Boxing: Farewell to Ernie Fossey, for whom a good punch started in the feet

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As the years pile up, this happens more and more frequently but it is difficult to believe that a fellow ever gets accustomed to it. You answer the telephone, and the news is as bleak as a winter's day. "Ernie Fossey died this morning."

What could anybody say? Another good man had gone.

In the great swirl of sport, Fossey, 73, was not prominent. That is to say, his name was never to the fore, either when winning 32 of 52 contests as a professional lightweight in the 1950s or as the astute cornerman and matchmaker he became. Fossey worked closely for the past 20 years with the promoter Frank Warren, helping to shape a number of successful ring careers, including those of Nigel Benn, Terry Marsh, Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton.

Just about a year ago, at the annual dinner of the Boxing Writers' Club, we honoured his service to a sport for which he had an abiding passion and defended against all comers. On the surface an unemotional man, a cynic even, Fossey could not hold back the tears. Cancer had got to him by then and the prognosis was not encouraging, but he was a fighter and he went on fighting until the early hours of Monday morning.

In saying that he'd lost a good friend, Warren expressed a sentiment shared by many in and around boxing. The fighters Fossey helped to bring forward with his tactical knowledge, powers of motivation and shrewd selection of opponents; the writers who could learn from him if they were prepared to listen.

Fossey was a top man in his profession. He had to be, because everyone you spoke to placed him in that category. He was around boxing for 50 years and never lost the bluntness that he applied to assessment. Though a kind and generous man, he did not countenance inadequacy. "Can't fight," was a common expression.

As a matchmaker Fossey had few peers, diligently applying himself to principles of development nailed perfectly 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 his belief that he can lick anybody 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."

Especially when dealing with confirmed up-and-comers, the matchmaker bears a heavy responsibility. In the early phase of Sugar Ray Leonard's marvellous career Angelo Dundee matched him with Willie Rodriguez, winner of 10 out of 11 professional contests. Rodriguez was considered to be the perfect step up in class but he caught Leonard with two left hooks in the fourth round, the hardest punches he'd been hit with up to that point in his career. Although Leonard recovered to regain control of the contest, Dundee's judgement was held so seriously in question that he was almost fired.

Few could talk with more conviction about boxing as a science than Fossey. A good punch, he would say, starts all the way down in the feet; it is an interrupted flow of power up from the legs, through the torso, delivered with the arm and shoulder with the body's full weight behind it. "You feint him this way, feint him that way, and then just as he starts a punch, you catch him coming in," he would say.

Once in a while it might occur to an interested listener that Fossey punched better as a senior citizen than he had at 25. He was a boxer rather than a slugger in his day, and although he scored a modest share of victories inside the distance, nobody ever attached to him a nickname that spoke of destruction.

In The Professional, a novel by W C Heinz - to my mind a work of sports fiction rivalled only by Leonard Gardner's Fat City - one of the central characters is a fight manager based on a famed American practitioner, Jack Hurley. "How many fighters do you think I've turned down in 40 years?" he asks. "I'll bet I've turned down a hundred. I say: 'Look kid, you can't make it. Be a plumber; you won't get hurt. You'll make a living. You're a half-baked fighter; you may get killed.' There are thousands of fighters in the world. You know how many of them belong in it? About a hundred. Maybe less than a hundred." It could have been Fossey speaking.

We all have to come to terms with death. Sometimes these seem unnecessarily harsh terms, though. It would be presumptuous to say that there are others we could have spared more easily. Better simply to say that Ernie Fossey will be sorely missed.