NORMAN GILLER casts his mind back to happy nights working alongside Bill Bateson as a rookie boxing writer at a memorable Terry Downes bout
All roads to Truro will be blocked on Tuesday, as a jamboree of journalists head for Cornwall to say a final fond farewell to Fleet Street colossus Bill Bateson. Tears, laughter and nostalgia by the bucketful guaranteed.
Come with me back to 1957, the place Shoreditch Town Hall. That was equidistant to Bill – pictured right – on the North London Press and me on the Stratford Express, two hungry young reporters on the first rung of the journalistic ladder.
The event was the inaugural boxing promotion at Shoreditch, and topping the bill was “the crashing, bashing Paddington Express”, Terry Downes, who had returned to London to start a professional career after winning amateur trophies while serving with the US Marines.
Terry was a headline writerâ€™s dream, a larger than life character who talked with a Cockney accent shaken and stirred with a distinctive American drawl. His was the face that launched a thousand quips, as Bill and I were to discover on this opening night at Shoreditch Town Hall.
He was managed by Sam Burns, who later became the boss of William Hill. Reg Gutteridge, then a 30-something reporter on the London Evening News, nicknamed him “Tenbobsworth”, because he walked with a left-sided lean as if he had a lot of loose change in his pocket.
Sam knew he had a potential champion under his wing, and decided to bring Downes along carefully. Terry duly swatted aside his first two opponents in double-quick time, and waiting for him in his third fight at Shoreditch was an unheralded Nigerian boxer rejoicing in the name of Richard Ihetu.
To drum up ticket sales, he was billed as Dick Tiger.
Enter our story Mickey Duff, who at 27 was the youngest matchmaker in the business. He had retired from the ring after a career in which he admitted his main aim was to hit without getting hit. The nose spreading east to west across his face suggested he had failed with at least part of his strategy.
His real name was Monek Prager, and he had taken the monicker “Mickey Duff” from a character in a James Cagney gangster film. Over the next 40 years, Duff was to prove himself one of the great matchmakers, with judgement second to none. He knew a good fight before he saw it.
He was sure he had picked an opponent that Downes, pictured left, could blow away. Tiger had lost five of his 12 contests since arriving in Liverpool from the Biafran village of Amaigbo. The speared scars he had on his face and back were stark signs of his initiation as a tribal warrior.
Bateson and I sat alongside each other at ringside in what was to become one of the most famous cockpit boxing venues in the land. The young Bill was virtually the same as the older Bill so many journalists came to know, admire and, yes, love. He had that warm welcome mat of a face that broke easily into a sunshine smile, and a sharp sense of humour that meant he was always entertaining company.
Back then, he had already developed a good nose for news and used to pick up nice little earners with tip-offs to the nationals. He was on a lot of newspaper contact lists as “Bateson of Islington”, and was fiercely proud of his Arsenal-red blood.
We had a private wager on the Downes-Tiger fight. Bill said Downes in two, I said Downes in three. In the neutral corner alongside us, “One-Arm” Lou was offering 2-1 odds on a first-round knock-out. Over the far side of the ring Johnny the Stick was going for Downes in four, while Fat Stan Flashman was backing on it going the distance. Harry “The Horse” Levene reckoned it was a no race.
Tenbobsworth, One-Arm Lou, Johnny the Stick, Fat Stan, Harry the Horse, Mickey Duff â€¦ these were the unforgettable characters among whom Bill and I more than somewhat learned our reporting trade. They could all have come out of a novel jointly written by Damon Runyon and Charles Dickens.
Bill and I â€” and the capacity crowd â€” could not believe our eyes when the squat, wide-shouldered Tiger flattened Downes in the first minute of the fight. It was suddenly the lion versus the tiger, as Terry picked himself up and battled back in a swinging style that was to become his trademark.
Sam Burns finally pulled Terry out of a fight that had become a war at the end of the fifth, both his eyes swollen, nose busted and ego bruised. For a long time afterwards, Bill and I agreed that it was one of the most savage fights we ever witnessed.
Mickey Duff told me years later that it cost the little matter of Â£195 to stage â€” Â£135 to Downes, Â£60 to Tiger, plus his petrol money. During the 1960s, Tiger became world middleweight and light-heavyweight champion, and Downes world middleweight king. By then, it would have cost a fortune to bring them together in the same ring.
There was the usual hush of a losing dressing room when Bill and I joined the big-time boxing reporters looking for after-fight quotes.
Defeated Downes, his face a bloody mask of pain, did not disappoint: â€œWhen the first bell rang I thought, â€˜Fucking hell, theyâ€™ve put me in with a giantâ€™. Then I realised I was flat on my back looking up at him. I donâ€™t remember much after that. I look forward to reading your reports to see what happened next â€¦â€
It was, as I recall, dear old Bill who came up with a fairly straightforward question that drew one of the all-time great responses.
â€œWho dâ€™you want to fight next?â€ Bill asked.
Back came Downsie: â€œThe bastard who made this match.â€
Mickey Duff, wise man, was nowhere to be seen.
Bill, of course, went on to a hugely successful career as a deskman at the News of the World, creating a triumvirate with Frank Butler and Fred Burcombe as three of the most knowledgeable men on boxing in one newspaper team.
He later succeeded Butler as sports editor, shifting seamlessly from the old Fleet Street world of ink and hot metal to the Wapping ways of computer technology. He was a master of both worlds, and later revealed his broad brush as a consultant at the posh end of the market with the Sunday Telegraph.
Bill had omniscient knowledge of the sports scene in which he circulated for more then 50 years and was revered by the sub-editors and reporters who worked with him (and journos like me who worked against him on rival newspapers).
Yes, there will be a lot of tears in Truro â€¦ many of them drenching our laughter as we remember one of the greats of our profession.
Bill, you were a knock-out.