feature

feature Thursday, 11 April 2013

For the love of the game

Barry Hugman is arguably Britain’s most prolific boxing historian. He tells Matt Christie how the sport has changed.

I had my first fight in a school playground

BARRY HUGMAN (above left) has been in love with boxing since 1948. He was seven years old when he was bitten by the bug and when that happens, as anyone reading this will testify, it’s impossible to shake.

“I had my first fight with gloves in the school playground,” Hugman remembers with warming enthusiasm. “It was a few weeks before Randy Turpin beat Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951. The teacher invited us to wear boxing gloves on the playground, which wasn’t a good idea really when you consider the hard concrete floor.”

He grew into a decent amateur boxer, won more than his fair share of fights, before leaving the gloves behind.

“It’s very hard to recognise your limitations when you’re a boxer because it’s all based on self confidence,” Hugman continues. “Once you start looking at yourself under the microscope, saying ‘I don’t hit that hard, I’m not quick enough’ and this, that, and the other, you’re in decline – however old you are.”

After a brief career in business, words and statistics became his weapons of choice. He plotted a safer route back into the sport he adored. In 1981, after seven years of tireless fact finding and research, Hugman published a book on another of his loves, football. It listed the playing records of every single footballer who had ever played professionally in the English Leagues. It was an astonishing work of detail, carried out many years before the internet existed. By 1984, he had created a similar printed companion for boxing.

Hugman’s British Boxing Yearbook became a must-have for fans and anyone involved in the trade. He diligently released an updated edition for each of the following 25 years. In the meantime, in 1989, he was an integral part in the creation of popular magazine, Boxing Monthly. He didn’t stop there, though.

Type ‘Barry Hugman’s history of world championship boxing’ into your internet search engine and you will discover a truly incredible body of work. The site – supported by BoxRec – has details of every single world championship fight since 1871, many of them never been reported before, and include a written description on each one. He is better placed than most to assess the ever-changing world of boxing. He doesn’t listen when people tell him boxing is in crisis. Hugman – who picked up the Award of Excellence from the BBBofC in 2011 - was around in the late 1960s when the number of British professional boxers plummeted to an all-time low. But he has seen a change in the sport, and he’s not convinced it is for the better…

It’s hard to explain how boxing has evolved, but it has. It’s similar to football. In my day it was played by tough guys, on heavy grounds, with a heavy ball. There was shoulder charging, diving into goalkeepers, and there were very few fouls given. The referee just wouldn’t blow his whistle.
Boxing has evolved in a similar way but that’s not to say it’s all gone namby pamby. In my day it was based on skill and power but different things seem to be important today. Take the way the fighters train with the pads, for example. I’m not a great fan of that. Sparring against good people, people on a par or better than you, is the best way.

The current boxer is so different, even the way they fight. They throw one punch, then immediately follow with five or six. If you’re faced with a good boxer he’ll let the first one go and then they’ll all miss. What’s the point? To me it’s wasted effort.

The art of infighting has gone, there’s no doubt that it’s not what it was. The referees used to let you fight toe-to-toe and work on the body but now they pull you away all the time.

It was a lot more competitive back then. Take Pat McAteer who won the British middleweight title for example, he’d had 35 fights before he got a shot. The reason being was that there was a lot more boxers – something like 3,500 boxers – after the war. There was a lot of boxing, and it was competitive. There was sometimes 20 amateur  shows a night, there was no television, and you only started to get noticed when you beat the top people. It all came from experience.

Just after the war, they fought for the money and the competition. If you wanted to get through that lot you knew you had to be good. Only excellent fighters succeeded. I remember promoter Jack Solomons bringing over American fighters, who were just past their best, but not so far gone they could no longer fight. It made for exciting times and upsets. You had people like Nino Valdes coming over and whacking all our top heavyweights! We accepted that because we found out how good the fighters were.

But as a promoter, Solomons’ primary objective was to create a fight that would sell out.

Fighters would have several losses before they got anywhere. It was part of the learning process. Of course, they didn’t want to get knocked out badly and that did happen to some. But that’s the chance you take in boxing. You always think you’re never going to get knocked out, but of course, it can happen.

A lot of fighters used to progress because they’d lost. They are taught valuable lessons that fighters don’t get from walking through inferior opposition. Look at Terry Downes, he lost to Dick Tiger right at the start. Maybe he didn’t want to fight Tiger again but it didn’t stop him did it? He went on to win the world title and he was a huge draw. He was the biggest draw in the country.

But what hasn’t changed is the mentality of fighters. Fighters are fighters. The vast majority of the time they would fight anybody, they wouldn’t take easy ones otherwise they wouldn’t be in boxing.
Let them fight who they want to fight.

Like all strong relationships, Hugman has coped with the changes and evolved with them. His switch from the land of print to the worldwide web is testament to that. Wherever boxing goes, Hugman will follow, just like he always has.

Boxing is nothing to do with your background, it’s nothing to do with your upbringing, it’s in your genes
Author : Matt Christie
 
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