Thirty-five years after his retirement Birmingham middleweight Willie Wright
– the kind of fighter they just don’t make anymore – talks to Mike Lockley
WILLIE WRIGHT’S rugged features – a nose bent and broken more times than the 10 commandments – betrays an uncompromising, 56-fight career against Britain’s best boxers.
One glance at Willie, still a bear of a man, tells you he didn’t earn a crust from it. Wright, a rugged middleweight, is a throwback to a time when Birmingham fighters were forced to ply their trade on the road and were, more often than not, thrown in at the deep end, sink or swim.
Wright, one in a long line of tough Birmingham Irish battlers, swam. He took on the game’s real iron, yet was never given a count, never dropped, never stopped.
That’s an immense achievement when you consider Wright was often pitted against much bigger men, often at very short notice, often after a hard day’s graft on building sites.
Wright had a chin of granite. That, coupled with a remarkable engine and steely strength, made Willie a nightmare for prospects during a rip-roaring career that spanned six years and culminated in June 1986. He was a terror during the Thatcher years.
He didn’t possess one-punch knockout power. Willie planted his head on opponents’ chests and simply sapped the resilience from them.
In that respect, the Alum Rock contender was Birmingham’s own lower league version of Jake LaMotta; the Raging Bullring.
And like LaMotta, Willie had to wait for his big fight. Today, novices compete for Midlands titles: only last year two battled for Wright’s old belt with a combined total of 13 contests between them.
For context, Wright endured 49 fights before getting the title call in January 1985. He made the most of it, dragging Telford’s Johnny Elliott into the meatgrinder of his merciless hooks and halting him in the ninth.
“Signing for that fight was like signing for a world title fight,” he beamed. “It was one of the coldest Januarys on record and I was running up and down tower blocks in Newtown – 14 floors.”
At 59, the grandfather is content with his lot and bristles with old fashioned values. Despite a succession of ring wars, Willie looks in fighting trim at 15 stone and speaks without a tell-tale slur.
“I have no regrets,” he told me. “I loved the game and would do it all again. Maybe I should’ve stayed in the game a bit longer. I’m from good Irish roots, I wish I’d have fought for an Irish title.
“They’d just introduced the super-middleweight division and that would’ve suited me. [Promoter] Ron Gray said, ‘tell Willie to get down to 12-stone and we will push forward. But the old hunger had gone. When the hunger’s gone, it’s no good.”
Wright, immensely proud of his Shamrock roots, is old school. He entered the ring with no malice for opponents, he refuses to criticise the modern game.
“Slagging people off was never me,” he said. “Have a fight, have the craic, on yer bike and fish and chips on the way home. That’s the way to do it. I’m not going to slag off today’s game, but I wish I was fighting right now. I think it was harder in my era because there were less titles.
I had three fights in nine days, you wouldn’t get away with that now.”
Willie, the eldest of five children, witnessed the violent death of his father when just five years old. It brings into sharp focus the sickening rise in knife crime in Birmingham.
“I look at the people who do it and think what would they be like on a one-to-one, just fists and feet? There’s nothing hard about carrying a knife.”
Years after the tragedy, his mum Jose – currently in a care home in Ireland – met and married bus driver Danny McCrossan. “My mum was a great woman,” said Willie, “and he was a great man – he took us all on.”
Willie served his amateur apprenticeship with Birmingham Irish ABC, then Nechells. His pro career began in Nobby Nobbs’ stable of journeymen, unkindly dubbed Losers Inc, before fight sage George Donaghue took him under his wing, polished the rough edges and set Wright on a path that would see him rise to number seven in the British rankings.
“I idolised that man, he was a great mentor,” said Willie. “He’d have me slipping, rolling and turning. It was great schooling. You don’t see that kind of in-fighting today, sticking on someone’s shoulder. At the start I was a boy fighting men, but my strength always saw me through.”
The tinkering and tricks prepared Willie for a career that remains remarkable. The improvements are best illustrated by his four-fight series with Bedworth’s Mickey Kidd.
Mickey won the first three, but lost the one that mattered – for the Midlands title.
He beat good men such as Scottish star Billy Lauder, big-punching light-heavyweight Blaine Logsdon, he defend his title twice, he fought in France and Copenhagen, he served as sparring partner for Denmark-based WBA 154lbs titlist, Ayub Kalule.
He also gave top men such as British and European super-middleweight champ James Cook, Jimmy Price, Pierre-Frank Winterstein and Cameron Lithgow all the trouble they could handle.
The sound of coins being tossed into the ring were a frequent soundtrack to the conclusion of Wright epics. “I took the Jimmy Price fight at 5pm while coming home from work,” he said. “When I got off the train at Piccadilly they wanted me to get changed in the car. It was a cracking fight and I gave away a lot of weight. It was all them half-point losses which annoyed me. If it was close they always gave it to the home fighter.”
Cook was the best he faced, Willie asserts. Sheffield’s Mick Mills, a phenomenal puncher with suspect punch resistance, hit the hardest. He was stopped by Willie.
After hanging up his gloves, Willie made his mark as a trainer: “Show me a fighter with bottle and I’ll do something with him,” was his simple philosophy.
As our interview ended, the ex-champ issued a warning: “Your piece isn’t going to make me cry, is it? I’m a very emotional man.”
That’s something not many know about Wille Wright. Certainly, not his opponents.