Obituary: Mickey Duff, boxing manager and promoter

Born: Tarnow, Poland, 7 June, 1929. Died: London, 22 March, 2014, aged 84

Mickey Duff, centre, was a larger than life boxing legend who had a role in developing 19 British world champions. Picture: TSPL

The trouble with Mickey Duff, the promoter who dominated British boxing for three decades from the 1960s, was that you could never fully believe his outlandish claims for his stable of boxers. So, too, does his life story require thorough examination before clinching evidence can be given.

In the end, you find that Duff’s life was so extraordinary that all the hype that he created about himself was justified. He really did manage, influence and promote 19 British world champions, and he really did make millions from the sport and from stock market investments, and he really did fight long wars in the libel courts, winning and losing hundreds of thousands of pounds in cases that no ordinary man would have countenanced.

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His love of Scottish fighters and the unique atmosphere of big Glasgow fight nights was sealed with his relationship with Jim Watt. The once-shy Glaswegian was not Duff’s first choice as a protégé, but legendary manager Terry Lawless had seen Watt knock out his later professional world champion John H Stracey in the ABA final of 1968, and had never forgotten the Scottish southpaw.

The combination of Lawless’s fatherly approach and Duff’s peerless matchmaking saw Watt join their stable in 1976, and gain his world title chance which he took with glee, beating Alfredo Pitalua for the world lightweight championship at the Kelvin Hall in 1979.

Co-promoting with Peter Keenan, the best Scottish boxer never to win a world title, and with Glasgow’s Lord Provost David Hodge as a willing cheerleader, Duff then promoted Watt’s title defences in his home city, including the famous night when the Glaswegian outpointed potential American superstar Howard Davies at a rain-soaked Ibrox stadium.

Another Scottish boxer and fellow Jew, Gary Jacob, became a later Duff prospect and was European welterweight champion when he lost to America’s Pernell Whitaker for the world title in 1995.

Duff’s Jewishness was an important but not all-embracing facet of his life. To understand Duff, it is necessary to know that he was born the son of a rabbi in pre-war Poland in the village of Turnow near Krakow. Like so many others of Jewish origin, his family fled to England as the rise of Nazism threatened their existence – indeed, numerous members of his extended family perished in the Holocaust. Duff never forgot that and refused to have any dealings with boxing in West Germany, as it then was, until the 1960s when he met the charming Karl Mildenberger, the European champion who lost to Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper, and realised that the German people had moved on.

Relocated to the east side of London during the war after failing to become a rabbi himself, Duff became a useful amateur before he turned professional as a featherweight in 1945.

He fought as a professional until December, 1948, his last loss being to a Scot, Neil McCearn of Glasgow. Having started as a featherweight, Duff ended as a welterweight, but outside the ring he became a heavyweight in boxing circles.

His career in sales – he sold Singer sewing machines made in Clydebank – was quietly set aside as Duff found his true metier as a manager, matchmaker and promoter, starting in his twenties during the 1950s when professional boxing was at its height in Britain. The east end of London was his arena, and yes, the Kray twins were “acquaintances”.

Duff’s matchmaking skills became paramount. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of British fighters and knew which contests would be attractive. He also knew which fighters to avoid as he began to build up a stable of his own boxers. He was once offered the lucrative job of matchmaker at Madison Square Garden in New York, but turned it down as he felt British boxing was on the rise.

The trouble for Duff was that promoter Jack Solomons claimed dominance over British professional boxing in the 50s and early 1960s, but with friends Harry Levene and Jarvis Astaire, Duff set about rivalling Solomons and succeeded brilliantly, his first world champion being middleweight Terry Downes in 1961.

The promoting trio hit the big time with Henry Cooper, especially when Our Henry twice faced Muhammad Ali. It laid the foundations for three decades of promotional history, and the backing of the BBC was a huge help.

John Conteh, Lloyd Honeghan, Duke McKenzie, Charlie Magri, Alan Minter and many more champions were either managed, promoted or “influenced” by Duff from the 1970s to the 1990s. One of his last protégés was Frank Bruno, though having fallen out with Bruno’s manager Lawless, Duff was not in charge when Bruno finally won his world title. Welsh middleweight superstar Joe Calzaghe was another to be led at first by Duff.

Duff’s brash ebullience was then a fixture on the British fight scene, but he also attracted the ire of the Boxing Board Control for whom he had little time. While he had many stormy encounters with them, he always talked up his fighters, usually to excess, and he had no fear of the big American promoters such as Don King.

His gift for a quote was noted. He once said “the moment of truth is when your fighter has to fight a real fight” and later said “if I want loyalty, I’ll buy a dog”. He often gave evidence in court in libel actions, winning a succession against the Sunday Times, which he accused of persecuting him, but losing massively against boxing manager Barney Eastwood, who also forced the pulping of Duff’s memoirs for a seriously defamatory comment.

The rise of promoters Frank Warren and Barry Hearn squeezed the market for Duff, and the BBC’s gradual withdrawal from boxing in the face of ITV and Sky competition hurt him badly. He retired in 1999, after the last of his fighters, Billy Schwer, failed to win a world title fight.

By his own admission, Duff was a gambler by nature and revelled in stories of how he backed fighters to win huge sums. He also played the stock market and at one time had property interests, including a residence in Israel.

Latterly, he suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and was cared for in a nursing home in south London.

Mickey Duff was married to his wife Marie in 1951. They never divorced even after splitting up more than 40 years later, but he lived for many years with his partner Gloria Weisfeld, who survives him, as does a son, Gary, and two grandchildren.