Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Boxing Glove Book Review: When the Gloves Came Off: Billy Walker

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review By Peter Silkov
Written by Billy Walker with Robin McGibbon



During the 1960s, Billy Walker was one of the most popular and exciting boxers in Britain. He was a fighter rather than a boxer, a blonde haired heavyweight with an aggressive come-forward fighting style, and a big punch in his right hand. Variously nicknamed “The Blonde Bomber” and “The Golden Boy“, Billy was a promoter’s dream. Guided by his older brother, George, himself an ex-boxer who had challenged unsuccessfully for the British light-heavyweight title in the early 50s, Billy would become one of the biggest sporting celebrities in the country, with his popularity and earning power rivaled only by Henry Cooper. 

Walker became a star while still an amateur, when on November 2, 1961; he knocked out heavily favoured American heavyweight Cornelius Perry in the first round. The fight was part of an Ango-US tournament, which was staged at Wembley Stadium and broadcast live on TV to an audience of 12 million viewers. The tournament was a resounding success for the British team, with the home boxers winning by an unprecedented 9-0 whitewash. Yet, it was Billy Walker’s winning performance that stood out from all of the nine victories that night. Boxing fans have always loved a heavyweight with a big punch and an aggressive free throwing style. With his sensational victory over Perry, Walker really did become an overnight star and celebrity, even before he had turned professional. Perry was the Golden Gloves champion, and had been expected to do big things when he turned professional; instead, he went home to America following his defeat to Walker. He never boxed again, as neither an amateur, nor a professional.

Walker turned professional three months after his win over Perry amid much fanfare.  As a professional, he would certainly live up to expectations in terms of excitement and entertainment, the critics may have pointed out that Walker lacked some of the finer points of the sweet science, but no one could claim that he was dull or lacked heart.  Walker’s professional career would be full of drama, with some spectacular highs, and some equally disappointing lows, and his life outside the ring would turn out to be no less dramatic. 

It is fitting then that “When the Gloves Came Off “is a full octane ride, from start to finish, and pulls no punches.

Billy takes us from his humble beginnings in East London, through to the discovery of the fortune, which he made with his fists, and the ups and downs of his boxing career.  Billy’s career was very much a roller coaster ride, and to some extent, the fact that he was already a household name before he’d even had his first professional fight worked against him, as he had little chance of developing slowly as a fighter, and learning his trade away from the critical eye of the press. With just 34 amateur fights behind him, he was put in with relatively tough opponent’s right from the beginning. Yet, despite an often-critical press, Billy always had the support of the fans and right up until his final professional fight was able to produce a sell-out show, almost irrespective of whom he was fighting.

Walker takes us through his boxing career fight by fight, and there are interesting insights into some of his biggest matches, and the triumphs and disappointments that he experienced within the ring. Billy also lived a swashbuckling life outside, as well as inside the ring, and he tells us of his various encounters with celebrities and his constant pursuit of a multitude of glamorous female companions. This was ‘the swinging 60s’ and Billy was certainly living life to the full.

Billy’s boxing career ended in 1969, and many boxers autobiographies tend to run out of steam once they reach the point where their fighting career has come to an end, however, this is not the case with ’When The Gloves Came Off.’ From the start of this book, it is clear that here is a many layered life story, rather than simply a one-dimensional tale of a fighters escapades inside and outside the boxing ring.

There is the underlying story of his relationship with his older brother, George, who goes from being his mentor and hero, to being a stranger. One theme of  ’When The Gloves Came Off’ is the price that sometimes comes with success, when money changes people and their relationships with those who were once so close to them. As a boxer and manager team, Billy and George Walker achieved great success together, with Billy being one of the most popular and biggest grossing boxers of his time, and George having the entrepreneurial brain to be able to put the money earned by Billy’s fists into fledgling businesses that were soon thriving. Yet in the end, the brothers paid for their joint success with their relationship. Billy’s thoughts on the loss of his previously close relationship with his brother, throughout the course of this book, are candid and at times, very poignant.

Billy pulls no punches in his recollections, and is brutally honest about his own failings, as well as those of the people around him. Despite all of his popularity and success, and the wealth that he accumulated throughout his boxing career, Billy found contentment in his personal life hard to achieve. At the same time, that his relationship with his brother George was breaking down irreconcilably, Billy was also going through two failed marriages. He recounts the trauma and anguish of these marriages with unflinching honesty. Then just when he seems to have found happiness and contentment in his third marriage, to a woman he has known since his fighting days, she was tragically diagnosed with cancer. Walker’s description of her brave, yet, ultimately losing battle with cancer is deeply moving.

This is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, autobiography, which will surprise you with its depth of tone and feelings. Billy Walker has lived a very full life, and he and Robin McGibbon have done a great job in putting it together onto the printed page. It is therefore not surprising that last year the film rights to “When the Gloves Came Off” were purchased by Los Angeles film producers, with expectations of bringing the book to the big screen. With the current popularity of boxing movies, it’s not hard to see how this autobiography has all the raw material needed to make a big hit on the big screen. 

This is a book that will interest most people even if they are not boxing fans, as more than anything else, it is a great rags to riches story, with the underlying theme that while money can buy most worldly objects, it cannot buy contentment or love, and that in the end, those two things are more valuable than any amount of money one can have in life.         

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to www.theboxingglove.com and www.theboxingtribune.com

 
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