Born Monek Prager in a town near Krakow, Duff and his family fled to Britain a few years before the Second World War as the shadow of Nazism was poised to fall across Europe. His father was a rabbi who had a similar path in mind for young ‘Mickey’, as he became known, but boxing was a strong competing religion in London’s East End at the time.
Ultimately, it was no contest.
He was 15 when he started fighting professionally, and illegally. The name Duff was appropriated from a character in a James Cagney movie. His career in the ring was over four years later but the ‘nom du guerre’ stayed and he went on to become one of the most influential managers, promoters and matchmakers of the 20th century.
Anywhere between 16 and 20 world champions are accredited as having passed through Duff’s hands at one point or other: Frank Bruno, Joe Calzaghe, Lloyd Honeyghan, Charli Magri and Alan Minter are just some of them. John Conteh was another. He expressed a rather different view on the fighting game.
“When I go into a ring I never know for certain that I’m coming back,” said the British light-heavyweight.
Boxing has endured peaks and troughs over the course of its history. The length of bouts has come down, the weight and power of fighters have gone up and its popularity has waxed and waned around various parts of the globe. What has never changed is its singular purpose: to inflict physical damage on your opponent.
There will be 90,000 people at Wembley tomorrow night to watch Anthony Joshua and Vladimir Klitschko fight over the IBF heavyweight title. It will break the attendance record for the ‘new’ Wembley after London mayor Sadiq Khan was convinced to give the thumbs up for an extra 10,000 bums on seats.
Katie Taylor is part of the undercard.
But here’s the thing: rugby, American football, and even soccer have all been dragged kicking and screaming into the debate over concussion. Boxing - a game where blows to the head are embraced as a thing of beauty - tends to escape that same level of scrutiny unless one or other of the participants returns through the ropes with their life either in danger or extinguished.
As a bar, that is far too low.
The journalist and author Simon Barnes summed up the uneasiness with which many of us watch boxing in an article for The Spectator 12 months ago. Barnes observed how serious injury and death tends to occur in most sports when something goes wrong. It is when “things have gone horribly right” that such catastrophe comes to pass in boxing.
The legendary American writer Paul Gallico came to a similar conclusion decades earlier. “I have covered boxing, promoted boxing, watched it, thought about it, and after long reflection I cannot find a single thing that is good about it either from the point of view of participant or spectator.” he said in Dr Edith Summerskill’s The Ignoble Art in 1956.
Muhammad Ali once said it would be crazy to stop boxing because boxers got hurt. “More people die in the bath,” he scoffed. This was 1984. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease that same year and research from the University of Washington in 2016 has since added to the evidence that head trauma could be a contributing factor to the degenerative disorder.
A study by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons in 2013 found that 90% of boxers suffer a brain injury of some kind while performing the sweetest of sciences. These are injuries that leave them more prone to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and yet we still accept this as a spectator sport?
Frank Warren, the boxing promoter, defended boxing’s safety record in an article for the Independent newspaper in the UK in January of 2015, pointing out the 28-day suspension periods for any boxers stopped in a bout, the 45 days for those knocked out and the presence of doctors at ringside as well as paramedics and an ambulance in close proximity.
Thing is, when you’re explaining you’re losing.
This weekend’s Wembley bill comes on the back of a troubling 12 months for the sport in the UK with middleweight Nick Blackwell left in a coma by Chris Eubank Jr, the death of welterweight Mike Towell after a loss to Dale Evans in September and David Haye’s threat that he intended to “hospitalise” Tony Bellew before their heavyweight bout last month.
It was only afterwards that Bellew revealed those words prompted him to write a will.
“The situations some fighters have been in recently, I’ll be honest, it scares me,” he told Boxing News. “People don’t know this but I wrote a will before that fight. It’s the only time I’ve ever done it in my whole career. I wrote a will two weeks before leaving everything to my missus in case anything happened to me because I knew he was capable of really, really hurting me.”
And we class this as entertainment?