By Terence Dooley
Promoter, matchmaker, manager and sometime cornerman Mickey Duff has died Saturday aged 84. The colourful British boxing figure was born in 1929 as Monek Prager in Kraków, Poland. His Jewish family immigrated to England in the 1930s during the rise of the Nazi Party.
Duff turned professional at 15, circumventing the Board’s laws in the process, only to retire four years later with a 33-8-3 (4) record. After working in sales, he hooked up with promoters Jarvis Astaire and Mike Barrett plus trainer Terry Lawless to form a boxing powerhouse before forging a long-term, exclusive relationship with the BBC.
Duff, Astaire, Barrett and Lawless became known as “The Cartel”. They ruled British boxing until the arrival of Frank Warren, ITV and Sky, bringing through 16 world champions and working with many more. The likes of John H. Stracey, John Conteh and Frank Bruno benefitted from Duff’s extensive experience.
Duff walked away from the sport in 1999. He had promised to retire if Billy Schwer did not lift the WBC lightweight title and stuck to his vow when Stevie Johnson beat Schwer in November of that year.
Barry Hearn led the tributes by Tweeting: ‘Sorry to hear that Mickey Duff died today RIP Legendary promoter,’ earlier today.
A statement from Stephen Powell on the London Ex Boxers' Association website also paid tribute to Duff. It stated that: ‘The London Ex-Boxers Association offer their heartfelt condolences to the family of Micky Duff, who very sadly passed away peacefully in his sleep early this morning. This truly is the end of a golden era in British Boxing, the mould has been broken, there will never be another "true boxing man" like Micky Duff.’
Dean Powell often waxed lyrical about Duff’s ability and talent. Frank Warren’s matchmaker tragically passed away last year, but he once told me that Duff gave him great advice during Powell's early days in the cutthroat London boxing scene.
“Mickey Duff had a great saying: ‘Eyes and ears open, and mouth shut,” said Powell when speaking to me about Duff in 2009. “Being a matchmaker is a thankless task to be honest with you. Mickey Duff used to say: ‘You can please some people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’, and he was right.”
Manchester’s Billy Graham dealt with Duff both as a boxer and trainer. “The Preacher” pointed out that the former fight figure was a tough businessman who coined the phrase: ‘If you want loyalty buy a dog’; he also told me that Duff was an out-and-out boxing man.
“Mickey was a proper boxing man who could pick a prospect, read a fight and do everything that a trainer can do,” said Graham. “Most promoters are all about the boxing business, they’re not all fight fans and aren’t all clued up, but Mickey could dissect a fight like a top trainer.
“I used to watch trainers work the corner. I’d never travel around to their gyms, so I’d weigh them up on TV or at a venue the same way a fighter would weigh an opponent up. I'd watch Mickey work a corner to see how much he knew and how good he was—he was very good at giving out advice in the corner.
“Mickey never slipped up, he was that good. We talk about boxing and we say: ‘He’s a boxing man’, about the few people who know what they’re looking at and talking about. Mickey was the real deal. Sure, he was a hard-nosed, ruthless businessman, he had to be, so you have to acknowledge that, but he knew the business inside and out. He also knew all about timing in a way that few people do.”
Many fans will recall Duff’s stroke of inspiration during Marvin Hagler’s March 1986 world middleweight title defence against John “The Beast” Mugabi, who was Duff’s fighter despite the pre-fight machinations of Don King. Duff brought Father Anthony Clarke into the corner to offer words of advice and came up with the famous: “You won’t listen to me, John, so listen to the father,” line.
Clarke had baptized Mugabi three weeks earlier; he implored the Ugandan on even when all was lost. Clarke sent "The Beast" out for the 11th round with the memorable line “We love you, John” ringing in the fighter's ears. Mugabi didn’t win, he was stopped at 1:29 of the round, but Duff’s pleas and the inclusion of Clarke had squeezed every last drop of energy out of the weary world title challenger.
“Mickey knew Mugabi, he knew he was a crazy bastard, who knows how far he’d have gone had he looked after himself, so he brought the priest into the corner to gee him up,” said Graham.
“Don’t forget, Hagler was a destroyer, I think that fight probably took the edge of Hagler, it had to—people forget what a cruel fight that was, two quality operators doing damage to each other. So, yeah, Mickey could add something to a corner at any time.
“I’ve seen Mickey win fights with his corner input. He would see what was happening from his ringside seat then come into the corner to give advice, which showed just how confident he was in his ability to read a fight. I never once witnessed him talking nonsense in the corner.
“Then you’ve got to consider the timing of the man. He timed the [Jose] Napoles fight with [John H.] Stracey perfectly [a sixth-round TKO win for Stracey in Mexico in December 1975 for the WBC welterweight title]. Napoles was huge at the time—boxing’s version of Pele—but Duff knew that he was ready to go.
“I remember Duff’s quotes going into the fight because Napoles was my idol. Mickey said they’d go over there and stop him inside the distance. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but the proof was in the ring at the night. They could have taken that fight the year before. They waited for the right moment instead.
“It was the same with Don Curry, no one gave [Lloyd] Honeyghan a prayer because Curry was the man at the time, he was knocking people out all over the shop and was seen as the next huge star. Mickey looked at Curry, he knew he was burning the candle at both ends and weak at the weight, so he took Honeyghan over to America at a crucial time to produce a huge upset [Honeyghan picked up the WBC, WBA and IBF belts courtesy of a sixth-round corner retirement win in September 1986].
“Mickey obviously looked at Curry through the eyes of a trainer, he could see he was weak at the weight, picked up on it and then timed it to perfection by taking Honeyghan over there at the right moment. It was brilliant timing.”
Graham told me that he had been on the receiving end of one of Duff’s unique pep talks during his eight-round fight against Charlie Richardson in 1976. Graham was labouring to a decision win only for Duff to step in with a late pick-me-up.
“I’d been in the gym for eight days, but I needed the money and took the fight,” said Graham when recalling the win over Richardson. “It was an eight rounder at the Piccadilly Hotel. I was struggling, probably in front, but not on form. Mickey was part of the promotion. He comes into my corner and screams at me: ‘Do something you so and so,’ so I was annoyed. I went out and chinned him with a left hook in the next round, which was the last punch of a fight that looked like it was going the distance. That’s my personal experience of him in the corner.”
Duff’s passing marks the closing of an era. The young, brash up-and-comers from Duff’s days are now the older, wiser heads. Each bereavement reminds us that the tick tock of time chimes away above all of us: the young become the old; newcomers eventually became the pillars of the sport. When remembering Duff’s legacy, we should bear in mind that the sport we know and enjoy today was forged by the work put in by the likes of Duff.
Please send news and views to [email protected] or @Terryboxing.