When naming cult-heroes of early eighties British boxing, men who somehow formed connections with communities, inspired loyal followings but never quite became household names, some leap immediately to mind. Leicester’s Tony Sibson, all blunt force and come-forward aggression, tore-up the domestic middleweight scene but came up short against Marvellous Marvin Hagler in ‘83. Fellow 160 pounder Mark Kaylor had the whole claret and blue side of East London in his corner but never got further than Commonwealth level while the sublimely talented Errol Christie, another middle, also failed to fulfil the destiny his sparkling ability promised.
Welsh welter Colin Jones tried three times to claim world honours, missing out in 1983 by the slenderest of margins when he scored an away draw against Milton McCrory in Vegas. Kirkland Laing promised so much, but despite that famous win over Roberto Duran in 1982, ‘The Gifted One’s’ destiny was to become a parable for wasted talent. Super welterweight Maurice Hope looked sensational on his day but got taken apart by Wilfred Benitez at Caesars Palace in ‘81. We could go on all day…
Yet one who outstripped all the names above, albeit briefly, also faded away before achieving star status. Despite that, today he should be remembered as it is thirty-three years exactly since he defeated Eleoncio Mercedes at Wembley Arena to capture the WBC flyweight championship of the world. Charlie Magri’s title reign lasted just six months and he was never again to scale the same heights, but for the glorious summer of ’83, champagne Charlie ruled the world.
I’m sure somewhere there must be a book that analyses the boxing successes of first and second generation immigrants and if there isn’t, maybe there should be. The travails of families arriving here from foreign shores and battling petty prejudice has been a hallmark of many a champion’s childhood. On that score, Magri was no different.
Born in Tunisia, of Maltese extraction, he came to London before his second birthday. His dusky appearance and diminutive size marked him out as a target and from the beginning of his school career he frequently had to defend himself with his fists. The estates of East London in the 70s were not a breeding ground for shrinking violets and Magri was said to have a vicious temper, meaning he could often take on and beat much bigger boys through sheer aggression.
Like so many young scrappers of the time he found his way to an amateur boxing club (Arbour Youth in Stepney Green) where he would soon embark on a sizzling unpaid career. Magri collected no less than six ABA youth and senior titles and represented Britian in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Aged 21, he turned pro, guided by the managerial acumen of Terry Lawless, a giant of the UK scene back then and soon-to-be handler of Frank Bruno. Magri’s style, born in the playground years earlier, was explosive and fan friendly. Flyweights of the era usually moved and jabbed, but Magri would march forward and tear into opponents with vicious two-fisted attacks. He was a rough-and-tough tasmanian devil of a fighter and head clashes were remarkably common in his bouts. Never afraid to take a shot to land one, it was possibly this gung-ho approach that caused his career to flag towards the end. The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.
Remarkably he won the British title in just his third fight. When he outpointed Italian Franco Udella at Wembley for the European title in his twelfth, in ’79, he had a perfect record. Only two opponents had heard the final bell.
By the time Magri challenged Mercedes in 1983 he had spent long periods as the number one contender and tasted defeat twice, one of which he avenged while the other, he put down to being weight drained. Despite that, many newspapermen had written him off as yet another British nearly man. Maybe harking back to the bullies of his childhood, Magri internalised the negativity and used it to his advantage. He boxed the Mexican filled with determination to prove his doubters wrong.
Mercedes was a tall flyweight and had only just won the title himself. Magri savaged him. In typical champagne Charlie style, the contest was frenetic from first bell and both fighters traded furiously for Alpha status in the opening three minutes. By the fourth Magri had begun working the body systematically and there were signs the champion was wilting. In the sixth a clash of heads opened a cut over Mercedes’ eye and in the seventh, with Magri applying relentless pressure, the fight was stopped.
Like Mercedes, Magri was to lose the title in his first defence, blaming an ear infection which had disrupted his training. He would later challenge again for the world title, lose, win back the European before ending his career at the age of thirty after being retired by Lawless when running out of steam against new-kid-on-block block Duke McKenzie, from Croydon.
Magri avoided the temptation to make ill-advised comebacks which has blighted the retirements of so many and instead opened a pub in Mile End, where he remained a popular local figure for many years. His all action, sometimes face-first fighting style was never one that would have lent itself to longevity and he was active in an era in which 30 was still considered old for a fighter, particularly at the lighter weights. Finishing with a record of 30-5 he retired happily as a former British, European and World champion.
Champagne Charlie’s short spell at the top. Thirty-three years ago today.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please visit my non-boxing blog at https://markturleyblog.wordpress.com/