• Steve Bunce

Duff hated everybody - but it was strictly business

Steve Bunce March 25, 2014
Mickey Duff, pictured here while Frank Bruno trains in April 1992, died last weekend aged 84 © Getty Images

Mickey Duff did not like many people in the boxing business and the feeling was, trust me, mutual.

He told his most loyal fighter, Duke McKenzie, that there was nothing in a contract that said you had to like the boxer you managed or promoted. Duff had rows with his fighters, rival promoters and people in the boxing game that were so vicious grown men would blush and try to leave the room.

However, it was always business with Mickey, nothing personal, just business.

When his control of boxing in Britain started to slip in the Eighties he never tried to hide his dislike for his rivals Frank Warren and Frank Maloney. "I don't like Warren," he said whenever asked. In later years they did talk, which is something, considering Duff refused to talk to his father for 35 years and ignored a death-bed wish that he visit.

Buncey's Vaults

Crawford Grimsley speaks ahead of his 1996 fight with George Foreman in Tokyo © AP
  • In 1996 I was in Tokyo for a "wayward gang of renegade boxers led by Big George Foreman and HIV carrier Tommy Morrison" and a few other sideshow attractions that "sent the crowd mild".
  • Foreman defended his WBU heavyweight title against Crawford Grimsley and the "rest of the fights featured a former weather-girl with RTL, a recently released convict, two retired NFL players who had a famous brawl during a game in 1988 and a forgotten heavyweight, Alex Stewart, once touted as the real thing. It was a fistic carnival".
  • It was a grotesque but equally brilliant day of boxing: "Morrison never bled; it is doubtful he broke a sweat" and Foreman had to chase the reluctant Grimsley. The fight between the two NFL legends, Mark Gastineau and Orlando Highsmith, "ended in round two when Gastineau, 6ft 6in and nearly 19 stone, turned away in tears to signal his pathetic attempt at fighting was over".
  • The women closed the show with "a broken nose, two firmly closed eyes and a new champion". It was a legendary trip, unforgettable.
  • As reported in the Daily Telegraph, November 5, 1996.

Maloney worked with Duff on the Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno showdown in Cardiff in 1993. Duff was scornful of Maloney's management of the Olympic champion, saying: "He's done a Cecil B. DeMille in reverse - he's taken a star and made him an unknown."

He could be nasty but it is, however, too easy to forget that Duff had a brilliant boxing mind and was a genius at reading fights and making fights happen. In America in the Seventies and Eighties his word was gospel on a fighter and fighter's ability; this was a time before the convenience of online fights made every man and his dog an instant expert.

Duff would travel to a gym, talk and meet and learn about the men he was matching. He spent a life of nights in the Fifties and Sixties at ringside in lost and forgotten venues studying the business. He had quit the pro ring at 19 after 69 fights, so he knew about the hard part of the hurt game; his apprenticeship at ringside helped him become the world's leading boxing figures in the Seventies.

He would appear at ringside in Caracas, Lusaka, Leeds, Las Vegas, New York and Reno with an interest in one of the men in the ring or to get a close look at one of the men in the ring. In Mexico City in 1975 he watched the legendary Jose Napoles make his 12th defence, during his second reign as world welterweight champion.

That night he called Terry Lawless, who was John H. Stracey's manager, and said that the time was right. Lawless disagreed and the pair had another of their furious rows. Thankfully, Duff won the argument and Stracey went to Mexico City, stopped Napoles and won the world title. Lawless and Duff did eventually stop speaking and nobody seems to remember why, which was not uncommon in Duff's life.

In the early Nineties he sued the paper I worked for over an article I wrote; the litigation lasted four years, I was banned for that duration from attending his shows and then he won a settlement figure. The fall-out started unpleasantly but after about a year I regularly found myself in his company and, bizarrely, he would ignore me but talk to me through whoever else was there. He paid me a high compliment one night in his West End flat: "You are a bit game, son." Once the case was over I could call him again and the working relationship continued like there had not been a break. It was, as he told Duke, just business.

He lived for the last few years in a home and Duke was a regular visitor, last spending time with Duff on Christmas Day. Duke tells a story, and he will not mind me telling it here, about one of his last visits. Duke took a computer and the pair sat down to watch Duke's world title win over Gaby Canizales in 1991. It was a flawless performance from Duke and Duff had done his part, pulling off a masterstroke to get Canizales to London with the WBO bantamweight title on the line. "Mickey," Duke said. "I want you to score this fight." They sat down to watch and before the decision, Duke paused it and turned to Duff: "Mickey, how you got it?" he asked.

Duff thought about it and said: "The black kid has done enough, but I would need to manage him." Duke asked why and Duff turned to him, looked him in the eyes, and said: "He can fight a bit but he's not that good." It was classic Duff.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
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Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.