During my career in the sports media I have had the privilege of meeting and interviewing some of the biggest names in boxing, including the greatest of them all Muhammad Ali.
George Foreman, Henry Cooper, Mike Tyson, Frank Bruno, Lennox Lewis, Barry McGuigan, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank were all huge names in the 20th century and along with Ali I met them all and many more during my days as a TV reporter at ITV.
What to do once a fighter is past his prime is the age-old problem that faces all top sportsmen and women and there have been many surprising twists. Foreman reinvented himself as the punching preacher. Tyson turned to wrestlemania and keeping pet tigers: Iron Mike it was once reported allegedly offered a zoo keeper 10,000 dollars to fight his gorilla.
But there are not too many boxers blessed with the gift to hold an audience in the palm of his hand with the sound of his voice, like the legendary world champion I met this week for the first time who is still enjoying his role as a knockout entertainer 35 years after quitting the ring.
While Ali proudly boasted that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, this former undisputed world welterweight champion from Bethnal Green has tackled the showbusiness world full on and carved out an enviable reputation as a brilliant singer.
John H Stracey stunned the boxing world in December 1975 when he went to Mexico City and knocked out world champion Jose Napoles in his own backyard.
Today he is still wowing audiences with a stylish cabaret act that will take you by surprise because he has such a heavenly voice. Belting out classic ballads sung by Frank Sinatra and Matt Munro to up tempo numbers from The Drifters, Van Morrison and Michael Bolton, this loveable cockney is a born entertainer.
There are other sport stars who have found fame after the floodlights have long since faded. Vinny Jones, the ‘psycho’ member of the Crazy Gang I used to chat to before matches back in the 80s, is a much bigger star in Hollywood than he ever was on the football pitch. And there are many sporting heroes who have re-invented themselves on the small screen. But there is something unique and endearing about H that sets him apart from the rest.
Like Vinny he has tasted success in the movie business, playing a major part in the success of ‘The Krays’. For six months he acted as boxing trainer for Gary and Martin Kemp and then choreographed what has been widely acclaimed as the most authentic fight scenes ever in a British film. Yet there is no sign of arrogance or big-headedness in a man who is so grounded and down-to-earth that he is the perfect role model for any celebrity who wants to know to behave. He also has a heart of gold and takes a huge amount of pleasure from the sterling work he does for charity.
Supported by his partner Kathy, the East End boy has created one of the most looked-forward to dates in the calendar on the Wirral with the John H Stracey Celebrity Golf Day, an annual charity event that is hugely popular with a whole host of stars of the sporting and entertainment world. It was at this splendid occasion – invited as guest of sports promoter Bev Walker and his travel business Livingstones World of Golf – that I had the good fortune to meet H and his inner circle.
Celebrities supporting this year’s event at the Eastham Lodge Golf Club where Ian St John is president included ex-fooballers Tony Currie, Andy Ritchie, Clayton Blackmore, Willie Morgan and Alan Whittle. The world of boxing was represented by the likes of Glen McCrory and Dave ‘Boy’ Green, the British welterweight rival who famously beat Stracey at Wembley in 1977. While ex-Bath rugby union star John Palmer was there along with showbusiness stars like sixties pop star turned actor Jess Conrad and the incredibly funny comedian Stan Boardman.
Surrounded by his celebrity friends Stracey shone like the star that he still is performing a classic routine of songs. And there was no doubting his huge satisfaction when he proudly told me at the end of the evening that the event had raised £2200 for his two designated charities. What does the H stand for I asked his lovely wife? ‘Handsome’ came Kathy’s instant reply . . . and that he still is at the grand old age of 63. Unless someone told you he had fought for a world boxing title four decades ago you would never guess that he had ever done anything else but sing.