Interview: Jim Watt on his second retirement in boxing

In a life defined by his involvement in the most unforgiving sport of all, Jim Watt has always managed the rare feat of dealing with boxing entirely on his own terms.

Jim Watt, a respected ringside television analyst for 35 years, has decided to hang up his microphone at the age of 68. Picture: SNS
Jim Watt, a respected ringside television analyst for 35 years, has decided to hang up his microphone at the age of 68. Picture: SNS

He threw his last punch inside the ropes in 1981, hanging up his gloves with his faculties still as healthy as his reputation following a professional career which took him to the summit of the lightweight division.

Now Watt has decided it is time for another retirement, this time from his role as a ringside television analyst after 35 years when he has proved every bit as authoritative behind the microphone as he was behind a jab.

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For many boxing aficionados, Saturday fight nights will never be quite the same again without Watt’s distinctive Glaswegian tones adding colour and insight to the unfolding action.

“I had been thinking about it for a wee while, to be honest,” says the 68-year-old who has been with Sky Sports for 20 years, following his 15-year stint as a staple of ITV’s boxing coverage.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time and there is a lot of travelling involved, especially driving up and down the M6 for shows in places like Liverpool, Manchester and Hull.

“I’m well past retirement age and you have to call it a day some time. There are other things I want to do. I’ve got a place over in Spain and I intend spending a bit of time out there.

“It was just a question of deciding when to do it. I still love boxing and when you see big fights coming up, like the Kell Brook-Gennady Golovkin one at the O2 Arena in September, you end up thinking ‘I wish I’d waited another month’. But I could be saying that forever.

“I’ve been very well paid for something I have loved doing. I’ve had a great run and I’ve enjoyed it. It is the right time to step away.”

Watt became something of a pioneer in British sports broadcasting, marrying his expertise as a top level practitioner of a discipline to the professional journalistic skills of a main commentator. His most celebrated partnership was with Reg Gutteridge at ITV, while he later developed great chemistry with Sky commentators such as Ian Darke.

“My first job in commentating was in radio alongside Des Lynam, while I was still boxing,” recalls Watt. “I worked on fights involving Maurice Hope and Alan Minter who were world champions at the time.

“But I never looked upon it as setting off on a new career. Even when I did retire from the ring and started working with Dickie Davies for ITV on World of Sport, then later with Reg Gutteridge, I wasn’t thinking I’d still be doing it 35 years later. The opportunity arose, I took it and it just grew into a career. It’s been fantastic.

“I may well have been one of the first to do the job as an ex-pro. I remember James Hunt did it, alongside Murray Walker for Formula 1, around the same time as I started. Until then, it wasn’t the done thing to have a commentator sitting alongside a former sportsman.

“No-one at ITV told me what to do or suggested how I should do it. They just gave me a microphone and sat me down beside Reg.

“He and I became great pals, so it came to feel like I was just sitting 
talking to Reg, rather than to millions of TV viewers. There wasn’t any script or anyone to model myself on. I just sat down and got on with it.

“In an individual sport like boxing, someone who has been in the ring will know things and spot things that only someone who has experienced it can.

“Commentators can learn about the game and pick up things as they go along, but there are feelings you get watching a fight when you have been in there yourself.

“I can see a fight turning in a certain direction maybe a couple of rounds before anyone else, because there are wee signs there that I used to look for when I was boxing. There are technical things that only personal experience can teach you.

“Nowadays, it’s there in every sport you watch on TV. You don’t get a commentator without a former sportsman sitting beside him, unless it’s maybe greyhound racing or something like that.

“Maybe if I’d known it was going to become a career, I’d have put more thought into it and planned it.

“But I was just enjoying myself and saying to my pals ‘I’m going to be on the telly tonight’. Time went by and I ended up getting nice reviews.

“It was great working with Reg. He had a fantastic knowledge of boxing. He was steeped in the game through his family and was the best boxing commentator around. Harry Carpenter was on the BBC at the same 
time and he commentated on loads of different sports, including golf 
and tennis. Harry was a good 
boxing commentator, but Reg was a boxing man through and through and it showed.

“I loved working with Reg. There was plenty of room to say things, it wasn’t a competition between us to see who could come up with the best points. Reg enjoyed working with me and that made it easy and natural.”

From the Kelvin Hall to Caesars 
Palace, Watt had the best seat in the house for most of British and world boxing’s greatest fights.

“I can’t say there was one which particularly stands out in my memory as the best I’ve seen, because I was lucky enough to see so many classic fights,” he adds.

“But the 1980s were a great time to be involved in boxing. For me, that was the golden decade for the sport.

“I sat ringside for fights involving Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. The Leonard-Hagler fight at Caesars Palace in ‘87 was obviously one of the biggest.

“I also covered most of Mike Tyson’s early fights and was there when he won his first world title against Trevor Berbick in 1986.

“But there have also been some fabulous fights and occasions in recent times, involving fighters like Ricky Hatton and Carl Froch, which were great to work at.

“When Sky came on the scene in the 1990s, ITV were firmly regarded as the boxing channel with Reg and myself recognised as the two main voices of boxing. The BBC weren’t showing a lot of boxing at that time, mainly only Frank Bruno fights.

“Sky basically decided they wanted to take over boxing and that’s what they did. I was only three months into a new contract with ITV when they announced they were not going to show any more boxing.

“They could see they wouldn’t be able to compete with Sky who struck a deal with the biggest promoter at the time. I was fortunate that Sky approached me to join their commentary team.

“There have been lots of changes in the coverage and production and Sky have taken things to a different level in so many of the sports they cover. Introducing microphones into the corners in between rounds has been one of the boxing innovations in recent years and we used to spend a lot of time apologising for the language being used by the trainers and boxers!”.

Watt’s own use of language has always been as temperate as it is informative, a trait borne of his appreciation of the bravery required of anyone who steps through the ropes, regardless of their level of ability.

“It could be difficult sometimes,” he admits. “When I first started, I was commentating on guys I had sparred with or were even gym mates.

“So if they were not performing 
and you had to point it out, that could be difficult. The main thing for me 
was never to insult anyone. If you 
have to criticise, you do it honestly and can usually balance it with a bit of praise.

“I did love it when I was able to commentate on a Scottish boxer winning a big fight but I always tried to be fair to both men.

“I was delighted to work at Ricky Burns’ last fight and see him become a world champion again.

“Over the years, Scottish boxing has kind of relied on one star at a time, going all the way back to Benny Lynch. There have never been half a dozen top fighters on the go in Scotland at one time.

“They tend to come along one at a time, whether it was me, Scott Harrison and then Ricky. So when Ricky went off the boil a bit, probably because of things happening to him outside the ring, Scottish boxing missed having him at that level.

“It affects the whole of the sport up here, because the big shows stop taking place in Glasgow and that limits the opportunities for the younger Scottish fighters to showcase themselves on a high profile stage.

“Now that Ricky has got himself back on track, the big shows will be back at the Hydro or wherever. I always loved working at home, especially as it meant I could sleep in my own bed!”.

Watt will continue to be a keen observer of his sport which he believes will continue to thrive and confound those who have queued up to predict its demise so often through the years. “Boxing is really healthy right now,” he says. “You only have to look at the money the guys at the top level are making. There are plenty of people prepared to pay for big fights and the pay-per-view market has been a big success.

“Look at the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight, it was worth around $300 million. It was just a pity that fight happened about four years too late. It would have been a great fight when they first started talking about it but it turned out to be a wee bit of a let down.

“We seem to have got through the times of the British Medical Association trying to ban boxing which went on for a few years. I think they have generally given up on that and accepted that if people want to box, you have to let them do it. Boxing will always be around because people want to box and people want to watch them box.”

There were certainly no shortage of those who wanted to watch Watt box during those heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s when he became a Scottish sporting icon with his capture and subsequent defences of the WBC lightweight title.

For all of the pleasure life in the commentary box has provided him with since, his achievements inside the ring still provide him with his fondest memories.

“There was nothing that was ever going to compare with being the world champion,” he added.

“Back when I did it in the late 70s, for a British fighter to win a world title was really something special. When I boxed, there were only 24 world titles on offer – with the WBC and WBA in 12 weight divisions. Well, there are 68 world titles now with four ruling bodies. That’s good for the fighters and it gives more of them a chance to make a few quid. But obviously winning a world title today is not the same. So I’m glad I did it when I did it.”

As always, Jim Watt’s timing was immaculate.