Boxing’s night of nostalgia has special memories for Bobby

posted on: 03/10/2015

HUBBARD’S CUPBOARD – 03.10.15

By Alan Hubbard

It is boxing’s best bash of the year. The annual dinner of the Boxing writers’ Club looms again on Monday week.

A night when the good, the bad and the pug-ugly of the fight game cram into London’s Savoy Hotel to eat, drink and reminisce, with never a punch thrown in anger. Rather, arms are thrown around each other and with so much hugging you expect to hear a referee shout “Break!”

A night of nosh and nostalgia said to be unrivalled by any other sporting do of its kind.

The Savoy

Champions, ex-champions, contenders, journeymen and wannabes plus old timers who once knocked bits off each other in ring combat embrace like long-lost brothers, often bringing tears not only to their own eyes but those of us who stand to applaud them as they are introduced.

A typical example is that of former welterweight warriors John H Stracey and Dave ’Boy’ Green, who battled ferociously at Wembley 38 years ago but now sit alongside each other on the same table every year swapping memories rather than left hooks.

It used to be a men only affair, a boys’ night out, but times have changed rightly so in my view, with women playing an increasing role in the sport.

This year Tracey Crouch, MP, will become the second female sports minister to attend. She is among my guests who also include the woman who is something of a suffragette of sock, the former GB women’s team captain Lucy O’Connor, a pioneer of her sport, paving the pugilistic path for the likes of the first-ever female Olympic boxing champion Nicola Adams.

The daughter-in-law of Star Class referee Terry O’Connor she was five times national champion and the first British woman to win a European title. The Royal Navy officer is a well-informed boxing analyst for TV and with husband Stuart runs a newly-refurbished boxing club in Southampton.

But pride of place on my guest list will go, as it has for more years than either of us care to remember, to the former British featherweight champion Bobby Neill, the man who inspired me to carve out a career in boxing writing.

I was a cub sports reporter on a newspaper in South London when I was sent to cover my first pro tournament at Streatham Ice Rink in July 1958. Topping the bill was Edinburgh’s Bobby Neill, fighting a Belgian named Aime Devisch whom he despatched in six rounds with a sharply-delivered left hook that had become one of the most powerful pieces of armoury in the featherweight division.

I interviewed him afterwards as he was living locally, and we struck up a friendship that has endured for over half a century. He came to my wedding and I to his though tragically his lovely first wife Laurie, a professional dancer, was to die in Bobby’s arms from a brain haemorrhage while in her forties.

A year after he beat Devisch, Neill went on to become the British featherweight champion, dropping a fellow Scot, Cambuslang’s Charlie Hill, to the canvas ten times en route to stopping him in round nine in Nottingham.

He has a special affinity with the Boxing Writers’ dinner as he was one of the early recipient’s of the Club’s Best Young Boxer Award – which this year goes to another featherweight, Mitchell Smith – back in 1956.

Some 23 of those award winners went on to become world champions, including Randolph Turpin, Terry Downes, Naseem Hamed, Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan, Barry McGuigan and Ricky Hatton.

Alas, Neill was not among them. He did fight the then champion, the brilliant American Davey Moore in a non-title fight in 1959 but was knocked down four times and lost within a round.

Nonetheless his story remains one of the most remarkable in British boxing.

In 1951, aged 18 and while returning from a Sparta BC training session in hometown Edinburgh, Neill, a trainee accountant was run down by a motorcycle and suffered a career threatening shattered hip.

But he battled back to star for Scotland’s international squad 18 months later.

In 1957, the year after winning that Best Young Boxer of the Year Award he was seriously injured in a car crash at a roundabout in Newbridge.

Told that he would never box again by surgeons who had shortened one of his legs, he stormed back to win the British featherweight title two years later.

Then, in November 1960 at Wembley’s Empire Pool, Neill clashed again with the 1956 Olympic flyweight gold medal winner Terry Spinks, to whom he had previously won and lost.

It was a harrowing fight with an even more harrowing aftermath.

After being ko’d by east Londoner Spinks in round 14, Neill collapsed in his dressing room and was rushed to hospital for an operation to remove a blood clot on the brain. He was in a coma for several days, close to death, but thankfully recovered, though obviously never to fight again.

The curiosity was that Spinks while an outstanding technical boxer, as a puncher couldn’t break the proverbial egg.

Yet Neill strangely succumbed to a quick fire but not apparently hurtful barrage of blows; some time later he revealed to me why.

He was terribly dehydrated. He had starved himself for three days to make the 9st limit. More crucially his only liquid intake came from a pebble he sucked incessantly to create saliva, which he swallowed.

Yet, within five years the redoubtable Scot had embarked on a new career as a world class coach, trainer and cornerman, and manager of some of the nation’s finest young prospects.

Neill was Alan Minter’s trainer for 11 years and guided him to victory in 1980 in Las Vegas over Italian Vito Antuofermo, changing his still-amateur-like style and eliminating the ‘Boom Boom’ grunt whenever Minter landed a blow.

He also coached Lloyd Honeyghan, who, with Minter, was one of two British boxers to win undisputed titles on American soil, sensationally defeating the great Don Curry in Atlantic City.

He also managed and trained world rated boxers including bantamweight Alan Rudkin and middleweight Johnny Pritchett, as well as featherweight Frankie ‘The Tiger’ Taylor whose epic clash with Lennie ‘The Lion’ Williams at the Royal Albert Hall is one if those domestic dust-ups which remains lodged indelibly in the mind.

As a coach Neill was likened to American legend Angelo Dundee and he also produced a book simply and accurately titled ‘Instructions to Young Boxers’ filled with practical advice on every aspect of the sport, a classic manual of its kind. It is out of print now but I saw a copy advertised on a website recently at just under fifty quid!

He retired as a cornerman many years ago because incipient arthritis made it difficult for him to clamber in and out of the ring.

Bobby celebrates his 82nd birthday three days before the dinner, and though he has the odd memory lapse – don’t we all? – he is as dapper as ever and barely a few pounds over his fighting weight.

Like so many others who will be taking a bow at The Savoy he belies the B-movie image of old boxers being washed –up mumbling pugs with cauliflower ears and slurred speech. Many happy returns, Bob.

Tomorrow: Read Alan Hubbards Punchlines exclusively at frankwarren.com

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