The former champ provides a blow-by-blow account of his career and explains why at 62 he is prepared to make a comeback against actor Mickey Rourke.
Roy Gumbs always felt he had something to prove.
As a young man he was told by boxing promoter Mickey Duff, “If you don’t sign with me, you’ll be your own worst enemy.”
In the 70s and 80s Duff and his associates were known as, “The Cartel,” and they controlled every aspect of British boxing including the fight dates, venues and most importantly the television deals.
Signing with “The Cartel,” would have provided support, exposure and opened up a world of opportunities for a young fighter. Resisting them would have been considered career suicide.
Yet, Roy Gumbs did resist the advances of the wily Mickey Duff and later went on to become the British and Commonwealth middleweight champion.
Ultimately, he may have done it the hard way, but by his own admission the point Gumbs wanted to prove ran much deeper than just winning titles in boxing.
“I wanted to prove to myself, not to the promoters, not to the world, not to the public, but to prove to myself that I was good at something.”
Born in 1954 into a single parent family on the Caribbean island nation of St Kitts and Nevis, Gumbs and his mother were one of many families from the West Indies who emigrated to Britain in the 1960s encouraged by the burgeoning labour market.
It was hard enough moving half way around the world but to make the transition even more difficult was Conservative MP Enoch Powell, whose controversial, “Rivers of Blood,” speech incited racial hatred towards the myriad of immigrant families arriving on British shores. As a child Gumbs regularly faced racist remarks and taunts. From the beginning overcoming adversity was a constant battle for him.
The family settled in the industrial town of Slough, twenty miles west of London where Gumbs mother found work and he finished his primary education. By his late teens Gumbs was figuring out what he wanted from life. He aspired to something more than the steady work of a factory in his adoptive home town.
“I always wanted to be somebody, I knew I would be somebody, but I just wanted to find my niche, something I was good at.”
“I tried everything, I would try jobs and really excel in them and then I would quit. My colleagues would always say, “Why you got to quit? You’re doing so well,” but it just wasn’t my thing.”
“I was convinced that I was good at something in the world, and when I found boxing, that was it.”
A young Roy Gumbs in his prime.
Gumbs was introduced to boxing by a close friend, who took him to a London gym when he was aged nineteen.
“My friend took me to London to a boxing club and I liked it. I smoked cigarettes at the time. I had bought a packet and smoked two and then I gave him the rest and said I want to try this boxing thing.”
Considered a late starter, Gumbs boxed for Seven Feathers ABC in London but he quickly turned professional after just nine amateur fights. He won his professional debut by stoppage in 1976 and then lost his next three outings on points. Gumbs persisted and within two years he had amassed a professional record of 10-8-1 (6 KOs).
For a prospect it was a less than stellar record, but it highlights the brutal business of boxing. Gumbs was regularly fighting on the road, all around Britain and Europe, often with short notice.
“I was one of those guys you could call at the last minute. It was usually the day before, I was like a substitute fighter I wasn’t a mainliner. When Dave ‘Boy,’ Green fought Carlos Palomino for the world welterweight title in Wembley I had two hours’ notice before fighting Greg Evans [an 8 round points loss]. My title fights were the only fights I had top of the billing. Everything else was a substitute fight.”
Despite the difficult circumstances Gumbs had to endure these early fights were extremely important in his education as a professional. He admits, “It was a learning curve for me. I never really had an amateur career. I had nine amateur fights in a year when I was 21 and then I turned pro at 22 so my first few fights were like I was still an amateur. When you look at my career five or six years after I turned pro I was fighting for the world title.”
By late 1978, something changed for Gumbs. He began an unbeaten run that would last for the next five years and he established himself as a genuine danger man in the middleweight division. He credits this change to a new found sense of confidence that he developed while working as a sparring partner.
“It was very difficult for me as a professional because I never had any support. I never had anyone tapping me on the shoulder and telling me, “Yes son, you’re on the right road.” I trained in the same gym as Bunny Johnson, Bunny Stirling, Cornelius Boza-Edwards and John Conteh. Those guys gave me belief because I was their main sparring partner and to be in that position made me think, yeah I can do this.”
In 1979, Gumbs won the Southern Area middleweight title with a seventh round stoppage of Jan Magdziarz. Gumbs dropped his opponent eight times in that fight and announced himself as a genuine contender for a British title.
Gumbs explains the significance of the win over Magdziarz, “He had beaten [Alan] Minter twice and it was good motivation for me to have put this guy down eight times. I felt I had to beat this guy in a good way and it strengthened my belief to fight.”
Gumbs was invigorated by his new self-belief but he still found it difficult to move up the ladder and get his shot at a title. Between 1977 and 1979 he fought and beat journeyman Bonny McKenzie four times.
“Bonnie was a very durable guy. He was built like a double decker bus. I kept beating him and the final time I fought him I said, “Look Bonny, if your phone ever rings and if it’s Mickey Duff or whoever, and they want you to fight Roy Gumbs, tell them Roy Gumbs don’t want to fight you no more.” He was a tough customer.”
Gumbs persisted and in 1981, he won the British middleweight title with a third round stoppage victory over Howard Mills. One would think being crowned British middleweight champion would have set Gumbs on the road to riches but it seemed harder than ever to get the fights he desired.
“When I won the British title, Bernard Hart [the owner of Lonsdale] managed me. He went over to America to set up some fights for me. When he came back he gave me my back my contract and said, “Roy, I can’t do anything with you.” I was the British champion and the number one middleweight in the Commonwealth and Europe. What does that say?”
The inability to secure meaningful fights forced him to travel to Canada and link up with George Chuvalo’s former manager; Irving Ungerman.
“Before I became British champion I had visited Ungerman and told him I’d like to fight in Canada, he told me to win a title and then come back to him, which I did. When he managed me I was living in Canada but I was coming back to Britain to defend my title. It was at that time that the British Boxing Board of Control wrote to me and said they would strip me of my title because I wasn’t domiciled in the UK. Ungerman gave me my contract back and said, “You may as well go back to England mate. I can’t do anything with you.”
Quite simply Gumbs was too dangerous an opponent for most middleweights at the time. Gumbs remained in Canada long enough to claim the Commonwealth middleweight title with a fifth round stoppage victory over Canadian Ralph Hollett.
That fight encapsulated everything that made Gumbs a livewire in the middleweight division. During the third round a sharp left hook from the champion dropped Gumbs to the canvas. Gumbs used the ropes to pull himself to his feet to face a standing eight count. Two rounds later Gumbs trapped Hollett on the ropes and unleashed a barrage of punches that battered the champion and forced the referee to call a halt to proceedings. Just to prove it was no fluke Gumbs gave Hollett a rematch, this time stopping the Canadian in four rounds.
By 1983 Gumbs was managed by Frank Warren who took him to Boston to watch undisputed middleweight champion Marvin Hagler knock Wilfred Scypion out in four rounds. The intention had been to secure a world title fight but it never transpired.
A few months later Gumbs lost his British and Commonwealth titles as well as his unbeaten run to Mark Kaylor via a fifth round stoppage in what has become regarded as a classic shootout.
“The Kaylor loss was the one that broke the camel’s back.” Gumbs explains. “That was the one that told the promoters and the pundits that it was over. I gave boxing 150% and at that point I wasn’t giving it 150% anymore. I hadn’t lost a fight in over five years, but after every fight, every manager I had would say, “Win the next one and you’ll get the big money.” I kept winning and they would say, “Win the next one, big money,” it got to a point where I just had enough.”
Following the Kaylor loss Gumbs was stopped in seven rounds by future IBF super-middleweight champion Lindell Holmes. As fortune would have it the losses to Kaylor and Holmes seemingly managed to finally earn Gumbs a shot at a world title. Ironically, he was considered as a last minute choice of opponent for South Korea’s Chong-Pal Park’s in his first defence of the IBF super-middleweight title in 1985.
“I didn’t have a manager when I fought for the world title. Mickey Duff got a call to make a match for Park, I was available so Denny Mancini was sent with me, along with my friend who introduced me to boxing. I packed my bag, the three of us jumped on a plane and went over there.”
The fight ended in disappointment for Gumbs who was stopped by the hard punching South Korean in two rounds. It seemed like the end of the road for Gumbs who promptly retired in 1985. However he made a comeback six years later against the then unbeaten American Ernesto Magdaleno. Gumbs lost a ten round decision to Magdaleno, who would later unsuccessfully challenge Henry Maske for the IBF light-heavyweight world title.
This time it was the end of the line for Gumbs who retired shortly after the loss with a professional record of 26-12-3 (21 KOs).
Life after boxing has been kinder to Roy Gumbs who now lives with his wife in Dubai.
“After boxing I became a house dad and then I ran a very successful restaurant for a long time. I got married and my wife went to med school and she’s now a doctor.”
Currently Gumbs uses his experience as a fighter to inspire confidence and promote healthy lifestyle choices as an ambassador for Club Fit for Business in Dubai.
“To stop me from being idle I teach personal training to business people. It is part of a sports orientated network, known as Club Fit for Business. We meet for breakfast, lunch, dinners and we have experts who speak to our members about finance, opening a business and how to keep a successful business going.”
“I have spoken a few times about how fitness is important in business and how being fit helps you make better decisions. Years ago it would have been unimaginable to think of me sitting in front of a group of high profile business people and telling them how to lead a successful and healthy life, but that’s how I support myself now.”
Despite making his living as a personal trainer and motivational speaker, it seems old habits die hard and Gumbs eagerness to prove himself in a boxing ring hasn’t eroded even in retirement.
He recently challenged actor Mickey Rourke, the star of such movies as Sin City, Iron Man 2 and The Expendables to take him on in a professional boxing contest. The 62-year-old Rourke, has dabbled in professional boxing and his last bout was a controversial second round stoppage of 29 year-old Elliot Seymour in Moscow in 2014.
Gumbs seems enthusiastic about the prospect of fighting the veteran actor.
“I threw out the challenge to Mickey Rourke. He’s the same age as me, we’re both 62, so I said let’s get it on Mickey. His people would like to put it on in the US, because of the pay-per-view potential but at our age there is only one State that would give us permission to fight.”
He continues, “He [Rourke] had a contract for a few fights in Russia, and I’m saying I would go to Russia to fight him. I think if I was a lesser category of opponent he would jump at the chance to fight me. I think he’s happy that the US won’t sanction us because of our age. I don’t think he fancies his chances with me.”
Even in later life it is hard to extinguish the natural competitiveness in Roy Gumbs, but for a man who always felt he had something to prove he certainly proved himself in boxing. The sport may not always have been kind or indeed fair to him but he has endured disappointment and overcome adversity to carve out a successful career in his own right.
Through it all he remains an ebullient, jovial and positive man. Far from being his own worst enemy, he is a living testament to the power of self-belief and determination.