Boxing News veteran redefines “punchy” copy

NORMAN GILLER fights his way off the ropes this week, after surviving a cruel low blow

I am considering contacting Sue, Grabbitt and Run to see if I have a case against the SJA webmaster for concocting a news story that, suddenly and startlingly, made me feel very old.

It read: “Boxing News reaches its 100th anniversary this month”. Ouch! I was general dogsbody — reporter, sub, layout designer — on the fight game’s tradepaper when it celebrated its 50th birthday, er, 50 years ago this month.

This was all a blink of an eye ago, and it cannot possibly be half a century since I worked in the three-man team producing Boxing News when it was based at 92 Fleet Street, looking out at the black Lubyanka of the Express building at the front and on to St Bride’s churchyard at the back.

“You are between heaven and hell,” was how master boxing writer George Whiting put it during a visit to our office. I never did pin him down as to which was which.

The paper is now in the safe and creative hands of Claude Abrams, who has performed minor miracles keeping Boxing News on its toes when so many specialist sports magazines have gone down for the count.

Abrams follows in a long line of distinguished post-war BN editors, including Gilbert Odd, Jack Wilson, Tim Riley, Graham Houston and the blisteringly honest Harry Mullan, who used to singe the paper with his contemptuous criticisms of the often dodgy people in the shadowy background of the fight game.

Tim Riley (real name Tim Mocock) was my Editor, who taught me to use my elbow in the nearby aptly named Punch Tavern and to put accuracy above all else when reporting.

Nobody had bylines in those days. “It is the paper that carries the authority, not the individual,” was the office rule. I wrote a regular column called “Around the Gyms with Ross Martin”, a name taken from an empty Martini Rossi box under Tim’s desk.

The powerhouse of the paper was Ron Olver, a Devonian totally dedicated to keeping boxing records. He hand wrote thousands of cards containing the records of boxers throughout the world.

Only one person in the land could match him for statistical and historical ring knowledge, and that was former Editor Gilbert Odd, who became a role model for me in the way he freelanced after leaving Boxing News.

He had nostalgia columns syndicated in more than 30 newspapers in the days when Saturday classified evening papers were massive sellers in every major town. This all brings me to a warning to sportswriters of how what you have written can — years later — come back to haunt (and, in Gilbert’s case) hurt you.

First of all I need to tell you about the history of Jock McAvoy, just in case
you are not a follower of the fight game. His real name was Joe Bamford, who fought under an assumed name so that his mother did not know he was a professional boxer.

Many good judges rate him the greatest middleweight we ever produced. He was nicknamed the Rochdale Thunderbolt, and after he had won the British and Empire titles in the mid-1930s, he put out a challenge to the then world champion Ed “Babe” Risko.

The American’s management would only agree to a non-title fight, and when they had picked Risko off the floor after being flattened six times in the first round, they decided that the thunderous punching McAvoy would be avoided at all costs.

Jock moved up to light-heavyweight and campaigned in the United States, finally earning a title tilt at exceptional world champion John Henry Lewis, who outpointed the Lancastrian at Madison Square Garden in 1936.

Gilbert Odd was less than complimentary when reporting McAvoy’s later performances during defeats by Len Harvey and Freddie Mills.

Fast forward 20 years to October 1958, and the final boxing show at the old Harringay Arena. Promoter Jack Solomons invited a gathering of old champions to parade in the ring, including McAvoy, who was by then confined to a wheelchair suffering from polio.

The veteran Odd, reporting at the ringside, was invited by one of McAvoy’s entourage to visit Jock in the hospitality room.

Gilbert duly paid homage to the old champion, and as he bent down to shake his hand, McAvoy half rose from his wheelchair and threw a right hand that landed on Odd’s chin and sent his spectacles spinning across the room. “That’s for saying I was rubbish against Freddie Mills,” McAvoy snarled.

Gilbert was badly shaken as he picked up his glasses, but managed to say as hurtfully as possible: “So sad to see you’ve lost your punch, Jock.”

He then made as dignified an exit as he could, with McAvoy’s wild eyes burning a hole in his back. “I went to the nearest toilet,” Gilbert later told me, “and sat in a cubicle for 10 minutes while I recovered. Jock had not lost his punching power, but I was not going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. It had been years since I had criticised his performance against Mills, and it had festered with him all that time.”

So, you sportswriters out there, when you are penning criticism of today’s heroes, think of Gilbert Odd and the way his words came back to haunt him.

It might even take 50 years, which I assure you goes by in a flash.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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