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“I chucked a couple of punches and Muhammad Ali hit the deck.”
Jimmy Tibbs follows this statement quickly with a large caveat. “He just did it for the cameras, of course. It was good fun; good publicity for the show. He was headlining it and I was on the undercard. We didn’t really spar [full contact] as such – we just had a move around.”
It may have been a classic Ali publicity stunt, but it took the 19-year-old Tibbs by surprise to see the world heavyweight champion go down: “I couldn’t believe it. I just walked away. I knew maybe he’d done me a favour to be honest! I only weighed about 11st 11lb then. I didn’t want him to open up on me, you know what I mean? But I can always say that I shared a ring with him.”
Sparring Ali before his 1966 rematch with Henry Cooper. Winning an undercard fight in front of 52,000 people at Highbury. Having the Krays offer to manage him. A spell in prison. Finding God. Surviving skin cancer. There’s enough juicy tales in the life of the now 67-year-old Jimmy Tibbs before we even get to what he’s actually renowned for: being one of Britain’s greatest ever boxing trainers.
Nigel Benn. Barry McGuigan. Frank Bruno. Lloyd Honeyghan. Michael Watson. Charlie Magri. Chris Pyatt. The names of the champions who have benefited from having Tibbs in their corner reads like a who’s who of British fighting greats. Yet his path from hot boxing prospect to ace trainer was anything but smooth.
“I know it was wrong to take the law into my own hands…
“I was about 23, 24 then, and angry over the whole situation. In them days, I just wasn’t gonna have it.”
The ‘situation’ Tibbs refers to is the tit-for-tat violence in which his family became involved in the East End in the early 1970s. It’s a topic he covers in his new autobiography – but rather than revelling in the lurid detail, the emotion he most displays is regret.
At its worst, Tibbs was the victim of a car bomb that tore his van apart. He and his son, who was sitting in the back seat, were lucky to escape unharmed. “I was so angry over that explosion with the car,” he says now. Then, after a long pause: “I feel so sorry for my wife, even today. The shock she must have gone through. I’ve never spoken to my sons about what happened back then, because I promised my wife that I wouldn’t. But you can’t take back what’s done.”
Things escalated to the point that Tibbs was convicted of attempted murder, then spent four and a half years in prison. “When I came home from prison, I wanted to fight again,” he says now. “I was 30, 31. I thought: ‘I’m strong as a lion now. I’ve got my man strength!’ But I didn’t, in case they [the boxing board] said no.”
Rather, it was in the gym of boxing trainer and manager Terry Lawless that Tibbs first became re-immersed in boxing. To begin with, he helped Lawless out by coming in to do pad work with the likes of Charlie Magri. It was the fighters themselves who turned Tibbs into a trainer. They saw the gift he had for it, and began requesting that he train them. From there, a flood of fighters began calling on Tibbs to guide them.
“I’ve worked with a lot of what you call concussive punchers…
Lloyd Honeyghan, Darren Dyer, Wayne Alexander – they’re fighters who’d hit you there [prods Sport’s shoulder] and knock you out.” Yet another Tibbs lists among the big hitters he’s worked with is Britain’s most beloved heavyweight.
“Frank Bruno is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met,” says Tibbs. “I was invited round his house down in Stondon Massey a few years ago, when he wanted to make a comeback. He asked me to train him to fight Audley Harrison.
“We were talking, and suddenly he said to me: ‘How’s your grandson getting on, Jim?’ Because James – my Jimmy’s son – has Down’s Syndrome, and he’s a diabetic as well. Lovely boy he is. I said that he was alright, but that we were a bit worried about him going to the big school in case he got bullied. Frank said: ‘I know a school in Brentwood: Endeavour. It’s for special needs, Jim. A wonderful school.’ So I rang my Jimmy up and he said: ‘Cor, Dad, if Frank can get him in there, it would be lovely.’
“Within six hours, his name was down; within a week, he was in. That was all down to Frank. And at that time – although we didn’t know it – Frank was having a breakdown. But he still thought of my grandson and got him into that school. I will never, ever forget that.”
Bruno’s battle with a mental health illness meant that he never made his planned comeback. However, it’s another London big hitter who Tibbs once famously rebuilt from raw puncher to smarter boxer-fighter.
“Nigel Benn was ferocious – but he was a good listener…
I trained him to fight Henry Wharton – unbeaten then, really strong and a good puncher. We were sparring in Tenerife in front of the press, and Nige looked rubbish. I couldn’t let the press see this! I stopped it and said: ‘Pay up the sparring partners – get rid of ’em. I’ll be your sparring partner.’
“Now, I didn’t mean for one minute that I was going to put the gloves on and fight Nigel Benn! But I got the pad gloves out and I showed him how Henry was going to fight. I told him: ‘You’re as strong as Henry, Nigel – but I want you to be smarter.’
“I want you to take a step back and go: jab, jab, crack! [Tibbs throws a right hand] We practised it almost every day. And in the fight, he looked like Sugar Ray Robsinson! Now, fighting [Chris] Eubank was different: you had to stay on him for three minutes of every round.”
Tibbs trained Benn for his drawn rematch with Eubank in 1993, in front of 45,000 people at Old Trafford. That wasmore than 20 years ago, but Tibbs is still preparing fighters at the highest level. His latest charge is 24-year-old European middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders.
“I visited someone in prison the other day and took Billy Joe with me – I could see him looking around, taking it in,” says Tibbs, who meant the trip as a deterrent against ever ending up inside. “The best piece of advice I could give any boxer? Live the life. Do what I never did. I had talent, so I thought I could get away with it. No-one is more gifted than Billy Joe – he’s just got to live the life. But I’m so pleased the way he’s come off his last fight: he’s kept his weight down. He’s got a dietician on the firm now, he’s got a strength and conditioning guy – and to coach him, he’s got me. He’s got everything.”
Indeed. As Tibbs’ CV shows, plenty of boxers have made it to the top of the sport with just that last man.