The life and times of Chris Sanigar
It is forty-one years since Bristolian boxing icon Chris Sanigar - a frustrated footballer who harboured dreams of playing for his beloved Bristol Rovers - fell back on a latent talent for using his fists.
Since his first amateur contest in March 1974, Sanigar’s roles have been varied: England international, hard-man pro, father, manager, trainer, promoter and survivor. Sanigar lit a spark under the West Country’s boxing scene and the spark became a flame as the likes of Ross Hale, Glenn Catley, Scott Dann and Dean Francis captured professional titles between 1994 and 2004. Yet despite recently turning 60, it appears Sanigar’s best days lie ahead.
When Lee Selby won the IBF featherweight title and Lee Haskins clinched the same organisation’s interim bantamweight belt within a fortnight of one another (between 30 May and 13 June), it afforded Sanigar - who manages and helps train both boxers - the finest stretch of an illustrious career.
“Yes, it is the best spell,” he confirmed to Boxing Monthly. “[Berkshire welterweight] Tamuka Mucha won the Southern Area title a few days before Selby’s fight and we also had [Cardiff cruiserweight] Craig Kennedy win an eliminator against Courtney Fry, so we had four big fights in the space of four weeks.
“The crazy thing was we expected Selby to win - he’s just so good - and so when he did win, it just substantiated my views.”
Selby had long looked a sure thing to Sanigar’s discerning eye - even when others disagreed. Haskins, though, despite eclipsing the likes of Stuart Hall, Jamie McDonnell and Martin Ward - a trio of Britons who then proceeded to pip him to world title shots at bantamweight – had looked something of a forgotten man. Speaking one week after Haskins had landed a career-defining punch to undo Japan’s Ryosuke Iwasa, Sanigar refused to blame the Bristol southpaw’s struggle on politics.
“We never had that brilliant performance like we did last Saturday,” he reasoned. “Maybe that was it: that was how it was meant to happen. He pulled out the best shot of his life on the biggest night of his life.
“That Japanese was a good kid, very well schooled. He had a fast jab and it was just Haskins’ power – he kept on unsettling him.”
Though the duo struck gold almost in tandem, Haskins and Selby did so via alternative routes.
“They both did the exact opposite – apart from train hard,” Sanigar said. “Selby’s gone international – he went across to the States five or six times and also went to Spain and sparred [former IBF super-bantamweight world titlist] Kiko [Martinez]. Selby’s a person who could go anywhere and spar. Haskins is a home-bird. He likes to be with his family; he won’t go nowhere. He’d get a nosebleed if he went up the M5!”
A bruising light-welterweight who traded on heart and guts in the late 1970s and early 1980’s, against the likes of Terry Marsh, Rocky Kelly and Sylvester Mittee, Sanigar never had a problem travelling.
“I boxed three times in Scotland; I boxed in France, Italy, Zimbabwe, Zambia twice and Australia,” he said. “I went to Zambia. I boxed over there. We boxed for Wilfried Sauerland - he was the promoter. He was partners with Mickey Duff.
“The first time [in Zambia] I boxed a guy called Yotham Kunda. That time we boxed in the Independence Stadium in front of a 20,000 crowd. And then, on the top of the hills, like pin pricks, like ants, were all the people watching.
“I remember walking out into the ground before the fight and I waved, and the whole crowd waved back. I went in and got [Ugandan stable-mate Cornelius] Boza Edwards and said: ‘Boza, come and watch this’. I waved again and the whole crowd waved back. When I went out to box, they had these witch doctors and they threw voodoo powder on me. Apparently, they’d forgotten the bell and there was a pair of cymbals for the end of the rounds!”
Sanigar compiled an 18-11-2 (10 KOs) record in all, from his relatively short, six-year pro career. Though matched tough from the get-go, he explained how external factors took a decisive toll.
“I was on the markets down in Bristol, on the Eastville Market at the Bristol Rovers football ground, and we used to do the summer tours down Cornwall, on the coast,” Sanigar said. “When I moved to London I was a fly-pitcher [street trader] and then I ended up getting a cash and carry, you know - wholesaling. I also had a stall in Chapel Market, near Angel. I was a market trader and a boxer – and I loved both. I wanted to carry on earning good money at the markets but I wore myself out. That was the problem.
“Also, I had bad problems with alcohol. I had a difficult time. I had a break-up with Jamie’s [Sanigar’s eldest son] mother and when things like that happen to a very emotional person…it took all the fight out of me.”
For a committed reveller like Sanigar, his original move from Bristol to London in 1978 was always liable to prove distracting. Lodging gratis on friend Sparrow Harrison’s couch in Knightsbridge, Sanigar, true to form, even earned his beer money the hard way.
“I went up there and went into the gym at the Wellington [the north London pub that George Francis ran a boxing gym above) and [Francis] just asked me would I spar some rounds with [former WBC light-heavyweight champion John] Conteh. I said yes and I wound up getting ten pounds for doing the three rounds with him. I went home and came back the next day and got my tenner. And he signed me. I could go out, I’d get drunk on the night and the next day I’d be at the gym to get my tenner for the following night!”
There can have been few auditions as taxing. In fact, Sanigar rates “Cool” John, as the Kirkby stylist was known, as the best he ever shared a ring with.
“Well definitely Conteh was the best and there was Boza Edwards,” he said. “I sparred hundreds of rounds with Boza. He was phenomenal. I used to see him – he would knock middleweights out in the gym. And in those days, they’d spar very, very tough in the Wellington. Sometimes those sparring sessions were tougher than the main events on Sky. It was a different world then.”
In 1981, a battle-hardened Sanigar turned the tables on Forest Hill rival Sid Smith to capture the southern area title (Smith had stopped Sanigar at the Royal Albert Hall five months earlier) to reach the apex of his pro career.
“I was living in London and being champion of London was a big thing,” he recalled. “People used to recognise me just for being the Southern Area champ in those days. We’d have a sell-out crowd at the Elephant & Castle boxing someone from south London - I was living in north London. Sid Smith was managed by Denny Mancini [whereas] George Francis managed myself. North London and south London were big rivals at that time.”
After winning only three from his next eight contests, however, Sanigar had lost his edge. He walked away, aged just 28. He decided to pass on the store of knowledge he’d accumulated from the capital to Bristol boxers - showing them “how to operate like the London way”. After obtaining his manager and trainer’s licence in 1989, he would shape his ‘Bristol Boys’ into one of the country’s most formidable stables.
“I returned back to Bristol in about 1986 and I helped train my old amateur club: The Empire,” Sanigar said. “We had [former British light-welterweight champion] Ross Hale in the gym and he wanted to go pro just to earn money and I tried to convince him he could be champion, but he took a lot of convincing. I built him up nice and steady and, through him, I managed to get other boxers and brought them through. I just tried to work the same way as I’d watched Micky Duff, Mike Barrett, George Francis, Terry Lawless – how they’d worked.
“Duff and Lawless would allow me into their company. They would say ‘come talk, Chris’ and I would sit down and Mickey would be on the phone and Mike Barrett would come to the office and he just used to look at me as if to say ‘how come you’re sat in the office?’
“I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to learn the game. Nobody really sits down and explains things to you. You’ve got to keep your ears open, eyes open and your mouth shut. It takes a long time. I had that experience in the Duff era and then I was fortunate enough to work with Frank Warren in the 1990s [when] I had Ernie Fossey as my tutor. Fossey was a real bread-and-butter boxing man. I owe so much to Ernie Fossey.”
A genial and warm communicator with a laid-back, honeyed drawl, Sanigar was made to impart knowledge and to guide boxers. He is another of British boxing’s great patriarchal figures – the beating heart of an industry that moulds lost souls into sporting heroes. Yet he remains modest to a fault. He repeatedly stated how “lucky” he’d been.
“I just watched and looked how they did things and then came back and did everything myself the way I’d been shown,” he claimed. “We had great fighters in the gym you know? Conteh, Bunny Johnson, Bunny Sterling, Frankie Lucas, Boza Edwards, Clinton McKenzie, Dennis Andries and Kirkland Laing. Just ordinary fighters in that gym were better than a lot of the champions nowadays.
“I mean you’d go into the Royal Oak [in east London] on the odd days and there’d be Maurice Hope, then you’d go along to the [Thomas a] Becket, there’d be Alan Minter – you could just go on and on. I can remember seeing Chris Eubank and Errol Christie spar – they hit lumps out of each other.
“In those days you were lucky to [be allowed to] stay in the gym when people were sparring. You’d go there – and especially in the Becket, which was very small – and you’d think: ‘Oh I hope they don’t kick me out of here’. There’d be a lot of people there, as well, like taxi-drivers, the gamblers, all the faces on the street.
Haskins became Sanigar’s fifth British champion in 2008 before Chris was devastated the following year, after being stricken with bowel cancer. Once again his steely resolve, now coupled with an equally unbreakable faith, served to pull him through (Sanigar, a born again Christian since 1991, is now in remission).
“It was a big, big shock. I became very emotional,” he reflected. “It wasn’t like you had an opponent in front of you and you could grit your teeth. Also, I had two young sons and a daughter and…I don’t wanna die. I’ve got grandchildren – I want to live ‘til I’m a hundred!”
Sanigar’s immediate plans include building Selby into “a megastar” who can “follow in the footsteps of Calzaghe” while nurturing youngsters like Zimbabwe-born Mucha (11-0, 3 KOs) by means of a tried-and-tested method.
“I think Tamuka can be a very, very good fighter. How far he can go, we don’t know. We’ve just done the first stage – he’s won the Southern Area title. The next step will be the English, then the British, European and that’s how you do it.
“He’s only 22 years of age and so he’s a lot younger than Selby was. We’ve gotta go nice and steady with him but I’m very pleased with the way he’s come on. He’s learning all the time. He’s trying to box – he’s a natural fighter but we’ve had the reins on him and we’ve got him to try and box, work behind the jab and look to see exactly what’s happening. He’s a good prospect.”
Through it all, Sanigar continues to tour the world’s gyms, gathering expertise and know how.
“I never stop learning,” he said. “Sometimes you can learn little things in the smaller gyms, little tricks, little routines they have and you think: ‘Yeah, I’ll teach that when I go back to my gym’.”
Of all the chapters in Sanigar’s rich story, he shows no hesitation in selecting his favourite. “Aw, I’d rather be a fighter,” he affirmed. “There’s no other buzz like being a fighter.”