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Boxing: Duff still boxing clever into retirement

`There was nobody close to Ali, not even Joe Louis. But Lewis is the best there's been since. He doesn't punch hard enough for a fellow his size'
MICKEY DUFF, former boxer, promoter, matchmaker and manager, woke up yesterday morning contemplating the first day of the rest of his life. On Monday evening, at Wembley Arena, the last fighter on his books, Billy Schwer, was outpointed - and ultimately outclassed - by the World Boxing Council lightweight champion, Stevie Johnston. Duff said before the fight that he would retire if Schwer lost. And he will now advise Schwer to follow suit. "I believe in quitting a fight too early rather than a fight too late," he says bluntly. "Billy was hit more times on Monday than in any other three fights put together." But whether or not Schwer continues, Duff still intends to throw in the towel, ending a career in boxing which began in 1941, before he was even called Mickey Duff.

Monek Prager was his name. He was born in Tarnow, Poland, the son of a rabbi, in 1929. He remembers violent anti-semitism, remembers walking across a bridge one day with his grandfather, who was attacked by a group of men and had half his long beard hacked off. Maybe that's when young Monek decided it would be useful to learn to use his fists. Whatever, by 1938 the family had settled in the East End of London. Monek was swiftly anglicised to Mickey, and when he decided to enter the London Schoolboy Boxing Championships he dropped the Prager, too. A James Cagney character, Jackie Boy Duffy, provided inspiration. "Mickey Duffy didn't sound right. So I considered Mick Duffy, and ended up with Mickey Duff."

We are sitting in Duff's comfortable flat near Marble Arch in central London. He looks his age. The orangey candy-floss hair has thinned out and faded. But he is as pugnacious and charismatic as ever, and for the best part of two hours, keeps me enthralled with stories of the great boxers he has managed, promoted or merely encountered, among them Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

Marciano, says Duff, "was the cheapest guy I ever met in my life. If you got into a cab with him he made sure you paid. And he hid all his money. I don't think they ever found it." For Ali, however, he has only praise. And tells a wonderful story to illustrate that Ali, while a tragic wreck of the man he used to be, has lost little of his impish wit. A few years back, Duff arranged for Ali to come to the opening of the London restaurant Planet Hollywood. During dinner, the name of Floyd Patterson came up, and someone said that Patterson didn't weigh more than 13 stone, to which Duff replied, "No, he was bigger." Ali, who seemed not to have been paying much attention, leant forward and, eyes flashing as of old, said slowly: "Did you just call me a nigger?"

Ali looms large in Duff's scintillating autobiography, Twenty and Out (Collins Willow, pounds 16.99), the title of which was chosen in a spirit of optimism, for Billy Schwer would have been his 20th world champion. The book chronicles the glory days of boxing. Now, says Duff, it is on its uppers. "There are less than 300 boxers in this country. It's a dying sport and I don't say that with any relish, I say it sorrowfully. I used to run two or three shows a week. You wouldn't break even with most of them, but that was all right, because you were developing talent. Now they put on a show with 15 fights. They start at 6.30 before anyone's there, and as soon as the main event is over everyone leaves. If I ran the Board of Control, who are not at all blameless, I would refuse permission for that number of fights."

Most of the blame for boxing's decline, as Duff sees it, lies with his old nemesis Frank Warren. And he is none too fond, either, of the powerful American promoters Don King and Bob Arum. "When you did business with Teddy Brenner [the matchmaker at Madison Square Garden], you had lunch. When you do business with King, you meet him in a bar at midnight. And Arum wants you to meet three of his representatives before you even get to see him. Of the two, I prefer King. At least he admits he's a rogue."

Like most septuagenarians, Duff thinks that 1999 compares pretty unfavourably with 1949 or even 1979. But even in his anecdotage he remains a perceptive observer of the modern boxing scene. He shows me a substantial four-figure cheque from William Hill, his winnings from the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield fight. He knew Lewis would win. Lewis, he says, is the best heavyweight since Ali. "Which is not to say that he's anywhere near as good as Ali. There was nobody close to Ali, not even Joe Louis. But Lewis is the best there has been since. He doesn't punch quite hard enough for a fellow his size, but he's very skilful, and anyway I don't remember seeing a skilful heavyweight who could also punch, including Ali. If a heavyweight is on his toes, moving around, it's the wrong start from which to put all his weight behind a punch. He needs to be on his flat feet."

So Lewis, in Duff's estimation, is better than Mike Tyson in his prime? "Yes. First, let me tell you, Tyson was never the bravest fighter in the world. And he can only fight going forward, he can't fight going back. Some guys like going backwards because their biggest asset is their counter- punch. Not Tyson. That's how Holyfield beat him, by forcing him back. If I managed Tyson I would never have let him fight Holyfield. Funnily enough, Tyson might give Lewis some trouble, because Lewis doesn't like going forward too much. But I'm sure he would against Tyson."

Duff knows whereof he speaks, for, as he puts it, "I either made, found or okayed Tyson's first 18 opponents," at the request of his friend Jim Jacobs, Tyson's late manager. "It was the same with Barry McGuigan. He had no idea until recently that when he first turned pro [his manager] Barney Eastwood wouldn't let him go to the toilet without calling me first."

Duff and Eastwood eventually fell out, as Duff and his partner Terry Lawless fell out, as Duff and his own father, and indeed Duff and his wife, still married but long since separated, fell out. But do not suggest to him that confrontation and rift seem to be recurrent themes in his life. "I can use one hand to add up the fighters I've fallen out with, and still have three fingers left," he counters. Frank Bruno is one of the few. "He made pounds 15 million with me, then dropped me through a lawyer's letter. Did I deserve that? He is by nature very stingy. If you suggest anything he'll say, `Is there any corn in that?'

"But I can't think of any others I've fallen out with. Even Lloyd Honeyghan, who is an ingrate and always was, I still speak to. He was a great fighter, second only to John Conteh, who was also a lot of trouble, although we're on the friendliest of terms now. Conteh was a fool. He decided to do everything on the cheap. He got rid of me so that George Francis could be his manager and his trainer, but what's cheap is dear. Francis wanted all-in deals, he didn't want to know about percentages, and it cost them both a lot of money. If you've got a main-event fighter you've got to give him 40 per cent of everything you draw. That's fair. Then you give the opponent 20 per cent, you spend 20 per cent on the rest of the show and the undercard, and you're left with 20 per cent. And the more you draw the more your 20 per cent comes to.

"Now I don't paint myself as Father Christmas, but I've never tried to be diabolical. Sam Burns [an associate of Duff's who worked for William Hill] used to say that there's nothing wrong with breaking any of the Ten Commandments but never break the 11th - that if you break any of the first 10, don't get caught. It's a nice saying. But I have always found honesty to be the best policy. Maybe not in the short term. But in the long run, always."

Surely, though, Duff has come across some fixed fights in his time? "I swear to you on my grandchildren," he says, "that I have never known of a crooked fight where the fighters were getting more than pounds 500. Never. Now, when I had my last fight, against a guy called Neil McCearn, I knew I had no chance. So I thought, `I wonder if I can get a few quid to lose it?' I got hold of one of the big betting boys and I said, `I'll go crooked next week for pounds 50.' He said, `Who are you fighting?' I said, `Neil McCearn.' And he said, `You go straight, I'll still have a large bet on the other boy'."

Duff chuckles. The McCearn fight - which, sure enough, he lost - took place at West Ham Baths on 7 December, 1948. It was the last of 69 professional bouts, of which Duff, a lightweight-turned-welterweight with a handy left jab, won 55, lost eight and drew six. He then turned his attention to match-making, and fixed up a series of fights for a thuggish pair of teenage twins, name of Kray. "Useless boxers they were. Especially Ronnie. I used to look for the biggest cripples in the world for him to fight."

Later, when they were running the East End underworld, Duff fell seriously foul of the Kray twins. In 1964, with his partner Jarvis Astaire, he opened the Anglo-American Sporting Club at the Hilton on Park Lane. The legendary Sugar Ray Robinson was the big draw for the opening show, fighting Johnny Angel, a London-based Nigerian. The Krays wanted seats, but Duff decided their presence might offend the hotel management. He barred them, a story which found its way into the Evening Standard.

The next day Duff took a phone call. "You know who this is?" said a voice. "Why did you have to put it in the paper?" "Reg, I didn't," Duff protested. "Well, we've put it down to you," said Kray. "And none of your friends will be able to help you." Shortly afterwards, while Duff was away on fight business in Miami, his wife received a parcel wrapped up in ribbons. Inside were four dead rats, clearly meant as a declaration of intent. Marie Duff promptly called Jack Manning, head of the murder squad at Scotland Yard and a keen boxing fan. The Duffs were given a police guard, and Manning warned the Krays that if anything happened, he would close down every drinking club in the West End, the focus of their protection racket. "Despite that, I'm pretty sure they would have done something," Duff reflects. "But within four months they were both in prison for life. I was lucky."

And boxing was lucky, too. For in his many and varied ways, Duff has been a great asset to the sport. It will, for sure, be less colourful without him.