September 24, 2006—The plaid carpets were sticky from the spilled booze. The chandelier hanging above the ring was inconsequential. The punters had poured out of the bar and into the Guild Hall to surround the ring. They cheered. They booed. They sloshed their pints and looped arms around one another, jumping up and down when the hometown fighters were either announced or if they won.
They were buoyant when their man Merv Langdale, a cruiserweight fighting at heavyweight, was summoned to the ring. Modest Merv, a landscaper by day, did not look too confident. He had only one pro fight to his name and it was a draw.
Meanwhile, in the other corner stood a rotund man with gray hair looking so relaxed that if he was wearing a fedora and held a suitcase he would have been ready to go on holiday. The top of his white shorts covered his belly, but his “pecs” hung loosely over the top.
He was not ready for Mr. Olympia.
Yet those in the trade knew Tony Booth could fight his ass off if the mood took him, which it rarely did in the later years, and those in Southampton on that Sunday afternoon thought the Teletubby boxer was just making up the numbers.
“You fat bastard,” they sang at him.
They hissed at him. They jeered. They heckled. They mocked his physique. They teased him over his hair color. They gave him some dreadful stick.
And Tony loved it. He always did.
Langdale pawed with his jab but it was not enough for Booth—a veteran of forty-six wins who had shared the ring with some of the best of the last ten or fifteen years—to treat him with any respect.
The home crowd thought it was a set-up; that their man had been matched with the ‘fat bastard’ to pad his record and that Booth was being well compensated for the upcoming “L” heading toward his record. They thought their sleeker man had won the battle of the bodies and would, therefore, win the war.
The problem was Booth thrived on their hate. It meant he really started to fancy the job. Their venom bordered on uncomfortable. But Booth smirked. In close, he blew them a kiss over Langdale’s shoulder.
Then, in one’s finest Jim Lampley voice, you could excuse yourself for saying “It happened. It happened.” As the crowd wildly sang “You fat bastard” once more everything seemed to roll along in slow motion. Booth looked out into the crowd and performed an Ali shuffle while staring out at them. A bemused Langdale gazed on and, by the time he figured out what he was looking at, Booth was arcing in a crashing overhand right.
It landed flush against the left side of Langdale’s face and he fell like a tree onto his back. Not even a rapid left uppercut that was supposed to follow in was fast enough to tag the collapsing Hampshire man.
The crowd’s vitriol turned into ironic cheers.
Booth may have been a fat bastard, but at least he was upright. Langdale pitched over as he attempted to rise and referee Ken Curtis waved it off. The bout was eight seconds shy of two minutes old. The crowd had not been silenced, rather they had entered an unexpected delirium, giving Booth a standing ovation and clapping with their hands overhead in appreciation of the simply bonkers moment they had just witnessed.
For Booth, it was just another paragraph in a long, long story. It was a flash of brilliance that too often had been shielded by politics and life in the blue corner. He fought on for several years, winning and losing, mostly doing the latter, but in 2011—five years after that emphatic conquest on the South Coast—he was jailed for nine years for his role in a counterfeit gang, nailed by an undercover sting called “Operation Beech” that resulted in the men being found guilty of being involved with cocaine, ecstasy, and forged money.
He’s out now. He did seven years and six months, in the end having been prompted to appeal after another man who was sentenced for longer at the same time saw his time trimmed to four years.
“It wasn’t hard for me, it was just hard not to see the kids,” he begins, talking of his time inside. “It’s just a mug’s place. The only time I’d go back is if I got done for fighting or something. I was the gym orderly [in jail] and I was doing talks with young offenders so I might go into something like that. I’m training a young kid now who hasn’t got a lot of confidence and it brings them on.”
“Yeah I miss it,” admits the forty-eight-year-old of lacing up his own gloves. “I did a bit of jail so with that I couldn’t get a license [to box] but now, since August, I can get my trainer’s license. I’ve just started doing some White Collars [training boxers] and they’re not a bad little number. Look at Dave Coldwell. He used to train with us in Sheffield and he didn’t have a clue, but look at him now—he’s a millionaire, isn’t he?”
The training path is not lucrative for everyone. It is not lucrative for many, actually. But Booth was informed at the end of his career that his brain scan had changed and so he knows it is over.
“I won’t fight again,” he continues. But then there is a short pause. “If someone offered me a couple of grand I’d go down and fight but I had to chuck it in in the end because my brain scan had changed by the end, over eighteen years.”
Eighteen years. One hundred and sixty-six fights. Countless sessions behind closed doors, where he served as a sparring partner to champions in their primes, including Nigel Benn and Joe Calzaghe.
He said that in the buildup to Benn’s fateful fight with American banger Gerald McClellan that he had been “jabbing Benn’s head off” so much that he lumped some money on the man from Detroit. Booth was more than just a sparring partner. He was more than just an entertainer. Sure, he became a gatekeeper in the pros at an entry level. He was David Haye’s debut opponent in 2002. He liked a joke in and out of the ring, and for the majority of fights he had he would get a notice period somewhere between one and forty-eight hours.
He accepted what his career was and how it was going to go and he recounts highlights and lowlights with a similar disposition. Win some, lose some. Get the decision, don’t get the decision. Still get paid, don’t ya?
He traveled far and wide, fighting in Algeria, Lagos, Denmark, Spain, France, Finland, Belgium, and all over the UK.
There were big names and no names.
“Montell Griffin?” he considers. “Being honest, I’d been on the piss [out drinking] there again. They offered me five grand. To be honest, they were paying me five grand to get knocked out and I was jabbing his head off and [trainer] Dominic Ingle said, ‘It’s ten rounds, this.’ And I said, ‘I ain’t going ten rounds.’ I was there for the money.”
In 2002 he fought Enzo Maccarinelli twice in four months, losing on points over four the first time but getting halted in two in the rematch. He explains the difference in his approach and some of the factors that played a part in whether he won or lost.
“With Enzo… I went there the first time and there was about ten thousand people there, so I was having a go [on the Calzaghe–Charles Brewer undercard]. I was waving at them and all that lot and they’re booing me and I’m loving it and the next time I boxed him it was after Calzaghe [had boxed]. The second time he beat me in a round or so but there was no one there. I’d been in the changing room two or three hours on my own and when I came out there was hardly anyone there and I thought, ‘What’s the point’. So I just took a dive. Do you know what I mean?”
You cannot be quite sure what he means until he provides some context. Sometimes he fancied the job, at other times he did not want to be there. He saved shows, ruined careers, got screwed, and did some of the screwing. He was a willing participant in a mucky business.
“Half the time I had about a day’s notice,” he explains. “One time, when I boxed Crawford Ashley, I was just there for the money (TKO by 1), the next time I boxed him for the British title and he put me down in the second round when the referee said break and he hit me, then it’s toe-to-toe in the sixth round but I went down for a standing eight count and Mickey Vann said there was no standing eight counts. But he was getting tired and he’s from Leeds, Mickey Vann’s from Leeds.…”
Politics. Politricks, as Lennox Lewis called them. Probably not, but it is always easy to say that from afar, it’s not so easy to swallow if you’re on the receiving end. And he was not always a willing victim. On the contrary, the thing with Booth was he could be a handful, as he recalls of another late notice gig.
“I went down to London one time to fight this double ABA champion, John Beckles. He’d been fighting in America and he’d lost to Alfred ‘Ice’ Cole who became a world champion and he was going to be the next big thing and I was [traveling down from Sheffield] with Prince Naseem, who was only about sixteen, and I ended up stopping him in the sixth round.”
Then there was unbeaten super-middleweight hope Omar Sheika, who was 14-0 but humbled when outscored over eight rounds. “They rung me up and I’d been on the drink for about three-and-a-half weeks. I’d been pissed up, but they offered me five grand so I boxed him and I boxed his head off. I’ve always been a good boxer, know what I mean? I boxed Neville Brown (L6 in 1991) with about an hour and a half’s notice and he beat me by about one point. I fought Michael Sprott with about two hours’ notice. I boxed Dereck Chisora and I wasn’t even a heavyweight and he weighed about 19 stone and I was about 15 stone and he beat me on points on a four-rounder at the Millennium on a Joe Calzaghe bill.”
Booth was the showman that night, playing to the large crowd and showboating through four of the 841 rounds Tony fought as a pro.
He says men behind the scenes ripped him off but he’s full of stories and he did what not many do—he retired on the back of two wins. The first farewell was in Hull, at home. “They said, ‘Who do you want to fight?’ I never had an easy fight so I said, ‘I will fight the guy [Howard Daley] who’s just stopped me on a cut.’ By the time the fight came I was full of cold, so I was hitting him, grabbing hold of him, and I ended up beating him. Then Alex Morrison, who is a bit of an old Scottish gangster, had a fight for me in London against this big heavyweight and I wasn’t a heavyweight, but they said he [Raz Parnez] fancies himself a bit. Anyway, Alex had told him to take it easy and he came out and tried to knock my head off and I knocked him out fourth round.”
Then irregularities were detected on Booth’s brain scan and that was that.
There were no more fights. There was a long jail sentence. And now he works in a pub and teaches people how to fight, even recently showing some police officers some moves before they boxed a team of firemen.
Tony still has the occasional brush with greatness, too. Tommy Hearns made one of his recent UK appearances in his pub and he’s hosting Chris Eubank early next year.
Tony was no Hearns and no Eubank, but he could fight and don’t let his 52-105-9 record fool you. “I think I was better than some of them said I was,” he contends. “When you watch some of the videos and see some of the people I outboxed … Nowadays they don’t fight anyone, do they? I’ve got a lot of respect in boxing. I’ve got plenty of fans and I have no regrets, it’s just when you see them now you see they’re being looked after.”
Booth was good enough to be on the other side of the bill and that is the only thing he wishes had been different, that someone powerful had shown some belief in him and backed him.
Instead, he became what they wanted him to be. Sure, he may have shocked some of their men but he did so with a smirk, an Ali shuffle, and while milking the crowd.
“People should get in contact with Sylvester Stallone and tell him to make a film about me,” he jokes. “The boxing’s not as good as it used to be. You know when you had Benn and all them? I don’t rate [Anthony] Joshua. I think he’s a young version of [Frank] Bruno. I think if he fights [Deontay] Wilder, Wilder could knock him out. Him and Tyson Fury could [knock out Joshua].”
And there will be no Booth on the undercard.
But he remembers that day at the Southampton Guild Hall well, when he stunned poor Merv Langdale and brought the opposition’s fans to their feet with a kiss, a shuffle, and a Hail Mary overhand right.
He smiles when he’s asked to remember that Sunday afternoon. “Yeah, when they was all calling me fat bastard,” he enthuses. “If you watch slowly, just before they start chanting ‘You fat bastard’ I blow them all a kiss. There’s one or two places on Facebook… The kid put that on YouTube and it’s had about seven million hits through different sites. I should have been getting paid for that.”
Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. It’s a popular refrain in boxing but it rings true in the Tony Booth story, a tale that was far different than it might have ever been, but was ultimately compelling nonetheless.