Boxing: Small-time promoter's big fight

'Whatever money I've got hasn't come from boxing. It's been a glorified bloody hobby'; Harry Mullan talks to a veteran campaigning for a share of TV's riches
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The Independent Online
Johnny Griffin has spent 51 of his 67 years scuffling and hustling as boxer, manager and promoter in small-time, provincial boxing. It is a world of Ford Escorts rather than Rolls-Royces, of roll-ups rather than Havanas, but it is his world and the people who administer and finance the game would do well to listen. Griffin is one of the central figures in the Professional Boxing Promoters' Association, an alliance of minor promoters who have grown tired of losing their money on unsuccessful small- hall shows, and who want a share of the television wealth which, they say, is flowing into the coffers of a wealthy few promoters while they are being squeezed out of the game.

The Board of Control have offered to arrange a meeting with the chief executives of Sky, BBC and ITV to explore possible means of reviving their interest in the sport's grass-roots, but Griffin, who recently abandoned commercial shows in his native Leicester in favour of running dinner-boxing tournaments, knows that it will need something special to lure the cameras to his kind of show. "This is the first time that small-hall promoters have been offered a meeting like this, so it is a step in the right direction - though whether anything will come of it remains to be seen," he said.

"I was around when there was no boxing on TV. There were shows all around the country, and they were packed because, without TV, that was the only way you could see boxing. Today, there's so much of it on television that people aren't going to leave their armchairs unless it's to see big names. It's a two-sided coin; we're trying to get some support from television, but at the same time it's taking our audiences away.

"We need the big promoters, but we also need the small-hall shows, where the lads can serve their apprenticeship. We provide a feeder service for the major shows, but now the service is drying up.

"The fighters themselves are partly to blame. I explain to them that if they want commercial shows, they've got to make the effort; they and their families have got to sell the tickets. The problem is that fighters with charisma, the ticket-sellers, are in a minority.

"The other problem is that boxing is an expensive entertainment now. You have to scale the ticket prices for a 1,000-seat arena so that you break even on three-quarters full, and that means charging an average of about pounds 17 a ticket. I still miss the commercial shows terribly, but no one in their right mind is going to keep throwing good money after bad. I've not lost as much as some, maybe only four or five thousand, but while that may not sound like a lot of money, if you keep on losing it you'll end up having to sell your bloody house - and that's happened in a few cases."

Despite his setbacks and disappointments, Griffin retains a Norman Wisdom- like air of battered optimism, and his enthusiasm for the game is as fresh as it was when, in 1946, he became at 16 Britain's youngest professional. "If I'd channelled as much energy and ambition and as many hours into another sport like football, I'd probably have made it. Nobody's been more ambitious than me, and I've worked bloody hard at it, but I had to sell insurance for 30 years just to make a living. Whatever money I've got hasn't come from boxing, it's come from my job. Boxing's been a glorified bloody hobby, that's all.

"I've run probably about a hundred small shows over the years. I've been retired for eight years, since I was 59. That's why I'm so disappointed with how things have gone with the small shows, because I've got plenty of time now and I'd love to start again, but I don't see why I should be expected to go on subsidising them. If I could break even, I'd continue because it's providing work for the fighters, but when everybody's been paid and you end up with a big deficit, it's a killer. Without TV Frank Warren couldn't make promoting pay either.

"If we could get a little support from TV - and let's be honest, it's not going to cost them a great deal - we could keep going. It would be cheap television, and if the TV viewers can see these youngsters being groomed for the top, it just might encourage them to go along to the shows again. There's no substitute for live entertainment."

Griffin's short pro career ended in 1948, when he joined the Army. "I boxed for the Regiment. I shouldn't have, since I was a professional, but if you were boxing for the regiment you got off guard duties and that kind of stuff, so I swore my mates to secrecy about my professional licence. I was undefeated in the Army, a great three-round fighter, but my problem was that I did all the things I tell my fighters not to do - I didn't train properly, wasn't dedicated, so after three rounds I'd be knackered. I was only average. I'd have been a lot better if I'd been more disciplined and trained harder.

"I came out of the Army in 1953, and took out a manager's licence in 1956. I had pounds 400 in the bank, which was meant to be the deposit on a house, but I was so ambitious to get started in boxing that I persuaded my wife to let me invest it in a stable of fighters instead. I was a big friend of Hogan Bassey [the Nigerian who won the world featherweight title in 1957] while he was living in England, and he passed my name around and got me a few Nigerian fighters, and I started importing them at pounds 80 a time. Johnny Campbell, the Birkenhead manager, was doing the same thing and it was always a race between me and his agent to see who'd get to the docks first.

"The best of them was a lightweight called Tommy Tiger, who came over in 1959. He had 111 fights here and won 25, but he fought everybody who was any good and was only stopped twice. He would always say 'John, I don't care who I'm fighting, but what's the money?' He was with me for seven years, but then he thought the grass was greener on the other side and he told me he wanted another manager. We parted the best of friends, and he started shopping around. But instead of talking to the managers, he was shrewd - he talked to their fighters and asked how much they were getting. A fortnight later he came back to me and signed for another three years. That's the thing about me, you see: I'm reliable."