By MATTHEW ENGEL
For a man who spent much of his life around the boxing ring, John Morris fitted no stereotype whatever. He was gentle, rather self-effacing, though for many years he cultivated a stern military moustache. His other interests included fox hunting and the theatre. An unusual mix.
As a schoolboy featherweight, he was so skinny stripped off he was once greeted with the cry: “Here he is again, living death” on entering the ring. But he learned enough ringcraft not to get beaten up and developed a lifelong love of the fight game.
For most of his working life John was a sports journalist – much admired by those who worked with him, and especially those he mentored. But he became a well-known name only after he left the profession and took the job of secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, a job that involved multiple crises and limited powers. He lasted 14 years in the job until he reached the official retirement age in 2000, and remained vigorous until shortly before his death on 18 December, aged 87.
He started in journalism on the Northampton Chronicle & Echo in 1953 and was soon covering the local team The Cobblers, then in the old Third Division South. Even then his local celebrity was limited since he was quaintly disguised in print as “Flag-kick. But he knew about all about local sport, especially the town’s boxing clubs.
Later he went on to the Evening Standard before taking the job as the London sports editor of United Newspapers, a group which then owned a string of local papers, including the morning and evening papers in both Leeds and Sheffield – and the Northampton Chron.
It was a small office compared to the nationals, but unimaginably well-staffed by the standards of today’s provincial papers, and a magnificent springboard for ambitious youngsters. It was tucked away just off Fleet Street, close to the Mail, where two of his finest protégés spent the bulk of their working lives.
“In many ways I owe John my career,” said Neil Wilson. “He asked me to take over the athletics beat and in 1972 sent me to my first Olympics. He was a charming man and a very good boss.
Malcolm Folley said he was “universally respected…He had a great facility to make it look easy and to trust you to do what he had asked you to do. He had an expert eye as to what made good copy and what didn’t.”
Meanwhile, John was enhancing his knowledge of boxing at a national level. Even as sports editor he did not have first dibs on the biggest fights: they were the province of the chief sports writer, Alan Hubbard. But John was rapidly becoming the go-to expert on every hopeful fighter in the country.
By the mid-70s regional newspaper groups were starting to think of London offices as luxury items and John and his wife Jill took a pub in North Bucks for three years before he bought into the Northampton sports freelance agency – covering the cricket and football teams – run since the war by a splendid but now aging character called Fred Speakman. And by 1982 he also became sports editor of the new BBC Radio Northampton and took on another young talent, Andrew Radd, another journalist forever grateful for John’s guidance
“John was a complete professional,” Radd recalled. “But he came across as a gentleman amateur. He had a most engaging manner that made people trust him.”
This interlude lasted until 1986, until the boxing board job came up and Morris got I and passed the business to Radd. It was a long way from the gentle banter of small-town press boxes to the tumult of boxing. Internationally, the sport was falling apart with competing organisations anointing their own champions. At home, there were constant battles with promoters – often promoting their own interests by importing useless bums to make their latest title hope look good (this was curtailed on John’s watch). And there were also fierce battles between promoters. The board had no statutory power over the sport and at times John could look like Mr Barrowclough trying to control the cast of Porridge.
It was also an era when hooligans migrated from the football grounds to the boxing halls, often fighting with more spirit than the imported bums. And every now and then, in the nature of the sport, there would be a tragedy. Throughout his tenure there were regular calls for boxing to be banned.
The worst fallout came from the terrible injuries inflicted on Michael Watson in 1991 in an all-British world title fight against Chris Eubank. Watson survived, miraculously, but there were failings in medical provision at the venue that were ruled in court to be the Board’s responsibility. The loss of the case forced the Board to sell its London HQ.
But he was not personally held to blame and he stayed in the job until retirement age because he was seen to be good at it. As one board member, the Conservative MP Julian Critchley out it: “John Morris’s integrity, energy and ability is a key factor in defending the sport from its many enemies, both from outside and within boxing. He serves the game well.” And he kept the confidence of his former colleagues: “Straight as a die,” the long-time Sun boxing writer Colin Hart called him. “100% straight. He was just a good guy.”
In retirement John reverted to being a regular at the Cobblers, writing for the matchday programme and chairing the club’s charitable foundation. In 2014 I organised a get-together of all the reporters who had done stints covering Northamptonshire cricket.
A dozen of us got together at the County Ground, and a picture was arranged in traditional cricket formation – youngsters at the back, five most senior in deckchairs at the front, captain in the middle. John as doyen was the obvious candidate. No, he insisted: I had put the event together, I should sit there. The stand-off went for some time , the photographer grew impatient and I was forced to give in. Every time I see the picture I get a little cross with this unassuming, thoroughly decent man and excellent journalist.