PHOTO: Former world heavyweight champion Joe Louis advising Bill Gray on the punchbag

NOT too many boxers can say they shared a sparring ring with Muhammad Ali and had Joe Louis visit them in the gym.

But those are the sort of stories that were recalled when former British heavyweight Billy Gray was laid to rest last month, after passing away in January.

A year-long battle with bowel cancer was another fight he saw to the finish and he will be sadly missed, leaving behind his wife Penny and their seven children.

Henry Cooper once called him “Britain’s next champion” and, although that never came to pass, he did enough to be considered a challenger of his time.

After starting boxing in the Midlands, he moved to London around the time of turning pro in the mid-1960s.

His funeral was held on February 6, and the Midland’s boxing old guard piled into Streetly Crematorium to pay their respects. His brother Ron, a fellow former heavyweight fighter and promoter, led the tributes.

As a man, he was liked and respected and, as a fighter, he was stylish yet strong enough to mix it up. Fierce rivals Ali and Cooper, who thought he was as tough as they came, both knew that.

Ron played a supporting role to Ali on the undercard of both of his contests against Cooper but never got to pit his wits against ‘the Greatest,’ like Billy did.

He said: “There seemed to be a link between our family and Ali. He’s competed over here three times and I boxed on two of those bills, while Billy sparred with him for his fight on the other!

“He got the call to go down to the Thomas A Becket gym in London and spend two days with Ali, before he fought Brian London.

“The strange thing was I spending a month up in Blackpool sparring with Brian at the time. I joked with Billy that I was softening him up for Ali!

“Our parents had a pub called the Royal Exchange in Bridgetown, for a time, and we had a gym fitted upstairs where everyone used to come and train.

“We used to spar together all of the time and he was always hard to catch. He an excellent technical fighter and he could, and probably should, have been a British champion.

“Henry Cooper used to tell me all of the time that Billy was capable of that, he called him the hardest person he had ever sparred with.”

Billy’s technical skill had been honed in the amateur code, where he starred for Wolverhampton Boxing Club. His sporting prowess won him the Duke of Edinburgh award for the Midlands.

By the time he turned pro in 1964, Ron already had six years of paid experience under his belt, having turned over with the legendary Turpin family upon leaving school.

A career in football and the police had already fell by the wayside as the boxing bug bit Billy, with London calling two years later as he relocated in the hunt for the big fights.

Ron said: “I never had an amateur career, I turned pro at 16 and went with the Turpins, so I spent a lot of time in Leamington Spa.

“I wouldn’t change that but, if I had learned my trade that way first, I might have got a bit further like Billy did.

“He had already achieved so much, he won a national title in the junior ABAs and boxed for England. He was only a middleweight then!

“That’s where his rivalry with Carl Gizzi began, Billy beat him in the amateurs and he would later come back and beat him as a pro.

“He was a good footballer, too, and had trials for Aston Villa, Walsall, Millwall, where our Uncle Ron was manager. I was named after him. Our Dad, William Snr, loved the game.

“When I got into boxing, Billy took an interest in it as well and started to take it up when he went to the Police cadets, before joining Wolverhampton Boxing Club.

“He worked in the Walsall Police force as a constable when he left school, but he had to give it up when he turned professional, as they wouldn’t allow you to have two jobs.

“Billy moved to London, where his manager Wally Lesley lived, to concentrate on boxing and never left. I told him he was the right man for him.

“By the time he had retired, he was settled and it was his home. Some of his children moved back up here, so it was like he had two families.”

Although the British title eluded him, Billy did possess a big silver belt from his career-best year in the sport, 1966, and enough funds to set himself up with a post office maintenance company.

The Philips Electric competition was a Prizefighter of its time, with quarter and semi-finals in one night before a decider down the line.

Ron had competed without success in the same tournament three years earlier, getting to the semi-finals despite losing after Dave Ould picked up an eye injury.

But there was no stopping Billy as he impressively stopped Menzies Johnson and Ermanno Festorazzi , each in two rounds, before outpointing Roy Enifer in the final two months later.

He would also push Ray Patterson to a draw and scored a great over-the-distance victory over Guiseppe Ros before the year was out.

Ron said: “Jack Solomons used to run these heavyweight tournaments now and again, I boxed in one and Billy later went and won it.

“You would fight twice in one night and then the final later on for a £2,000 prize, which was a huge amount of money then.

“He had the silver belt he won from that competition until his dying day and he used the cash to start his own business.

“That year was perhaps his best year, really, from him winning that and then beating the likes of Guiseppe Ros and drawing with Floyd.

“Carl Gizzi would get a win over Billy in the end but he struggling through illness by then, as he was suffering through an iron deficiency. That finished his career off, really.”

The Gray brothers later promoted boxing bills in Wolverhampton and London together, before Billy bowed out to concentrate on his business.

They were all reunited as recently as Christmas where Ron, Billy and their siblings got the chance to reminiscence about boxing.

It turned out to be the last time Billy and Ron saw each other, but his devotion to and impact on the game will be celebrated one last time.

In a generous and nice touch, all proceeds from the whip-round at the funeral will go to the Wolverhampton Boxing Club where it all began for Billy.

Ron said: “We were born and bred in Norton Canes, as were most of the family, and I am the eldest of four boys and a girl. There was two years between me and Billy.

“We were and are very close, Doug and Pete both boxed for Wolverhampton ABC like Billy, Robert didn’t and our sister Judy was the youngest.

“We are all brought up to look after each other and, even now, we always meet up at Bar Sport in Cannock on Christmas Eve for dinner.

“Billy was there last year, as he always did, he was ill but it still hadn’t really took hold yet. He was rushed into hospital when I was on holiday in Spain and given two days to live.

“I spoke to him and he told me not to bother coming back, as there was nothing I could do. I will always remember the way he was – and the way he was in the ring.

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