Bunce: ‘Boxing is in a great place!’
If British boxing could speak, it would sound like Steve Bunce. The charismatic pundit has been writing, talking and, more recently, shouting about the sport for over 25 years now. In fact, he's as much a personality as the men that inhabit the ring and would come up in the pound-for-pound rankings for the verbals outside it as well.
Hence, with the biggest weekend in British boxing this year only days away, who better to speak to about the state of the game than Mr Boxing himself. The maverick journalist sat down with Boxing Futures to lambast critics of the sport, the national press and Prince Naseem naysayers…
Steve, like any good story, we have to start at the beginning. How did you get into boxing?
In the early eighties I started ghosting a guy called Wally Bartleman who worked for the Evening Standard. Wally was getting a bit old so I used to go out and cover the fights he couldn’t make it to, then call him up in the morning and he would run my copy in the paper. I got in through the back door.
Did you ever box at all?
I boxed on and off from the age of about nine till I was 17. I actually campaigned at light-welterweight believe it or not, obviously I didn’t look like I do now!
What type of fighter were you?
No idea. When you’re a junior, you’re a junior. I’m always weary of people that can recall every sparring session they ever had. They are… wait for it… they are liars! And they talk about how they were throwing this punch once on a bag, I went to a gym from the age of nine on and off till about 17, probably hit the bag for five rounds each night and I can’t remember one single punch. You do the sums on eight years; 50 odd weeks a year; 3 nights a week; 18 minutes on the bag each time; calculate how many punches I roughly threw. Anyone who tells you he can remember a punch he threw in sparring or on a bag is a lying bastard!
Alright, we’ll save that story of the lightening quick one-two we used to throw on the pads for another time. So who’s the best British boxer you’ve seen in all your time as a pundit?
Prince Naseem is the best British boxer that I’ve seen and I think there’s an argument to say that Naz is the best British boxer period. What I find amazing is that people just refuse him out of sight. Have a look at his record, have a look at the champions he beat, have a look at the unbeaten fighters he beat, have a look at the guys he dropped for the first time ever in their career.
You see Naz’s only problem was he came around at a time when there was a journalistic changing of the guard. A lot of boxing journalists were ending their careers during his reign, men in their 60s that had been in the business for 35 years minimum. Consequently, Naz had very few friends in print and these guys would knock him constantly. Naz would beat a guy that was unbeaten and dangerous and these guys would say that he was a bum, he would beat a world champion like Tom Johnson and they would say he’s finished. Naz would fight Kevin Kelley a former world champion in front of 12,000 people in New York in one of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen in my life, come off the floor about four times to win and they’d say Kelly was gone.
When Naz did finally lose to Marco Barrera, these same old fuckers, I mean these guys in their 60s, were high-fiving each other! They were in Vegas celebrating his loss, now how the fuck does that work? This is a kid that was sleeping in a bunk-bed above a corner shop in Sheffield when he won the European title. And within a year bought the shop for his parents and no one in his family ever worked again. The kid’s a fairytale!
We can see you’re passionate about it. While we’ve got you in this mood, any particular decisions over the years that have made you sick with boxing?
You know what? Boxing is a business, a brutal business, and I always refer to something Don King told me when it comes to occasions like that. He said, ‘In boxing you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.’ So if there’s a bad decision I just shrug because if you’re the challenger and you’re in Germany, and you haven’t got a lot of major support with you, then you’re going to lose.
I’m not saying its good I’m just saying that’s the business, but listen we don’t give each other brown envelopes full of cash like they do in football. We don’t fix matches like they do in cricket and tennis, all of those are documented, and we don’t do it. We run a business that’s a sport and too many people in other sports make out that they run a sport with a bit of business, rubbish, they’re in denial.
So is boxing in a good place right now?
Boxing is in a great place right now. Just cos you have a few die hard fans on the internet saying it’s over because Mayweather won’t fight Pacquiao, it doesn’t mean the sport is in trouble. What people have to realise is we now have event boxing, which is the likes of Carl Froch, Amir Khan and James DeGale and then we have the rest of boxing. And apart from Five Live, apart from BBC London, apart from Steve Lillis at the News of the World and the two trade papers, every single so called boxing correspondent with the national papers is event boxing. So when Gary Sykes makes his comeback in a British title defence, in a rematch with Gary Buckland, no one from the national press will be there, whereas 30-years-ago all 20 of them would have been in attendance. So the coverage is in a bad place but the sport itself is doing fine.
But can it thrive without national coverage?
Okay so it’s lost the national coverage but the boxers are earning more now than they ever have. And that’s what its all about, pound notes. Any fighter that tells you it’s about glory or recognition, is mad. Why do you think David Haye fought Audley Harrison and not Tomasz Adamek, do you think he is scared of Tomasz Adamek - is it cobblers. David Haye fought Audley Harrison because he’s going to walk away with about nearly £7m, if David Haye fought Tomasz Adamek he would walk away with about £2m – you do the sums.
Listen; when guys like Charlie Magri and John Conteh were fighting back in the 70s they were superstars. They would be in the papers, front and back, for two or three weeks before a fight, and then 12 million people would tune in to watch it on TV. But none of those guys are living the life now. Charlie Magri is a gardener for the council. Charlie wants to get a new house, what’s he going to do, take his clippings from The Sun to the bank manager?
At the end of the day it’s about boxers earning money, the obvious argument is that if they’re on terrestrial TV they’d be better known but would they make as much money? When Naz fought Sergio Liendo for the title on ITV they peaked at 10.4 million viewers and he was getting £40,000 a fight from them, in fact Frank Warren was paying some of that out of his own pocket! Naz switched to Sky for his next fight and made £750,000 plus extras and it was probably only watched by 40,000 people. So again, you do the sums.
Can you pick a standout character from all your years in the business?
No, there are too many great characters. Mickey Duff, even though he hated me and sued me successfully as well as banning me from his shows, he was a great character. Frank Warren’s a good character. When Frank Warren laughs he’s brilliant, when he’s moaning he loses his sense of humour. Don King is sensational company, you couldn’t ask for any better company. And when you’re dealing with people who are crazy, who’s crazier or nuttier than Mike Tyson? It can’t get any better.
And what was the greatest fight you've ever watched from ringside?
The greatest fight I ever watched from ringside was Nigel Benn vs Gerald McClellan at the New London Arena in 1995. It was tragic how it ended but boy was it one hell of a fight.
In part two of our audience with Steve Bunce, the maverick journalist talks Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe, calming down a seething Bernard Hopkins and being jealous of Max Kellerman. Don’t miss it!
Click image below to listen to Bunce on his BBC radio show. Steve Bunce has also penned a boxing thriller called The Fixer, available at all good book shops and online at Amazon.