Obituary: Eddie Thomas

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Eddie Thomas was a brilliant welterweight, who won the European, Empire and British titles and came close to a world championship. But he will be best remembered for his success as a manager.

Under his guidance, Howard Winstone won the WBC Featherweight title and Ken Buchanan became undisputed World Lightweight Champion a decade before Colin Jones, a fiery welterweight from Gorseinon, came heartbreakingly close to giving him a third world champion, fighting a controversial draw for the vacant WBC Welterweight title in 1983. Thomas also steered Eddie Avoth to the British Light-Heavyweight title, and was involved in various roles in the careers of many other champions and contenders before a combination of failing health and business worries forced him out of the sport which remained his lifelong passion.

He was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1926. As a teenager he followed his father and three of his six brothers into the mines at Cwmddu, and continued working underground even as a successful professional fighter. All six of his brothers boxed, but his father opposed Eddie's taking it up on the grounds that it was too dangerous. Ironically, his father later lost an arm in a mining accident, while Thomas survived nearly 50 pro fights without a hint of damage.

He started boxing at the Merthyr Tydfil ex-servicemen's club, and his fast left jab - later to be the trademark of his proteges Winstone and Buchanan - carried him to the ABA lightweight title in 1946. He turned pro after participating in a win for Britain against America, as part of a team which included the young Randolph Turpin, and was scheduled to face Mickey Duff on his debut.

Duff was a sharp judge of talent even then, and promptly pulled himself out of the engagement. It was, he still jokes, the shrewdest move of his managerial career. They later became bitter promotional rivals, but Duff always had the highest regard for Thomas the fighter.

Thomas became known as the Singing Boxer for his custom of entertaining the crowd with the Welsh hymn "Bless This House" after every fight. By 1949, he was British Welterweight Champion and a leading contender for Sugar Ray Robinson's world title. He retained the title against Cliff Curvis, and the Robinson match moved closer when he knocked out Pat Patrick of South Africa to become Empire Champion in January 1951 and, the following month, took the European title from Charles Humez of France.

But then it all went wrong: he lost the European title to Humez in a rematch four months later, and in October, Wally Thom took his British title to deny him outright ownership of the Lonsdale Belt (awarded after winning three championship fights). Plagued by weight problems, he took a year off and then, after a four-fight comeback in 1953, retired to concentrate on developing his mining business.

His interest in boxing was revived by the speed and elegance of the 15- year-old Howard Winstone, whom he watched win his third schoolboy title, and he kept faith with the youngster when a horrifying hand injury (which cost Winstone the tips of several fingers) kept him out of the ring for three years.

Trained by Thomas, he came back to win the 1958 Empire Games gold medal at bantam-weight, and then launched a dazzling professional career which saw him win two Lonsdale Belts, the British and European Featherweight titles, and engage in three classic World Title challenges against the magnificent Mexican Vicente Saldivar. When Saldivar retired immediately after their third fight, Winstone finally became world champion by stopping Mitsunori Seki for the vacant WBC title, and Thomas's clear, soaring voice led the celebratory singing from the Albert Hall ring.

Winstone was very much "his boy" and the pair remained close friends till the end, but his relationship with Buchanan was much more difficult. The prickly Scot felt, with some justification, that Thomas's stubborn independence from the London axis which virtually monopolised big-time boxing then, was retarding his career and restricting his earnings, but it was Thomas's managerial skill which manoeuvred him into an unexpected world title opportunity against Ismael Laguna in 1970 and, a year later, it was the Welshman's cool expertise in the corner which saved Buchanan's title when facial damage looked like costing him the rematch with Laguna.

His management of the hard-punching Colin Jones was masterly, and even though Jones failed on three attempts in the world title, he still earned enough to joke that he was "the only Tory in Gorseinon".

Thomas was honoured for his work on that bleak morning in Aberfan in 1966 when a slag heap engulfed the local school. He was among the first at the scene, using his mining expertise to organise the futile rescue attempts and salvaging many of the children's bodies himself. An emotional man, he was reluctant to discuss the experience, but the people of his own community never forgot his efforts, and in 1992 gave him the freedom of the town and in 1994 elected him mayor.

He was wonderful company, a great raconteur and a fine singer who used to grace the choir in Cyfartha church in Merthyr. He was also generous, in cash as well as in spirit. When my younger son was seven, he developed a bizarre ambition to carry the round boards at a boxing show. Thomas arranged for him to do it on one of his promotions which was televised live on ITV, and solemnly paid him his wages after the show. Two days later, Ian received his first letter. It was from Eddie Thomas, and enclosed a pounds 10 bonus for a job well done. In the small things as well as the large, he always had style.

Eddie Thomas, boxer and boxing manager: born Merthyr Tydfil 27 July 1926; MBE 1984; twice married (three sons, two daughters); died Merthyr Tydfil 2 June 1997.