IT is most boxers’ dream to compete in Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world. Not many get to do it but, over a span of 17 years, Finchley Amateur Boxing Club stalwarts Johnny Oliver and his brother Jimmy helped over 300 amateur boxers – including Anthony Joshua, James DeGale and George Groves – do just that.
In 1993 Jimmy’s eldest son, Danny, had turned professional with Cornelius Boza-Edwards in Las Vegas and Jimmy and Johnny had travelled to Sin City to visit him. Sitting in McCarran Airport waiting for their flight home, Jimmy had an idea.
“He turned to me and said, ‘I want to bring a team of amateurs out here and have them box some Americans,’” Johnny told Boxing News.
“I said ‘are you f***ing mad?’ The Americans start boxing at the age of eight and we’d seen plenty of them in Vegas, they’re phenomenal.”
Jimmy talked him round and, soon enough, Johnny was on board. They would match each boxer accordingly to ensure there were no gulfs in experience or age.
Once back in the UK the two brothers got straight to work. They went to their local Thomson and costed up the trip.
“Yeah, we did that completely wrong. It came to £12,000 in total, to take a team out there. We went to the committee [of Finchley Boxing Club] and they said no,” Oliver explained.
“Jimmy and I didn’t take no for an answer, we had contacts over in Vegas and everything. We never argued, boxing always came first with us.”
They formed a subcommittee dedicated solely to organising the Las Vegas trip, but had to come up with ways of raising the needed funds. Over the years Johnny would compete in two London Marathons and Jimmy trekked across the Sahara Desert. They also got help from sponsors.
“Me and Jimmy had a second-hand furniture shop and one day Jimmy comes into the shop and tells me he met a bloke who would give us some money for Las Vegas,” Oliver said.
“I said ‘we’ll see’ and sure enough about an hour later Jimmy comes back and says ‘John, this is Robert Waterman.’ He said hello and then pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket and stuck it on the counter. £3,000! He came on the committee and supported us for three years running.”
By 1996, everything was in place. The two Olivers travelled over to Las Vegas ahead of time to get things sorted, meeting up with their contact, Hal Miller. He was a police lieutenant who ran the Golden Gloves gym, used by none other than Mike Tyson.
“That was the first time I met Mike Tyson. This was in ’96, so there was a lot going on in his life at the time, but he was such a nice bloke. Me, Jimmy and Mike sat down for about two hours just talking boxing. It was really special.”
That year they took over a team of 12 boxers and just over 50 supporters. The boxing took place at the Palace Station, a hotel located just off the Vegas strip.
“We didn’t want to go on the trip because we would have lost some of the boys. In the early years some of them saw it as a bit of a holiday, but as time went on most of them took it seriously.”
In that first year they drew 6-6 with the American team, a result Johnny saw as a success given the difficult journey they had just getting a team out there. But the journey was only just starting – from that point on, a London team would travel out to Las Vegas every year and box American and Mexican fighters until 2013. One of the first boxers they took over was Darren Barker, who would go on to become IBF middleweight champion.
Super-middleweight title challenger George Groves went to Las Vegas three times and his old rival, James DeGale, also went on one trip.
Current IBF heavyweight champion Joshua, a novice at the time, also went on one of the trips with his cousin Ben Illeyemi. They both won their respective bouts.
The Olivers took over boxers of all calibres, some had only boxed in a handful of bouts, but if they showed commitment and determination then they were given a chance and always matched fairly. Or so they thought.
“The Americans always tried to swindle us, a lot of their boxers were boxing under different names,” Johnny said.
“They had a kid, Tim Coleman, who boxed on several of the shows we put on. A few years later he was boxing in London and I said to the person sat next to me, ‘that’s Tim Coleman.’ They turned to me and said, ‘his name’s Tim Bradley!’”
Other names included in the American teams include Jessie Vargas and Jesse and Diego Magdaleno. On one of the shows, two nephews of Julio Cesar Chavez boxed for the American team and the Mexican icon sat at ringside to watch.
He wasn’t the only big name to attend one of the shows; Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, Mike McCallum, Zab Judah and Diego Corrales all took in the action over the years.
“It became a monster,” Oliver explained. “The shows would take 12 months to organise. Every year we’d get back and have to start planning the next one straight away.”
They also took over special guests some years, including Frank Bruno, John H. Stracey and Mickey Duff.
“We used to charge $10 for an adult and $5 for a child to get in, and they asked Mickey Duff for $10. He said ‘$10? I’ve never paid to get into a boxing show in my life,’ and he walked out. John H. Stracey was there with us that time. He paid his $10.”
By 2013, Johnny had retired from training and so Jimmy took a team over to Las Vegas without him. It would be the last show. Jimmy had leukaemia, and the day after he returned home he was admitted to hospital. He passed away less than a week later.
In 2015 Johnny was awarded a medal of honour from the WBC for services to boxing and last year was inducted into the British Ex-Boxers Hall of Fame.
“Had Jimmy not passed away, he would have collected those two awards with me and it would have meant as much to him as it does to me,” Johnny said.
“We had some fantastic fun. We made a dream come true.”
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