Our veteran correspondent Mervyn Gee has experienced a lot in decades around the fight business. Here he writes about his early days in London and a New York friendship which took him to heady places…
Back in 1960 – the year when Cassius Clay returned home with the light-heavyweight Olympic gold medal – I ’emigrated’ from the Welsh valleys and was lucky enough to quickly land work in Hampstead, North London, where the British Boxing Board of Control gym was located.
The gentleman who ran the gym was himself a very good fighter in the golden 1950/60’s era. During my time spent at the gym I saw Ali train before his first fight with Cooper – of course back then he was known as Cassius Clay – and I was present at both Clay/Ali v Cooper bouts.
Cooper looks to land his famous ‘ammer on Ali in their rematch
At nearby Highgate another boxing gym was attached to a pub and frequented by terrific fighters such as John H Stracey, who would become world welterweight champion.
I managed to see a huge number of fabulous heavyweight fights spanning from the 1960’s (many of which took place at Wembley arena under the auspices of Jack Solomons) to the 1980’s by which time Mickey Duff and others had emerged.
One such night was Henry Cooper’s controversial last fight against Joe Bugner in 1971, a points loss at Wembley’s Empire Pool. They had a different scoring system back then and referee Harry Gibbs gave it to Bugner by a quarter of a point. I happened to know Gibbs quite well and he always said that he gave it as he saw it and apparently Cooper never forgave him.
Cooper and Bugner are all smiles at their weigh-in
Back in 1987, more than 25 years after moving to London, I was security manger at The Cumberland Hotel, a 1,000 bedroom hotel situated in the Marble Arch area. The reason I mention this is that the World Boxing Council (WBC) held their annual convention there that year and a glittering array of their champions and their entourages were at the hotel. I was in charge of looking after the whole scenario and met their President, Jose Sulaiman, who quite honestly I found to be a very ignorant man and was glad he stayed at the Grosvenor in Park Lane.
My friend Harry Gibbs was in charge of the entertainment section, and Caroline Fransen was our liason officer – and what a fantastic job she did! – each day I was given a sheet informing me of the days events and as a result of her I made the friendship of the decade.
Caroline introduced me to Marvin Kohn, who at the time was secretary to the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) based in New York. Kohn was also deputy commissioner at the New York Athletic Commission for over 30 years and over the next decade I visited the Big Apple a number of times and Marvin introduced me to so many fascinating and influential people in the boxing scene.
Photo: my late friend Marvin Kohn
Long before there were public tours of Madison Square Garden, I was privileged to be a frequent visitor and Marvin was even the only non-actor to have his caricature on the wall at Sardi’s famous restaurant. To this day, the BWAA present a “Good Guy” prize each year named after my late friend as the ‘Marvin Kohn award’. As a result of my friendship with Marvin I was even invited to the VIP lounge and restaurant at the United Nations buildings. Not bad for a little boyo from the valleys!