Everything is cyclical: we’re born, we procreate, we die. A plant sheds its seeds, the seeds germinate and mature, the plant sheds its own seeds. Everything is cyclical but never more so than in championship boxing.
A championship boxer enters the ring at a young age. He has a distinguished amateur career. He turns pro and wins domestic honours. He’s fed a faded former champion or two for experience and a notch on his ring record. He wins world honours. He defends his title. He loses his title. He’s fodder for the next champion and becomes a notch on their ring record. And so the world turns. Everything is cyclical.
In the days before iPods and tablets and Twitter I was part of the cycle when I met my first boxer. Well, in actual fact it was my third boxer but I’m not counting Alan Minter and Chris Sanigar because in my role as wine waiter I was there to serve them not write about them. In the days when mobile phones were a luxury that only the very rich or very crooked could afford I met my first boxer. His name was Michael Watson.
I met him in a gym in London’s Carnaby Street. It’s gone now. The gym was run by renowned cornerman Dennie Mancini: gruff, of Italian stock, a heart of pure gold. He’s dead now. Occasionally, boxing figures such as Mickey Duff and Terry Lawless would call in to inspect their wares. They’re dead, too.
In those days Michael Watson was on the rise. He’d won all but one of his fights, including a victory over the highly rated American ‘Dangerous’ Don Lee. Michael and the people around him were all aware that he could be The One. I watched him train and he watched me watch him. Afterwards we talked and got on well. We were both about the same age. We struck up a friendship.
Standing beside him at all times was a taxi-driver named Eric Seccombe. Like Michael and myself, Eric lived in Islington. Eric had known Michael since he was a boy and was employed as his trainer. His affection for the younger man was palpable. It was so omnipresent that you could have reached out and scooped up a handful of it. When you spoke to his Michael you always felt it was an intrusion. At all times in Eric’s eyes was a look of pure affection, of love, if you will.
In the years to follow I was to see that expression many times. In the eyes of Emmanuel Steward as he talked to me about Thomas Hearns. In Angelo Dundee’s when he spoke of Ali. In Brendan Ingle’s eyes when he mentioned his beloved Bomber. I could go on.
Leap forward a quarter of a century and I see that look of love once more. It’s not directed at me. Naturally it’s not. It’s directed at a young boxer named Frank Buglioni and it’s coming from his trainer Mark Tibbs. (son of – are we allowed to say legendary – Jimmy Tibbs?).
And this is because boxing is all about love. Love and hate and war. The love of one man for another that allows him to reach over and gently caress his fighter’s face; to wipe the grease from the other man’s eyes with a tenderness only matched by a lover or a parent. The hatred and despair that one man feels for another when a paltry half-an-hour or so is the dividing line between success or failure. And war: the shared experience of battle and blood that both unites and separates.
Boxing is cyclical and no-one can escape the cycle. I’ve entered the Twilight Zone. I’m like one of the Pevensie kids returning to Narnia. Twenty-five years later and I’m standing in a gym in Canning Town to meet Frank Buglioni (pronounced without the ‘g’, I keep telling myself) and to spend a little time with a boxer for the first time since the late nineties when I watched the aforementioned Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham prepare for a fight with the American Vinnie Pazienza.
It’s a big, big deal for me. Many years ago I was the editor of a paper thin newspaper entitled Boxing Weekly. Boxing was my life back then. When I wasn’t writing about it or watching it I was out socialising with some of the many friends that I made in the sport. Chief among these was Michael Watson. As you will know Michael was almost fatally injured during a world title fight with Chris Eubank. It was because of this that I questioned my fascination with boxing and came to the conclusion that I couldn’t write about boxing without being complicit in its repercussions. Check out ‘Dylan’s ‘Who Killed Davy Moore,’ for a far clearer picture than I could ever paint. So I wrote a book about why I was not going to write about boxing anymore. And then I stopped writing about boxing. Until now. And I’m not sure why.
I walk through the gym and recognise Frank Buglioni. He is sweating it out on an exercise bike. We shake hands and I’m immediately struck by this young man’s easy going nature, and his quiet confidence. We chat for a while and I tell him my story. About how he’s the first boxer I’ve interviewed for a lifetime; about how I was unsure what to talk about. About how I’ve decided that the best thing to do is simply talk about boxing: talk about boxers and fights that we like. And that’s what we agree to do.
But first there is work to do. For both of us. I have my camera and I walk around the gym taking snaps of the fighters. A small part of me expects to be recognised but nobody does. Not even Mark Tibbs, son of Jimmy and almost a father to Frank. I tell him I remember seeing him fight at the York Hall as a young man. I watch as his protégé spars a couple of rounds, first with impressively muscled Light-Heavyweight Ovil Mckenzie and then with a boxer named Eddie McDonagh. Buglioni’s work is serious and scrupulous. Just as with Michael Watson all those years ago, there is an air of expectation. Buglioni and his team mean business: they are in no doubt that barring unexpected roadblocks their boxer is going to the very top of the hill. And there is that look. Always there is that look.
Frank Buglioni with no G finishes his morning’s work and heads for the shower. I sit and drink coffee and inhale the community atmosphere of the gym. Twenty minutes later he’s sitting across from me and I begin at the beginning because there is nowhere else I can start: How did he get into boxing?
“| wasn’t a natural athlete. When I was about 12 a friend of my dad’s son had just done a little boxing and asked if I wanted to try it. I jumped at the chance, gave it a go. I remember the coach saying I could whack and I was fit. I improved very quickly.
“I started training with Mark Tibbs. I went down to spar with Billy Jo Saunders who was with Mark and Jimmy Tibbs. I think we did eights rounds straight off and I think Mark saw something in me, decided to take me on the pads. I think we clicked straight away. I like the fact that Mark went in my corner and gave me advice, gloved me up and I thought ‘that’s a good man’. Straight away I had trust and respect for him. He taught me certain things and they worked. And I thought if I’m gonna turn pro its gonna be with Mark.”
At close quarters Buglioni looks nothing like a boxer. Some people are already likening him to a boxing version of David Beckham. He’s already done a little modelling. How does he feel about people hitting that as yet unmarked face of his and how will he take it when somebody beats him?
“I had my first amateur fight at 15. I won it. It was a good old tear up. I got hit loads to times. Do you know what? It didn’t bother me. Didn’t bother me at all.
“I won my second fight. My first defeat came in my third fight. It was in the junior ABAs I fought a guy there with 30+ fights. I put up a good fight. He beat me on a majority. it was a close close one. I was gutted but I was hungry to get and rectify it..
“I’ve been rocked a couple of times but never hurt. I think body shots hurt more than a head shot. I’m confident in my heart and my chin and my ability to dig deep when it matters.
“I’m more competitive with certain people. Like my brother, when we play a bit of table tennis we’re really competitive against each other. We’re very evenly matched. But I’m only really competitive with boxing. I don’t like losing the sprints in training I like to try my hardest. But I listen to Mark. If he comes and says ‘Listen I want you to block and move and don’t worry winning the sparring,’ then I’ll do it.”
He’s good company, is Frank Buglioni. If I was going to meet my first boxer for seventeen-odd years I couldn’t have picked a nicer bloke. I tell him how much I envy him. How I envy the fact that he has a goal in life and that everything he does is geared towards achieving that goal. And I think about the cycle. I ask him if he ever wonders what will happen should that goal be reached.
“Not really. I’m enjoying the present so much that I don’t really look too far into the future. I take it week by week. I’ve got good people around me. I’ve got trust in them. World champion is the goal. If I didn’t think I could be a world champion I wouldn’t be doing boxing. It’s too hard a sport.”
It’s a short interview but worthwhile. We shake hands and I wish him the best. Frank mentions that Eric Seccombe sometimes pops into the gym and offers advice. And the connection between Michael Watson and myself and Frank Buglioni is established.
And already I’m worried for him in the way that I used to worry for Michael Watson. Because every time you meet a boxer you can’t help but worry about them. Well I can’t anyway. As Frank exits, Mark Tibbs enters and takes a seat at the table. We chat for a while and I remind him that back in the dusty recesses of history we did meet a couple of times. He talks about Frank of course and again that look creeps into his eyes. I can see that he worries about Frank too.
“I’ve always been a De La Hoya fan and he got dragged into the trenches in that fight and that’s why I love it. He turned it around. The left hook that started the finish of the fight was phenomenal. I think De La Hoya thought that he would outbox and outscore Vargas but Vargas wasn’t just a brawler. He was a very good technical fighter. Vargas had the ability to dig deep and one shot can change a fight.”
Lesson to be learned: Don’t underestimate your opponent
“An absolute lesson in boxing by Bernard Hopkins. I like to watch that every now and again just to see how good defensively Hopkins is. And the countering and the timing. That’s championship material. Every round that went by he slowly turned it and by the end he knocked him out. An absolute masterclass.”
Lesson to be learned: Train as hard as you can
“I’ve always liked Holyfield for his explosive power and combinations. He was light on his feet as well. Just a phenomenal fighter. I liked his attitude. He was a humble character. I know he got beat but it was a phenomenal fight.”
Lesson to be learned: Have a big heart
“It was one of the first fights that I took notice of and it hooked me into boxing. Just so entertaining. Gatti was another of my favourites. Once I saw that fight I followed his career and he was all heart.”
Lesson to be learned: Have a Plan B
“My favourite fight of all time. I think it’s a lot of people’s. I think I was two or three years into my amateur career and I’ve watch it hundreds of times since. I absolutely love it. Castillo had him going and just jumped on him a little too much and got caught with a counter. And Corrales turned it around.
Lesson to be learned: One punch can change it all.