Duff's grip weakened by time

Ken Jones reports on the loss of status suffered by a long-established maker of champions in British boxing
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The Independent Online
On his professional debut in 1947, the former British and European welterweight champion, Eddie Thomas was matched with Mickey Duff, who, because he lacked power and entered the ring too often, could be described at the time as a learning device f or up and coming boxers.

Withdrawing from the contest when Thomas failed to make the weight limit, Duff handsomely multiplied a £10 forfeit by backing every winner on the card. "I shall have to watch that young man," the promoter, Jack Solomons, said.

The 20-year-old who would succeed Solomons as the most influential figure in British boxing, an astute matchmaker with a network of international connections, is now 65, and yesterday it was announced that Frank Bruno has not renewed a promotional contract that ran out on Saturday, choosing instead to take up with Frank Warren. "I have nothing against Mickey or his partners Jarvis Astaire and Terry Lawless," Bruno said. "It's just that Frank offered me a better deal."

The end of a 13-year association that saw three failed title attempts, twice under Lawless' management (their subsequent split was not amicable) entered its second phase in 1991 when Bruno enlisted Duff's aid in persuading the Board of Control that he was at no risk from the eye injury that prompted his retirement, may not be without significance in the sport's domestic history.

As Duff, even at pensionable age, remains an able player it would be premature to suggest the end of an era, but a weakening of the support that could be counted on from BBC television puts him at a serious disadvantage. "The BBC did not want to continue(the pathetic performance put up by Jesse Ferguson when stopped in one round by Bruno last March accelerated a break-up of the love affair) - not at the prices - and I just had nothing for him [Bruno]," Duff said.

By contrast, Warren has the enthusiastic backing of ITV, deals with a number of champions, and has formed a powerful alliance with the ubiquitous American entrepreneur, Don King, who regained power in the heavyweight division when Oliver McCall violentlytook the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship from Lennox Lewis.

The lure for Bruno, one that left Duff powerless to compete, is that Warren probably can provide him with a fourth attempt at a version of the title. Effectively, it makes Bruno a King fighter.

This is far cry from the days when Duff and his associates, Astaire, Harry Levene, Mike Barrett and Lawless held most of the cards in British boxing with a stream of champions, including Jim Watt, Charlie Magri, Johh H Stracey and Maurice Hope emerging from the Lawless stable.

Taking advantage of a Boxing Board policy that called for 14 days between major promotions, they operated at the Royal Albert Hall where Barrett was the licence holder, and at Wembley under the Levene banner.

Ironically, Thomas, the manager of the world champions, Howard Winstone and Ken Buchanan, was among the aspiring promoters who suffered. "We could only go into small halls," he said. "We got very little support from the Board and it was almost impossibleto get television. I'm not saying that the big fellas shouldn't have got the TV money, only that it wasn't shared around fairly. I remember a number of us getting together at a pub in London to try to get a better deal, but nothing came of it."

By then, Solomons had lost his power, promoting club shows, so at odds with his great rival, Levene, that they never spoke. Informed by a reporter of Solomons' death, Levene said: "My next show is at Wembley on..."

It took a former bookmaker's clerk from north London to break what many saw as an unhealthy monopoly. Because of his activities in unlicensed boxing, the Board did not look favourably on Frank Warren when he applied to become legitimate, but could find nothing to justify refusing his application.

Warren's masterstroke was to bring back Joe Bugner whose career, including a wearisome effort against Muhammad Ali for the undisputed heavyweight championship, had taken shape under the influence of Duff and his associates. Unpopular since gaining a controversial decision over Henry Cooper in 1971, Bugner nevertheless proved to be a drawing card, enabling Warren to emerge as a major promotional figure.

Weakened by an attempt on his life, Warren ran into such serious financial difficulties with business ventures, especially an attempt to establish the London Arena as a major entertainments centre, it seemed unlikely that he would last the pace.

Riding the Chris Eubank bandwaggon, the snooker entrepreneur, Barry Hearn, emerged as a challenger to National Promotions, but having avoided bankruptcy, Warren regained ground by developing a connection with King who was keen to extend his influence.

Falling in and falling out, almost always over money, is a way of life in boxing promotion. Duff was friendly with Belfast bookmaker and promoter, Barney Eastwood who managed Barry McGuigan: now they don't speak. Once enemies, Warren and Eastwood engage in joint ventures. Having given up a commercial interest in boxing, Barrett speaks scathingly about his former cohorts, claiming that protective matchmaking short-changed customers at the Albert Hall. Levene is long since dead. Lawless, soured whe n Bruno broke with him, is a partner in National Promotions, but works only with a handful of promising fighters. Astaire's influence has waned. Boxing has disappeared from the Albert Hall. Regular shows at Wembley are a thing of the past.

Duff manages a number of useful fighters, the British lightweight champion, Billy Schwer, the super-middleweight, Henry Wharton, who took a beating from Eubank last week, and the Commonwealth middleweight champion, Richie Woodhall. What he no longer has is status as one of the leading figures in world boxing. In Bruno's defection there is a sense of history catching up with him.