I WAS born in the Italian Hospital in Cairo. Dad was a Royal Engineer out there and met my mother, an Italian from Brescia. As a kid I spoke Arabic, Italian and French, as well as English. Today, I’m also fluent in Spanish. My father spoke seven languages, wrote five. My brothers Bobby and Dennis were both born in Egypt too but when I was four, we were kicked out by Nasser and came back to Cardiff. I grew up in Ely, the posh part of the city!
I’m the oldest of the three boxing brothers. Bobby, our older brother was a rugby player. When I was champion, Dennis (pro heavyweight) and Les (pro middleweight) wanted to beat the s**t out of me so I had to open up now and again. I started very young. My uncle Ozzie was in the Merchant Navy. Every time he came home, he took us to Cardiff to buy us presents and he bought me boxing gloves from a sports shop on the end of Caroline Street. I was a natural; a skilful boxer with a punch. Uncle Oz saw me win all the schoolboy and junior titles, the senior Welsh ABAs but, just as I was knocking on the door for pro titles, he drank himself to death! I had four fights the same day to win the Welsh seniors, then got beaten in the British semi at Wembley by Stuart Pearson. By the time I was 17, I’d boxed for Wales schoolboy, junior and senior but didn’t go the Olympics or Empire Games because my first year as a senior, Eddie Thomas turned me pro. I’d had a lot of hard fights as an amateur senior and Eddie didn’t want the edge taken off me. As a young pro, I was weaned at the Sporting Clubs – I was NSC Young Boxer of the Year one year – and I featured on a lot of undercards from my stablemates Howard Winstone and Ken Buchanan. I sparred hundreds, maybe thousands of rounds with Howard and Ken. Thomas’ stable in Merthyr was special. Eddie had done it all himself, British, European and Empire welterweight champion, knew what it was about. Boxers today couldn’t do the training we did; chopping trees, shovelling coal into Eddie’s mine. They’re not as rugged. Today the bandages are as big as the gloves!
I lost my fifth fight, aged 18 to Joe Somerville from Berkhamstead who, like all southpaws, should’ve been drowned at birth but won my next 22. I was nominated for a final eliminator for a (British) middleweight title fight but suddenly was lacking a bit in the gym. I was struggling to walk getting out of bed in the morning. When the doctor checked me over in the hospital, rheumatic fever! I spent three weeks in the nun’s hospital in Canton, then four months in St David’s hospital. I had a murmur in my heart and was in a wheelchair when I came out. They thought I’d never box again.
Today, I doubt they’d let me carry on yet the Board of Control never even asked how I was feeling. It was as if I had the flu! After eight months out, I came back as a light-heavyweight but some of the spark was gone. In 1966, still just 21, I had a shot at Derek Richards, the Welsh champion from Merthyr, another southpaw. He beat me on points in my hardest ever fight. Derek never won again after that but, within a year, I was challenging Young McCormack for the British. In 1967, I was matched with Young (John) McCormack for the vacant light-heavyweight title at the NSC. We fought three times and Young John, an Irishman based in Brixton, was a tough man, real dirty b*****d. He threw ‘em from all angles and wasn’t shy to chuck his nut in, knee you in the b*****ks…
Years later, I walked into a hotel, hadn’t seen him for ages. He nodded at me, and instinctively I ducked! After six rounds of our first fight, I was well in front and just about to knock him out but he stuck the swede in and the cut was like a mackerel’s gill. Eddie was the best cuts man in the country but the ref stopped it. After that, they chiselled my skull to stop me cutting. John kept me waiting, waiting, waiting (19 months) for our rematch but second time round at Mayfair’s Anglo-American Sporting Club, it was a much closer fight. I hit him with an uppercut which ripped his eye open and he retired (round 11). It meant so much after seeing the likes of Howard and Joe Erskine with their (Lonsdale) belts as a kid.
Six months later, I was one of the very few pros to box behind the old Iron Curtain when I challenged Ivan Prebag for the European title in Zagreb (Yugoslavia). He was a hard Eastern European but I boxed the ears off him for 15 rounds and had him down twice. Thomas said: ‘You’ve got a Spanish referee. After every round, make the sign of the cross.’ It didn’t f**kin’ work but what can you do over there?
At the after-fight party up in the mountains, Prebeg was speaking to the press in about four different languages. Ivan went up to number three in the world after that, I went home to defend against McCormack. Third fight, at Nottingham Ice Rink, John got slung out for nutting me. He charged into me like a bullet. Wally Thom, the ref, owed us one after voting against Winstone (in his second world title challenge to Vicente Saldivar) three years earlier. That night, the great Buchanan boxed on my undercard. Ken and I still laugh about it.
Just after I was matched to challenge Bob Foster for the world title in Liverpool but decided I needed a bit more experience so went to America to fight Mike Quarry (21-0) in California. Mike was a normal boxer, nothing more. I knew I beat him but I didn’t get the decision after 10 rounds, and the opportunity was gone. It’s only in this country they gave overseas fighters a fair shake. Foster might have suited me because I could take a punch but it didn’t go my way.
Instead I went over to Brisbane, Australia to challenge Trevor ‘The Iceman’ Thornberry for the (vacant) Empire title. Back then we had to fight overseas, had to fight where the British Board, European Board or Empire Board told us we had to fight. No slaloming. [The Iceman melted in six and, in a subsequent fight, endured life altering injuries]. When Trevor’s son, Ricky challenged Joe Calzaghe in Cardiff, an Australian TV team took us out for something to eat but I bawled my eyes out, couldn’t speak, knowing what happened to his father.
In 1970 I was due to defend both titles against a young Chris Finnegan but, five months before, driving my red convertible E type, I had a head-on collision with a lorry on the A48. The engine came through the dash board and it knocked the s**t out of me; my head, arms, chest. The car was smashed to pieces. If I’d lost consciousness, I was gone. The doctor at the scene told me I had no pulse. It was only my condition as a boxer that kept me alive. Eventually, Chris and I fought at the Grosvenor House in Mayfair on a Sunday evening. Chris tried to get out of it, claiming he was a Catholic but we fought a close hard fight. In round 11 or 12, Harry Carpenter commentating for the BBC said, ‘The title’s still in Wales’ but, after the road accident, I had no fifth gear. I cut Chris and his corner panicked but I just didn’t have it.
Eddie should’ve told the promoters to back off until I was fully ready. Chris was the best man I was inside a ring with, awkward even for a southpaw [Avoth surrendered his belts in the 15th round]. Following that, I was sent as fodder to face the South African champion, Kosie Smith, at Ellis Park rugby ground. The massive crowd were all white, very partisan … ‘Kosie, Kosie, Kosie.’ But I boxed his ears off, even chucked in a bit of showboating, pretending to kick him up the arse at the end of one round. Suddenly, ‘Eddie, Eddie, Eddie…’
After the fight I never touched the floor. The crowd just passed me over the top, all the way to the dressing room. Best purse I ever had, five grand. Back home, I was having 1800 quid for 15 rounds, £400 for 10 rounds. By then I was struggling to make light-heavy but there was no cruiserweight class. I was also struggling with double vision. For my final fight I boxed Bunny Johnson – a guy I’d previously beaten – as an unfit heavyweight. Brian Curvis trained me as Eddie wanted me to pack in. I was only 26 but I’d had 53 hard fights against tough opposition in just eight years. Bunny never hurt me. Johnny Hendrickson, a West Indian I fought three times, hit me hardest. When Bunny dropped me, he f**king woke me up. I took a knee but got straight back up and I felt absolutely great but Eddie, who still worked my corner, thought I was old and pulled me out.
I never made money out of boxing – maybe £16-18,000 altogether – but made plenty through boxing, through the associations and relationships I made. Whilst I was champion, I started up a very successful plant hire business and later owned a few pubs. I first went out to Spain when I was 28 then returned again in the late 70s. I loved the sunshine, especially down south, Marbella. The language came quite easily cos I spoke Italian. I still go back and forth.
My main business there was real estate but people know me for my restaurant Silk’s. It started in the st end of the Puerto Banus, full of abandoned boat engines and anchors, in 1982. All the people who knew me came. All the crims, Freddie Foreman, Ronnie Knight, Mickey Green visited and I’ll never denounce them. I knew that crowd, including the Krays, since they frequented the Sporting Club when I fought there regular in the 60s. Rod Stewart, Sean Connery, Bernie Winters, Peter Stringfellow, every celebrity from the UK came to Silks and it took off. I sold my share for a very tidy sum in 1992.
In 1987 I put on a promotion with Mickey Duff and Jarvis Astaire in the bull ring in Marbella. Lloyd Honeyghan defended his world title against Gene Hatcher, and Frank Bruno also fought. A Daily Mirror reporter did a huge centre spread article, doctoring photos of Bruno, me and my missus in matador hats with a headline: ‘Shame Night at the Ugly Bug’s Ball’. It claimed a load of murdering crims had backed me and could all be seen at my ‘eating house’ where my wife worked topless. It was all b*****ks and I had 10 grand off ‘em. If I was still living in the UK I could’ve had a lot more. Mickey Duff, who helped with the promotion, had contributed to that article. The day before the fight, all the tourists going to the fight gathered in the lobby of the Andalucia Plaza. Duff was sat with Barrett, Astaire and Lawless, his leg in plaster up to his knee. In comes Foreman in his tennis gear, lifts Mickey up in that sitting position and screams: ‘If I hear another peep out of you, I’ll kill you!’ Mickey goes: ‘Did everybody see that?!’ But no one piped up. It went very quiet.
Another night, shortly after the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, two producers from Warner Brothers came by Silk’s. I’ve my white suit on, a big cigar, making sure everyone’s ok, when they asked if I’d like to star as a mob boss (Silke) in their movie Instant Justice. It was a low budget thing. They sent over a script, told me; ‘Just be yourself.’ I knew I could do it so dived in. When I think of all these wannabes who take waiting jobs in Hollywood just to bag a walk on role, then I stroll up from nowhere, no acting background, straight into the main event!
I was 26 days on set, first light until dark. The money was negligible but it was the best experience of my life. I loved the professionalism and I got very friendly with the likes of Charles Napier and Jon Voight who don’t do budget movies.
My missus at the time weren’t too keen. She thought, ‘Hollywood movies, he’ll be off shagging’. She said: ‘Carry on with it and I’ll leave you.’ I didn’t carry on with it but she still f**kin’ left me! I could have been in Hollywood before Vinnie Jones. A bit later, I played promoter Jack Solomons in ‘Risen’ (a 2010 biopic about Howard Winstone). I miss Howard dearly.
When I returned to Wales, I did a little bit of coaching. Today, I represent insurance companies and, unless something falls out of the sky onto my head, I still hope to be doing it while I’m 80. I don’t fancy sitting in front of my fire watching the telly in my check slippers with a mustard coloured cardie one bit.
I live in Caerleon with my partner Sue. Her father was a famous rugby player CD Williams who beat the All Blacks in 1953. I get invited to various dos and shows but I couldn’t even tell you who the light-heavyweight champion of Great Britain is. Couldn’t name any one of the current British champions.
But boxing’s just the greatest sport and it’s given me a great life. I’d hoped to celebrate my 75th Birthday by doing a 12,000ft parachute jump for the Cardiff Hospice charity and lost a stone and a half but this pandemic has temporarily put that on the back burner. That’d be the icing on my cake.
The other day, I was with [British Lions rugby legend] Scott Gibbs who spoke about hooking me up with an agent and writing a book about it all. I’d like that. You’ve only heard the boxing parts! My only regret is not winning the Lonsdale outright. If Finnegan had ever wanted to sell his, I asked for the first pop at it. I’d not look at it, like I won it. I’d just love to own it. Beautiful belt.
Unfortunately, the fever knocked me back a mile and I never reached my full potential. I had great foot work when I was a middleweight – some compared mine to Sugar Ray Robinson’s in some write-ups – and a hard punch; left hook or right hand, equally hurtful. Most of my losses were due to bad cuts … and southpaws!
After I’d finished, Thomas claimed if I’d not had that fever, I’d have been middleweight champion of the world. In his last TV interview, he insisted I had everything Winstone and Buchanan had but also carried a punch. I burst out crying when I heard that.