Steven Bunce highlights a forgotten journalist who moved a young Frank Bruno towards stardom
THIS is a story of a forgotten man in British boxing, a journalist, a fixer, a mixer and ducker and diver during a time of great change, conflict and hate in British rings. Al Hamilton has a bit of the Forrest Gump about him. He was there, you missed him, he made it happen, you never knew it. Hamilton has an e-book out now called Frostbites on Fingertips. It covers his life in Britain after leaving Jamaica for London in 1962 and it can be brutal in parts.
Hamilton writes about the New Cross fire, Desmond Douglas, the Brixton riots, “sus” laws, muggings, burning car fires at night and a lost history that he was never far from. He was at the centre of a lot. He finds his way to the boxing beat, a young reporter offering stuff to the Gleaner [the newspaper].
He becomes friends with Frankie Lucas at the Sir Philip Game club in Croydon, south London, in the early Seventies. Lucas is an extraordinary character and fighter – a man with mystery, a man with a heavy burden to carry in a business that never had a kind moment for him.
Hamilton opens an old window on the way things worked in the press game.
He was the only black writer on that beat in the Seventies. He writes about the joy of getting his press pass for the London ABA finals in 1972, the dread that he would not get a pass, that somehow Wally Bartleman, the veteran Evening Standard reporter and ABA liaison officer, would reject the Gleaner’s request. That was a real fear, trust me. Bartleman, a great man in the world of boxing writing, agrees a pass and then takes Hamilton in hand on the day and night of the fights at the Royal Albert Hall. “He was a real gentleman and showed no bias as he introduced me to the writers from the nationals. He was class, he looked after me,” writes Hamilton. Lucas won that day, beating Alan Minter – that is a hard tale to understand and tell.
Another time at ringside at Wembley for a big show in the Eighties, when he was writing for the Caribbean Times, somebody in the press row made a casual remark about “n*****s”. That was the front page that week. Hamilton was on the front line, make no mistake. As I said, he has gone under the radar, but he deserves respect for nearly two decades of boxing coverage. He wrote about hundreds of fights and fighters from the black community at a time when having your name in the paper really mattered. Articles were sent all over the Caribbean. Hamilton’s lists of black footballers in the Seventies and Eighties is also encyclopaedic, he seemed to know them all.
In 1980 he started the Commonwealth Sports Awards and that annual event became his main duty. The boxing coverage, the post-fight scrum, the titbits of tales and stories remained his love.
And it was love that led to him meeting a 15-year-old Frank Bruno. Al was dating Bruno’s sister and she kept on going on and on about her “little brother.” Well, one day her little brother came back from care and Hamilton, who was sprawled out on the bed, shouted for the kid to come up. “He was a giant, 6ft 4inches and 14 stone, with fingers like bananas – he was not my idea of a little brother,” remembers Hamilton. That was the start of the Hamilton and Bruno act. It had some lovely moments, Bruno is uncle to Al’s son, but inevitably it finished in court.
The short book is best when Hamilton talks about the deep, deep behind-the-scenes deals and double deals that led Bruno to fame. It covers the meetings in restaurants, rides in Rollers, the sit-downs in offices and the solo trip by Bruno to Colombia – it finally ends with the icon fighting. It’s like chaotic espionage and right in the middle is Big Al, swinging away and doing the best deals he could possibly do for the “kid brother”. There was a lot of legal action during this period, claims and counter claims and it was nasty. It’s easy to overlook just how big an impact Bruno made on British boxing and just how desperately the business needed a giant, knockout artist at heavyweight. Bruno was a saviour, there was Brunomania and Al Hamilton was making and writing the headlines.
Hamilton was the crucial, hidden extra factor in Bruno signing with Terry Lawless, but that triangle was never going to be peaceful. In 1988 Lawless and his team lined up in the High Court opposite Hamilton and his team. The fight was over the percentage of the Bruno spoils. It was messy, very messy, “You know what the judge said? He said: ‘Mr. Hamilton deserves credit and recognition, for the significant role he played, in the development of young Frank Bruno’. That’s it, no more money, but that is what he said,” Hamilton adds without rancour. There had been money for Hamilton (copies of the cheques were exhibited in court) from Bruno’s purses before the High Court case. Like I said, Al Hamilton was there.
The Bruno stuff is detailed, but the Lucas stories are filled with love and respect from Hamilton. Lucas was a tragic figure in many ways. Hamilton remembers an awful little moment from the end of the bloody and nasty vacant British middleweight title fight between Lucas and Tony Sibson in 1979 at the Royal Albert Hall. I was there that night, it was unforgettable.
Lucas is stopped in round five and as he leaves the ring, the atmosphere still hostile, he pauses at ringside, stops and looks back at Sibson being mobbed. “C’mon, Frankie, move, man.” But Lucas is not moving, he’s looking, taking it all in. “I just want to see what I missed,” Lucas finally says. And in many ways that was the last of the hope in the life of Frankie Lucas. He fought just once more and vanished.
In Hamilton’s book fighters like Vernon Vanriel walk talk next to men like Mickey Duff, they walk across an ancient boxing landscape and Al Hamilton was the witness.