Melanie Lloyd: “I stopped going to school when I was 14. I left school with no education”
By Chris Akers
From the moment she answers the phone, the joy and passion for boxing are clear in Melanie Lloyd’s voice. A writer of the sport for over thirty years, Lloyd has reported on many fights and interviewed many fighters from the level of journeyman through to world champions.
What initially sparked her interest was a young boxer who went on to become the youngest world champion in his weight class.
“I became a fan of Mike Tyson,” says Melanie. “First fight I ever saw was Mike Tyson vs Trevor Berbick. At the time I saw that fight, I didn’t know anything about boxing. But I was so excited by him. Then I started going to the library and borrowing books about the old fighters. I was just captivated by their lives and everything they had to go through. I just got more and more into it and watched boxing whenever I could.”
Her first involvement in the sport was as press secretary for the Foley ABC in Claygate, Surrey.
“I had six years there and that’s when I became involved. Before that, I thought I knew everything about boxing and I knew absolutely nothing. My first real proper boxing memory. I started writing my book when I went to Foley. But I didn’t know what I was doing to be honest. Once I became the Foley’s press secretary, I was going out to all the shows with the lads and writing about their fights in the local papers. So I covered hundreds of amateur fights. I would definitely say that my time at the Foley was my boxing apprenticeship, if you like. The most important thing I did in the early days was walk into the Foley because I think being involved with the sport on such a grassroots level, I just don’t think you can have any substitute for that sort of experience. Also during this time I paid my first visit to the London Ex Boxers Association, and then they made me a member of that.”
While at the Foley, Melanie’s first volume of Sweet Fighting Man was published and she had become a lot more involved in the pro scene. It was at this point that one of the Foley boxers asked for her help.
“There was a big lad at the club from the local traveller community around here called Tommy Eastwood. Tommy turned professional and, because I was making all these different contacts in the pro game, Tommy asked me to help him. So I rode shotgun with him throughout his six-year career and, although I helped Tommy, his gift to me was the gift that keeps on giving, because with him I learned all about the business side of the sport. I learned what a toilet it is. I learned so much. So without all these different experiences, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Melanie has now written three volumes of her Sweet Fighting Man books, which are all based on a collection of revealing interviews with retired fighters who fought at all levels.
Former British and Commonwealth welterweight champion Sylvester Mittee once said that ‘being interviewed by Melanie is like being interviewed by a friend.’
It is this trust in Melanie that has made fighters feel safe and secure in telling her about themselves and their careers. So what was the idea behind Sweet Fighting Man?
“I stopped going to school when I was 14. I left school with no education. But I was reading books since I was four years old. I have always realised that I have a gift with words. Not to sound arrogant or anything, but whenever I wrote anything at school before I stopped going, it always got read out. I always loved to write. Then I got passionate about boxing. So I decided to put the two together.”
“When I wrote the first Sweet Fighting Man book, I didn’t know what it was going to be called. In my first interview, I was lucky enough that it was with Jimmy Tibbs. Then I realised that this was the way forward. So after that, every chapter became an interview with a different fighter. And the name Sweet Fighting Man, one night, about two o’clock I the morning, I just sat bolt upright in bed from my sleep and the title just came to me. I wrote the first one, then wrote the second one. They’ve all taken years to write. The third one, I thought ‘This will be the last one of these now.’ I didn’t call the third one Volume Three. I called it Ring Of Truth, because every word in my Sweet Fighting Man books is true and the third one completed the trilogy, like the completion of the circle. That’s the gist of it. Everything just happened naturally. I wasn’t looking to do this or do that. It all just came together.”
Besides the Sweet Fighting Man trilogy, Melanie has also ghost-written Guardian of the Streets, the autobiography of former British and European super-middleweight champion James Cook MBE, which was published last year.
When asking her about the best boxing book she has ever read, a couple of books by two extraordinary writers from either side of the Atlantic are mentioned.
“McIlvanney on Boxing,” says Melanie, her enthusiasm for the book coming through. “Absolutely brilliant. If Hugh McIlvanney wrote about this table in front of me I’d read it. Everything he wrote was so interesting.”
“When I interviewed Bunny Johnson, the first black British heavyweight champion who featured in my third Sweet Fighting Man book, I discovered that he went off to the States to New Jersey and fought a guy called James Scott in Rahway Prison. I was intrigued as Bunny is such an understated man that he said that it was no different from any other fight.
“In Hugh McIlvanney’s book, he goes into Rahway Prison to interview James Scott. It gave me such an insight into what sort of terrible, hell on earth place that was. When I went back and saw Bunny again, I could talk to him about Rahway Prison and that awoke memories in Bunny. That’s what I love about McIlvanney’s writing. It really takes you there.”
“Another book I absolutely love and read from time to time was written by an American writer called W.C Heinz. He wrote a book called Once They Heard The Cheers.”
“That’s not just about boxing. It’s about jockeys, it’s about baseball players, but quite a few fighters are in it, all of whom Heinz had interviewed many times in the past. In Once They Heard the Cheers, Heinz goes back to see them all later on in life. Every chapter is about a different person. I like those kinds of books because I think they’re so easy to read. It’s like my Sweet Fighting Man books. You can pick them up and put them down whenever you want. Some chapters are long, some aren’t so long. I just think they’re easy to read, books like that.”
It is the qualitative and not the quantitative that inspires Melanie when it comes to reading and writing about the sport.
“I like to be gripped by a book. I’m not so keen on loads and loads of facts. That tends to send me to sleep. In a lot of my work, I tend to give the fighters the lead, letting them tell their own stories, and I sort of dive in and out of the story from time to time. I could never tell a fighter’s story better than the fighter himself. With James’ autobiography, for example, we made about 45 hours of interviews for that and I just pulled out all the best bits and moulded it together to capture the spirit of the man on the pages. I love writing and I’m extremely passionate about it.”
Having reported on boxing for several years, what are the biggest changes Melanie has seen in the reporting of the sport?
“One of the main changes in reporting for me is the internet. I am probably going to sound about a thousand years old now, but when I first started there was no internet. There was no such thing as BoxRec or anything like that. The internet has played a massive role, so that’s one of the biggest changes that I’ve seen personally. YouTube. You can just go on there and watch all these fights from years ago. When I first started out, you had to try and buy videos off people and scrabble around trying to find fights. Whereas now, so much of it is on YouTube. It’s a marvellous resource, and I love social media. As a writer, it gives you so much reach and it gives you the means to contact almost anybody in the world. I did it the old-school way, gradually building up my contacts. Over the years, I’ve built up an address book full of fighters, which I think is invaluable.”
One big change that has occurred the last few months is the lockdown and Melanie feels that the sport has done well under the circumstances
“I applaud Eddie Hearn, Frank Warren, and Mick Hennessey for managing to give us some boxing. Boxing like everything else evolves. Right now, we don’t know where we’re going to be this time next month, let alone this time next year. So I think the three of them have done a really good job. I think the Fight Camp shows have been brilliant. They’ve been exquisite.
“One of the things I have liked is the fact that you haven’t got all this loud music blearing out. You can actually hear now what the coaches are saying to the fighters. I may sound quite old-fashioned, but one of the things about boxing which I’ve disliked over the years is that it’s become so much more showbiz orientated.”
“I understand that they have to have the music at the venues because that is the atmosphere that the fans want these days, but when they have loud music between the rounds, I think that’s shocking. I think it shows a total lack of respect to the fighters, as they’ve only got 60 seconds and it’s hard enough, especially when they’ve had a really hellish round, and they come back and they can’t hear their coach because there’s music blaring out! So that’s one of the things that I have liked, that side of things has calmed down significantly. I think boxing has made a valiant go at keeping us all watching and keeping us all entertained.”
Something that has grown during lockdown is the interest in woman’s boxing.
“Oh definitely. When I started writing, Jane Couch was boxing. And I interviewed Jane a couple of times. She was the pioneer of women’s boxing in this country. She had no amateur experience at all. She very much learned her trade on the job. She was a five-time world champion. These days, you see stuff online about women should be paid the same as men. In Jane’s time, she was lucky if she got paid at all.”
“I first got into the women’s side when the London Olympics happened. The flyweight final between Nicola Adams and Ren Cancan was one of my favourite fights of the whole tournament. Then I started watching the professional female fights and I thought the elite girls were great. But then if you saw them in with a girl who didn’t know very much, it always seemed a bit barbaric to me for some reason, probably my age, more so than the men.
“But now, the way the female boxers have blossomed, they are wonderfully schooled, and their gender doesn’t even come into it for me. I just think you’re watching two superb athletes having a great fight. The three female fights on the four Fight Camp shows, I thought they were all brilliant. I thought they were fantastic.”
So what are Melanie’s views on there been three minutes rounds for women?
“Well, I’m sort of in two minds about that. I think the two-minute rounds for some reason suits women’s boxing. I’ve never fought in a boxing ring. So I don’t know how I would feel about two or three-minute rounds. I can’t understand why they can’t have two-minute rounds and three-minute rounds. Men sometimes box two-minute rounds. Quite often you have six twos. So you could have two-minute rounds or three-minute rounds. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other.”
So that is one change. What other changes would Melanie like to see in the sport?
“Well, there’s one thing I’d like to see for definite. A lot less Pay Per View. I remember when PPV was a really special occasion. Before the virus hit us, we were being subjected to PPV at least once a month. I just struggle to see how the average working-class boxing fan can afford to watch all these boxing shows live without resorting to watching it illegally.”
“The other thing which I think could benefit our sport, which I’ve also seen debated, is the weight categories. A lot of these boys now, these heavyweights are six five, six six, six seven, six nine, and are boxing at an average of 17 to 19 stone. I think that, with the 14st 4lb cruiserweight limit, there’s too big a gap between that and heavyweight. I think purely from a health point of view it would be quite good if cruiserweight went back to the original weight limit of 13st 8lb and then there could be a weight of, say, 14st 10lb in between to bridge the gap, because I think that gap has become too big. So that’s something I think would be a good change.”
For all the years she has been in the sport, there are not too many that know about boxing more than Melanie Lloyd. A warm and knowledgeable interviewee, it is easy to relate to what Sylvester Mittee said about Melanie interviewing boxers as though they are friends.