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IN 1978, Dennis Andries became a professional boxer.
“I was told: ‘You’ll win the Southern Area title, forget about the British title.’ But I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t listen too well. The more they say: ‘You can’t do it,’ the more I say: ‘OK, I’ll show you.’ Don’t ever tell me that I cannot.”
As predicted, Andries, born in Guyana and based in Hackney in East London, mauled his way to the Southern Area light-heavyweight title, but fell short in two attempts at the British championship.
In Boxing News, Harry Mullan described his British-title challenge against Bunny Johnson – who Andries had previously dropped in the latter stages of a gruelling 10-rounder that he lost on points – as “a graceless and at times farcical affair with Andries offering the crudest championship challenge I have ever seen.”
From the fifth round, the crowd booed and in the 12th, both fighters crashed out of the ring and onto the press table. “The last five rounds,” remembered Johnson years later, “were worse than hell. He led with his head, pushed me and did everything he possibly could to upset my rhythm and win the fight.”
Following a points loss to Tom Collins in another British-title bid, Ernie Fossey, Andries’ manager, decided he had seen enough and parted company with the fighter.
So infuriated was one promoter with Andries, he offered him £2,000 – a good sum back in 1982 – to quit boxing. Andries was told: “You’re not going anywhere and are getting in the way of fighters who are.”
At 28 – or thereabouts – it looked like the end for Andries. He was going to accept the offer – until he bumped into Greg Steene. A 29-year-old South London-based manager and promoter with a stable that included heavyweight John L Gardner, Steele reckoned that for all the obvious rough edges, Andries was “a very undervalued and underrated fighter.” He was told by Fossey, his matchmaker, that he “couldn’t do anything” with Andries. Steene thought differently.
The technique couldn’t be found in any textbook, but the muscular Andries was harder to hit than he looked and had a toughness and will to win that couldn’t be taught. Steene remembered: “Dennis was honest, hard working and was prepared to go further than anyone else. I used to ask my boxers to run five miles every morning – and Dennis would run 10… Dennis was very down when I met him. He thought his career was over, but I re-motivated him and invested in him.”
Under Steene, Andries won the Lonsdale belt outright in record time for the 12st 7lbs division – eight months and 15 days – with wins over Collins (twice) and Devon Bailey, the latter an emphatic 12th-round KO that reversed a loss in the London final of the ABA championships when they were amateurs. Domestic dominance established, the next step was the European title, held by Alex Blanchard, a Dutchman who stood a lofty 6ft 5ins, around seven inches taller than Andries. For around a year, Blanchard dodged his mandatory until Steene made him an offer that was simply too good to turn down.
Blanchard would be paid a handsome £56,000 purse to defend his title in Fulham. “The cost was phenomenal,” said Steene, “but I wanted to get Dennis a world rating.”
The fight was scored a draw – Andries suffered a rare knockdown in the ninth after dropping Blanchard in the fifth – but to get Andries a world rating, Steene had to fly to Mexico City and lobby the WBC.
Steene argued his case well enough for them to find a place in their top 10 for Andries, but his persuasive powers didn’t work on BBC bosses.
“I had a contract with the BBC,” said Steene, “but they wouldn’t back Dennis. I told them I could get Dennis a world-title shot, but needed some backing. They weren’t interested. They didn’t think he had world-title potential. Frank Warren contacted me and said he could get the fight on ITV.” The decision to accept ITV’s offer cost Steene his contract with the BBC, but it meant Andries got his world-title shot.
The WBC light-heavyweight champion was JB Williamson, a 29-year-old from Indianapolis. Williamson told the press his initials stood for ‘Just Bad’ when in reality, his parents intended to name him James Bennett, but for some reason they only scribbled ‘JB’ on the birth certificate after he was born in December, 1956.
Best known as Michael Spinks’ sparring partner, Williamson captured the WBC title Spinks vacated eight days before his 29th birthday by soundly outpointing southpaw Prince Mama Mohammed at the Inglewood Forum in California. (Unlike “Prince” Charles Williams and Prince Naseem Hamed, Mohammed, a southpaw based in Glasgow for a spell earlier in his career, really was a prince and after the death of his father he had to quit boxing and return to Ghana to become king of his tribe.)
Williamson, who had turned professional under the Muhammad Ali Professional Sports banner before they folded, was offered a career-best £75,000 for what looked to be a very winnable first defence against Andries, somewhere in Europe. Warren’s usual venue, Alexandra Pavilions, was booked up and for a while, there was talk the fight would go ahead in Paris until it was announced Andries-Williamson would be staged at Picketts Lock Leisure Centre in Edmonton on Wednesday, April 30, 1986.
Andries didn’t like the way the fight was billed as “Now or Never” and was infuriated further by a press release that added a couple of years to his official age of 32. This debate about his age would continue until the end of his career.
Of more concern for Andries was who would train him for his world-title challenge. With Beau Williford deciding James ‘Quick’ Tillis and his forthcoming fight with Mike Tyson was his priority, Andries returned to former trainer Don Davis.
Davis, formerly a good professional who picked up wins fighting on the right-hand side of the bill, had previously told Andries: “They call you an ugly duckling. I’m going to turn you into a beautiful swan.”
In an attempt to inject some rhythm into Andries’ rugged, sometimes clumsy, scrapping, Davis encouraged him to play records and shadow box along to the beat.
No matter what Andries did, though, Williamson couldn’t see there was any way he could beat him.
The champion told the press: “His only chance of beating me is if the roof caves in and the rafters fall on my head.”
Williamson clearly thought a lot of himself, asked for payment to attend press conferences and predicted he would go on to emulate Spinks by moving up and winning heavyweight honours.
When the American said he would win a matador-bull encounter, Andries growled in reply: “A few matadors have been killed lately. I don’t think he’ll fancy too many bull horns in his flesh and that’s what he’ll get.”
Usually monosyllabic in interviews, Andries opened up to Fred Burcombe in the News of the World before his world-title challenge.
“I’m bitter,” said Andries. “I always have been. I’ve had no easy rides, no dead bodies. Critics say I’m a brawler and slugger and that I don’t look good. When I get a victory it’s a fluke. Excuses are made for my opponents. I get bad treatment, they get the good.
“I never despaired of getting my chance, but it’s like being a good footballer, dancer or anything else in this world. Without a backer, the right person to trust and believe in you, then the route’s blocked.
“Manager Greg Steene and his daddy [Alec] have stuck by me since 1982. Before that I was always the substitute. I’ll beat Williamson for them.”
This me-against-the-world outsiderdom wasn’t great for ticket sales – Steene remembers Andries returning 96 of the 100 tickets he was given to sell – but without that part of his character, Andries would surely not have been the fighter he was.
The injustices drove Andries on and in the words of Boxing News, at the opening bell of his world-title challenge, he “barged in with the unruffled maturity of a man who has taken just about everything the fight game could throw at him.” Williamson, an inch or so taller, lean and muscular, but with a nervy, disjointed look about his boxing, tried to stand his ground and fight with the challenger.
He had his moments, but his punches didn’t discourage Andries. He kept piling in and it soon became clear Williamson was not an outstanding champion – and that Andries had the beating of him.
The rounds were messy and competitive, but the feeling at ringside was Andries was winning more of them than Williamson, who was cut under his left eye in the fourth. Warren passed the message on to Andries’ corner – and as was always the fighter’s wish, Davis told him he was way behind on the scorecards.
“I told him after the ninth he was six rounds behind,” said Davis. That brought a big effort from Andries in the 10th, but Williamson responded well in the 11th.
The advice to Andries before the last round was: “You have to knock him out to win” and the words propelled him forwards.
As Reg Gutteridge put it in his television commentary, Andries “chased, chivvied and clouted” Williamson throughout the final three minutes. It was a split points decision – and there was a new WBC light-heavyweight champion.
The following day, Andries put his world championship belt in a brown paper bag and paid 90 pence for the underground fare to Russell Square for a press conference. The press were amused when they realised how Andries had brought his hard-earned prize.
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” asked Peter Moss of The Daily Mail.
“Who’s going to nick it off me?” the new king replied.