Alan Hubbard meets Britain’s oldest surviving world champion, who is still in there punching at 79.
They say you always remember your first, which is why I have a special affection, strictly in the fistic sense, for Terry Downes, who at 79 is Britain’s oldest surviving world champion.
It is 54 years this month since he won the undisputed middleweight title at Wembley from Paul Pender, one of his trilogy of fights with the late Boston fireman, becoming the first Briton to hold it since Randolph Turpin. He also fought, and beat, Turpin’s legendary foe, Sugar Ray Robinson.
The “Crashing, Bashing, Dashing” Paddington Express, as he was billed, was the first world champion I ever interviewed as a cub reporter on a sports magazine, and his second return with Pender in Boston was the first world title fight I covered in the United States.
My abiding memory is of him emerging from the shower afterwards, tears of frustration cascading with the blood after Pender regained the title over 15 rounds. “I thought I won,” said Downes. “But then I always did. He was a nice man, though.”
Downes was among the most courageous and certainly the most honest fighters I have ever known. When congratulated on outpointing an over-the-hill 41-year-old Robinson, he retorted: “I didn’t beat Sugar Ray. I beat his ghost.”
With his Cockney contemporary, the late Henry Cooper, Downes was one of British boxing’s national treasures. They sometimes trained at the same legendary Thomas A’Becket gym in south London during the early 1960s, but weren’t really close. “We never got to know each other well,” Downes said when we met at his Hertfordshire home. “Sad the old boy has gone, though.”
Actually they had more in common than their Cockney heritage. Both were immensely personable, fought with their hearts as well as their hands and bled buckets of blood – Cooper from his eyebrows and Downes mainly from his roller-coaster nose which he dubbed “my perishin’ ‘ooter”. A nose which spurted blood not only from nostrils barely supported by an oft-flattened bone but from gashes above it. His autobiography was aptly titled ‘My Bleeding Business.’
But what made him so special, apart from a wit as sharp as his punches, was that here was a Brit who fought like an archetypal Yank, a two-fisted tornado – hardly surprising, as his formative fighting years were spent in America, where he went with his parents as a teenager and joined the US Marines.
Turning pro on his return to England, the rising star’s third fight was against a then unknown Liverpool-based Nigerian, Dick Tiger, at Shoreditch Town Hall. Downes was floored, cut and then stopped in six rounds by an opponent who, like Downes, went on to win the world middleweight title. In a sombre dressing room there was much embarrassed foot-shuffling before Downes was gently asked: “Who do you want to fight next?”
“The f***** who made that match,” he famously growled.
Their joint purse for that fight was £185. “I only got around £1,500 when I won the world title [Pender quit on his stool at the end of the ninth of their Wembley fight]. Six-rounders get more than that these days.”
After his retirement, Downes was for many years a regular at boxing shows, preferring to sit at the back of the hall rather than ringside, and from there he could be heard bellowing words that weren’t always of encouragement.
He didn’t suffer inferior pugs gladly, and in his fruity, stentorian monotone he would loudly let them know he thought they were “bleedin’ useless” if their commitment was less than his own. “My old woman punches harder than you!” he would roar.
Only once was he ever verbally counterpunched. A rather precious MC was taking a long time introducing celebrities. “And now a big hand for the wonderful, the inimitable, the one and only…”. From the back came a raucous growl. “Get on with it, you old poof!” The MC paused and sniffed: “Not so much of the old, Mr Downes.”
Downes took no prisoners in the ring; neither does he out of it. Some of his views on modern fighters are caustic. “Half of them can’t fight. I take Boxing News every week but I don’t know half the names in there – most of them I can’t pronounce anyway. They’re all bloody foreign-sounding.”
Downes, although not the biggest earner in boxing, is comfortably off. He invested well in property with his earnings, opening the first of a chain of betting shops half a century ago, which he later sold to William Hill. “I ain’t complaining. I got a few quid out of the game. Mind you,” he jokes, “that’s all gone now. Like me.”
Actually, considering the various ailments that have beset him in recent years – bladder cancer, which he has overcome, two replacement hips, deafness and arthritis in both legs, he looks in good nick and is certainly still in good voice.
He lives in a pleasant detached house in the village of Oxhey with Barbara, his wife of 57 years, and two lively dogs – terriers, like he was. Their four children, Terry Jnr, Paul, Richard and Wendy, all went to public schools. Richard and Terry Jnr have also played cricket for Middlesex and Surrey respectively.
Of his eight grandchildren, three went to university and the rest are destined to follow. One grandson is an Oxford graduate, one a football agent and another a Shakespearean actor. All are linguists. “Dead brainy, all of them,” says Barbara. “We’re very proud of them. I don’t know where they get it from.” “Me, of course,” quips Downes.
He retired in 1964 after an unsuccessful attempt to win the world light-heavyweight title from the American Willie Pastrano in Manchester. He was controversially stopped in the 11th after Pastrano’s cornerman, Angelo Dundee, slapped his fighter on the face and told him to buck his ideas up. “I never thought of making a comeback. That was as good as I could do. When you’ve been on top of the mountain, the only way is down.”
Downes then embarked on a 25-year acting career, appearing at venues such as the Royal Court and the Mermaid. “I had one part as a prison warder with Bernard Miles at the Mermaid and they paid me £13 a week. The cab fare cost me more than me wages.” His most notable role was Koukol the hunchback in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Downes’ nose may have bled profusely but at least the family man kept it clean, which makes it surprising that while Cooper received a knighthood, he did not have a sniff of an honour until a couple of years ago, when after much campaigning by the fight fraternity because of his considerable charity work, he was give a paltry BEM, not even an MBE unlike almost all other world or Olympic boxing champions.
Downesy deserved better.
His one regret is that he has no filmed record of his title-winning achievement. If there is still a tape in existence he would love to have it.
He was a fighter steeped in courage rather than class but he could box a bit and no- one gave greater value for money. Since his crashing, bashing, dashing days, he has become something of a forgotten man of the fight game, but not by the aficionados and historians. It will be they who will be celebrating with him the 54th anniversary of his title triumph at a tribute barbecue organised by the Home Counties Ex-Boxers Association, of which he is president, at the Buckwood Social, Club , Oak Avenue, St Albans, Herts on Sunday 19 July, the proceeds going to charity. All are welcome from 1pm.
Read Alan Hubbard’s Punchlines tomorrow.