x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Harry was voice of boxing

It is a privilege to have been a friend of one of the greatest sports commentators the world has known.

Harry Carpenter, right, with the British heavyweight Frank Bruno in 1986.
Harry Carpenter, right, with the British heavyweight Frank Bruno in 1986.

My old friend Harry Carpenter, who died last week, aged 84, was more than the BBC's boxing commentator for half a century. Thanks to his role of anchorman at numerous Olympic Games, Wimbledon and Open golf championships, he became one of the most celebrated sports commentators in the English speaking world. He hung up his microphone in 1994, after which he received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of American Sportscasters, but this kindliest and most modest of men remained a warm presence in the hearts of millions.

When Muhammad Ali was voted Athlete of the Century by BBC viewers in 1999, Harry was the one man deemed worthy of presenting the trophy to The Greatest. The two men had been firm friends for many a long year. Ever since 1963, in fact, when Harry was dispatched to New York to interview the then Cassius Clay the Louisville Lip, before his forthcoming fight against Britain's Henry Cooper in London. Knowing that the young boxer from Kentucky would not have heard of him, Harry had to think of a way to pique his interest.

Hello, my name's Carpenter from BBC Television, London...began Harry by way of introduction when the future Muhammad Ali picked up the telephone in his Manhattan hotel room. And I would really like to interview you at the top of the Empire State Building if you could spare me the time... Whoa, man. Why d'you wanna drag me all the way up there...? Because I want to start the interview by saying, "The Greatest meets the highest..."

"There was a long pause," Harry told me the last time we met over lunch at the Royal St George's Golf Club in Sandwich, Kent, where he tried - and failed - to lower his handicap of 16 in the lazy days after his retirement. "Then Muhammad burst out laughing. 'That's one great idea, man.' "From that day forth we always got on well, although he used to rib me because I'd had the audacity to suggest he looked out on his feet during his legendary Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974." As the BBC archives prove, it was one of the few occasions Harry had misjudged the flow of a contest.

Suddenly Ali looks very tired, indeed. In fact Ali, at times now, looks as though he can barely lift his arms up - Oh, he's got him with a right hand! He's got him! Oh, you can't believe it. And I don't think Foreman's going to get up. He's trying to beat the count. And he's out! Oh my God, he's won the title back at 32... That one blip notwithstanding, Harry deserves to be ranked with the very best in the business; as a boxer, alas, he was "...a crowd pleaser in the sense that boxing crowds are always pleased to see the odd spot of blood".

Press-ganged into the ring as an amateur while serving in the Royal Navy in the Second World War, Harry was a reluctant pugilist. "I only climbed through the ropes because I was made to. I suppose the Navy thought it would make a man of you. All I got was a bloody nose. I'd been short-sighted since boyhood and if you can't see the punches coming then you're always going to be at a wee bit of a disadvantage."

Providing he was not on the business side of the ropes, however, Harry was never happier than when in the company of fighting men, and Ali in particular. As their friendship deepened, the "Voice of Boxing" grew genuinely afraid for the ageing champion's well-being during his later years in the ring. "I didn't do the Larry Holmes fiasco for the BBC and I'm glad I didn't. I saw it in a London cinema and it was dreadful. Ali should have been taken out of the fight earlier but that idiot Bundini Brown [Ali's cornerman] kept encouraging him to go forward when he should have been throwing in the towel. He should have quit after the third meeting with Joe Frazier in Manila because that was the hardest fight I've ever seen. It was a privilege to be at ringside..." And it was a privilege knowing Harry Carpenter.

Mike Tyson was never one of Harry Carpenter's favourite characters. But, wise old owl that he was, I suspect Harry would have been firmly in his corner for Iron Mike's latest brush with the Politically Correct brigade. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals are incensed that the fallen champion's new TV reality show Taking on Tyson will feature - shock, horror - pigeon racing which PETA describes as "...inherently cruel".

Now, I am no expert in the matter but as far as I know pigeon racing involves releasing your bird in the wilds then waiting for it to fly home. I doubt whether our feathered friends are aware that they are involved in a race; homing pigeons flying home is surely what they was born to do. If it was truly inherently cruel, why, when set free, would the pigeons simply not head off in the other direction to a sun-kissed Caribbean island to become beach birds?

What cannot be disputed is that Tyson has always loved rearing pigeons. In fact he threw his first punch as a nine-year-old when a neighbourhood bully in Brownsville New York twisted the neck of his favourite bird until it snapped. Tyson might bite your ear but be cruel to animals? Never! @Email:sports@thenational.ae