By Alan Hubbard
When the doors of the Royal Albert Hall swing open this Friday evening it won’t be the sound of music that wafts through the baroque corridors and stairways leading to the hallowed auditorium but of thudding punches and throaty exhortations of ‘C’mon my son, be first!’ as boxing takes over from Beethoven and makes its long-awaited ring reprise.
The noblest of arts is back where it belongs and where it was sweet music to our ears for so many decades.
I enjoyed being ringside for scores of great nights and great fights back in what we called the good old days, and can’t wait to hear the timekeeper’s bell ringing in the new era.
The ghosts of legends past hover in an atmosphere drenched in memories. In over half-a-century I have covered boxing from Manchester Arena to Madison Square Garden, from Wembley Stadium to the Superdome in New Orleans, from Kuala Lumpur to Kinshasa.
But no venue has more history, grandeur or ambience than the terracotta-clad circular edifice, with its ornate balcony boxes and acoustically perfect auditorium housed under a glazed dome just opposite Hyde Park in London’s poshest borough, Kensington.
Las Vegas may have the Caesars Palace, but no fight venue is more palacial than the Royal Albert Hall.
From Primo Carnera, Georges Carpentier and Jimmy Wilde through to Joe Calzaghe, Nassem Hamed, Frank Bruno and Sir’Enry, almost anyone who was anyone in boxing in the past century has traded punches there, even Muhammad Ali in an arena situated appropriately just off Exhibition Road.
My own most rheumy-eyed recollections of the Albert Hall are highlighted by three terrific scraps: a savage blood and thunder set-to scrap between two fierce-hitting American heavyweights, Leotis Martin and Thad Spencer, both then world title prospects in May 1968, which Martin, who eventually ended Sonny Liston’s career, won on a ninth round stoppage; the peerless Howard Winstone’s ninth round acquisition of the world featherweight title against Japan’s Mitsunori Seki a couple of months earlier.
Then, back in April 1963, the one I remember most vividly for sentimental reasons, Frankie “Tiger” Taylor’s sixth round knock-out of Lenny “The Lion” Williams, a featherweight punch-up so pulsating that some fans almost toppled from their balcony boxes with excitement.
Among them was the girl friend Jean, who was to become my lovely but sadly late wife of 54 years. It was the only time she ever attended a boxing match.
She had gone along with her friend Lauri, a dancer who was the wife of Taylor’s manager and coach Bobby Neill, the former British featherweight champion. Alas, she too has passed away.
I remember how heads turned and wolf whistles shrilled as these two gorgeous young ladies walked into the arena and took their seats.
I had even more personal reasons to be biased. Taylor could not only fight, but write. He was a local newspaper-trained journalist from Lancaster with whom I then worked in Fleet Street and shared a flat in south London.
All-action Frankie had been Britain’s first European amateur champion and was tipped for the top.
No title was at stake but because of the unbeaten records and volatile nature of these two young twenty-somethings it was a complete sell-out.
The publicity build-up to the skilfully-promoted clash was off the wall. It was the talk of the town.
The well-matched pair went at it liked the uncaged animals their respective soubriquets represented. The Tiger snarled, the Lion roared and the feathers flew. It was jungle warfare in the ring. Relentless punch-filled passion flowed to and fro until the Tiger unleashed a straight right hand flush on the Lion’s jaw and knocked him out cold.
Frankie went on have a dozen more contests, including another inside the-distance four rounds win over Williams at Wembley before retiring with an eye injury to become boxing correspondent of The People. He is back living in Morecambe at 76.
Williams also fought on also fought on before losing a British featherweight title challenge to fellow Welshman Howard Winstone in eight rounds. He died two years ago in home-town Maesteg at 72.
Now it is the turn of some of Frank Warren’s warriors to re-trace the ring walks of the history men. On Friday it will be hot prospects Anthony Yarde, Daniel Dubois and the more experienced Liam Williams and Johnny Garton upon whom the spotlight, usually reserved for the conductor’s rostrum, falls.
They will be trying to emulate their fighting forebears in another evening to remember.
Expect some lively exchanges, subtle skills and power-hitting from the Queensberry men. Just as long as no-one gets hit in the orchestra stalls!
BY AN ODD coincidence another two fighters with whom I became friendly have retired almost simultaneously.
Not that west London rivals James ‘Chunky’ DeGale and ‘Saint’ George Groves were exactly pals themselves. Their feud dates back to their club boxing and ABA days and has festered throughout their pro careers. Now both have quit the ring within days of each other. Wise men.
They may have lost their last fights but healthwise they sensibly quit while they were ahead.
They have barely spoken before or since Frank Warren promoted their one and only professional ring confrontation at the O2 in May 2011 when Groves won on a bitterly disputed points decision.
It is disappointing that their paths did not cross again but both can be proud of winning world super middleweight titles. Indeed, Chunky will always be remembered as the first Brit to acquire Olympic gold and pro world titles.
Both too have entertained us royally, deservedly earning sackfuls of dosh in the process and can rest comfortably on their laurels and bank balances. They have taken their lumps, manfully and handed out many more. They have been an absolute credit to the game.
So happy retirement, fellas. Maybe it’s time to shake hands and share another round or two –down the pub, of course.
Daniel Dubois v Razvan Cojanu and Anthony Yarde defending his WBO Intercontinental light heavyweight title against Travis Reeves tops a huge night of boxing at the Royal Albert Hall that also includes the British middleweight title clash between Liam Williams and Joe
Mullender, while British welterweight champion Johnny Garton makes a first defence of his belt against the Welshman Chris Jenkins. Unbeaten featherweight Lucien Reid takes on his toughest test to date against Birmingham’s Indi Sangha. Unbeaten prospects Hamza Sheeraz, Denzel Bentley, Jake Pettitt, James Branch jr and Harvey Horn also feature on the show. Tickets are priced from £40 and are available to buy via www.RoyalAlbertHall.com
TICKETS START FROM £40
GRAND TIER: £100
SECOND TIER: £75