Boxers don’t need mouthpieces – just gumshields!
– By Alan Hubbard
Boxing is under threat again – not this time from the abolitionists but another A-Force. Agents. They are infiltrating the game, and the worry is that they could ruin it.
Most boxers of my acquaintance don’t need mouthpieces to assist them with their media relations. They are quite capable of doing this for themselves and they have promoters and managers who equally adept at it.
The main promoters usually employ their own media officers who happen to know the ropes better than any outside agency.
I offer as excellent examples Frank Warren’s Richard Maynard and Matchroom’s Anthony Leaver, two pleasant guys who go out of their way to assist the media without being overbearing.
In the last few weeks, like most of my colleagues I have been contacted by agents working on behalf of top boxers involved in championship fights offering to set up interviews apparently without the knowledge of those actually staging the bouts.
Usually, what these agents, mainly from the showbiz or corporate world, know about boxing could be written on the back of a York Hall ticket stub.
They are fine if they stick to increasing a boxer’s earning potential from sponsorship, endorsements and public appearances but not to take over the function of those whose job is to properly publicise the fight. Some even insist on sitting in on the interviews their clients give.
But boxers are big enough characters not to need having their hands held. The likes of Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Leonard. Hagler, Lewis, Calzaghe Hatton, Khan and Mayweather and all the modern greats have never needed buffers between them and the media.
It seems this disturbing trend in boxing is following the current football fashion, one that has also crept into other major sports including rugby, cricket and athletics.
Some of my football writer friends tell me that these days to set up an interview with a player it is not uncommon to have to go through his club manager, press officer, agent and lawyer – and then find the club is demanding ‘copy approval’. That is insistence on seeing the article before it is published and removing anything they don’t like.
If that ever happens in boxing, a sport which feeds on publicity, it will be the beginning of the end game.
If I ever encounter a boxer with a minder sitting across the lunch table or in the dressing room ’vetting’ the questions in a pre-arranged one-on-one interview, that interview will be quickly terminated. And I have no doubt this goes for most of my colleagues.
It hasn’t happened in the past and it must not start happening now, otherwise an already marginalised sport will receive even less publicity than the sadly decreasing amount it gets in public prints besotted by football.
Unfortunately, save at the time of blockbuster title fights, boxing is no longer the major player it once was in the national press.
Which is a pity. Because of all those I have encountered in over 50 years f covering a myriad of sports, including a dozen Olympics, the most media-friendly folk are those in boxing.
I have always found boxers the most engaging and co-operative of personalities. Indeed, it is hard to think of one I have haven’t actually liked.
Well, maybe one or two were a bit difficult….
Mike Tyson was a Jekyll and Hyde. Nice as American apple pie one day, brimming with bonhomie and waxing intelligently and knowledgeably on boxing history – and an absolute asshole the next. A total schizophrenic.
It is no secret that the other Tyson – a certain Mr Fury – and I don’t rub along. We did once but that was before I requested he stopped lord mayoring in front of an audience which included women and children. His response was to spew out another mouthful of sewage which resulted in a £15,000 fine and another reprimand from the Board.
I suspect he hasn’t forgiven me getting him hit in the pocket.
Fury is the Millwall of boxing. Even if nobody likes him, he doesn’t care. Fair enough. I still wish him well against Wladimir Klitschko-himself like his brother, a true scholar and gentleman of the ring.
The narcissistic Naseem Hamed could be truly nauseating at times, making offensive gestures to opponents, outrageously proselytizing his religion and that Allah was always in his corner. He used to refer to the esteemed Sun scribe Colin Hart, now a fellow Hall of Famer, as Mr Fart.
No wonder Colin enquired if it was Allah’s night off when Naz was eventually turned over by Marco Antonio Barrera in Las Vegas.
Muhammad Ali, as we know, was a media person’s delight, his trainer Angelo Dundee once telling us when we asked to speak with the great man for ten minutes that he never spoke to anyone for less than an hour.
Sonny Liston was usually more sullen than sunny but on the whole media-savvy American fighters have been a dream to deal with.
An exception was the heavyweight Jim Fletcher, brought over to face Brian London in 1969. A longshoreman from San Francisco, Fletcher was uncharacteristically surly and uncommunicative when we attempted to interview him before the fight in Blackpool.
Some time later we learned why. The promoter, the late Lawrie Lewis, confessed to us that he had offered Fletcher a substantial ‘bung’ to take a dive. But Fletcher’s reaction was one of fury, angrily spurning the attempted bribe. He was clearly still seething when he took just over a minute to batter London and ko him the opening round.
London, still alive and punching in Blackpool at 81 could be pretty hard going himself at times. He seemed have an innate suspicion of those from the city of his surname.
But he was always good for a quote, once remarking that “us boxers are just prawns in the game”
It was 49 years ago this week that he fought, and I use the term loosely, against Ali at Earls Court. London entered the ring looking like a man heading for the gallows. I swear his knees were knocking as he waited for the bell.
He was duly counted out, eyes open and looking up,at Ali in three embarrassingly one-sided rounds, a collapse as dramatic as Australia’s first innings against England this week.
There was a famous photo of London taken as he returned home the next day, buying rail ticket at Euston station beneath a sign which aptly read: Second Class.
London, who admitted he went into the ring knowing he had no chance of winning, had a dry sense of humour. Years later, when the subject came up of whether Ali’s Parkinson’s affliction was brought about by boxing , London quipped: “Don’t blame me. I never laid a glove on him.” Nor did he.
Chippy Carl Froch was another who made it clear that he never thought much of the media in his autobiography – though he is now part of it as a pundit..
Yet in fairness he was always courteous and ready to accommodate us for interviews, and was never less than straight-talking if sometimes uncomfortably acerbic about fellow fighters.
There have been some eminently quotable managers. My all-time favourite remains Jim ’The Bishop’ Wicks, Henry Cooper’s legendary mentor.
Returning from a fight in Germany he soberly informed us: ”We didn’t have to do no villainy. We won on our merits.”
The master of the malaprop, he once opined: “Them southpaws are a detergent to the game.”
Of course boxing, probably more than any other sport, needs characters who can sell tickets.
It has always been a pleasure to deal with the fight fraternity and long may it be so.
Certainly to my knowledge no boxer has ever asked to be paid for an interview to boost a fight.
My fear isn that this may change as the hard-nosed, commercially-motivated agents from outside the game move in on the old traditions. If it does, it will be to boxing’s detriment.
Boxers don’t need mouthpieces other than those they clamp between their teeth before the bell rings.
Read Alan Hubbard’s Punchlines tomorrow