Boxing: Final cut for a hero of Valleys is fitting tribute

Biopic of Winstone the pugilistic Prince of Wales tops the bill in Cardiff's global festival of fight game
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The Independent Online

The cognoscenti of clout will gather in Cardiff at the end of the month to celebrate the fight game's biggest global festival and at the same time laud one of the great Welsh icons of the ring, the late world featherweight champion Howard Winstone, with the premiere of a compelling film depicting his bitter-sweet life story.

Directed by the award-winning Merthyr-based Neil Jones, Risen tells of the boyo with the dazzling fists and footwork who, despite losing three fingertips of his right hand in an industrial accident, rose during the Sixties to become the pugilistic Prince of Wales. It also features nine former champions playing the parts of some of boxing's best-known figures in the first non-American biopic about a fighter ever made.

The premiere is on the opening night of the World Boxing Council "Night of Champions", taking place over three days from 29-31 July and assembled with the assistance of another of Britain's outstanding former world champions, the welterweight king John H Stracey. The £300,000 cavalcade of fistiana is backed by Cardiff City Council and the Welsh Assembly. A parade of 100 past and present world champions are scheduled to attend what it is claimed will be the biggest gathering of champions in history, headed by heavyweight sibling tsars Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.

The festival will also include a GB versus Rest of the World amateur boxing international and the first-ever appearance in Britain of the Chinese national boxing team, who are testing Cardiff as a potential 2012 Olympic training base.

The London-born Stracey, 59, who climbed off the canvas to record one of British boxing's most epic overseas victories, a fifth-round knock-out of the legendary Jose Napoles in the Mexican's own bullring backyard in 1975, says: "The WBC president, Jose Sulaiman, thought Cardiff would be an ideal location because per capita Wales has had more world champions than any other country. From Jimmy Wilde and Jim Driscoll to Joe Calzaghe, boxing has always been a very vibrant part of the Welsh culture."

According to the organisers, 76 champions are already confirmed with up to a further 40 anticipated, including Mike Tyson and multi-weight all-time great Manny Pacquiao. In the great tradition of the thick-trade there will be wet eyes rather than black eyes when old foes who belted bits off each other years ago lock themselves in long-held embraces. None more so than the reunion of Britain's 58-year-old Alan Minter and the Italian Vito Antuofermo, against whom Minter won and successfully defended the world middleweight title 30 years ago.

Regrettably, some big-wheel champions have demanded exorbitant appearance money and expenses for entourages (one wanted to bring over 30 "friends and family") and won't be there. Muhammad Ali, naturally, was among the first to be asked but is too ill to travel, though two of his toughest opponents, George Chuvalo and Earnie Shavers, who both took him on in fierce-hitting battles, have accepted.

Based at the Cardiff International Arena, there will also be a gala dinner with Oscar-style awards for services to boxing and the unsung heroes of the sport. Fans will be able to see the champions on open-top bus rides around the city and mingle with them at shopping arcades, tourist spots and community centres.

However, there is no doubt the focal point will be the Winstone film, especially for those who recall the silky, scintillating skills of the little Welshman who brought such grace and guile to the ring. He was born and raised in Merthyr Tydfil and it was in the town's Prince Charles Hospital that he ended his days 61 years later, virtually penniless, pained by a broken marriage and a body wracked with illness largely brought on by excessive drinking, an all too familiar tale once those hand bandages have been unwrapped for the last time.

Winstone's trainer, Eddie Thomas, himself a notable champion, claimed that children born in the Valleys were so angry that they came out with their fists clenched. As a youngster Winstone had been something of a fiery brawler in the amateur ring, where he won 83 of 86 bouts and gained an Empire Games gold medal in 1958.

However, in his teens Winstone sustained the near-ruinous hand injury in an accident while working in a toy factory. He continued to box but lost much of his power and was forced to drastically change his technique. Thomas re-moulded the young Winstone in his Penydarren gym, teaching him the fast left jab that would become his trademark.

The highlight of his career was the acquisition of the world title against Japan's Mitsunori Seki in January 1986 – at the fourth attempt. Stuart Brennan, the actor who plays Winstone (Shane Richie also stars as one of his promoters, Mike Barrett) trained for five years for a role which brings realism to movie scenes unlike anything from Rocky. With Winstone's almost total reliance on his left jab, the film is a fitting tribute to Welsh boxing's leading man.