|5 Jan 2022|
Srikumar Sen read History at Oxford and boxed for OUABC, receiving his Blue in 1951. He went on to achieve great things as a boxing correspondent, covering fights around the world, predominantly for The Times, for whom he worked for 32 years. After retiring in 1999, Sri has gone on to publish his first novel, The Skinning Tree, for which he won the prestigious Tibor Jones South East Asia prize. Sri recently turned 90 and took the time to recall his fascinating life in boxing for OUABC. He has kindly given us permission to reproduce his article.
“While I quite enjoyed playing games at school, unlike most boys in those days I followed only one sport closely. That was boxing — perhaps because I was good enough to be in the school first team. At the age of 16, in 1947, I joined the Belsize Club in north London (the oldest boxing club in the world) and boxed for them. The coach was Harry Gibbs, who later became one of the top referees in professional boxing.
I followed every boxing match broadcast by the BBC, sitting glued to the wireless and landing the punches as I listened to the commentator. I went along to amateur events, but I didn’t see a professional match live until some 30 years later, when, after 17 years as a sub-editor on the sports desk of The Times, I was appointed the paper’s Boxing Correspondent. I found myself at ringside, no longer a fan or a punter, but with a job to do.
I was expected to know everything about the sport, but my main task was to keep the Sports Editor informed about what was going on day by day, and to cover all the big fights. I travelled the world.
Whatever the sport’s future, it gave me my career, and I feel fortunate that it did so.
This was the early 1980s, which meant I had come into boxing just a little too late to report on great heavyweights like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman mk 1, Ken Norton and Larry Holmes. In the heavyweight division, mine was the era of Mike Tyson, but I always thought Tyson a class below the fighters I had missed. Tyson looked terrific, but his opponents were not of the quality of Ali’s, nor his contests as hard and brutal. I found Tyson’s boxing repetitive and one-dimensional. He couldn’t improvise, perhaps because no one seemed capable of testing him outside his comfort zone, that was until Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield came along and exposed his limitations.
Jose Torres - like Tyson, a Cus D’Amato product but from an earlier era - told me that Tyson’s combinations had numbers, and sometimes Torres would shout them from ringside when the fighter’s punches were not having the desired effect.
The lower weights had brilliant fighters in all divisions and I saw some superb contests: Leonard v Duran, Leonard v Benitez, Hagler v Hearns, Leonard v Hagler, Chris Eubank v Nigel Benn. Of those, the most violent, but not to the exclusion of good boxing, were Hagler v Hearns and Eubank v Benn. For me, Leonard was the best pound-for-pound boxer of his time. I think he still is.
While big fights were scattered round the world, the main centres were Las Vegas, New York, London and Belfast. Working in America was a pleasure, preferable by far to the UK, because of all the help you got. American promoters handed you all the information you needed on a plate (records, cuttings, statistics, interviews). Meals were provided. Sitting at the bar by the pool at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas one day, a colleague said, “You know, this would be a good life if we didn’t have to work!”
American colleagues, not being in competition with the British writers, were always friendly and helpful. Back home, there was bitter rivalry because you were only given basic information and you had to dig for stories in daily competition with other papers. And if you said something a promoter didn’t like, he would give you a hard time.
Because the Americans were always happy to talk to the papers, you were able to meet the key people behind the boxers - promoters, managers and trainers, heads of sport of television companies - and build up contacts who you remained in touch with when back in England. I met people I would never have met otherwise: Emanuel Steward, director of the Kronk gym in Detroit, where Hearns trained; Jay Bright, Tyson’s trainer; the trainer Teddy Atlas; Jose Torres; not forgetting Don King, the biggest promoter of the time. When Seth Abraham, the head of HBO Sport, came to London for Wimbledon, he would invite me to the Four Seasons Hotel in Park Lane to have breakfast with him and talk boxing.
In Miami, I met Angelo Dundee, who trained Leonard. He had also trained Ali. Three years after that one and only meeting, I phoned him for some comments on a story. He said, “Yeah, I remember you! The good-lookin’ kid!” I was 55! It was proof that he didn’t remember me at all! But what a pro. Different class!
In 1994, I took redundancy from The Times. I was in my 60s and ready to step back. But then the Sports Editor said, “Don’t go!” “But I’ve taken my redundancy money,” I replied. The paper fixed things with the Inland Revenue, and I stayed on as Boxing Correspondent for another six years. Journalism had been good to me in those 35 years with the paper, but in those last six years I saw a side of journalism I never thought I’d experience.
Tyson was in prison for rape and when on one occasion I was in Washington to cover a Riddick Bowe fight, without the knowledge of my colleagues, I flew from Dulles Airport to Albany to meet Jay Bright, Tyson’s trainer, in Tyson’s home and talk about the fighter. It was a comprehensive day-long interview — a world exclusive which I wrote up when I got back to London. The day after it appeared in The Times — all across the top half of a page — the Sports Editor rang me to say that both The Sun and the Today newspaper had lifted my story word for word, crediting two different bogus writers. How was it possible for three different journalists to write the same story word for word? Readers wouldn’t know. Sun readers don’t read The Times. It was a Hatton Garden smash-and-grab. How could journalists lift another journalist’s story like that? That didn’t matter to them. Tyson was the preserve of the tabloids. The Sun couldn’t be seen to be scooped by The Times. My solicitors wrote to The Sun, it was an awkward situation because the Times was a sister paper. I got no apology, only a lot of bluster from the Sun’s lawyer, and then an extra payment from The Times. It was a kind of honour, I supppose, but years later, after I had retired, I was not at all surprised that the hacking scandal happened.
It is the memory of boxing people I met outside the world of fight promotions that I treasure the most: Alf Gallie, Percy Lewis, Tony Madigan, Budd Schulberg, and the man I admired the most — Muhammad Ali.
Percy was in the RAF and boxing for Oxford YMCA, I believe, and was a friend of Alf. He came by the Alfred Street gym one day when I was an undergraduate. Alf thought it was a good idea for me to get in some sparring with him. Well, I learnt nothing except that he was just too good for me. Without even extending himself, he stood me on my head. But for all that, I had the satisfaction and distinction of sparring with the man who became the British Empire featherweight champion and boxed for the world title.
I met Tony Madigan at a fight in Atlantic City and after that, many times at fights in America. We became good friends. He was a big, good-looking, soft-spoken Aussie — well read, erudite, a stockbroker, who lived in the south of France. Never once did he tell me, not until I mentioned it, that in 1960 he had met the then Cassius Clay in the semi-final of the Rome Olympics, when Clay was on his way to winning the gold medal. According to some reports it was a close bout. Nor did Tony say that he had represented his country in the Helsinki and Melbourne Olympics as well three Commonwealth Games. He was Australia’s best amateur. Ali never forgot him. Once, in Atlantic City, I heard Ali cry, “Tony Madigan!” across a crowded room and come over to embrace him and square up. Tony was a lovely man to be around.
Schulberg was not a friend but an acquaintance and was always at the big fights, usually writing for some publication. He too was a self-effacing person. He had seen more fights than most of us and had stories to tell. I was interested in the literary achievements for which he was best known. He told me that he found it very difficult to interest Hollywood in On the Waterfront. Sam Goldwyn told him it was the time for big Technicolor, Cinemascope films, that no one would be interested in seeing a black and white film about some waterfront. “I was so depressed,” he said. Then he met Sam Spiegel, who got it together with that brilliant cast, with Marlon Brando agreeing to an affordable fee, and three former world-ranked heavyweight boxers — Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello and Abe Simon — playing the heavies.
I was touched that Budd told me this story because I believe it is one that is not well known and shows a certain humility on his part. I think it shows that he was not above admitting that despite his success as an author, he too could be knocked back by those in power. I am glad that he had the satisfaction of proving Goldwyn and his like wrong.
Finally, the man I most wanted to meet — Muhammad Ali. He came to London in the 1980s, a few years after his retirement. I had a long interview with him in his hotel room. It was not one of those lively, quick-fire interviews that made boxing writers scribble furiously in their notebooks, but one rather more staid; about a project he was about to launch. It didn’t matter that it was not lively copy; I was in conversation with the great man. Now, because I can’t remember what the project was, or the year the interview happened, I sometimes find myself wondering, did I actually meet him, or did I imagine it all. Luckily, I have a witness to show that it really did happen because the day the interview appeared there was great excitement on the Times sports desk. Ali had phoned to thank me for the article. I wasn’t in the office at the time, and a colleague, Vince Wright, took the call. “I couldn’t believe it was Muhammad Ali,” Vince said. “Thankfully I didn’t say, pull the other one!” It more than made Vince’s day. He’s been dining out on the story ever since. As for The Greatest phoning to thank a journalist for an article — well, he was always different from everyone else.
No boxing writer can escape acknowledging the sport’s dark side. I found myself caught up in no fewer than three riots — at Wembley Arena, in Birmingham, and in Madison Square Garden. I covered the story when the promoter Frank Warren was shot. I was ringside when Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear. For all the disrepute these incidents inflicted on the sport, they were the stuff of big news stories.
But when it came to addressing deaths in the ring and physical damage caused by punches, the boxing writer is on the back foot. If heading a football is under medical scrutiny, what can a boxing writer say about the immediate and long-term damage punches can cause: Ali, Ray Robinson, Jake La Motta, Michael Watson, Gerald McClennan, maybe even Marvin Hagler; the death of Johnny Owen. What is the answer? Headguards? Professional boxing wouldn’t be the same, might even lose its appeal. Since the paying public keeps professional boxing on its feet, for good or bad, a punters’ forum could open the discussion on the way ahead for professional boxing.
Whatever the sport’s future, it gave me my career, and I feel fortunate that it did so.”
Srikumar Sen, OUABC. Sri's novel can be purchased on Amazon here.