Alan Hubbard

Exactly 50 years ago last weekend 41,000 people streamed into Arsenal’s old ground at Highbury to witness Muhammad Ali thwart a revenge bid by Henry Cooper, keeping his world heavyweight title by opening a deep, jagged cut in the sixth round on the Londoner’s left eyebrow.

The crucial blow was typically Ali, a long punch grazing with the heel of the glove.

But ’Our ‘Enry’, bloodied but unbowed, still emerged a hero and it is remarkable to consider that compared to today’s juggernauts he weighed in at not much over 13 stone - and that was with a handful of coins placed in his boots by manager Jim Wicks.

Sadly, of course, Sir Henry is no longer with us, but Ali lingers on, stricken by Parkinson’s but still the most revered figure in the sport.

Ali came to mind again when I was reading a terrific new book by Nick Parkinson, a boxing writer colleague who contributes, along with other publications, to the Daily Star and can be seen regularly on BoxNation’s A Fight of a Lifetime.

The book, A Champion’s Last Fight, is one that is long overdue, recounting the fascinating stories of how many famous fight game figures fared - and too often failed - in coping with boxing’s after-life: when the ring lights dim, the roars subside and they are left wondering what to do with the rest of their days.

“The trouble with Muhammad Ali,” Joe Frazier once said of his old adversary, “is that he doesn’t know how to die".

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali "didn't know how to die" according to Joe Frazier ©Getty Images

Smokin’ Joe did not mean that literally, but Ali, on the brink of another comeback, had no idea what to do with his life once the bell sounded for the final round.

So it has been with so many great British fighters as Parkinson recalls in a book that is brilliantly and diligently researched.

It also brought back a poignant personal memory. Back in the early fifties, as a young schoolboy I used to earn weekend pocket money by serving in a South London sweet shop managed by my Aunt.

The boxer Freddie Mills, a national icon at the time, was a regular customer, a lovely, gentle man always with a kind word for this star-struck fight fan and a passion for Quality Street. I used to make sure he got plenty of the scrummy purple-wrapped ones, his favourite.

In return he gave me tips on boxing - I was an enthusiastic but not very successful schoolboy amateur.

Some dozen years on I was shocked to learn from the news that Freddie had been found shot dead. Some claimed it was suicide, but an equally popular, and more sinister, theory was that it was murder. 

Bournemouth-born Mills, a one-time fairground booth fighter, was my first boxing hero. An RAF sergeant during the Second World War he fought at light-heavyweight, winning and holding the world title from 1948 to 52, and less successfully at heavyweight. He had a famously jutting jaw, a raggedly aggressive, take-two-to-land-one style and an indomitable courage which typified the British bulldog image.

For several post-war years he was the most popular sporting figure in the land.

On the night of July 24, 1965, he was found shot dead in the back seat of his car in an alleyway behind a Soho nightclub, with a loaded rifle beside him.

The news stunned and mystified Britain. Mills was not only famous as a boxer but following his retirement from the ring, had become a television and film celebrity, presenting programmes such as Six-Five Special - the forerunner to Top of the Pops. He’d even appeared in two Carry On films. Everyone, it seemed, loved Fearless Freddie.

From Benny Lynch to Frank Bruno via Freddie Mills, Randolph Turpin, Ken Buchanan, Alan Minter, Charlie Magri, John Conteh, Nigel Benn, Naseem Hamed, Scott Harrison, Ricky Hatton, Chris Eubank and several others, there are emotion-charged tales embracing boredom, bankruptcy, booze, brain damage, and yes, even the bullet.

Parkinson probes the circumstances of those whose post-fight lives have been deeply troubled and on some occasions, have ended in tragedy.

Their stories range from the harrowing to the heroic.

Britain was left stunned by the death of former world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills
Britain was left stunned by the death of former world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills ©Getty Images

Naturally I was absorbed by the chapter on Mills. As a kid I had been allowed to stay up and listen to the radio broadcasts of his epic, pulsating battles with Gus Lesnevich (the first of which was said to be the most savage ever seen in the division), Joe Baksi, Johnny Ralph, Bruce Woodock and Joey Maxim, his 101st and final fight. Just as I had when Turpin astonishingly defeated the fabulous Sugar Ray Robinson for the world middleweight title.

And thereby hangs another grim tale. Like Fearless Freddie, Turpin’s life was ended by a bullet exactly 50 years ago this month, ostensibly suicide but with lingering speculation that he, too, may have been bumped off.

Apart from having many friends in luvvie-land, Mills hobnobbed with the notorious Kray twins and later was even himself accused of being a serial killer known as Jack The Stripper since the discoveries of stripped and strangled prostitutes ceased after his death.

Could his underworld connections have been responsible for his untimely demise - shot in the eye at the age of 46? Was it suicide or was it murder - and if it was suicide, why had Mills decided to take his own life?

A story in the News of the World later claimed Mills, a family man happily married to his manager’s daughter, had been arrested for importuning in a London public toilet frequented by gay men (homosexuality was illegal at the time), charged with indecency and that night killed himself to avoid the case being made public.

However in Parkinson’s book, Mills’s stepson Don McCorkindale insists this was untrue and that he believes Freddie was killed by a criminal gang - not the Krays (“they loved him”) - but their rivals from south London, the Richardsons, over protection money for a club run by an ex-boxer and that his death was made to look like suicide. This has always been denied by the Richardsons.

Fascinating stuff. And Parkinson unearths more about the Mills mystery and how other boxers we have known and loved fought battles within themselves as they tried to come to terms with, as Frazier said of Ali, "knowing how to die".

Drink, drugs, sex scandals, financial meltdowns and mental health issues are just some of the fights many ex-boxers have faced.

Ricky Hatton has become a manager and promoter
Ricky Hatton has become a manager and promoter ©Getty Images

From Lynch, who died in penury of malnutrition 70 years ago, through to his successor as an all-time Scottish great, Ken Buchanan, the stories of how demons blighted their lives away from the spotlight are both poignant and revealing.

Conteh also talks candidly about his struggles with alcoholism, as does Ricky Hatton, but at least their tales have had happier conclusions, Conteh building a career as an wittily entertaining after-dinner ’turn’ and Hatton as a manager and promoter.

Another flakey world champion, Naseem Hamed, speaks candidly about his fall from grace to a prison cell while Charlie Magri describes what it was like to be reduced to working for the council as he approached retirement age: ”Depression stays with you forever,“ he says.

Benn and Herol Graham both admit to attempting suicide. “From Champ to Chump” was the headline above a report about Eubank being declared bankrupt while the vicissitudes of our beloved Bruno gave rise to the widely-condemned ”Bonkers Bruno” in The Sun.

The bipolar-diagnosed Bruno’s troubles are typified by his comment: “When your life has been boxing - the discipline, the training, the preparation for a fight - giving it all up is very hard to do. That’s the main thing you faced and it’s what you’ve got to get out of your heads. Boredom.”

Even now, Bruno has a been talking of a comeback at 54, with the most recent suggestion that it could be in bare-knuckle boxing.

This makes this book even more relevant for as Parkinson concludes: ”The lack of any support for former boxers, in contrast to other sports, is a low blow that any former champion does not deserve.”