The final bell for boxing great Reg Gutteridge

By Norman Giller
The past suddenly became the present at St Bride’s today when more than 700 television commentators, boxers, showbiz celebrities, sportswriters, family and friends gathered to fondly remember one of ours, Reg Gutteridge.

Fleet Street’s famous old church was like a giant punchbowl as we joined together in a stirring of mainly amusing memories. I can think of few journalists who could have drawn such a cross-section of people.

There were flat-nosed boxers who had punched their way to fame, hard-nosed sportswriters who had launched a million punchlines, sharp-nosed TV and newspaper executives, promoters, matchmakers, producers, ex-footballers, commentators, former copyboys, photographers, sports department secretaries, sub-editors, copytakers, champions, challengers and wonderful-to-the-ear choristers.

It was as if the years had rolled away as we swapped hilarious Reg stories, and as an usher for the occasion I was privileged to listen in on many of them, which I will now share. Think of me as the ear and eye of the SJA, of which Reg was a former chairman …

Sir Henry Cooper: “Reg used to report on me and my twin brother George when we boxed as amateurs in the early 50s. We turned pro together and George was told he would have to change his name ’cos there was already a George Cooper with a pro licence. We asked Reg what he thought and, quick as a flash, he said, ‘How about Gladys Cooper. She’s not likely to have a licence’.”

Colin Hart, doyen of boxing writers: “Reg was sitting in the back of a limousine with the then fearsome world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and a few of us scribes. Somehow the talk topic got around to whether white or black men had the lowest pain threshold. ‘I have the willpower to overcome any physical pain,’ Reg told the champ.

“He took a penknife from his pocket and challenged Sonny to stick it in his leg. His eyes opened wide and he said, ‘No way, man.’ So Reg stuck the penknife deep into his leg himself, and Liston very nearly turned white. He then laughed non-stop for ages when Reg rolled up his trouserleg to show his false leg that he’d had since stepping on a mine during the Normandy landings.”

John Conteh, former world light-heavyweight champion: “Reg was on his way to the ringside when he tripped and his false leg came away. Somebody said, ‘Call for a doctor.’ Up piped Reg: ‘Better still, call for a carpenter’.”

Ernest Maxim, TV producer famous for directing the Morecambe and Wise musical numbers and a boxer in his youth: “My favourite Reg story is when he went to Las Vegas, and on landing he found they had sent a case containing his spare false leg on to Singapore. ‘Blimey,’ Reg told the astonished airport official. ‘That’s the widest apart my legs have ever been’.”

Mickey Duff, unmatchable matchmaker: “Reg was playing golf with top American boxing PR Bobby Goodman, who at a short hole had his head down and did not see his tee shot roll into the cup. Reg placed his ball on the tee, and said very calmly, ‘Need this for a half then.’ Bobby went mad and said: ‘You and your Limey sense of humour. That’s my first ever hole in one, and I didn’t even know’.”

Bob Burrows, former head of ITV Sport: “Reg was in Kinshasha, Zaire, to report on the Ali-George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. He went to the hotel restaurant for dinner on his first night, discovered there was only one course – it appeared to be locally prepared chicken – and wolfed it down. The next night the same dish was served, and when the same meal came up on the third night Reg rebelled and politely asked the waiter if there was anything other than chicken available.

“‘Chicken?’ said the waiter. ‘We only have chicken on the President’s birthday.’

“‘Then what have I been eating on the last couple of nights?’ asked Reg.

“‘Roast monkey,’ was the reply.”

Jarvis Astaire, tycoon and entrepreneur: “I loved the way he used to make light of his lost leg. He once said to me, ‘You know what these Germans are like, Jarvis … give them an inch and they’ll take a foot’.”

Barry McGuigan, former world featherweight champion and now a ringside summariser: “When Reg used to go on holidays, he would go for a swim and then come crawling back on to the beach shouting, ‘Shark! Shark!’”

Sydney Hulls, another SJA veteran who was Daily Express boxing correspondent for more than 30 years: “When Reg was ill with a serious blood condition in Hammersmith Hospital he woke up to find Muhammad Ali — on a publicity tour in the UK — praying at his bedside. ‘I cried my eyes out,’ Reg said later. ‘I thought I was hallucinating’.”

Sir Trevor Brooking: “Reg was a life-long Arsenal fan, and used to say of his boyhood idol Alex James, ‘I always wanted to play like him, but I only had one good foot’.”

Michael Grade, in a warm tribute that included a message from Muhammad Ali, told a congregation jammed muscle to muscle: “We once asked Reg to commentate live on a fight that was transmitted to us overnight from Mexico. It involved two Latin American fighters. We were horrified to find it had no sound at all, and so we dubbed in our own crowd effects which meant Reg — supposedly at ringside in Guadalajara — was talking to background noise that included such gems as ‘Go on my son … jab and move … give him one up the derby …’

“To give it some more reality we got a sound assistant to ring a bell at the end of the round, but she mistimed it and rang a minute early on what, remember, was a fight being sent out live. Reg didn’t pause, and just ad-libbed: ‘The action is so exciting that the referee and spectators have not heard the bell …’”

Jim Watt, ex-world lightweight champion and Reg’s ITV ringside partner for 15 years, followed with an irreverent yet sincere homage that had us all roaring. It included this anecdote: “Alan Minter was informed that he had to make a world title defence against the then little-known Marvin Hagler. He phoned Reg, who knew everything about everybody in the fight game. ‘What d’you suggest I do?’ asked Minter. Back came Reg: ‘If I were you, I’d join BUPA’.”

It was wall to wall laughter, but also with moments of moving poignancy. Reg’s three grandsons read “Poems for Granddad”, and daughter Sally-Ann left not a dry eye in the house with a beautifully delivered accolade to her Dad. She reminded us that Reg disliked pomp and fuss, and was happiest in private with his wonderful wife of 60 years, Connie, and a family that meant everything to him.

When I scripted Michael Aspel’s This Is Your Life tribute to Reg, he whispered to me at the end of the show: “Not bad for a one legged bloke from Islington.”

In one of my last of what were weekly phone chats with Reg — a conversation that stretched over 50 years — I told him that I was starting a blog for the SJA. Reg, 84 and not wanting any part of the internet revolution, said: “What the eff’s a blog? Sounds like a blocked up bog.”

How perfectly accurate, old friend. I just hope that this blog has given you the send-off you deserve.

“My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen … by unanimous decision … the champion commentator, sports reporter, family man and human being … Reg Gutteridge.”

Nice one, Reg.

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