May 18, 2021

Harry Mullan on Billy Aird, and his Las Vegas diaries

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Harry Mullan, widely regarded as the greatest of all Boxing News editors, would have been 75 on April 22. To celebrate his memory, his substantial writing talent, and his unique appreciation of life, the sport and its fighters, we’re delighted to bring you two previously unpublished excerpts from a book he started working on in the 1980s but never completed

IF Billy Aird had been able to inflict on his fellow heavyweights even half the damage he did to the English language, Britain’s long wait for a world champion would have ended years ago.

Aird was perennial contender for the British title. For fourteen years, from 1970 to 1984, he was never out of the top four of the ratings. He fought twice for the British title and once for the European, yet it is as a master of the malapropism as much as his considerable worth in the ring, that he deserves to be remembered.

We first met in the late 1960s, when we were neighbours in New Cross, South London. We had much in common: We were of the same age (in fact, our birthdays were only five weeks apart), we were both living away from home, and we were starting out in our respective branches of the boxing business.

Billy had not yet launched the campaign of voluble self-promotion that earned him, inevitably, the nickname “The Liverpool Lip”, while I had recently started contributing freelance pieces to Boxing News.

We struck up a friendship, and started going to fights together. I had no car, and so had to depend, reluctantly, on Billy for transport. He drove a car of quite unbelievable decrepitude – the front passenger door would not stay closed, so he had tied one sleeve of a pullover to the handle and wrapped the other sleeve around his left arm to secure it, which meant that his passengers had to sit in the rear.

The car’s horn had a habit of going off spontaneously, and when other drivers glared angrily at him to see why they were being hooted, Billy would lift both hands off the wheel and shrug his shoulders expressively to show that it was nothing to do with him – and then, as the car veered across the road, he would have to grab again for the pullover sleeve to stop the door from swinging open.

He was between managers at the time, and for want of another confidante used to pour his troubles out to me. One evening he called at my house after training, concerned at what he felt was an inexplicable loss of energy and appetite for gym work.

“It sounds like you might be getting a bit anaemic, Billy,” I suggested.

“What’s anaemic, Harry?”

I explained, to the very limited extent of my medical knowledge, about his red corpuscles and his white corpuscles. Later that evening he phoned a mutual friend and told him: “Harry Mullan reckons he knows what’s wrong with me.

“It’s to do with my testicles. I’ve got red testicles and white testicles.”

My intermittent role as Billy’s unofficial, unlicenced, and strictly unpaid advisor would sometimes involve him seeking my opinion on opponents he had been offered. He would always assure me first that he had checked their records in the ‘Ring Economical’, which may be more familiar to others in the trade as Nat Fleischer’s Ring Encyclopaedia.

The names, as rendered by Billy, would often take some time to track down in the Economical’s index. The Brazilian Vasco Faustinho, for example, somehow became Bosco Festering and the giant South African Mike Schutte became Mike Scuttle, and his compatriot Kallie Knoetzee became Kelly Kosy.

Promoters fared no better. His European title fight with Alfredo Evangelista in Leon in 1978 was staged by a gentleman with the marvellously rolling surname of Aspitarte, now forever lodged in Billy’s memory as Aspidistra.

Nor are the hacks immune: Boxing News contributor Simon Euan-Smith, the game’s best-known hyphen, is invariably referred to as “that Simon Human-Smith.”

Billy had his share of managers. Mickey Duff, a man whose caustic wit earned him a few mentions in these pages, once said of him that “He’s had more managers than fights.” The problem was that Billy had a fierce sense of independence, and a firm belief in his ability to handle his own affairs better than anyone else could. Some of the time he was right, but with a little less pride and a greater willingness to listen to worthwhile advice, I am sure he would have achieved more. As a rule, Billy would ask your opinion, listen gravely, and then ignore it and do whatever he had intended doing all along.

But we never let that get in the way of our friendship, and when my first son, Kevin, was born in 1973 I rang Billy with the news, and with the invitation to be Godfather. He was thrilled: he despatched a bouquet to the hospital, and promised to drive me there for evening visiting so that he could inspect his Godson.

On the way there, his ancient vehicle finally gave up the ghost, and we pushed it for the last half-mile. We arrived as visiting time ended, but Billy persuaded the ward sister to let him in. As he spotted his magnificent bouquet on the bedside table, he said to Jessie: “I see you got the flowers – I sent them by Interpol.”

His awkward style and lack of a heavy punch, allied to the difficulty promoters knew they would experience in trying to negotiate with him, meant that he always found it hard to get matches and so had to take them wherever he could find them, often abroad.

One such engagement took him to South Africa to box a German called Arno Prick, whose surname, needless to say, was not pronounced in the English way. Billy, having one of his better nights, turned in a brilliant performance and trounced the German so convincingly that a Johannesburg paper headlined its fight report “Aird Licks Prick”, which caused vast amusement for the regulars at the Thomas A’ Becket when the clipping was proudly produced on his return.

Thereafter, when asked about his South African trip, Billy would pretend that he could not remember the opponent’s name, thus side-stepping any further embarrassment.

In Hamburg, he boxed the Argentinian veteran Gregorio Peralta, once a light-heavyweight title contender and still a top-quality performer. For three rounds Aird dominated the action, until in the fourth the increasingly desperate Peralta rammed his right thumb hard onto Aird’s cheekbone, causing the eye to close almost immediately and forcing a stoppage.

A couple of years later, Billy was matched with Gregorio’s younger brother Avenemar at Caesar’s Palace (Luton, not Las Vegas). At the weigh-in he enquired solicitously about Gregorio’s well-being and whereabouts. “Ah, Gregorio!” Avenemar replied, wiggling his right thumb meaningfully. Billy, it seemed, was not the first victim of the Peralta speciality.

He probably felt that he owed the family one, and by the end of the riotous and ill-tempered affair the debt had been paid – Aird was disqualified, for biting his opponent. The Board of Control were not amused, and fined him a hefty slice of his £1500 purse – but I suspect Billy regarded it as money well spent.

(Avenemar, by the way, boxed on for years and, by the time he drifted off the scene in 1984, had recorded nearly 200 fights. I saw him once in Denmark, late in his career. He arrived at the hotel the night before the fight, his hair completely grey. When he climbed into the ring the next evening, it was with a mane of jet-black hair. He may have been nearer 40 than 30, but the consummate old pro did not believe in broadcasting the fact.)

While Joe Bugner, Dan McAlinden, Richard Dunn and Bunny Johnson tossed the British title to and fro between them, Billy must have despaired of getting a title shot. When he finally did, it was from an unexpected source – the European Boxing Union named him as official challenger for Alfredo Evangelista’s European title, and invited purse bids for the right to stage it.

Billy let it be known that he had substantial backing to bring the fight to Britain, which forced the Spaniards to put in an inflated bid to ensure that Evangalista would have home advantage – thereby assuring Billy of the highest purse of his career.

The day the bids were opened, Billy and his wife Angela took us out for a celebratory dinner. We had a few drinks before going to the restaurant, Billy allowing himself a rare lager while Angela and Jessie were both on Pimms No.1. When the waiter arrived to take our order for pre-dinner drinks, Billy left him dumfounded with a request for “Two lagers, and a couple of pimps for the girls.”

In Leon, fighting before a hostile 15,000 crowd, he came as close to the title as any man could. I thought he had won it, but not by a wide enough margin to get the verdict.

So it proved: while Evangelista wept with frustration and embarrassment in the corner above me, Aird paraded around the ring to a standing ovation. At Madrid Airport on the way home, a security guard and the passport official both assured him that “You win, you win”, but sadly their opinions did not count.

There were two more title fights to come. In the first, against John L. Gardner for the vacant British title at the Albert Hall, he floored the heavily-favoured Londoner with a sneaky right in the first minute, but was so astonished by the unaccustomed sight of an opponent on the floor that he missed the chance to follow up. After five rounds of constant pressure from Gardner, Aird had had enough. He retired on his stool, and was jeered from the ring. I have no idea why he did it, and I doubt whether he could have explained it satisfactorily himself.

Fighters are strange, complicated people, and even the greatest of them all, Roberto Duran, stunned the boxing world with a sudden surrender against Ray Leonard for the welterweight title in New Orleans.

It took Billy three years to redeem himself and earn a second chance, but this time, although he fought well and bravely, the Irishman Gordon Ferris proved a little too young for him and outpointed in a gruelling 15-rounder at Birmingham. It was the last time that the British heavyweight title was decided over the classic distance: as contracts had been signed before the Board of Control’s decision to reduce the distance to twelve rounds, they were permitted to box fifteen.

His last fight took place, ironically, on his Godson’s 11th birthday. As a birthday treat I took Kevin along to the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand to watch Billy take on a squat, hooking Italian called Guido Trane, and after a couple of rounds I wished I hadn’t.

Aird survived into the fifth, but was floored twice for long counts and, after the second knockdown, the referee called a halt. Billy, at 37, knew that it was time to go, and he took the M.C.’s mic to make a short and dignified retirement speech.

He had the last laugh, though. He never won a major title, but today, with a £175,000 house and a hugely successful pub (the Lilliput Hall in Bermondsey) he is better off than most of the men who thwarted his 14-year dream of being champion.

He may, even yet, have a hand in the winning of the Lonsdale Belt that he coveted for so long. Now a licenced manager, Billy is gathering a stable of promising young fighters whom he features on his hugely entertaining, but far from unprofitable, small hall promotions in South London.

LAS VEGAS DIARIES
An excerpt from a chapter entitled ‘One or two naughty bits’ – about Mullan’s experiences in Sin City

I AM, incidentally, probably one of the only journalists in history who came out of a brothel with more money than he had on entering it. Like so many vastly improbable tales, it is absolutely true, and entirely innocent. It happened in 1981, when my old school friend Frank Fee and I were in town for the Ray Leonard v Thomas Hearns welterweight classic.

The all-pervasive glitter and jangle of Las Vegas palls very rapidly, so after two or three days there the non-gamblers, like us, try to get out of town as far as possible. Frank and I hired a car, and went driving in the desert. Four hours down the road, with our throats as parched and arid as our surroundings, we spotted a hand-painted sign directing us off the highway to ‘Belle’s Roadhouse’, which in our Irish innocence we assumed was a pub.

Our suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that we had to approach the building through a long corridor of barbed wire, with guard dogs roaming loose on either side of the enclosure.

We were admitted by a somewhat overblown lady, who led us into a long, low, poorly lit reception room and sat us on a settee against the wall. By now, the reality was beginning to dawn on us – complicated by the fact that neither of us had either the inclination or the cash to enjoy the situation, nor had we the slightest idea how to extricate ourselves gracefully from it.

The madame clapped her hands, and from half a dozen doors leading off the room there appeared girls in varying stages of undress, who ranged themselves in front of us, at eye to crotch level, like an honour guard ready for inspection. We both squirmed with embarrassment as the ladies introduced themselves solemnly: “Hi, I’m Cindy Lou from Alabama.” “Hi, I’m Cindy from Kansas City”, and so on. In desperation, we said that we hadn’t made our minds up yet, and could we maybe have a drink while we thought about it?

Happily, the girls were intrigued by our accents and were content to sit and share a beer. After the fourth or fifth, it became clear that we were not intending any serious business but were, as the TV commercial used to put it, only here for the beer. One of the girls was an avid boxing fan, so much so that she paid me in cash for a six month subscription to Boxing News which has been renewed regularly ever since. (She had, in fact, been at school with Floyd Mayweather, who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard and whose brother Roger was a stylish holder of the WBA junior-lightweight title in 1983-’84). She also gave me her business card, which was tastefully emblazoned with the legend “Ellie May, The Best Little Lay On The Whole Highway”.

We spent the best part of three hours there, and in all that time not a solitary customer showed up. Finally, the madame lost patience and said “Look guys, if you ain’t buying the merchandise you’d better get out of the store”, and we took the hint.

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