By Terence Dooley
Words cannot do justice to the impact that Dean Powell had on the sport of boxing, when Queensberry Promotions revealed the news of his untimely death earlier today it left the boxing world stunned and saddened to its core. A statement posted on www.frankwarren.com read: ‘All of us are deeply saddened and shocked by the loss of our very close friend and colleague, Dean Powell. Dean was a valued and popular member of our team and within the sport of boxing and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones for their tragic loss.’
Powell’s love for the sport of boxing has always been beyond doubt, he held BBBoC licences as a manager, trainer and matchmaker, as well as operating as a cuts man and expert hand wrapper. His work took him from Dudley Boxing Club through to his role with Frank Warren by way of working with Lennox Lewis and many other big names.
His love of London was fostered during his youth in the Black Country, and Powell moved to the capital city in the 1980s, aged just 22, to make his mark in the sport. It was quite a journey, he has worked countless world title fights, put together some major bills and had the canny knack of knowing when to make the right fight at the right time, which is easier said than done.
After his move to London, Dean soon found himself in the privileged position of gym manager at the world famous Thomas a Beckett gymnasium. He eventually took up a role working with Frank Maloney at Panix Promotions as matchmaker and trainer; Dean then became head of boxing at Lion Promotions.
Frank Warren obviously had a lot of faith in the matchmaker’s talent, he handed Powell the role once occupied by legendary fight maker Ernie Fossey in 2003, a move that surprised many at the time. The surprise quickly turned to admiration mixed with respect as the tireless grafter set about filling Fossey’s shoes.
There will be many words spoken about Powell in the coming days and coming months. Many, many fights will be listed in his honour, but it will be hard to pin down an accurate description of a mercurial, straight talking character like Powell. He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.
My own memories of him are fond ones. My first conversation with the high-profile matchmaker came as the result of a story that he disagreed with. I noticed a few missed calls, dialled the number back and caught a bit of flak. I made my apologies, I’d been bang in the wrong, and Powell accepted them so we moved on and started talking boxing. One hour later and we were still chatting away; I jokingly put out the idea of a warts-and-all interview and to my surprise he agreed.
It was the start of a relationship that taught me a lot about the nature of the sport. Many calls that began with: “Terry, we’re not going to fall out over this website, but…” would end with discussions about The Faces, by way of a slight disagreement over Rod Stewart’s role in the breakup of that band, and would settle into small talk.
Things always got sorted out with Powell. There was never a doubt as to where you stood with him and, once the dust settled, he would always impart a lesson or two. Be it about boxing, music or the city of London, one of his favourite subjects.
Our last full interview took place at the start of the year, Powell was BoxingScene’s Grafter of The Year for 2012 and could have easily defended that crown year in and year out; he was planning to attack 2013 with the vigour he had attacked every year during his time in the sport. Times were tough, Powell had said, but he was optimistic about the business and enjoying his work, which is always half the battle.
Many of us got to enjoy the fruits of his work, be it at live shows or on TV, and a lot of what he did within the sport went unappreciated and unseen. We have lost a great one in Powell, and that’s what many better men and writers will spend the next few weeks trying to express, but it’s going to be a struggle to get it all down.
Below is a Q and A I did with Dean in 2009. Those who knew him can enjoy his words; those who didn’t can get to know him, and maybe learn a thing or two:
Did you receive any lasting words of advice in those early days?
“Dean Powell: “Mickey Duff had a great saying: ‘Eyes and Ears open, and mouth shut’; I was a good learner, and a good listener. I have also said many times that Jimmy Tibbs gave me an absolutely fantastic education in this business. I also received a lot of help and advice from the late Gary Davidson who was former landlord at the Thomas and Beckett. Joe Devitt, who worked great fighters such as John Conteh, was also a big help.
“It was always a great experience. Jimmy Tibbs, Terry Lawless, George Francis, Mickey Duff, Paddy Byrne, and Dennie Mancini, the people who would help you were the people who had achieved success themselves. They were secure in their own ability, so they didn’t have to worry about me doing this or doing that.
“I have also had the honour of working alongside the great Emanuel Steward on several occasions, including working in the corner with him and the legendary Tommy Hearns when Tommy fought in Manchester against Nate Miller.”
Who is the best trainer you have worked with?
“I’ve learned from them all, but I’d have to say that in my own personal opinion Jimmy Tibbs and Ronnie Browne, from Dudley ABC, stand out as the two finest coaches over the last twenty-two years in boxing.”
Have you seen a big change in training techniques over the years?
“I think the involvement of fitness coaches and nutritionists has been a big help. I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside Britain’s leading expert in this field, Kerry Kayes, who has brought a lot to the sport.”
Is matchmaking the toughest role you have ever undertaken in boxing?
“Matchmaking is the most difficult role, especially now. You have fewer fighters, you have got people getting involved who shouldn’t be involved: mothers, dads, brothers, and agents. It is just ridiculous. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t. If a fighter is working in McDonalds he wouldn’t take his mum, his mate, and his advisor with him into work.
“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 the people all of the time’ — and it is true. It is not an easy job. If it were easy we would all be doing it. With every passing week matchmaking gets more and more difficult.”
Does your role end once you have watched everyone weigh in?
“My job finishes after the bill! The only time when you know a fight is going to happen is when the bell goes. Here is an example of that — Sports Network’s first show back on ITV [16th of July 2005]. We have Danny Williams against Matt Skelton in the main event. Amir Khan boxed that night at Bolton against David Bailey. Everyone weighs-in OK, then at 10 o’clock on the night before the show Danny Williams pulls out of the fight!
“I was alone in the hotel. I had decided to skip having a meal with everyone because I was so tired. I was trying to relax with a sandwich and a glass of wine. I then get a call to say Danny Williams is out of the fight. I just got on with it. I got hold of Richard Poxon [former matchmaker and trainer at Fight Academy] about 6am the next morning. Richard then went and got us Mark Krench.
“That is where you need your network of people all doing the same job. The network that you build up — those that you can trust and you can work with — is something that you rely on. That type of relationship does not happen overnight.
“If somebody phones up, no matter how late in the day it is, and says: ‘So and so is out’, then there is no point ranting and raving or screaming: ‘I’ll never work with you again’. If they are out there is nothing you can do to put that fighter back in again, you are just taking levels of energy out of yourself — energy you need to put the damage right.”
By all accounts you have mellowed a lot over the past few years, what do you attribute this to?
“As you get a bit older, you tend to take a step back a bit and look at times when you’ve rocked and rowed with people — you look at the good times as well. I love coming here to Manchester because I’ve got some great memories from years ago. [Champs Camp’s former head coach] Phil Martin was a great man, someone I had a great relationship with, and looked up to. I have some sad but happy memories here, even with Billy Graham, I’m laughing at the memory of it now, but we did have our moments.”
I believe you had some massive rows with Graham?
“Whatever anyone wants to say about Billy, he did a good job with his fighters, when he got on with doing the job. Billy isn’t involved anymore, and I think that is a shame, he has got a lot of knowledge and experience to pass on.
“Another thing with Billy is that sometimes it would be very difficult, you’d have an argument with him, but there was always a bit of excitement when Billy was involved. We had some arguments over opponents, to be truthful. If Billy was honest he may now look back and say: ‘Dean was right about that’, and if I’m being honest I’d say that maybe at the time I didn’t appreciate the job he was doing, and the pressure he was under to deliver for those kids. Billy was all for his fighters. I can smile about it now, and I wish him well for the future. It is a shame that the likes of Billy and Ray Farrell are not involved anymore.”
If you had to hand over the reins to someone else what advice would you pass down to them?
“Make sure you have got an understanding wife or girlfriend! Boxing is 24/7 and don’t let anyone tell you any different. It never stops. I have been very, very fortunate to work with great people. I have had an Oxford education in boxing, really. I have seen a lot of people come and go but I am still here, and I am still excited about the future.”
Going back in time, was it tough making your way in the London boxing fraternity?
“It is still tough now, 22 years later. It was a case of going down there to live and achieve my dream. I am still living that dream all these years later. I feel very blessed. It was a great period for me. At the beginning, I was at the Thomas a Beckett, the most famous boxing gym in the world — over a hundred world champions had trained there. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, they have all trained in the Beckett. To have on your business card ‘Gym Manager Thomas a Beckett’ at twenty-two years of age, it was a great thing for me, a great education.
“Moving on, I went to work at the Royal Oak with Terry Lawless and Jimmy Tibbs, which was something else, a bit of a dream. To go there and work with the likes of Mark Kaylor, you can’t buy that kind of experience. It was another great time for me.”
You also worked with Chris Pyatt, a massively underrated boxer.
“Jimmy Tibbs was training Nigel Benn in Tenerife at the time, so I stayed in England and worked with Chris when he won the WBO middleweight title against Sumbu Kalambay in 2003, and when he made his first defence against Hugo Antonio Corti. It was a huge responsibility, but Jimmy had confidence in my ability, and he knew the job would be done right.”
Do you still see many of the ex-fighters you trained?
“Yeah, nobody gets on with everybody — in life, not just in this business — but the people I’ve worked with still have a relationship with me. Mickey Cantwell, who I knew before I went to London, still has a great relationship with me. Paul Lloyd was absolutely on his knees when he came to me, he had been stopped by Richie Wenton at super-bantamweight, we brought him down to bantamweight and he won the British, Commonwealth and European titles — he is like a brother to me. If I were in trouble, Paul would be the first person there for me. Johnny Graham who won the central area cruiserweight title, my first champion. Patrick Mullings, who is a former IBO super-bantamweight champion. These people are lifelong friends.”
You worked with Lennox Lewis, was there a sense that you were working with a future great?
“I was very privileged to work alongside Lennox when I was head of boxing at Lion Promotions in 2001. It was a great experience. I think Lennox Lewis will go down in history as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Lennox has never been given the credit he deserves. Lennox defeated himself in both his losses [versus Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman] due to poor preparation. Lennox brought it on himself in both of those matches. So the only guy to ever beat Lennox Lewis was Lennox Lewis.”
UFC has grown, the economy is shrinking, and TV is turning its back on the sport, do you worry about the future of boxing?
“There will always be boxing, people will always want to fight, but it is going to get harder before it gets easier. They are saying it is the economic climate, and I think we are in for a rough ride over the coming twelve months, but I also believe that the strongest will survive.”
Your current employer, Frank Warren, is known as a survivor, where does his longevity come from?
“You look at Frank Warren and you see that he still has the same vigour, enthusiasm, and drive, and he is always looking to come up with innovations. If I’m feeling a bit tired I can look at Frank and see his passion and desire for success, to be the best. That is a really big influence on you — it makes you push on.
“Frank always bounces back. I’ve known Frank for twenty years, and worked for him for the past six years, so it has been a pleasure. He has treated me like one of his family, and he has given me a great education on the business side of boxing. He is a good judge of a fighter — he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for that. He is a good man, and has been very good for boxing, investing his own money, time, and effort into the sport. That can only be good for boxing.”
You have seen a lot of boxing over the years; does any one particular performance stand out in?
“The best performance I have seen, in the flesh, from a British performer was Duke McKenzie winning the WBO bantamweight title [on points in 1991] against Gaby Canizales at the Elephant and Castle. It was everything, from seeing him working in the gym before the fight to his boxing in the ring. He got everything off to a T that night. It was perfect. Emanuel Steward — I learned a lot from him over the years — was over in the other corner and Canizales did not come here to lose the fight. Duke was absolutely magnificent.”
Who is the best boxer you have watched live?
“Mike McCallum is probably the best fighter I have seen in the flesh. He was a consummate professional in everything he did. He prepared himself right. He would come into the Thomas a Beckett to train when fought over here. I saw him prepare for Herol Graham and Michael Watson. His preparation was fantastic. From wrapping his hands to wrapping himself up in a big towelling robe, he was spot-on in everything he did.”
What is you earliest memory of the sport?
“The first I memory I have of boxing is Muhammad Ali. I remember watching Ali and Foreman on a Saturday afternoon on World of Sport, or maybe it was Grandstand — it was a while ago! The first time I remember watching boxing live was watching Sugar Ray Leonard during the Montreal Olympics in 1976. I was also a big fan of Charlie Magri, I remember watching Charlie in the amateurs as well. I used to like going down to Dudley Town Hall and watching Pat Cowdell — he was one of the master boxers that this country has produced.
“I was lucky with the people I worked with. I have been lucky enough to work with some great fighters. Lloyd Honeyghan was absolutely marvellous and I worked with him at the end of his career. Mickey Cantwell winning the British flyweight title. John Graham when he won the Southern Area cruiserweight title in 1991 [a win over Michael Aubrey]. Working alongside Joe Calzaghe, who as a boxer has never really got the credit he deserves. There have been some great nights, and I feel that there are many more still to come.”
The great London boxing pubs are all but extinct. Do you miss those places?
“Twenty-years ago the Thomas a Beckett pub would be a great place to be on Sunday lunchtime. The fighters would come and train and we would go downstairs and have a drink in the bar. You haven’t got that anymore. There aren’t those great boxing pubs near the gyms anymore. You had the Beckett, the Royal Oak, Freddie Mills’s pub, The Ring at Blackfriars, the Masons Arms in Battersea, the Craven Arms in Lavender Hill, the Wellington in Highgate, and the Ringside restaurant in Shoreditch. All those boxing pubs and places, they are gone now. It is a shame because we are losing characters.”