Punch drunk

Twenty & Out: a life in boxing

Mickey Duff with Bob Mee <em>Collins Willow, 280pp, £16.99</em>

In Twenty & Out Bob Mee has contrived a minor miracle in somehow corralling Mickey Duff's avalanche of words into a disciplined order. This is a very animated autobiography telling the rags-to-riches story of a man who, over three decades, became this country's leading boxing promoter. But it isn't only a history of the postwar fight game; the authors have managed to capture the atmosphere of this miscalled noble art, with its tang of cigar smoke, wintergreen and cheap cigarettes.

Duff - born Monek Prager in a Polish village in 1929 - was the son of a rabbi who brought his family to the East End of London to escape virulent anti-Semitism. (Several close relations who remained in Poland died in concentration camps.) He began boxing in the boys' clubs of the East End, and turned professional at the age of 15. He is uncharacteristically modest about his time inside the ring. When I was an inspector at the British Boxing Board of Control, I recall his topping the bill at the Mile End Arena - then a derelict bomb site. He was a clever and courageous fighter, but he lacked the punch that would have taken him to the very top.

At the age of 21, both ring- and streetwise, he hung up his gloves to become a matchmaker for small halls. The major promotions were out of his reach because Jack Solomons, tsar of British boxing, took a dislike to the brash young man who would eventually dethrone him. The financial interests of promoters and managers are often in conflict, so the board had ruled that no one should hold both jobs at the same time. This raised problems for Duff. He overcame them by having Harry "the Horse" Levene, a former power in the trade, as the front promoter; his long-time friend Jarvis Astaire, who had wide interests in television, as a manager; and himself as matchmaker and manager. They were joined by Terry Lawless, who, at the time, managed the largest British stable of boxers, and by Michael Barrett, who delivered the Albert Hall.

As an autobiographer, Duff evidently shares with Jean Jacques Rousseau a belief that confession absolves you of past sins. "You will never succeed if you give a man wars all the time because by the time he has learned his trade . . . he's burnt out," he says of his skill at arranging mismatches to protect his fighters from difficult opponents, most notoriously Frank Bruno.

But what of the mental health of those unhappy fighters who were crushed by Bruno's punch? Eventually, after Bruno had knocked out a hapless, semi-trained American in Cannes within a minute, Barrett objected: "This was one of the most disgraceful mismatches in boxing history and those involved have to take responsibility." Barrett resigned, but Duff explained that he couldn't be blamed because he wasn't there.

Having steered Bruno, whose simplicity and cliched utterances endeared him to the British boxing fraternity, to a world crown, albeit diminished by the fragmentation in the heavyweight division, Duff was justifiably disgruntled when the heavyweight left him for his new rival on the block, Frank Warren.

As for myself, Mickey and I fell out when, aware of the long-term damage that repeated blows to the head cause, I began campaigning for the abolition of boxing. If the reader of Twenty & Out analyses the subsequent careers of the boxers mentioned, including the many champions managed by Duff, he will not be able to ignore how few kept their wits, eyesight or cash. And what more conclusive proof of the danger of boxing than to see the greatest fighter of the century, Muhammad Ali, exposed as a stumbling, incoherent wreck at the BBC's recent sports personality awards.

Although Duff records that the Ali team doctor resigned after medical tests revealed bleeding kidneys and irreversible brain damage - long before the dreadful punishment he took in his last contests - he perpetuates the myth that Ali has Parkinson's disease. He hasn't. He has Parkinson's syndrome: that is, a collection of symptoms similar to the disease, which isn't surprising given that post-traumatic encephalopathy (punch drunkenness) affects exactly the same portion of the brain as does the disease.

Duff's last fighter, Billy Schwer, was recently defeated boxing for a world crown. Soon after, Duff announced his retirement. Summing up his association's ethics, he writes: "Unlike a lot of managers, we were first motivated by success rather than money." Many will raise their eyebrows at that.