‘Watch it sunshine,’ Nosher Powell had to warn Jean Claude Van Damme. ‘Or you’ll find my knee in your b*****ks’
BEN HUR, Jean Claude Van Damme, Billy Knuckles, James Bond and Eddie Hearn are all part of Nosher Powell’s life in and out of the ring.
Powell fought 53 times as a licensed boxer, perhaps another 20 fights on the pirate scene and made 173 appearances in television shows or films. He was also a very funny man and right now the British boxing business could do with a few laughs.
He never beat all of the men in the list and was knocked out by Hearn in the 10th at Streatham Ice Rink in 1955. This Eddie Hearn went on and was a pioneering coach with the England set-up. Nosher never fought the others, but they are a part of his story.
Powell was a stuntman in the movie, Ben Hur, and he was involved with 14 James Bond movies. “I fired every single gun that Roger [Moore] ever fired,” Powell told me, “Roger hated the sound of guns and I had to fire them and I paid the price – I’m mutton.” That’s the shortened version of Mutt and Jeff , which is deaf, in slang.
He was also Laurence Olivier’s stunt double in Henry V. “I had to fall off a lot of ‘orses for Larry.” They are called ‘falling horses’ and Nosher was an expert on training them. He was in Oliver, without a credit, and uttered, “Adios, amigos” in a Fistful of Dollars. He was offered a job as a getaway driver in the Great Train Robbery film. “I know how that one ends and I politely declined, thank you.” It was rumoured he was offered a role in the real thing.
In dozens of television shows in the sixties and seventies he had a cameo and was called Billy Knuckles, Knuckles, Big Billy Knuckles, Mr Knuckles, Crusher, Fingers, Big Lump. You get the picture, and when they needed a big man to get sploshed and knocked across a Capri’s sunroof in Minder, then Nosher was your man. Incidentally, he won 34 of his 53 fights and was in the British top five in the fifties, when a lot of good heavyweights were making a living.
He played the boxer Johnny Angel in a 1965 episode of the The Saint and it is arguably the finest portrayal of boxing on television or film. Yes, I include Raging Bull. Nosher could act, do stunts and certainly fight. He could also tell a story in person or in one of his quite brilliant letters.
In 1998 he was in Casablanca working as a consultant on a Van Damme film, Legionnaire. He taught Big Jean to box, it took two weeks and he made a decent fighter out of the martial artist. Here’s Nosher with the rest of the story: “Anyway, it was not easy getting him to box because he did like to prance about a bit,” said Powell. “I had to keep telling him: ‘That ain’t boxing, son.’ At the end he fancied himself a bit and he tried a kick that I trapped under my arm, and then I had him bouncing about on one leg. ‘Watch it sunshine,’ I told him. ‘Or you’ll find my knee in your b*****ks.’ It was a lovely break.”
Powell was the last fighter to win at the Harringay Stadium before it shut in 1958. He fought on big undercards, at big venues and at the tiniest, and now forgotten halls, in a ring career from 1949 through to 1960. He was on the undercard at Wembley when Brian London was stopped by Nino Valdez in 1959. He won a heavyweight competition, boxed three times and made 500 quid one night when Randolph Turpin retained his British middleweight title at the Stadium. He was the attraction on the bill – the face, if you like – one night at Wembley Town Hall in 1951 when the Kray twins were on the undercard; Fifteen years later he was able to turn them away from a door at a West End club. “OK, Nosh,” they said as they walked.
And then he wrote letters, actually he typed them and they are gems. And he could write. And these are his exact words.
He told me a story about Willie Pep: “I had a business down East Street market (near the Elephant and Castle) and Willie Pep came down to the Good Intent pub lugging a huge suitcase full of his autobiography and he was selling it at half price to get a living. To me Willie was one of the all-time greats of boxing and to see him reduced to doing this to get a few quid was unbelievable.”
And: “Another time I was in Los Angeles and stopped at a shoe shine pitch to get a shine and to my amazement the guy going to shine my shoes was a guy that I had sparred with when he was over to box Joe Erskine, yes it was Nino Valdez of Cuba.”
Valdez knocked out Erskine in 123 seconds. At the time Floyd Patterson was world champion and would not go near Valdez.
And Miss World, jousting and Joe Louis in Las Vegas: “I had to go to Las Vegas to pick up Anne Sidney who was Miss World as she was going to be my Queen of Beauty at the jousting show I was putting on at the Cow Palace San Francisco. Standing at the door of the casino was Joe Louis who was there as a greeter. I had spent months with Joe as a sparring partner when I was just sixteen years old going to all the US forces stations and entertaining the troops with three rounds.” Joe never recognised him. “I walked away and when I got outside to tell the truth I cried bitterly to see that once wonderful man who had been and still is my idol reduced to what he was.”
Nosher was always concerned for fighters falling on hard times, worried they went on too long. He would be a great advocate now.
There will be no comeback, sadly: Nosher Powell died in 2013, but I still hear him: “Frampton, like him a lot. I hope he kisses his old woman every day for the rest of his life and smiles. He deserves it, they all deserve it. I remember one day…” Bosh, lovely.