Obituary: Harry Gibbs
Thursday 18 November 1999
Even after reaching the British Board of Control limit for referees of 65, he went on officiating as a judge in world championship bouts well into his seventies. He judged Lennox Lewis's first title defence against Tony Tucker in Las Vegas in 1993 and later that year the controversial Chris Eubank-Nigel Benn draw before 41,000 fans at Old Trafford, Manchester. Gibbs scored for Eubank.
British boxing fans remember him for a far greater controversy: the 1971 fight at Wembley in which Gibbs gave Joe Bugner a narrow victory over a 37-year-old Henry Cooper. Both Gibbs and Cooper were from the Bermondsey area of south London, but boxing has no room for sentiment or partiality. At the final bell, Gibbs walked past Henry's outstretched glove and gave the decision to Bugner. The verdict ended an era in British boxing - Cooper never fought again - and opened a feud between the men which lasted a quarter of a century. Gibbs sued over an offending passage in Cooper's 1972 autobiography which he felt accused him of dishonesty and only in the last couple of years were they brought together for a handshake at a charity dinner.
In those days, boxing was not screened live on television, but on 24- hour delay, and Gibbs asked the BBC to show the contest in its 15-round entirety in order for people to judge for themselves. That was typical of him, and the BBC complied.
Harry was one of seven children born to Gussy and Nellie Gibbs in Bermondsey. His father was a professional sailor who became a docker after the First World War. Harry followed him and remained on the docks throughout his working life. He spent five years in a German prisoner-of-war camp in the Second World War, married his wife Phyllis in 1946 and won six of seven professional boxing contests, retiring after his only defeat, by Johnny Prince at the Caledonian Baths in Islington in February 1947.
He was an instructor at the Belsize amateur club from 1947 and then took up refereeing after taking a British Board of Control course in 1957. In his first bout at the stuffy National Sporting Club at the Cafe Royal in Piccadilly, he was asked by a club official: "When you call `break', would you please remember not to shout too loud." It seemed he was in danger of breaking the club rule of silence during the boxing.
Gibbs had a meteoric rise - within four years he had qualified to control world-class bouts, which was unheard of in Britain at the time. In 1964 he controlled the Griffith-Curvis world welterweight title bout and two years later was in the ring as Muhammad Ali outclassed Brian London at Earls Court.
He was in charge of another London fight with the American Tom McNeeley in 1963. For three rounds he let them do as they liked. At one point London complained: "He's butting me, Harry." To which the referee quietly suggested: "Well, butt him back." This was in no textbook, but he wanted them to get the fouls over and done with. After three rounds, he stopped the action, telling them: "That's enough lads. Any more of it and out you go, one or both of you, I don't care which." They cleaned up the contest and London won on points after 10 rounds.
A story, perhaps apocryphal, exists of Gibbs stopping a contest before it had started. During his preliminary instructions, he noticed one of the boxers had come into the ring with a black eye. He sent him back to his corner, ruling him unfit to start.
By the 1970s Gibbs's reputation as one of the most able referees in the world had been established. While remaining at the London docks, he travelled around the world, refereeing more than 25 world championship bouts in an era when they were nowhere near so prolific as they are today.
He controlled title fights in Mexico, Ghana, Japan, Venezuela and Puerto Rico as well as around Europe. He travelled to Jamaica for the world heavyweight championship between Joe Frazier and George Foreman but was replaced beforehand by the New Yorker Arthur Mercante. His first judging appointment in the United States was in 1971 when he scored the world lightweight title fight between Ken Buchanan, the reigning champion from Scotland, and Ruben Navarro in Los Angeles. He also refereed in front of 125,000 in Ghana, and was in charge in Puerto Rico when the great local star, Wilfredo Gomez, stopped the Mexican Carlos Zarate in one of the most eagerly anticipated fights of the time.
He was appointed OBE for his services to boxing in 1980. Gibbs once said: "A referee must always be cool and self-possessed, and ready to handle anything that might come up. Next to honesty, aloofness is the quality a good ref needs." Out of the ring he was anything but aloof, and in retirement was always willing to pass on a tip or two to aspiring referees. In recent years he and his wife Phyllis lived with their daughter, Sheila, in South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, and the family were on holiday in Benidorm when he died suddenly.
Perhaps Harry Gibbs's finest epitaph is his insistence to those who followed him: "Any honest decision is a good one."
Henry William Gibbs, boxer and boxing referee: born London 3 October 1920; OBE 1980; married (one daughter); died Benidorm, Spain 16 November 1999.
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