Books for Christmas: Boxing - Duff's story of obsession, lost friendships and loneliness

Books for christmas Boxing

THE PROBLEM in making fights for up-and-comers in boxing was perfectly set out by A J Liebling in The Sweet Science. "In any art the prodigy presents a problem. Given too easy a problem, he goes slack, but asked too hard a question early, he becomes discouraged. Finding a middle course is particularly difficult in the prize ring... The fighter must be confirmed in the belief that he can lick anybody in the world and at the same time be restrained from testing this belief on a subject too advanced for his attainments. The trick lies in keeping the fellow entertained while enriching his curriculum."

Not many of the fighters who came under Mickey Duff's influence fell into the exceptional category but a number of careers were enhanced by his astute assessments; none more than that of the London welterweight John H Stracey, who was advanced as a challenger for the World Boxing Council version of the title in 1975 when Duff concluded that the holder Jose Napoles, a famed figure, was in decline. The accuracy of this diagnosis was confirmed when Stracey, who was knocked down in the first session, pummelled Napoles to a sixth-round stoppage.

A short while earlier an incident involving Stracey, one that does not appear in Duff's autobiography Twenty and Out - A Life in Boxing (Harper Collins, pounds 16.99), perfectly set out the extent of an obsession that through the break up of friendships and his marriage has left an impression of loneliness.

It was less than a week before Stracey, who was managed by one of Duff's partners, Terry Lawless, was due in the ring against the American welterweight Hedgemon Lewis (Stracey later defeated him in his first title defence) and he was being treated for a slightly sprained ankle at Upton Park by the West Ham United physiotherapist, Rob Jenkins. Stracey suddenly took sick, clutching his abdomen. When the pain returned and Stracey vomited I bundled him into my car and set off for the nearest hospital. By the time Duff and Lawless had been alerted to Stracey's condition he was undergoing surgery for acute appendicitis. "Where is he?" Duff anxiously asked. "In the operating theatre," I replied. "But he's fighting next week," Duff shouted. "No Mickey," I said. "He isn't fighting next week."

The title of Duff's book sprang from an excessively optimistic notion that his one remaining fighter, Billy Schwer, was good enough to take the WBC lightweight title from Stevie Johnston of the United States. If Schwer's heavy points defeat at Wembley a few weeks ago signalled the end of Duff's career it has not been without many successes and frequent controversy.

By his own admission, Duff's memory isn't what it was but this hardly excuses the omission of more than a perfunctory reference to one of the fighters he helped promote, the Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen, who lost his life when matched with Lupe Pintor in Los Angeles for the world title.

Duff's involvement over many years with all the leading figures in world boxing is entertaining even if it addresses rather too lightly the effects of an alliance with his friend Jarvis Astaire, Lawless and the promoters Harry Levene and Mike Barrett. It was a policy, not a rule, of the British Boxing Board that major promotions should not take place within a 14-day period, but as Barrett and Levene held licences at the Royal Albert Hall and Wembley and shows were alternated on a monthly basis, it gave the group control of British boxing. It would be broken by Frank Warren's emergence.

Clearly, Duff did not have much respect for Levene, who died many years ago, and he eventually fell out with Barrett and Lawless. His intransigence is best illustrated by a passage that tells of a 35-year rift with his father. Alerted by his brother to the old man's impending death, Duff said, "I will come, but he's got to ask me, not you. Just put the phone to his ear and let him say `I want to see you.' He didn't and I didn't go." Duff adds, "I regret not visiting my father at the end of his life and when he died I was sorrowful. I did fly to his funeral in Israel."

The two principle reasons for recording one's life are ego and money. Jarvis Astaire isn't short of the former and has plenty of the latter. Ego then dictated the publication of his memoir Encounters (Robson Books, pounds 16.95), which is less about his involvement with boxing than a vehicle for name-dropping that will fill a few idle hours.

Nigel Benn's life story, The Dark Destroyer (Blake Publishing, pounds 14.99), is best not left around until after the 9pm threshold. Not so much a tale of the ring's blood and thunder as a distasteful chronicle of hedonistic activity.

Anyone who sets out to select 100 fighters as Patrick Myler does in A Century of Boxing Greats (Robson Books, paperback pounds 10.99) is bound to get an argument. In fact, Myler was asking for trouble from this corner when he included the vastly overrated Naseem Hamed and left out Howard Winstone, who probably would have boxed his ears off.


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