Saturday, 22 September 2012

British great Jimmy Tibbs discusses his 30 year career as a trainer, his days fighting in the ring, his thoughts on Kevin Mitchell's world title opportunity and more

This summer I got to meet established British trainer Jimmy Tibbs at the Trad TKO gym in east London. He has an invaluable amount of experience as I would learn from our conversation. Nowadays he can be found in the corner of talented lightweight Kevin Mitchell. He kindly gave me much of his time with which we discussed his long and successful career in boxing as a boxer and then as a trainer, his son Mark’s career in boxing, what it takes to be a good trainer, his thoughts on Kevin Mitchell’s title opportunity against Ricky Burns and more. You’re one of the most well known figures on the British boxing circuit. How long have you been in the boxing business?

Jimmy Tibbs: The boxing business, all my life; since I was 11 years of age. I’ve been training fighters for 31 years; 1981 was when I started training Terry Lawless’ fighters. Then I went on to Frank Warren after 6 years. Before that I was a fighter myself and fought from middleweight to light heavyweight. Can you tell us about your amateur record?

Jimmy Tibbs: I won the schoolboys for Great Britain twice, I was NABC champion twice, junior ABA finalist, North East Divisional champion senior, London semi-finalist against Mark Rowe. We were among the best at the time. I beat a guy named Eric Blake; he was a big puncher. Mark Rowe beat him too. No disrespect to him because he was a good puncher; when he hit me on the chin I saw stars! He went to the Olympics which was good for him and good for us because we beat him. I went all around Europe too so I had a great amateur career. How many amateur fights did you have?

Jimmy Tibbs: I had about 76-80 fights. I lost 6 but I reversed most of them. Then at 19 I turned professional Terry Lawless and Mickey Duff. I had 20 fights but got injured and got in a bit of trouble. You had a pro record of 17-2-1 and then retired after just 4 years. Why was that?

Jimmy Tibbs: Well, it was a combination of things really. Not living the right life, I’m ashamed to say. But I make sure my fighters now live the right life. There was no one behind me who I could really look up to and say “Look Jim, this is what I want you to do. I promise you, do this and it will work”. Like I say to the fighters I train: “I’ll show you how to do it and it will work”. I didn’t have any guidance that way but I’m not blaming anyone else; I blame myself entirely. I got into a bit of trouble and ended up going to prison so that was the end of my professional career. You fought in some fantastic venues including York Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Wembley Arena (Empire Pool back then). Which was your favourite?

Jimmy Tibbs: I’d say the Royal Albert Hall. I fought there about 15 times there as a pro and about 4 or 5 times as an amateur so I was pretty used to fighting there. Wembley Arena was good too but you have to pack the place; I was on a few Billy Walker cards and he used to sell the place out. I fought at Highbury on the undercard of Muhammad Ali vs Henry Cooper. I fought a guy called Tom Calderwood who was the brother of Chic Calderwood, the British light heavyweight champion. I stopped him in 2 rounds. You fought on cards featuring numerous legends like Henry Cooper, Jack Bodell, Joe Bugner, Howard Winstone, John H Stracey, Alan Rudkin, Johnny Clark, among others. Did you get to meet any of them?

Jimmy Tibbs: I fought on the undercard of Floyd Patterson vs Henry Cooper too. I met a few of them. I met Ali, I sparred with him too. It was just for publicity. I’ve got photos of me in the ring with him; gloves, headgear on, the lot. We sparred for half a round; He hit the deck, I didn’t even touch him. It was all for publicity. I was a big ticket seller at the time, as was Ali obviously so it made for publicity. Where did that take place?

Jimmy Tibbs: He took me up to where his training camp was in White City. It was good publicity for me. Did you ever receive any advice from any big name boxers?

Jimmy Tibbs: Willie Pep, one of the greatest fighters ever; he gave me advice. I met him in Nottingham with Terry Lawless, my dad and my wife when I was only 20 years of age. He said to me “Keep your boxing going, box ‘em”. He was a great boxer so he knew what he was talking about. I could punch as well as box so I used to soften them up first if I could then go to work on them. What was Willie Pep doing over here?

Jimmy Tibbs: He was a very good publicity man for Mickey Duff because he had connections. His career was over by then. He said to me “I used to always have trouble with a guy called Tommy Tibbs”. I have heard of this Tommy Tibbs but he wasn’t in the same league as Pep. That was when Pep was at the end of his career and fighting welterweights. Terry Downes used to give me a bit of advice. I remember coming out at the Royal Albert Hall once and looking at myself in the mirror and Terry was like “Come on Jim, don’t get too excited”. It was all good stuff. I used to look up to Terry Downes and Terry Spinks too. We used to train over at the Beckett they all were or down at the Royal Oak where all the champions were. I opened the Royal Oak with Terry Lawless. Who was your favourite boxer from the past?

Jimmy Tibbs: My favourite fighter from the past was Sugar Ray Robinson. He was coming to the end of his career when I was coming up. He fought Terry Downes and Terry admitted he would have hated to have fought him when he was in his prime. Terry was another of my favourites. He was such a tremendous pressure fighter; he wasn’t a great puncher but he was a great pressure fighter and he could hold a shot, and he had a sense of humour. They had a press conference once and there was this woman from a newspaper who was new at her job. She asked Terry a question: “Mr Downes, you know I’m new at this job, but is it right you’ve always got to watch the other boxers’ eyes?” and Terry replied: “Well to tell you the truth love, I’ve never been knocked out by an eye” [laughs]. How did you get into training boxers?

Jimmy Tibbs: Well, my family had a scrap business around here, which I worked in when I got out of prison. The Greater London council wanted to put a road through the yard so they paid us out a settlement and we had to get out. To be honest I was fed up of the scrap game anyway and wanted to do something else so I took myself up to the Royal Oak just to see the fighters - Bruno, Kaylor, Pyatt. I knew Terry Lawless because he used to be my manager. He said to me “Jim, do me a favour. I’m going to America for a couple of weeks; would you help Frank Black out with the boys?”. This was back in 1981. I got on well with Frank so I said as long as it’s okay with him then yeah I’ll do it. So I helped train them for a couple of weeks. Then Terry got home, he rang me up and said he wanted to see me; he said “Charlie Magri and the boys want to write a letter to the board and want you as a trainer”. Well, I thought I’d give it a go so went full time up there. I was thrown in at the deep end so it wasn’t easy. How did you know you would be any good as a trainer? Was it in your blood do you think?

Jimmy Tibbs: Success! [Laughs] I’m not boasting but we’ve had a lot of champions; world champions, European champions, British champions, Commonwealth champions, Southern Area champions. What about right at the beginning before any of your success?

Jimmy Tibbs: When you know you’re getting respect from fighters; when you tell them something and you know they respect it. I mean 30 years ago I was a lot fitter so I’d get in the ring and spar with a few of them. I’ve done shadow boxing with Chris Pyatt, showing him what I want him to do, and they’ve all stood back clapping me. I’ve stood back and said “I’m doing it better than you’re doing it. This is how I want you to do it”. When you know your boxers are paying attention and believe what you’re saying you know you’re doing it right. A good trainer doesn’t want to kid a good fighter because it’s embarrassing. If you’re not good enough to be doing it then you either go and ask advice or you think about what you do want to do. Trad TKO gym owner and trainer Johnny Eames told me you’re a good inspiration and mentor. Do you think working in an environment with such good trainers helps you all learn more from each other?

Jimmy Tibbs: John’s always asked me anything if he needed help with something or if we need advice, we just have to ask each other. I’ve worked in his corner doing his fighters’ cuts. We all know if we need some advice we just have to ask. What makes a good trainer?

Jimmy Tibbs: You got to be dedicated to the job you’re doing, not frightened to take advice from other people, watch other fighters and learn. When I was a kid I used to go round all the pro gyms on my own and watch them. I always remember watching American fighters come over and they’d do 3 or 4 rounds in an English gym and then go home. I’d think they didn’t train hard but it was because they’d done all their hard training back in America. That’s what we do now; you bring your fighter down a week before the fight then they just tick over for the weight. On the issue of weight, do you think fighters make weight correctly nowadays?

Jimmy Tibbs: When fighters try to make weight by starving themselves, that’s the wrong way to make weight. Nowadays it’s done a lot better because there’s a lot of vitamins, nutriments and drinks on sale and people know what they need to eat to stay healthy. I mean when I was a pro making middleweight I would just tell the missus not to put any potatoes on my plate; just give me meat and greens. Now, that’s the wrong way to do it but we didn’t know no different. It didn’t do us mentally though because I’d still do 10 rounds no problem. Mickey Duff used to say “if you don’t make the weight, you don’t get paid”. A lot of it is psychological but the better way is how fighters make weight today. If you have to starve yourself to make weight you need to move up in weight. You’ve trained some very talented boxers. Who was the best boxer you’ve trained?

Jimmy Tibbs: I can’t just say one because they all had different styles and different make ups. Like Nigel Benn was very, very good at training. Some people said to me you might have a bit of trouble training him but I didn’t. You can’t kid fighters. If you have a fighter and you’re coaching him he knows if you’re right or not. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out like if another fighter is better than him but they know if you know what you’re on about and so they take notice of you. Nigel Benn took every word in that I said; same as Barry McGuigan, same as Frank Bruno, same as Chris Pyatt, same as Charlie Magri, same as Kevin Mitchell. I’m not just blowing my own trumpet but it used to make me feel good because I knew they credited me and so I knew what I was telling them was right. Kevin Mitchell has just been handed a title opportunity against Ricky Burns this autumn. What are your early thoughts on this fight?

Jimmy Tibbs: Both guys are very fit and at the peak of their careers. Burns has always kept himself in good condition and Mitchell is in great condition at the moment. If he looks after himself he has another 3 or 4 years of good boxing left in him. As for the fight, without giving too much away, I think Kevin might move a bit better than Burns and has a bit more power. Both are great boxers. Who would you say is the best trainer around today?

Jimmy Tibbs: I don’t mean to sound big headed because I don’t like bigging myself up but I’m as good as anyone out there today. Freddie Roach is a great coach. He’s been at the top for a long time and keeps producing champions. But he’s in a great position where he’s on the west coast of America and they’re all going through there. All the Mexicans and Filipinos seem to go through Freddie now. I’ve actually worked in a corner with Freddie. I used to train Gary Stretch and then when they made the fight between him and Chris Eubank he went over to America. He said he was going to get Freddie Roach to train him. I said no problem as I was training Terry Lawless’ fighters anyway. So when they came over for the fight Freddie asked if I would do the cuts for him and I said yeah. Your son Mark was a boxer and is now a trainer. Has he always been interested in boxing?

Jimmy Tibbs: Yeah, he’s boxed since he was a kid. I remember once when I was in prison I picked up the Boxing News and went “that’s my son!”. John H Stracey had gone down Repton and he’d asked who that boy was and they’ve gone “that’s Mark Tibbs”. So he went “oh, let me have a photo done with him”, because we all knew each other years ago. A friend of mine called Dennis Docherty took mark boxing and he took my other son Jimmy to football. He was like a second father figure while I was away. Mark boxed for West Ham for a while but they ran out of trainers; that was then, they got good trainers down there now. He went back to Repton and won the Schoolboys, Junior ABAs, NABCs, he was a really successful amateur. Then he turned pro with Frank Warren. I thought he turned pro just a little too young but he wanted to turn pro and he did quite well out of it. How is he coming along as a trainer in your opinion?

Jimmy Tibbs: He’s a good trainer and he will get better. It’s like if you’ve been working on computers for 30 years and you should a youngster what to do, he’ll get it real quick. Well, when he’s gone on to do it for 30 years he’ll be better than the first guy. What he’s lacking right now is experience but he’ll gain that; like I advised him to cut the sparring down from 6 rounds to 5 rounds. If you’re sparring regularly you don’t need to do that extra round because you’ll just wear the fighters out. He trains some good fighters in Frank Buglioni, Tom Baker and Charlie Hoy and we both train Billy Morgan and Freddie Turner between us. I don’t interfere unless he wants some help but he knows what he’s doing. Would you say boxing still has a part to play in local communities and society as a whole?

Jimmy Tibbs: Yes, I think boxing is a great discipline and I think it’s a shame they took it out of schools as it stops bullying because bullies always get found out. You get to travel across the country and the world. Clubs don’t only take champions abroad, they take everyone so it’s a great way to meet new people and see new places. It teaches true discipline and everyone is the same. I’ve seen kids break down and cry back in the dressing room but we never used to take the mickey out of them. We’d say “come on, you can do it” and motivate them. It’s the same in the pro ranks. When we’ve been in the dressing room, I’ve had Kevin Mitchell, Frank Buglioni and a few other new kids and you can see the nerves and I’ve seen Kevin playing playing around and making out like he’s this or that and turned to me and say “It helps make them forget their nerves, Jim”. There’s a real togetherness in the dressing room. Did you learn a lot fighting for the great Terry Lawless?

Jimmy Tibbs: He was my manager, so I learnt a bit off him. He wasn’t a fighter himself so I didn’t learn too much from him on that side of the game. He was a very good manager, one of the best. He knew how to manage a fighter’s career correctly and bring fighters along at the right pace. He had world champions and European champions so he knew what he was doing. You grew up in West Ham during a time when they had some of the best footballers in the country. Do you remember those times well and the World cup victory?

Jimmy Tibbs: I turned pro in 1966 at age 19 so I remember the time well. Our local paper at the time was called the Stratford Express and Terry Lawless took me over there to have my photo taken with Bobby Moore. They used to have a competition for best sportsman of the year. Obviously that year Bobby Moore won it. I came third. I was still an amateur at the time. I met Bobby Moore, lovely man, a gentleman. I think I met Johnny Byrne. I’ve met Harry Redknapp and his son Jamie. Nice people. How well with West Ham do this year?

Jimmy Tibbs: Well, Sam Allardyce has done a good job in his time at the club so far so hopefully he can keep us in the Premiership. Do you see the end of your career in sight or are you just as motivated as ever before?

Jimmy Tibbs: Well, I can’t quit yet because I’ve got a mortgage to pay [laughs]. Hopefully I’ll be around for a long time to come. It keeps me young working with these youngsters and I like doing it. While I’ve got champions around me still, why should I pack it in? I mean I could retire but then I’d end up just playing golf every day. I’d soon get bored of that. Has it been an enjoyable time in your life?

Jimmy Tibbs: Yeah, we have a lot of laughs up here. It’s not a depressing job. We get to travel around the country and Europe. I had some great times with Frank Black, who was a co-trainer with Terry Lawless and me; we went round Europe together and even when Terry Lawless retired we stayed together and carried on training fighters. It hasn’t always been easy and has been hard at times but it’s all been good. Thanks Jimmy. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. 

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