By Paul Zanon
Jimmy Tibbs - Photo courtesy of Nicola Collins
“I was helping my dad’s mate out to put a fence up in Stratford. All of a sudden one of my best mates pulled up in his car and said, ‘Jim, Jump in. I’m taking you to White City. You’re sparring with the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali.’ I said, ‘What? I ain’t got no gear?’ He replies, ‘Don’t worry about that. I’ve got it all in the boot.’
I said, ‘Lovely.’ I jumped in the motor and off we went.”
When the opportunity presents itself to interview a septuagenarian who has been around boxing almost his entire life, you don’t pass it up. Jimmy Tibbs has pretty much seen it all and kindly took us through a tiny segment of his boxing journey to date. “I started boxing at 11 years of age at West Ham Boxing Club and something just drew me back there time after time. After training there for about a month, the trainer Jackie Gubbins could see something in me and started to train me. That’s when I really started to learn a lot.”
As an amateur Tibbs won the School-boys for Great Britain two times, became NABC champion twice, reached the junior ABA finals and became the North East Divisional champion as a senior. In approximately 80 amateur fights he only lost six, most of which he avenged. Tibbs explained. “I had more junior fights than senior fights because I had a good matchmaker. Lots of 50/50 fights. I only got beaten by fighters at international level, like Mark Rowe. I beat him and he beat me. I also got beat by a kid from Hornchurch and had a return and beat him. I can remember me, Pat Dywer, Mark Rowe around 16 years of age all in the junior ABA’s standing there in our vests at the Royal Albert Hall. I can remember that as if it was yesterday. We put on some great shows at that time.”
Tibbs fondly reminisced of one particular chapter of his amateur days. “I sparred with Johnny Pritchett and here’s how it happened. Reg Gutteridge phoned my house and I picked the phone up. I was living in Tarling Road in Canning Town at the time. ‘It’s Reg Gutteridge Jim.’ I knew he was The Evening News sportswriter and he was already very famous at that time. He then says, ‘We’d like you to spar with Johnny Pritchett. He’s getting ready to fight Wally Swift for the British middleweight title.’ I said, ‘I’m all for that Reg, but you need to speak to the old man.’ Reg says, ‘Alright Jim. Put him on.’ My dad picks up the phone and Reg explains. My dad said, ‘That’s alright mate. I’ll send him over there, but make sure they don’t take any liberties with him.’ Reg said, ‘Don’t worry. Johnny won’t take liberties with your son.’
“Bobby Neil had a squad of fighters that trained above at this pub in North London, including Johnny Pritchett. George Francis was there and I think it was him that got me prepped. We start the spar and I hit Johnny with a left hook under and over, so fast I dropped him. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to struggle now. He’s going to come for me,’ but Johnny never did. He was a complete gentleman and never took liberties. In fact, he said, ‘Jim, that was good.’ He then asked, ‘When I go away for the training camp, will you come with me?’ I said, ‘I’d love to come but I’ll have to ask the old man.’ Thankfully my dad said yes.
“The experience was incredible for a teenage lad from the East End. I got on the road every morning with the other fighters like Alan Rudkin, Frankie Taylor and loads of other fighters from up north. The camaraderie was great. I stayed in Johnny Pritchett’s mum’s house and they made me very welcome and looked after me for a few days.
“When I sparred with Johnny again, the same thing happened with the same combination and he hit the canvas. I laugh when I tell the story now because I still can’t believe it myself. Bobby Neil’s looked over and thought, ‘Not again.’ Unfortunately, shortly after I sprained my ankle. I tried to carry on with it, but unfortunately I had to come home a day later. That was possibly the greatest experience I had as an amateur.”
From amateur euphoria to an incomparable professional experience for a 19-year-old. Tibbs explained. “I turned pro with Terry Lawless and Mickey Duff, the matchmaker. I’d only had four fights since turning pro two months earlier and Terry’s got me out on the Muhammad Ali versus Cooper bill. A few weeks before that is when I was asked to spar Ali.
“As we were heading to White City in my mate’s motor to spar Muhammad Ali I was very excited, but I was thinking, ‘Alright then. Ali’s a bit heavier than me, but I’ll have a go.’ When we arrive at White City, Terry and Mickey are there, Ali, Jimmy Ellis and Angelo Dundee who all made me feel very welcome. I had a loosen up and then went to get my groin cup out and realised I didn’t have it. Jimmy Ellis hands his over and says, ‘Take that.’ It had a big ‘JE’ at the front and my name is James Edwards Patrick Tibbs, so the JE worked well.
“I was thinking as I stepped through the ropes, ‘I might only be in here for a round, so do the best you can.’ We start sparring, walking around, then I threw a couple of jabs and something else and next thing, bang, he goes down on the floor. The press were there click, click, click with their cameras and I thought, ‘Did I hit him?’ That was the spar over. Angelo Dundee’s patting me on the back. ‘Well done kid. Thanks for coming over.’ That was a marvellous experience.”
Little did Tibbs know a photo of Ali on the canvas with the teenager standing over him would make the front page headline of the sports section of the New York Times. Rumour has it Jimmy was the first Brit boxer to be featured on said page of the New York broadsheet.
Tibbs recalled the night he fought his fifth professional bout on the undercard of Ali versus Cooper at Arsenal Football Stadium, Highbury on 21 May 1966. “The promoter took me round to see Henry Cooper in his dressing room before he went on. He didn’t say a lot because he was relaxing. I just wished him good luck and he said thanks. Very polite man. I didn’t know why they took me to see him at the time, but I found out later. They all thought I was going to grow into a big heavyweight and fight him one day. I’ve got a programme where Henry Cooper is sitting in an armchair having a cup of tea and I’m on the bill and it says, ‘Henry Cooper seen here relaxing waiting for Jimmy Tibbs to move up to heavyweight.’ The truth is that I was a natural super middleweight, but the category didn’t exist. I fought at either middle or light heavy, but was never going to be a heavyweight.
Gianfranco Macchia vs Jimmy Tibbs [Royal Albert Hall 1967] Tibbs would win by TKO 6th round.
Tibbs continued. “I was sitting in the dressing room getting ready and it was a long dressing room. There were wooden slats and if you stood up on a chair you could see the ring and who was fighting. The weather was very drizzly that night and Johnny Pritchett was fighting Johnny Kramer and they were slipping all over the place. I got a pair of scissors and cut the soles of my boots to give them some tread so that when I stepped in some resin, which you did before stepping in the ring, I’d have some extra grip. As I’m there with the scissors, the promoter Harry Levine comes along and I’ve stood up. He’s said, ‘Sit down son. You’re gonna be a star.’ He made me feel like a champion.
“When it was my turn to go out, I walked out into the stadium and this big roar went up. I looked around thinking Ali had suddenly appeared and was walking out with me, but it was for me! I was fighting Tom Calderwood, Chic Calderwood’s brother who was British light heavyweight champion and I went down twice in the first round. Once from a slip and once he caught me on the chops. I knew where I was and got up, then stopped him in the second round. Mickey Duff said to me straight after, ‘Jim. That was great. Going down twice and then getting up and stopping him, that looked great.’
Tibbs went on to have a professional career of 17-2-1, which was cut short due to extraordinary circumstances. The details are penned in his autobiography, ‘Sparring With Life.’ He did however go on to became one of Britain’s most iconic trainers, cornering some of the UK’s best champions. Tibbs ran through a few of his charges. First up was the Dark Destroyer, Nigel Benn whom Tibbs trained for seven fights. “He done exactly what I asked him to do. I never over or under trained him, I got him at what I thought was the best I could for every fight. He did 12 rounds easy with me. We worked very well and got on like a house on fire. One reason he didn’t get fatigued was because he struggled making middleweight, but when he moved up to super middle that extra bit of weight gave him that extra bit of strength. When you’re strong you can do your combinations easier and your stamina work also.” Benn never lost a fight under Tibbs, successfully defending his WBC super middleweight crown seven times.
Next up was Chris Pyatt who Tibbs took from novice to middleweight world champion. “I would say he’s one of the greatest boxers I’ve ever trained and one of the nicest people I’ve ever trained and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. He was genuine, never greedy and keeps himself to himself. That’s probably why he’s a bit of a forgotten world champion these days. As a boxer he had everything. He could box, hook off a jab, knew how to use his feet, but he could also have a fight. He was the complete box-fighter.”
The final anecdote was with none other than Prince Naseem Hamed. “I used to work over at the Lennox Lewis gym in Hackney and trained a number of fighters over there. Naz used to come down and on this occasion he was waiting for his main trainer, Emmanuel Steward to arrive in a few weeks. I’d do his hands and we’d talk about boxing. Lovely fella and we became friends. He asked if I’d do the pads with him, which I agreed and he paid me well. This particular day was very warm and we got in the ring and started. One round, two rounds, three rounds. I got up to about six rounds and I thought, ‘I better start to throw in some combinations here and slow him down a bit.’ Hook, cross, hook. Right hand, left hook. We get to seven, eight rounds and I’m upping the combinations. I thought, ‘He wants me out of here. He wants me to say, ‘I’ve had enough,’ but I ain’t gonna do it! We move up to 11 rounds, then 12 and he’s still banging away. I’ve even started to wind him up saying, ‘I thought you could punch?’ and he’s going crack, crack, crack on these pads.
“He got to 13 rounds and I’ve never done that ever with any boxer as a trainer. He then says, ‘That’s enough for me Jim.’ I thought, ‘Thank God for that!’ We both sat on the edge of the ring apron dripping in sweat and he looks and me and says, ‘Jim. You fucked me,’ and we both laughed.
Having been around boxing for almost seven decades, Tibbs gave his view on the merits of boxing in society. “Boxing saves lives. No doubt about it. The discipline; that’s what it’s all about. If you want to be a champion, you need to have discipline. It doesn’t matter if you have all the ability in the world but if you don’t have the discipline to go with your training you won’t make it. I know many fighters, including myself, who had talent, but weren’t disciplined. That’s why every fighter I trained I tried to get that discipline in them. If you learn that in the ring, you become a disciplined person outside of it.”
Tibbs proudly ended the interview commenting on his son’s sterling achievements as a trainer. “I’m very, very proud of Mark. I watch him every time I see him at his gym three times a week. I don’t do pad work these days because it’s a little bit too much for me, but the way he does it reminds me of me years ago. It’s a pleasure to work with him and we don’t have many differences. He’s a very hard worker and he’s a very good trainer. I’m not just saying that. Even though he’s my son, if he wasn’t a good boxing trainer I’d tell you that straight, but he really is that good. He knows what he’s doing and he’s got a good future in boxing.”
Message from BVB - If you want to read more on the life and times of Jimmy Tibbs we highly recommend Paul's book Jimmy Tibbs 'Sparring With Life' click here for Amazon.co.uk
Paul Zanon, has had nine books published, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and has contributed to a number of boxing publications, including, Boxing Monthly, The Ring, Daily Sport, Boxing News, Boxing Social, amongst other publications.