Tony Burns: The undisputed champion of boxing who mixed with the Queen and the Kray twins
PUBLISHED: 09:01 17 March 2016 | UPDATED: 12:23 17 March 2016
Dave Evans meets legend of east London boxing, the great Tony Burns MBE
When it comes to British amateur boxing, no-one is more successful, no-one is more respected, in fact no-one compares to Tony Burns MBE of Bethnal Green’s Repton club, where he has been head coach for almost 50 years.
Burns has shaken hands with Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, his daughter was married in St Paul’s Cathedral, but he also grew up with the infamous Kray twins – it is a remarkable story and I am keen to find out all about him when we meet over a cup of tea in a Brick Lane café next to one of the local beigel shops.
He looks me up and down and I can imagine he doubts my potential as a boxer – mind you he also gave short shrift to Audley Harrison when he passed through his famous Bethnal Green gym!
“Audley was an Olympic gold medalist so I’m not telling you what I said to him!” says Burns with a sudden laugh that sees the girls further down the sofa raise their eyes and glance over with interest.
He may be 75 and his memory is not always spot on from day to day, but there is still a twinkle in the eye of the diminutive, tough looking man, who has a steely determination about him and still has an iron grip which I realise to my cost when I meet him.
It is no surprise. In his days in the ring Burns was a fearless, impressive fighter who should have won an ABA title and gave future world champion Ken Buchanan one of the hardest fights of his life according to the Scot’s autobiography.
I have his friend Andy Prokopp and legendary boxing writer Len Whaley with me to help fill in some of the details that are hidden by the fog in Tony’s mind that every now and again lifts so he can reveal the amazing career he has had.
He thumbs through a pile of photographs, visual aids for him, and the stars he is meeting in the pictures catalogue the great and the good of boxing.
There is Muhammad Ali, the greatest of them all, Sugar Ray Leonard, Frank Bruno and then there are some of his boys, including John H Stracey and Maurice Hope, world champions with a glittering career carved out in the gym at Repton.
“I was born during the war and I was evacuated to Bridgend in South Wales, where I went to school,” he recalls, his memory of the distant past better than recent happenings.
“In those days all the kids boxed. They did it in school and it was tough to win your school title in those days, let alone anything else, but I did win everything,” he said, the smile returning to his face and in his eyes.
When he returned to the east end after the war, he joined the Northampton gym, run by his uncle, which was in Cambridge Heath Road and then moved on to Repton where he established himself.
“I don’t know what I won,” he says. “I just enjoyed boxing. I never thought of going pro, it never appealed to me. A lot of people went pro from around here, but I just enjoyed fighting and the main problem was my dad’s business.”
That paper recycling business is still going strong today. Tony is connected with AON, the largest insurance company in the world, so you can see why turning pro was not something that interested him or was a necessity.
He reaches for a photo and shows me it. “I was the best man at his wedding,” he says. I study it and standing next to Tony in the colour photo is an unmistakeable character – it is gangster Reggie Kray.
“We grew up together. I lived here,” Tony points out of the café window. “And they lived round the corner. We went to the same school (Daniel Street), so you can’t live so close and not know each other.”
The Krays also passed through the Repton club doors, though Burns says: “They were not really that good as fighters with their fists, but rather with guns and things.”
That laugh comes again and Prokopp intervenes: “Tony was the only one who could call Ronnie a ‘fat poof’ and get away with it,” he says. “At school, Tony told me that they used to play horses where the other kids used to have to take them on their backs up and down the stairs, so they were terrorising people even then – but not Tony.”
Burns earned the respect of the infamous twins and they used to buy tickets for boxing shows, but by then he had moved into the training game.
“I just wasn’t enjoying boxing any more and there were some lovely kids down there at the time, so I had a go at the training,” he remembers.
It worked. During his time he has trained over 200 amateur champions, he has been awarded the prestigious ‘Sam Mussabini’ medal and been inducted into the World Coaching Hall of Fame.
“I got a big shock from the junior boxers and some of the senior ones too,” says Burns. “They think I am very good and keep saying, ‘he has to go in my corner, he has to be with me.’”
It is not hard to see why. Burns has a one-to-one style that inspires his boxers. There is no shouting and screaming like some trainers, instead he gets into the heads of his boxers.
Len interjects at this point. “I knew all the fighters, but not all of them were that friendly with me and didn’t want to talk to me,” he explains.
“What happened was that Tony was telling them during fights – ‘you see that big fella over there from the paper, he said you’ve got no chance, go and show him he’s wrong’ – Maurice Hope told me that!”
There is no flicker from Tony himself, a myriad of memories locked inside his brain.
He picks up another photo: “He was a nice fella.”
It is Muhammad Ali, who he met in a London hotel suite where a gaggle of naked girls came in and out of the 11 rooms – that is what happens when you are champion of the world!
So who was the best boxer he trained I ask. There is a long pause. One of his future world champs? He shakes his head.
A few minutes later when I am asking another question, he comes up with the answer.
“Mickey Carter,” he says. “He was the best stylist, he had little skinny arms.
“He was the unluckiest man I ever saw not to get an Olympic gold medal. I saw him in Mexico 1968 on the floor and he jumped up, but they finished the count because he never learned to defend himself, but he didn’t know that and he was waiting on the floor and all of a sudden they counted him out, but you won’t get better than Carter.”
We retire back to the famous gym and in spartan surroundings there are pictures all over the walls of past champions who went through Tony’s hands.
Fifty years is a long time in the game and though he has all but retired, he still pops into the gym most days and has a look at the latest batch of youngsters coming through, many of them travellers these days. “They learn so much from boxing,” he says watching the evening training. “It helps them learn discipline for life too.”
Thousands of boys have passed through the Repton gym, including the Krays, but the overwhelming majority have gone on to lead fulfilling and honest lives and that comes from the little man with a huge heart and a huge talent, who still lives a stone’s throw away in Bonner Street, with wife Barbara.
There are not many like Tony Burns left in the world. I’m privileged to have met the east end boy who shook the hand of royalty.