'I still think I could beat anybody': Charlie Magri interview
Photo: Frank Tewkesbury/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Former WBC flyweight champion Charlie Magri talks to Ezio Prapotnich about a colourful career that spanned the Olympics, world title glory and a few regrets along the way too...
It comes for everybody - a moment in life when you realise you have finally become your parents, namely when you start complaining that things were better in your days. In most cases, it is probably the emotional attachment to your lost youth that makes you speak.
There is one exception, though: it might be objectively true when it comes to boxing.
There was a time when men fought for 15 rounds and had no choice but facing and beating the best in their division in order to get opportunities, a time when you did not retire or fire your trainer and jump a division when you lost but just got on with it. And you drank water and ate food, not shakes or pills.
Former WBC flyweight champion Charlie Magri is one of such men. After a high profile amateur career that saw him taking part in the legendary 1976 Montreal Olympics, he ticked every single box in a nine-year professional campaign that saw him also lifting the British and European titles.
We caught up with him to discuss his experiences and how boxing has changed. His vision of the sport today is not completely negative and as it turns out all that ever drove him was a true desire to win and passion for his craft, although there are also a few regrets. He shared his wisdom with Boxing Monthly in this interview.
BM: How did you pick up boxing?
CM: I was walking with my brother down Stepney Green on a Saturday afternoon, when I was eleven years old, to go watching our other sibling playing football on the grass. We passed by the Arbour Youth Boxing Club and decided to have a look inside. I started punching a bag till a trainer came over and told me not to punch it without gloves and also to keep my head up. "Come back in two weeks and I'll show you how to do it," he said. I was back on Monday morning and already wanted to spar. Eight weeks later they had a show and I insisted against my coach's advice to fight a heavier kid who already had ten fights. I lost on points and cried my eyes out. Two weeks later we were in Tottenham and again I pleaded to fight a heavier kid, only this time I stopped him in the second round. And we went from there.
BM: You had a high profile amateur career culminating with a quarter-final stoppage loss in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. How do you feel about that and what is your standout memory of the whole experience?
CM: I entered as a favourite to win a medal and felt a lot of pressure. I got caught fair and square but could have gone on till the final bell if I didn't to the mistake of getting up too quickly. But I had looked at the clock and there were only 40 seconds left. It felt a bit like the referee was waiting for an excuse to jump in and stop the fight. My stand out memory is watching Sugar Ray Leonard warming up on the pads in the changing room. The speed, volume and accuracy was unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it before or since.
BM: On your way back to London, had you already decided to turn professional?
CM: I had one more amateur bout and then Reg Gutteridge took me out for lunch to convey the message that Terry Lawless wanted to sign me. I knew most people in his stable and it was five minutes from home so it felt like a no-brainer. Also, I knew I was capable of winning a world title. I was very naive at the time and all I really cared about was winning. I signed everything he gave me, although my brother advised me against it. In hindsight, I should have listened to him and hired an agent to manage me and look after my best interests.
BM: Can you describe your own style?
CM: A very adaptable boxer and fighter, with good work rate and punch variety. I stopped 23 opponents out of thirty-five and it usually happened by accumulation rather than a single knockout shot.
BM: How did you get a British title shot in only your third fight?
CM: Terry laid the offer for eliminator and title fight down on the table on a Sunday lunch out of the blue. Initially, I wasn't sure about going 15 rounds so quickly, I felt rushed.. And the money was not proportionate to the task, as would often be the case throughout my whole career, but suddenly all I could think of was putting that Lonsdale belt around my waist. I won the eliminator by knockout then put down Dave Smith six times over seven rounds to win the title. After that, no one in Britain wanted to fight me and I started facing imports.
BM: Most prospects these days choose the international titles route to world level rather than going though British and European ones. What do you make of that?
CM: I find it disgusting. Those are paper titles. It's a business trick to raise the profile of shows by claiming a belt is on the line. I recommend the traditional route of British, European and then world level.
BM: Was the gap between domestic and European level very wide back in your days?
CM: Personally, I did not find it so hard as a I had been a world-class amateur and was familiar with most styles. I did not need to watch DVDs of my opponents to make an assessment, that was what the first round was for. But, they definitely were different levels and would have been unthinkable to move on to the world stage without being able to win the EBU belt first. It should be mandatory by regulation to win the European title and defend it before being allowed to go for a world title shot.
BM: Your fight against Italian Udella was actually the first ever time the EBU implemented the 12-round distance over the traditional 15. Was this decision beneficial to the sport in your opinion?
CM: It didn't make any difference to me as I usually stopped my opponents before but I think it was a good idea in terms of safety and damage prevention.
BM: You suffered your first loss four years into your professional career against Juan Diaz. Why did it happen, how did you deal with it and what do you think of the modern day tendency to change trainers and jump divisions as a response?
CM: By that time, I had defended the European title at least five times and was nowhere near a world title shot. I started losing interest and focus, I fought carelessly and got caught. I was very upset and felt low for a bit but I had to keep fighting in order to make a living. I just got on with it. About today's habits, although I don't think it's always the trainer's fault, I don't blame kids for these type of decisions. If you are the one risking his health, you have a right to make all necessary changes for you to feel the most comfortable and happy.
BM: Your victory against Eleoncio Mercedes for the WBC flyweight title in 1983 is sometimes dismissed on the base that he wasn't considered a strong champion. What is your reply to that?
CM: He would have surely held one of the belts if he was around today. To fairly establish how good he was you have to understand the context of the era in which he was fighting. The standards were much higher plus you did not have four or five titles up for grabs in the same division. It was way more selective and you would have not got there if you weren't for real.
BM: In the build-up to that fight, was there any necessity to add extra needle in order to get media attention or shift tickets?
CM: Not at all. It was a big occasion and we got loads of press. There were no social media back then, I actually got hundreds of paper letters wishing me well. We definitely did not have to push or shove each other to get attention. I understand the business reasons for today's circuses but I honestly do not like it.
BM: There is a lot of stress on nutrition in current fighters' regimes. How did you address that part of your preparation back in your days?
CM: I did not have a nutritionist and my trainer had no part in it. I fed myself lettuce, salad and water, cutting the water when close to the weigh-in. I often felt dizzy going into the ring. Not sure about shakes and stuff but it is definitely a good idea having someone looking after your nutrition in camp.
BM: One side of the game that might have remained the same throughout all eras is ticket selling. How did you build up the huge fan base you had?
CM: I sold tickets from my first fight all the way to the world title. Again I did not get any commission on them, which would have got me more money than the purse considering that I sold up to thirty thousand pounds worth of them sometimes. It was tough in the beginning but I built my fan base purely due to the sustained quality of my performances in the ring.
BM: Do you think you would still become champion in the current flyweight division?
CM: I don't follow boxing anymore to be honest but I still think I could beat anybody. That is just my attitude. Self belief carried me through my whole career.
BM: Former WBC flyweight champion Charlie Edwards mentioned holding your belt when you were visiting his gym early in his career as an inspiration to his own championship win. Would have you picked him to go this far back then?
CM: Yes. He is a nice kid and a good fighter. He was skilled but his confidence was what struck me as the main sign he would make it all the way.
BM: Any words of advice for young fighters following in your footsteps?
CM: Boxing is a merciless business in which you might get dropped in a second if you are no longer considered profitable, so apply the same logic the other way around. If you are not happy with the people around you, just move on. A happy fighter is a good fighter. If what you do makes you feel miserable rather than fulfilled, then it's a sign that something has to change. Do not make some of my mistakes with your career!