By Ray Wheatley–World of Boxing
Leading English referee Mickey Vann talks to Fightnews about his life growing up in England during the 1940s and how his father became friends with several celebrities including Elvis Presley. Mickey rates Lennox Lewis as one of the greatest heavyweight champions but Ricky Hatton is down the list of 140 pound world champion. His favorite is Chris Eubank who was a great showman.
You were born in 1943 in London. Tell me about your family; how many brothers or sisters, and what life was like growing up in the 1940s during the second world war?
I was only two when the war ended but I was left in the home until I was seven as my dad and step mum were working in the states. I have a brother two years older than me, he was put in the same home as me at one week old I was kept for three weeks, they must have liked me better. I didn’t get on ever with my brother until about 5years ago and now we are a lot better. The foster home wanted to adopt him but didn’t want me which was ok as I hated them, I was hyper-active and he was more sedate, I could also fight better than him so he was always trying to get the better of me. My real mum was still in England and used to come and see us twice a year and take us to the village for tea which was good, as after the war everything was on ration, but I think the foster home had a fiddle on the black-market as their was always a cupboard full of sweets in her bedroom. I used to get sent to bed early on a regular basis so I would creep across the landing to her bedroom and steal some sweets from the back of the shelf and reset it so it wasn’t noticed, then eat my sweets, put the sweet paper in the toe of my shoe because we were searched in our pockets before we went out.I was very brutal to my brother Monty and twice put him in hospital, once I broke a brick over his head. just before Christmas, and I didn’t get any presents which I was a bit pissed off about and once when chasing him to give him a right hander I pushed him under a car and ran off; he was in hospital for a year and a half , but I was only six and a half and didn’t realize the true extent of what I had done. I used to be tied to a chair so I would be still and caned round the legs, and when I swore at her she would make me eat the soap when she had bathed me to cleanse my mouth, (it didn’t work). Dad came back from the states after the accident as Monty was in a bad way.
Your father, Hal Denver, was a friend of Elvis Presley. Tell me about your father.
My step mum Olga was a friend of one of his aunties, Olga was a dancer and she was her teacher and told her when they work the states to look her up which she did and as it happened Elvis was at her house and they became friends, he was a big fan of my dads act. My dad was a showman and was a self taught knife thrower who used to throw 18 inch knives and hatchets from 25 foot away round my mum some theaters he couldn’t work because the stage wasn’t big enough. He was born into show business his dad my granddad was the silver king of London and known as “The Penny Showman”, as he used to exhibit unusual people in his shows and charge a penny to see them, one of them was The Elephant Man of which my granddad was depicted as the villain in the film of the same name. Dad lived life to the full, he used to play poker and lost 3months wages to Errol Flynn, drank regularly with Dean Martin, spent time with Marilyn Monroe with whom my mum Olga was very friendly and they would go shopping together they also dined with Castro and Chez ga vara in Cuba before they came to power. I could go on a lot longer with Phil Silvers, Johnney TARZAN Weissmuller, Satchmo and even Ernie Wise who my mum Olga had an affair with in his early showbiz days.
He was a knife thrower and once threw knives at John Major’s mother. Please explain.
Mum tells me she wasn’t feeling too good as dad had accidentally hit her with a knife the day before and John Majors mum was on the show so she stood in for Olga on the night . Dad threw the knives round her not at her.
You travelled in fairs and worked as the “Giraffe necked woman”. Please give details.
When dad came back from USA to see Monty I wanted to leave the home and go with him Monty didn’t want to leave when he came out of hospital so he stayed and I left, I saw him again twice for about 10 minutes when I was about 9 then never saw or spoke to him until I was 55 at my uncle Georges funeral. Dad had a circus at the time and we had to hit the road straight away, I had to learn the ropes sharp-ish so dad started me off as a stooge for the clowns and learnt a bit on the trapeze until dad got the hump and stopped me. Then out of the blue I was transferred to my uncle Tom, he was dads oldest brother who had a show like granddads showing illusions and I was to be the giraffe necked woman and had to sit on the chair made up like a woman and had this extra long neck as seen in my book but as you know it was an illusion, and I had to sit there smiling at people as they walked in, I would sit all afternoon and get a break before the second showing in the evening. I learnt to be able to switch off and just daydream the time away. I get asked if I get fed up with the traveling that goes with refereeing, sitting in airports for hours. Well I don’t, it isn’t a hardship to me I think it comes from my childhood traveling with the circus, theaters, and fairgrounds the boredom is no different and I have learnt how to enjoy it.
Was there any boxers in your family?
No there is only me, and and I wasn’t the best advert but hell I did enjoy myself.
You have been regarded as one of the best referee’s in boxing for several. What fight that you were referee stands out in your mind and why?
There isn’t one there are a few for different reasons, Lewis and Bruno as it was the heavyweight title and history as they were both British. I was asked to referee a fight in south Africa between Cassius Bolouy and Phillip Ndou as they wanted, as they put it “one of the best in the world” and both accepted me without question, and one of the best fights in the world that year. My first mandatory it was in Mexico between no. 1 and no. 2 both unbeaten Angel Gonzales and the fateful Levander Johnson another top fight of the year, it was so good the British TV. brought the rights and screened it later.There was Ricky Hatton vs Stephen Smith my one hundredth world title fight and Frank Warren presented me with a miniature belt as a memento of the occasion and then Stephens dad climbed into the ring to hit me and spoiled the night and to cap it all the replays showed his complaint was unjustified. The only thing to stand out is just how lucky I have been to be regarded so highly.
You were referee in several Ricky Hatton world title fights. Ricky defeated the great Kostya Tszyu. Where does Ricky rate among the greatest 140 pounders that include Julio Chavez and Aaron Pryor?
Tszyu, Chavez, Pryor, Whitaker, Hearns, Duran, Leonard, Mayweather, Cotto, in their prime! Ricky comes along way down the list.
Your were third man in the ring for the Lennox Lewis vs Frank Bruno. Where does Lennox rate among the great heavyweight champions that include Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey.
Lennox was a great fighter maybe not the the best heavyweight I do think Ali was the best, he could fight when needed and he could box when needed and when his punch and his boxing weren’t good enough he would out-think you. Marciano, Dempsey, Louis, Patterson, Johansson were all too small, I think he would beat Tyson again in his prime, I remember Bonecrusher out-thinking Tyson but Lennox would do the same but Ko him. Taking Holyfield, Norton, and foreman into the equation (he beat the best Klitchko) I would put Lennox as my number two.
You worked fights that include all time Britsih greats. Joe Calzaghe, Chris Eubank, and Nigel Benn. Who rates as the best in your opinion?
Chris Eubank is a favorite of mine as he could fight and box and without tv cameras he is a nice guy, he took all comers, I was there when he put lead in his shorts and boots to appear to be heavier than he was for the Carl Thompson fights. He was a top class showman which all sports need after all without spectators we cant survive; but how can you ignore Calzaghe with his spotless record, buy somehow he never lit me up.
You are now 65 years and top of your game as a referee. How long before retirement?
I am 68 to-day and I would like to carry on until I am 70 as a referee but I will call it a day as soon as I feel my edge has gone and believe me it will be before someone else tells me. The BBB of C in Britain took my license off me 3years ago at 65 but the Boxing Union of Ireland took me on, I passed the medical and they have asked me to help there officials and to referee on there shows as well, which I have been doing for the last 3years, and the situation will be reviewed when I am 70 if I wish to carry on. Iam going to carry on with my coaching in rugby league and start a new coaching job with college students to give them an insight into the art of boxing. When I win a national college winners rugby medal thats my hatrick and I will have to get my teeth into another sport and another challenge. Have a happy and healthy New Year.