May 11, 2021

Goodbye to Tony Burns, a legend laid to rest

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It was a privilege to be there for the one and only Tony Burns, writes Steve Bunce

MAURICE HOPE was silent as the hearse carrying his old, old friend Tony Burns pulled up outside the Repton gym in London’s old, old East End.

Burns was in charge at Repton in 1972 when Hope and two other Repton boxers went to the Munich Olympics. Hope went professional with Terry Lawless, a great friend of Burns. It was a conveyor belt of great fighters; from the Repton club to the Royal Oak and then glory in a very different and distant professional business.

Sure, there were world titles and British titles for the boys and men that Burns helped make and shape at Repton. There were also hundreds of amateur champions during five decades, but far more were just anonymous boxers, men that he helped change at some point. They never forget and they stood next to Hope waiting.

Burns was still in charge at Repton when he died last month – you don’t have to be leaning on the ring, with a cigarette between your fingers to be in charge.

Last week, Hope was part of a group of old and young fighters waiting for the final appearance of Burns at their gym. The car pulled up and Ryan Pickard, a modern boxer, placed a wreath inside. There was quiet and then a phone rattled in a pocket. It played the Godfather theme – nobody laughed, but it was quite funny. And perfect; the man in the hearse really was a boxing Godfather to thousands. The ten bells played to silence on that street.

“They come through the door at nine or ten or eleven and we keep making them into boxers,” Burns said in 1986. “It’s all they know, they come here to change; it’s a way of life straight away for them.” And they kept on coming, all ages, all types and sizes.

On the pavement outside the gym, they gathered in reverence and love for the man that helped make them. Some were missing, some dead, some in prison, some simply lost. Burns was not a magician, he could not make all your problems vanish, but he gave you the chance. He made hope possible for every single fighter that pushed the door open at the gym.

Not everybody went from the Repton green vest to the world title like Hope.

I stood in the huddle of fighters young and old, some I had forgotten about, some I had written about 35 years ago and recognised instantly. There were others that looked like somebody I knew, but I had no idea of their name. “You don’t recognise me, do you?” I was asked a dozen times. Some looked just like their dad had when I was covering the Schoolboy championships in the eighties and was on the road for five or six weekends in the build-up. It was strange.

Pickard had written a moving tribute, a brutally honest tribute that summed up better than I ever could what Burns meant to the men in his gym, the men he transformed and changed. Pickard took his role as Repton captain serious and outside the gym he had on his tracksuit with his Schoolboy champion badges sewn on. It was a day of understandable and total respect.

“He had his special ways,” Pickard said. “Like boxing, Tony was not for the faint-hearted – if you didn’t have what it took to learn in boxing, then you wouldn’t have what it took to learn from Tony.” That is a nice way to say that Tony never suffered a fool for longer than he needed to. Pickard added this little gem and it makes me chuckle each time I look at it: “People may call Burnsy a ‘lovely man’, or some other nicety, but I’ve got to be real here, niceties do not cut it, ‘lovely’ was not Tony Burns. He was brutally honest.” Pickard nailed it and he was brutally honest.

On the pavement, waiting for Tony to come, the fighters talked and reminisced about their days, their shared journeys to fights. Billy Couzens talked about Norway, Bobby Parkes about Finland, Gary Logan about York Hall, Richard Burwood about a fight on a pier on the south coast. Some looked great, some not so great – the missing worried a few of them. “Why is he not here?” they all seemed to say when a name came up. Once or twice the answer was simple: “He’s gone, mate.” It could mean death or simply that the fighter was too troubled to be part of a pavement vigil for the great man.

Mostly, the fighting men and a few women just talked about their fights, fights they had seen and days and nights with Burns. There was a lot of laughing – Burns was a funny, funny man.

“You remember things that you have forgotten when the old faces get together,” said Wendell Henry. “The memories come flooding back and there were a lot of old memories being shared outside, waiting for him to come by. A lot of fighters are as wide as they are tall – others look about 20-years younger than they were.” Wendell is right and, by the way, he is close to ageless.

I think boxing funerals are great therapy for old fighters, I really do. I have been at too many over the years and I have seen that genuine delight and light in the eyes of men that shared so, so much. There is the sadness of respect, but the gift of the gathering is massive. There was a lot of laughter and back-slapping outside the Repton. It was a privilege to be there.

Once the hearse had left there was a move to go inside at the gym for a screening of the service. It was my turn to leave; the screening was for Tony’s men. I left the gym’s door, shook a few hands and went and bought a bagel in Brick Lane – It’s my Repton ritual and I have walked those streets hundreds of times after leaving that gym. I will do it again, but it will never quite be the same.

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