Not many people have been around the fight game as long as Steve Bunce. To describe him as the final word in boxing would not by any means be stretching the truth. The passion and emotion he commits to his beloved sport resonates with fight fans across the nation. His barnstorming podcast with Mike Costello on BBC iPlayer is a must listen for all boxing enthusiasts and his punditry of the epic Joshua v Klitschko showdown was enthralling.
So when The MALESTROM got wind of his new book ‘Bunce’s Big Fat Short History of British Boxing’ we did all we could to get some time with the big daddy. Seconds out, take it away Buncey…
The MALESTROM: So first things first the book, it’s very much a celebration of British boxing in many ways, and the timing’s pretty good given the renaissance we’re experiencing, if that would be fair to say?
Steve Bunce: Well two things, first of all you’re right it is a celebration, I hadn’t really thought about it that way, it is a celebration because I go out and I celebrate hundreds of fighters that have vanished and you have to really struggle to find them. As for the renaissance, we’ve been on the upside now for a good few years, we never really sunk that low, we had the massive high in the nineties with Benn, Eubank and Watson, we had a bit of a lull I suppose with some of the Hatton years they were a bit quiet, apart from Hatton’s mad fights or Calzaghe’s mad fights or Froch’s mad fights, but this last two or three years since before the 2012 Olympics and right up to now, it’s just been a glorious five years. A five years which you could put against any five years ever in British boxing history, so I pitched the book about over a year or so ago and wrote it in a hundred days after the Rio Olympics, tryin’ to work out if I was gonna die of the Zika virus or finish the book and I finished the book so it was a plus plus really.
TM: How involved do you get ringside? Is there much heartache and drama for you?
SB: Yeah always, it’s a really strange thing, I catch myself standing up on a regular basis. Just recently on April 29th, when I should know better, six feet from the ring in front of 90,000 people, I was standing up, several times my producer at the BBC, young Jack he’s only about 12 but he’s really really good, was touching me and saying, “sit down, sit down Buncey,” and that happens, you get sucked in, in fact there’s a picture, if you look very closely in the last seconds of the fight, when it’s just about to be called off and my co-commentator’s sitting down with his microphone and I’m standing up with my open mouth and my microphone … of course you get sucked in, if you didn’t get sucked in, in my opinion you’re in the wrong business. I like to see my journalists and fellow broadcasters from the last thirty five years standing up … I don’t like to see them biased by the way. I don’t like to be in the Arsenal press box and there’s a guy there who’s an Arsenal fan and he’s jumping and celebrating scoring goals, but you know you should, you should get sucked in. By the way you should get sucked in whether you’re covering curling, taekwondo or a world title fight in front of ninety thousand people because it’s what we do for a living.
TM: What makes boxing great for you in a sporting sense?
SB: Boxing does its business when it’s big, every single night of the week in Great Britain, almost every single day except for July and August there are boxing shows, you’ve got amateur boxing or pro boxing. It’s not uncommon now for there to be eight or nine pro shows on a Saturday night involving as many as a hundred or so boxers, and most of them
don’t get written about and most of them don’t get televised. But when boxing does it well, when boxing finds itself a star, and attaches itself to that star, whether its Henry Cooper in the 60s, John Conte in the 70s, Barry McGuigan in the 80s, super Lennox, Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe, Carl Froch, when it attaches itself to a star, when the tickets go on sale, and when the big events happen, when the lights are there and you’re watching Froch get into the ring, when you’re watching Hatton or Calzaghe or Joshua or even big Tyson Fury get into the ring for a huge fight, a world title fight, there is nothing like it. And I’ve been at seven Olympics, I’ve been at World Cup finals, I’ve been at maybe thirty other world championships in different sports, but when that happens, when that perfect storm happens there’s nothing like it and I’ve been privileged for about the last thirty odd years to be between about six foot and ten foot away from it, blessed my son, blessed.
TM: So what was the first big fight you attended?
SB: The first big fight that I was at, where I got paid, would have been Paul Hodkinson, and I say a big fight … it was a big fight for me, in about 1989, that was my first ever byline in the Daily Telegraph, it was a European title fight in front of about 3,000 people at Wembley, Paul Hodkinson against a French geezer, I can’t remember his name, I’m sure its in the book, there’s 1300 names in that book, I can’t remember everyone, and there’s about 10,000 dates, I’m not a computer brain. That was big, that was the first night I was there to cover as the main man, a European title fight, and that was big. I do remember seeing Sugar Ray Leonard also in 1989, in his one and only appearance at Madison Square Garden where he got smashed to bits by Terry Norris. That was a bittersweet night because you’re watching Sugar Ray Leonard who of course is one of the all time great fighters at Madison Square Garden, the mecca, the spiritual home of boxing, so that was a bit of a big night, I know I didn’t sleep for a couple of days after that.
TM: How did you get into boxing, how did it become your niche?
SB: Well I boxed as an amateur from the age of eleven to about the age of seventeen, for the Fitzroy Lodge Amateur boxing Club in south London then when …
TM: Oh that’s where Johnny Harris who’s got the film Jawbone out at the moment used to train?
SB: Well then I later went back and trained and I worked in the gym as a trainer when Johnny was a young kid. Johnny talks about me supervising his runs when we used to jog along the Embankment and across Westminster Bridge and then back and across Lambeth Bridge in front of the Houses of Parliament.
TM: That film’s all over the cinema at the moment …
SB: Yeah I was at the Premiere with Johnny last week, he’s a close personal family friend. He’s a terrific human being John and by the way that film Jawbone is a bit special. I mean it’s a good film if you take nothing to it other than if you just want to sit and watch a two hour film, but if you take to it John’s history and also the setting and the characters, some of the lines, for me I mean I get emotional talking about it now, for me it was just an incredible film, brilliant film.
TM: So a big thumbs up then?
SB: Oh a massive thumbs up for Jawbone, some people have said “oh it’s a bit cliché”, for gawds sake, you know that’s the way the world was. Go and look at the dialogue, go and look at the love involved, that’s a special film.
TM: So what do British fans look for in a fighter do you think? When you consider Lewis, Calzaghe and Eubank were underappreciated, and on the other hand you’ve got Bruno, Hatton, Benn and the likes?
SB: No, no listen, you’re absolutely right, we love a people’s champion, that’s why we like Bruno for all his flaws, we love Ricky for all his perceived flaws, we loved him because every single person has a Ricky Hatton story, its impossible to be in Manchester … you could stop fifty random people on the tram and on the street and I swear to you forty nine of them would tell you a personal Ricky Hatton story, and guys like Lewis and Calzaghe to be honest with you right now they get the recognition they maybe sometimes failed to get perhaps when they were at their peak at the top. I mean Lennox Lewis when you look back on it, and I was sometimes critical of Lewis because there were a couple of fights I thought he should have taken earlier, I thought he should have fought Holyfield earlier, I thought he should have fought Tyson earlier, but, if he’d have fought them earlier he would have had to surrender things and maybe made 10 million less, so when he actually did fight them it was perfect to be absolutely honest with you, but when you look at what Lewis did I mean he wasn’t just a good heavyweight, he was an all time great heavyweight.
TM: Oh he was the greatest we’ve ever had…
SB: He was, but he wasn’t just the greatest we’ve ever had, he was one the greatest the heavyweight world has ever seen, and as for Joe Calzaghe, we’ll look back on Joe Calzaghe in five, ten, fifteen and twenty years time not only fondly but we’ll also look back in an incredibly nostalgic way because there will not be anymore Joe Calzaghe’s, no one’s getting to thirty and forty fights unbeaten and having twenty world title fights. Guys won’t have 45 – 50 fights in the future, it’s all changed and the sport is a lot more physical and the careers will be a lot shorter. In five or ten years time I don’t think we’ll see many guys having 30 fights let alone 46 unbeaten, 20 odd world title fights, sport’s changing and we’ll look back on Lewis, we’ll look back on Calzaghe and Froch and we’ll look back on them as legends, as absolute icons.
TM: In terms of Eubank vs Benn, that was such a good era – do you think we’ll see the like again?
SB: Yeah well that wasn’t just a good era that was a great era, that was a period of a series of fights between Michael Watson, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn and Steve Collins that we won’t see again and funnily enough I was talking on 5 live about this the other day and I seemed to upset an awful lot of people. We won’t see guys like Benn, Eubank, Collins and Watson again because all the fighters now are talking about how “I’ve only got one fight left in me, I’ve only got two fights left in me.” Tony Bellew has a hard fight against David Haye and he talks about, “I’m not sure if I can fight anymore” or “I might just have one left.” James Degale has a hard fight in New York earlier this year, gets a draw, gets his nose broken and a couple of teeth knocked out and he’s talking about, “ah I think I’ve only got one or two left.” Well can you imagine if Eubank and Benn had said after their 1990 fight, “ah I think I’ve only got one or two fights left”! We would have been deprived of history … and I’m not saying its right, because we saw what happened to Michael Watson, I’m not saying it’s right that these guys should push themselves and force themselves … they are different now the boxers. Okay in some ways they’re a trillion times better and in other ways they’re very very different and the concept of a guy that’s only just turned 30 who’s only had a few world title fights saying, “oh I think I’ve only got one or two fights left in me, well if you think like that and act like that then we’re gonna have a quick turnover of boxers going forward. You think about the American version of our four guys the four kings, Hearns, Hagler, Duran and Leonard, if they’d all said the same thing ten years before their careers ended they would’ve deprived the world of what is the richest period in boxing history. So that era of Benn, Eubank, Collins and Watson will not be repeated, not because there aren’t guys good enough, but because the business has changed so drastically, we will never see a series of fights like that again – there’s too many alternatives, too much money and not enough incentive.
TM: We have lots of boxing fans here at The MALESTROM, can you sum up what they can expect from the book?
SB: In the book they’ll get, and I don’t mean this in a patronising way, they’ll get an education. I got an education writing the thing because I had to go back and visit things that I’d seen thirty years ago, forty years ago, forty-five years ago … so they’ll get to find out what it was really like to be one of those guys in the seventies tryin’ to win a world title, tryin’ to win a British title when titles were rare. On January 1st 1970, Henry Cooper had retired, Ken Buchanan had retired and we didn’t have a world champion, we didn’t even have a world champion in the waiting, thankfully Cooper came back, Ken Buchanan came back, but there were years in the seventies and eighties when not one British boxer fought for a world title or held a world title! Right now we’ve got thirteen or fourteen depending on who you talk to, between now and Christmas this year I bet another twenty-five British men box for a version of the world title. We live in rich times and this book will introduce people to a different time and it wasn’t better and it wasn’t worse it was just different, and then as you go through some of the great names that let’s say your thirty year old fan will have heard of or your twenty year old fans or you forty year olds, hopefully they’ll look at the book and they’ll find out about these characters and some of the great forgotten names, Bunny Johnson, Kirkland Laing, Dennis Andries – they’ll look at the records of those three and they’ll go,
“bloody hell, those guys were giants”! None of them came close to doing what they would do now. And then they’ll also hopefully get to know a little bit more about Lennox Lewis, a guy that I was very close to … Naseem Hamed a guy that I considered a friend, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Michael Watson and hopefully it will be a completely full on experience – well that’s my bold claim anyway. I know one thing the half a dozen people I’ve spoken to who’ve got their hands on sneak preview copies that were sent out about four or five days ago, keep sending me texts at three or four in the morning saying “Buncey! It’s addictive, I can’t put it down!”
TM: Sounds great. Now you were ringside at the recent big Wembley showdown – what a night that was. What are your initial memories of the night and what is next for Joshua?
SB: Well first of all it really was one of the finest heavyweight fights I’ve seen, it may have been what some cynics are trying to call a ‘donkey derby’, where two guys both at different stages in their careers can only settle things by going toe to toe, well that just about in my opinion sums up the perfect fight if you don’t mind me saying so. Klitschko showed incredible bravery, and Joshua went beyond anything that even his fans, and I include myself as one of them, considered he had. It was an unforgettable fight and if Tyson Fury had been in the ring on the night, he probably would’ve outpointed Joshua, but would he have beaten that version of Klitschko? That’s an interesting thought, we’ll find out about that in the future, and as for Joshua … there’s a kid that went into a boxing gym for the first time with a tag on his ankle – ten or so years later he’s turned his life around, so unbelievable, boxing gives you fairytales, some people call them clichés … I call them fairytales and Joshua is a living, breathing fairytale. What people don’t know about Joshua is just what he is doing at this moment inside various communities and what he plans on doing in the future. He’s gonna go on to be not just regal but he’ll be a statesman. In the ring? Sure he’s beatable but then you know what, he’ll get them in the rematch, that’s the way I look at it … he’s a blood, guts and thunder old style heavyweight, I love him, he’s not the saviour or the salvation, or the next greatest, don’t get carried away – but I tell you what he’s a hell of a heavyweight and he gives everything he’s got.
TM: What about Fury and Joshua, will we see that happen? If it does that will surely eclipse everything?
SB: I’m convinced Joshua and Fury will happen at some point, I’m not sure when, I’m not sure how, but I’m sure it will happen. The later it happens the more chance of Joshua having a big win, the sooner it happens the more chance there is of Fury having a win. Fury has to get his body right i.e. lose seven stone … and Joshua needs to keep on winning. Will it be the biggest fight ever in British boxing history? Absolutely! If I’m Eddie Hearn I’m putting another thousand seats in somewhere to make it 91,000 at Wembley, May next year, bingo!
TM: Moving on to Brook vs Spence, how do you see that one going?
SB: It’s a really hard fight for Kell Brook, the key is how he’s managed to lose the three or four stone – most of it seemingly solid muscle. Errol Spence is a good fighter and some people keep telling me Errol Spence has fought no one, have a look at his last seven or eight opponents, he’s fought some good guys, I think it’s 50-50, but people underestimate Kell Brook, people underestimate what he does and if Golovkin couldn’t take him out, couldn’t knock him out, couldn’t leave him cold, then Errol Spence can’t do that. If Errol Spence can’t stop him, probably not even hurt him and providing Kell’s face holds up – he’s had major surgery remember – then I fancy Kell and I fancy him tight, and I fancy him on points, but it could be the other way. If anyone wins it easily, I’ll be shocked.
TM: And what about this nonsense fight between Mayweather and McGregor?
SB: It’s the greatest non-fight in history, Floyd Mayweather could fight fifty three minute rounds against Conor McGregor and I would be stunned, stunned if Conor McGregor touches him. That is that – Conor McGregor … I’m not even sure what terminology to put it into. If you took the most expensive restaurant in Paris okay, and then you take the most unhygienic hot dog salesman at the worst greyhound track in Poland okay, you’re asking the guy from the hot dog stand to cook in the restaurant in Paris that’s booked out for the next five years! These two are oceans apart, just because they’ll both be wearing shorts, they’ll be topless and they’ve got gloves on – trust me it doesn’t work that way, it’s an absolute mismatch and I can’t wait for it to happen.
TM: Finally is there a quote from a trainer or someone in boxing that stands out to you, that resonates should we say?
SB: Joe Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch who pulled Frazier out in the Thriller in Manilla said,
“Sit down son, nobody will forget what you’ve done here today”
and that just about sums it up, one of the greatest fights with one of the greatest trainers, in a fight between two of the greatest heavyweights … and that is the perfect ending.