The epitome of brains and brawn, Nicky Piper reflects on his life in the sport as a fighter, commentator and administrator
MY brother Cliff is five years older than me and he started boxing at Victoria Park ABC in Cardiff when he was seven. I followed him into the sport when I was seven. I had about 30 exhibition bouts before having my first proper fight at nine. I was a little whirlwind and I went on to win five Welsh Schoolboy titles for Victoria Park. At the age of 16 I had 18 months off boxing in order to concentrate on my school exams, although I was still constantly training. Just after my 18th birthday I moved to Penarth ABC because Victoria Park wasn’t a great club for seniors at the time.
At Penarth I won four Welsh ABA titles – light-middleweight in 1985, middleweight in 1987 and 1988, and light-heavyweight in 1989. I was runner-up at the British ABAs in 1988 at middleweight. I was struggling at the weight and I lost to Mark Edwards of the Navy in the final. I moved up to light-heavyweight in 1989 and in the final I fought another Navy boxer, Lee Hudson. This time I won.
Despite being chosen for the Welsh team to go to the 1990 Commonwealth Games, I decided to turn professional in 1989. I wanted to turn pro with the best, and that was Frank Warren. I ended up being promoted by him for my entire career. I was also trained by Charlie Pearson for my entire career. He was my coach at Penarth. He’s 86 now but he’s still going strong.
As a pro, I knocked down four of my first seven opponents with the first punch of the fight. My fifth fight was against Maurice Core, who went on to become British light-heavyweight champion. Although I gave up half-a-stone to him, I put him down with the first punch of the first round and the first punch of the second round. I cut him and chased him all around the ring, but the referee somehow scored it a draw after six rounds. I should’ve won that one.
I had 10 wins and one draw going into my 12th fight, which was down in London at York Hall. We never had the internet in those days, so I used to look up my opponents’ records in the Boxing Yearbook. I had all of the Boxing News issues in weekly order, so I’d check the Boxing Yearbook to see when my opponents had fought, then I’d look in the corresponding issues of Boxing News to read up on their performances.
The night before my 12th fight I was relaxing in the hotel in London when the matchmaker, Ernie Fossey, called me up. He said that my opponent had pulled out but he’d got me a replacement opponent. He told me not to worry because the opponent was just a fat light-heavyweight. It turned out to be Carl Thompson! Because he was a late-notice opponent, I didn’t have a chance to look up his record and performances, but I was confident that Ernie had matched me correctly.
I knew Carl was going to be heavier than me, so on the day of the fight I went to the cafe across the road from York Hall and had lasagne and chips for lunch.
I weighed in at one o’clock, but Carl didn’t weigh in until four o’clock, because he was coming down from Manchester at late notice. Officially he came in around 10lbs heavier than me, but it was probably much more than that. The first time I actually saw Carl was during my ring walk. I walked out and saw this Adonis of a man standing in the ring, skin glistening with sweat and muscles bulging. I thought to myself, ‘He doesn’t look like a fat light-heavyweight!’
I bounced punches off him for the first two rounds and he looked like he was starting to tire. Then in the third round he caught me with a punch and knocked me down. I got up and the ref stopped it, which was the right thing to do. It was such a mismatch at the time. He won the British cruiserweight title in his next fight.
After losing for the first time I won my next six fights, including two British super-middleweight title eliminators. I was closing in on a British title shot but then I was offered a fight with Nigel Benn, who was the WBC super-middleweight champion. I couldn’t turn it down. I was fit and confident, but I struggled so badly to make the super-middleweight limit. By the 10th round I was shattered. I had no energy left at all and I was stopped in the 11th. At the time of the stoppage I was ahead on one of the scorecards.
Before the Benn fight, Frank Warren had me go down to London to work with an American sparring partner and a French sparring partner. Ernie Fossey would pick me up from my hotel at five o’clock every morning and I’d go running at Hampstead Heath, then I’d go back to the hotel. But I just couldn’t stand that lifestyle. After a week I said to Frank that I wanted to go back to Penarth and put the sparring partners up in a hotel there.
I was always fit and I always trained really hard, but I wasn’t prepared to put myself through the hardship that certain fighters were – travelling around the gyms, sparring night after night and ripping bits out of each other. It probably would’ve improved my performances for a year or two, but I could’ve incurred long-lasting damage. That’s the way I look at it.
Looking back on my career, I have no real regrets, although I think I only reached about 80 or 90 per cent of my potential. I could’ve done better, especially against Leeonzer Barber in 1994. It was just over a year after the Benn fight and I’d moved up to light-heavyweight. I should’ve won the WBO title that night, but a lack of concentration resulted in me getting stopped in the ninth round. A split second is all it takes in boxing. It’s such a cruel sport.
I trained so hard for that contest – three times a day, six days a week.
I worked on my strength at seven o’clock in the morning with the Mr Wales bodybuilding champion. I then went running at 11 o’clock, before going to the gym for two hours in the evening. I was eating seven meals and 10,000 calories a day for 11 weeks. I felt so strong and I was boxing really well – Barber’s eye was shut and swollen like a tennis ball. After the eighth round I thought it was all over. The next thing I know I’m getting up off the floor after being knocked down twice.
Later on that year I fought Crawford Ashley for the British light-heavyweight title. He put me down in the eighth round and won the fight by one-and-a-half points. Ashley was the most hurtful puncher I ever faced. It took a long time for me to figure him out. After the knockdown I decided to throw caution to the wind and go after him. When I did that he went into a shell, while I got stronger and stronger. If the 12th round had been 30 seconds longer then I think I might’ve stopped him.
The following year I enjoyed what was probably the best night of my career when I won my first meaningful title – the Commonwealth light-heavyweight belt. Noel Magee was the champion and he was a clever and respected fighter. Boxing outdoors in front of 16,000 fans at Cardiff Arms Park on the undercard of Steve Robinson against Naseem Hamed was a real occasion. Magee was a tough guy but my strength showed and I won in the ninth round.
I made a successful defence of my Commonwealth title in 1996 by stopping Bruce Scott in seven rounds. This led on to my third world title shot, which was against WBO light-heavyweight champion Dariusz Michalczewski in 1997. By this stage I’d fallen out of love with the sport, but I stayed with it because I knew I had this world title shot and big payday coming up.
In the weeks leading up to the fight I could tell that I wasn’t training as hard. I’d get to a hill in the country lanes and instead of running up it, I’d just walk.
I couldn’t be bothered to do it anymore. So when I got to Germany to take on someone as good as Michalczewski, I was really up against it. There was a bit of skulduggery – he took so long to come to the ring. By the time they’d done the national anthems and we were ready to fight, I’d already been waiting around for about half-an-hour. But no excuses. He put me down twice in the first round.
I decided to throw everything at him in the fifth and sixth, but in the seventh he put me down again. At the end of that round my corner correctly decided to retire me.
By this point, alongside my boxing career I’d been working for Sky Sports as a commentator for five years. So even though I was only 31, I decided to retire because I still had money coming in and I still had the thrill of being involved in boxing on TV. I first started working as a commentator in around 1991 for Eurosport. About a year later, Sky invited me to work for them. I did a good 20-odd years at Sky in the end. It was such a wonderful job. There’s people sitting behind you who have paid thousands of pounds for a ringside seat, while you’re getting paid to be there.
As well as starting at Sky in 1992, that was also when I became chairman of the Professional Boxing Association – a position I held until 1997. Barry McGuigan set the organisation up to act as a union representing professional boxers. I had lots of publicity early in my career for having an IQ of 153 and being a member of Mensa, which is probably why Barry asked me to be the chairman.
We did lots of good, such as readdressing the boxer-manager agreement, which originally was heavily in favour of the manager. But you need the boxers to pay their subscription fees to support you. Unfortunately, it seemed to be that the boxers at the top didn’t need us, while the boxers at the bottom couldn’t afford the fees. So when I retired from boxing in 1997, I decided to become a director and admin steward at the British Boxing Board of Control. After 10 years performing these roles at the Board, I then served another 10 years as their marketing executive, so I was with them for 20 years in total. It was because of all my work in boxing, plus the eight years I served on the Welsh Sports Council, that I was awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to sport.
For the past 10 years I’ve been working at City Hospice, which was one of the charities I used to represent when I was boxing. My role as corporate partnerships manager is to liaise with the businesses in Cardiff and South Wales to secure support for the charity. It’s a really enjoyable job and such a worthy cause. I’ve also recently started working with the Welsh Area Council, so I’m still involved in boxing.
It’s great when I go to events now and get introduced as the former Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion. But it does frustrate me sometimes that I never won a world title. I think I had the skill to be a world champion. It’s just that I came up against three really good world champions in Nigel Benn, Leeonzer Barber and Dariusz Michalczewski. But as I said, I have no real regrets.