Merthyr's mine of ring tales

PEOPLE who have never spoken to men like Eddie Thomas will never understand what it is that makes boxing such a fascinating sport.

If you think that all fighters are doomed to inhabit a world of blurred memories, probably disturbed in retirement, you are wrong. If you think boxing is entirely represented by Chris Eubank, the Brighton dandy who is in possession of the tinpot World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title and has prospered from the theory that it is possible to fool a great number of people all of the time, you haven't got a clue.

The case for abolition contains more heat than light. It is, for example, crucially in ignorance of the life led by Thomas, the former welterweight champion of Great Britain, Europe and the old Empire who today becomes mayor of my home town, Merthyr Tydfil, that mysterious community 20 miles to the north-west of Cardiff.

The important fact is not that Thomas is a hero, his feats embedded in the lore of Welsh sport, but that out of absolute loyalty to his environment he has been importantly active in local government for many years. Being raised as a collier in a constituency that returned Keir Hardie as its Labour member of parliament in 1900, what else could Thomas be but an independent? It has been said that the simplest way to know Merthyr is to know him.

The time to know Thomas was when he went around defying major promotional forces as manager of two outstanding world champions, the Scottish lightweight Ken Buchanan and the Merthyr featherweight Howard Winstone, and yet another contender, Colin Jones of Gorseinon, who fought three times for the welterweight title.

Thomas stood his ground often enough to be guaranteed the respect of some very hard men, most conspicuously in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1970 when Buchanan outpointed Ismael Laguna for the World Boxing Association title to become Britain's first lightweight champion since Freddie Welsh.

What Thomas refers to as a 'bit of bother' amounted to a blade being pressed to his ribs in the dressing-room while bandaging Buchanan's hands. Ignoring the threat, humming a tune, he carried on working. 'Thomas, you got balls,' said an American bystander, the late Bill Daly whose hand had been within reach of a concealed pistol.

Such stories are a reason for spending time in the company of a remarkable man whose values spring from experiences underground, and he is still associated with the coal industry as the owner of a small mine.

Given half a chance, Thomas will lay down outrageous claims for Merthyr that you will not find in any history book. 'Merthyr coal won the First World War,' he said one bitterly cold day after we had trudged to a plateau of slag, beyond the row of miners' cottages where he was born 69 years ago. 'Merthyr coal enabled the battleships to make tighter turns. And that's how we won the Battle of Jutland.'

There is another aspect of this regional pride that was bound to affect Thomas's approach to negotiation with some of the most devious forces in boxing. He has looked on Merthyr as a training ground and a horoscope for the world outside.

In Thomas's observance of ancient tenets there is a charming naivety too. When Colin Jones decided to have his hair cut before meeting Donald Curry for the welterweight championship in 1985, Thomas was troubled. 'I don't know about that Colin,' he said. 'I remember having a trim one Sunday and I didn't shift as much coal that week. There might be something to that Samson story.'

Far too often these days the impression conveyed is that boxing and showbiz are inseparable. It brought Mr Mayor to the conclusion that he wanted no further part of it.