show apart, Sibson has mostly stayed away from boxing since his 63rd and last fight, a 10-round loss to Frank Tate for the IBF middleweight title in Stafford in February, 1988.
The fighter who’s brought ‘Sibbo’ back to boxing is Callum Blockley, a 22-year-old welterweight from Leicester who’s looking to make it three straight wins this weekend.
“Tony had drifted away from boxing,” said Blockley, “and though he’s always being invited to shows, he’s not one for the limelight.
“But he’s been coming to my fights and coming to watch me spar and he’s enjoying being around the game again.
“My dad used to go to watch him fight and they’ve been good friends for years.
“Tony has shown interest in me ever since I started boxing.”
Sibson gave Paul Blockley, and many more thousands more, some memorable nights.
He made his professional debut on his 18th birthday after serving an amateur apprenticeship under former 135-fight pro Jim Knight at Belgrave ABC and his barnstorming style made him a big attraction with the Midlands’ fight public.
“Tony was so exciting to watch,” said Carl Gunns, who managed him at the start of his professional career, and Sibson enjoyed those nights as much as his supporters.
Sibbo would later say he liked boxing best when it “was a night out for me mam and dad,” but he outgrew the small-hall circuit and on the day after his 21st birthday, he fought Frankie Lucas for the vacant British middleweight championship at the Royal Albert Hall.
Thousands made the trip down from Leicester and they saw Sibson, sporting a pudding-basin haircut and knee-length shorts, win what he would later liken to an “on-the-cobbles” scrap in five back-and-forth rounds.
The title was lost to Kevin Finnegan, who was impressed enough – particularly with Sibson’s jab – to advise manager Sam Burns to sign up the Midlander.
Under Burns, Sibson put together 14 straight wins, including a three-round ambush of Alan Minter and a points win over the gangling and reluctant American Dwight Davison at a packed NEC that clinched a shot at world middleweight champion Marvin Hagler.
The shaven-headed Hagler, predominantly a southpaw, was a formidable king. He had disposed of his five previous challengers inside the distance and was unbeaten for seven years.
He had home advantage as well, in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the temperatures were sub zero and everything that could go wrong for Sibson did go wrong in the build up to the fight in February, 1983.
“I got injured and couldn’t spar for six weeks before the fight,” he said, “and that was a massive blow because that’s how you get your distance and timing.
“I was still super fit. I was running half marathons every day. I had a running partner who ran marathons – he was like an antelope – and I don’t know how I kept up with him.”
Sibson headed to the venue, the DCU Centre, a week before the fight for a Johnny Cash gig. “He was one of my heroes and he sat there in his dressing room jamming for me,” said Sibson. “Boxing – and all sports – can take you places you never dreamed you would go.”
Seven days later, the spotlight was on Sibson.
“I spotted Jack Nicholson when I was walking to the ring,” he said, “and there were lots more film stars there. I kept thinking: ‘What’s he doing here?’
“I couldn’t believe all the famous faces that were there. I was a bit star struck, but it didn’t bother me that much. You have to be totally focused and I got my mind right before the bell.”
In front of 14,000 fans, Sibson answered the opening bell armed with what Tim Mo described in his Boxing News preview as his “shatteringly hard” left hook and Hagler did a good job of keeping away from it and walking his challenger onto sharp jabs.
There were pockets of success for Sibson in the second before Hagler found his legs and the third was in the balance – until ‘Sibbo’s groin protector snapped.
“It snapped, was hanging off my bum and bouncing around in my shorts,” he remembered. “I didn’t know what was going on – or how to deal with it.
“I wanted them to cut it off in my corner. But they could hardly cut my shorts off in the middle of the fight. Anyway, nobody in my corner was brave enough to ask if they could.
“If a footballer’s boot comes off, the referee blows his whistle and they replace it, but you can’t do that in the boxing ring.
“It was like trying to write a story with your pen upside down – and a hangover!
“I had three good rounds and my mind was elsewhere after that. How could I concentrate on the fight when all that was going on downstairs!
“As soon as I looked to bob and weave it snapped. I don’t think anyone could box under those circumstances. I was so uncomfortable in there.”
The fight remained competitive, however, until late in the fifth when Hagler slammed Sibson with three hard southpaw jabs that sliced open a cut on his left eyebrow.
The wound was a bad one and sensing it would soon end his challenge, Sibson went for broke in the sixth.
Hagler responded and it was Sibson who ended up on the seat of his trunks.
On the resumption, they traded and Sibson took more than he gave in the exciting exchanges, sinking to his knees after Hagler fired a pair of left hands off his jaw.
Again, Sibson dragged himself up, but the referee judged he had little fight left in him and signalled the finish.
“Marvin says I caught him with a great shot,” said Sibson, “but I never felt I did. For me, it was the most frustrating six rounds of my life. Looking back, what happened with the protector was quite comical, I suppose. But I’ve got no problems with the outcome.
“I did my best, but I was just a kid.
“I don’t believe he was fitter than me and I always had a puncher’s chance, but his technique was better – and so was his protector!”
Sibson went on to win the Lonsdale belt outright and make two more challenges for world honours.
Dennis Andries was too big and beat him in nine rounds in a defence of his WBC light-heavyweight title and ‘Sibbo’ says that by the time he fought Tate “the tank was empty.”
He added: “I hated boxing and betrayed myself. I wasn’t fighting with the same passion. I had won the Lonsdale belt for my mam and dad and that was what I always wanted.
“I was glad to be out of the game.
“I got it right so many times and it’s sad I didn’t win the world title, but maybe big occasions were too much for me.
“I didn’t watch a lot of boxing for years. I would rather watch a cookery programme – I love cooking – or go to see a band.”
Sibson has still supported local fighters, such as Rendall “2 Tone” Munroe and now Blockley, a sharp, well-schooled southpaw who is building a Sibsonesque following.
Sibson’s advice to fighters is “believe in yourself and get the right people around you” and now 60 and the boss of a successful building business, he has a refreshing attitude to a sport he was glad to leave, but admits “was great to me.”
He said: “Retired boxers and sports people always seem to say it was harder in my day, but I believe sports get better.
“These days there are dieticians and nutritionists, but back then it was just (trainer) Ken (Squires) getting me fit.
“I was always super fit, but as I got older, it got harder to lose the weight.”
Sibson has stayed in touch with Hagler. “Every time he comes to Britain I get an invite,” he said and added: “For me and many others, he’s the best ever and I must have been somebody to get in there with him. He’s my hero.”