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THE best commentators make you feel secure, because you know they know their stuff. They are like the best teachers, steeped in their subject but never condescending. Mike Costello isn’t so much steeped in his subject as pickled, but if you want to talk boxing, however deep your knowledge, he’ll make you feel welcome. Just please don’t disturb him if he’s about to go on air.
For 10 years, as a BBC colleague of Costello’s, I sat just behind him at many of boxing’s biggest fights. As such, I hardly ever heard him commentate. But I got to know him well, mostly in daft Las Vegas bars and moody German boozers.
When Ricky Hatton fought Floyd Mayweather in 2007, it was Costello who took me under his wing. Rather, he invited me along for dinner and I said yes. It might not sound like much, but for a journalist on his first big trip it was an act of kindness. Vegas can be lonely, even with 20,000 Mancunians roaming all over the place. Although, in hindsight, it was just Costello being Costello.
That he is so helpful, when others of his standing aren’t, has something to do with where he came from and how he got to where he has. For Costello isn’t your average BBC journalist and needed strokes of luck along the way.
“I lived on a council estate on Camberwell Green [in South London] and joined the Lynn Amateur Boxing Club when I’d just turned 10,” says Costello, whose parents came to London from Ireland in 1950. “Most kids packed up after getting smashed on the chin for the first time. It’s not as if I liked getting smashed on the chin, but I just fell in love with the sport and stayed put.
“Even now, when I see a kid come out of a ring crying, I think it’s beautiful that they care so much about what they’re doing. Because of that, they’ll come back stronger. That’s why amateur boxing is still my first love, it gave me so much confidence, self-awareness and self-worth when I needed it.”
Costello lost his first four fights but refused to quit – “that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my life, that I kept going back” – before rising through the local rankings. In his first senior contest, he boxed future world title challenger Jim McDonnell, before competing in the senior ABAs in 1978.
But as the losses began to rack up – “I won about 40 of 60, but lost six of the last 10” – it slowly began to dawn on Costello that he might not have what it took, a suspicion that was confirmed when his trainer, a local boxing legend called Charlie Tucker, asked if he wanted to help out with training one night.
“I was quite pleased – ‘he must think I really know my stuff’ – but then I realised that what he was really saying was: ‘You’re not going any further.’ I’d lost his belief. It left a massive hole in my life, felt like a bereavement.”
Costello eventually came to terms with the fact that he wouldn’t be boxing for Great Britain at the 1980 Olympics and returned to the Lynn after a year, this time as Tucker’s baby-faced sidekick rather than one of his blue-eyed boys. But Costello’s life had already spun off in another direction. In September 1976, he started work in a BBC accounts department, having written to 17 television companies, asking if they had any jobs for a keen 16-year-old.
“I remember running home and telling my mum I had a job at the BBC. She said: ‘What doing?’ I said: ‘I’ve got no idea.’ I just had this romantic notion that the BBC was a very special place to work. That just couldn’t happen nowadays, the BBC wouldn’t respond to a 16-year-old with two O-levels.
“But when I joined, the message was: ‘You can dream, be whatever you want to be.’ For a kid coming from my background, to be told the world is yours – a world I never even knew was out there – was life-changing. When I eventually leave the BBC, I would love to try to give a kid the same chance as I had, a little toe-rag like me who hasn’t got a degree but has got something hidden away.”
Costello eventually landed a job as a runner with BBC World Service – “the university of broadcasting” – literally running results from the sports room to the studio on Saturday afternoons. When his colleagues saw him on TV in 1985, guiding the Lynn’s Ibby Mustafa to the ABA light-welterweight title at Wembley, they thought he must know a thing or two about the fight game.
Costello started writing boxing scripts for reporters, before his boss packed him off for voice lessons. “I was taught by impossibly posh newsreaders with handlebar moustaches. You can imagine what they thought of this kid from an estate in South London. It was really hard to break those barriers down.”
At Ceefax, the internet of its day – no, really – Costello wrote about pretty much anything, including snooker, which was huge at the time. After re-joining the World Service, he was offered the job of cricket correspondent, but it says a lot about Costello that he thought it would be unscrupulous to accept.
“I’d just returned from an England tour of India, where journalists were saying stuff like, ‘that landed on a length and nipped off the seam’, when I couldn’t even see the ball. I said to my boss, ‘I wouldn’t want somebody reporting on boxing who knows as much about it as I know about cricket’. It wouldn’t have been fair on the audience and plenty of people would have seen through me.”
By the mid-1990s, Costello had almost given up on boxing, so when a commentary vacancy came up at the 1995 Athletics World Championships, he recorded himself screaming at some old 200m heats on his telly, handed the tapes to his editor, crossed his fingers and was offered the gig. Costello became a ringside reporter for BBC 5 Live and occasional TV shows, before John Rawling, 5 Live’s respected boxing and athletics commentator, left for ITV in 2005 and Costello was chosen to replace him on both fronts. “If ITV hadn’t come back into boxing and headhunted John, we wouldn’t be doing this interview. That’s been the story of my career, lucky breaks all the way through. You’ve got to make the most of them, but even so.
“John was a tough gig to follow, as people on the BBC’s online forums kept reminding me. One punter’s comment sticks out: ‘Costello’s commentary is abysmal.’ I remember it well, because ‘abysmal’ was spelt wrong. A colleague even said to me, someone who was on my side, ‘Mike, you’ve got big shoes to fill’. I said, ‘maybe I’ve got big feet’. But I made a lot of mistakes, believe me.”
Costello got his first three predictions as BBC boxing correspondent wrong, including picking Jeff Lacy to beat Joe Calzaghe. “I had a phone call from someone I really respect, who said Calzaghe wasn’t sparring because he had a bad hand, which he did. I thought that was going to be a problem against a kid like Lacy. But obviously it wasn’t. It was a rough start to the job and I remember thinking: ‘This is like when I lost my first four fights as a kid…’”
However, it only took Costello a couple of years to establish himself as the new voice of boxing, a radio commentator people switched on having muted their TVs, and one of those rare radio commentators fans listened to on replay. “I often feel like I was a failure in the gym, so I’m determined not to fail at this. I might only do six fights a year, while John Murray might do six football matches in two weeks. But I’ve got to match him, so practice is important.”
Costello still gets a healthy kind of scared on the starriest nights – “you wouldn’t want to be near me on the night of the Olympic 100m final” – but finds that proper preparation is the best preventative medicine for anxiety.
“Floyd Patterson told me once: ‘I got scared when I wasn’t scared.’ It’s a good feeling. On the big nights, it’s a case of getting my eye in. I’m always sat ringside, but I might be stuck behind a judge, my chair might be five inches higher than normal. It sounds trivial, but it all makes a difference as to what I can see with the naked eye and how much I’m going to have to do off the telly.
“Because 5 Live only tend to do the biggest fights, I suppose that’s more pressure. The flipside is that every fight I do is the equivalent of a cup final and has great noise and great meaning. And boxing is just a great radio sport. Listening to football, you can kind of drift off, until you hear the commentator say the ball is in the penalty area. In boxing, you’re always in the penalty area.”
Costello reckons Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler II in 2013 was the best fight he called, and Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya the best event. But it is behind the mic at big fights that fail to ignite where Costello really earns his corn.
“My two biggest tests were David Haye-Nikolai Valuev and Tyson Fury-Wladimir Klitschko, because they were great nights but not great fights. That’s when the knowledge and the skill of a commentator is really tested, because you have to keep the listeners with you – ‘it’s a shit fight by the way, but stay with me, because it might turn out to be a really great story’.”
While Costello is ambivalent about the business of professional boxing, especially below elite level – “what troubles me most is that there are too few happy endings” – his respect and admiration for boxers is unbridled: “What makes them so special is the amount they are prepared to give and where they are prepared to go, even when they know that the best course of action is probably to walk away. I’m not sure any of us can understand what those qualities are and where they come from. They are remarkable people.”
You probably noticed that Costello wasn’t behind the mic for Anthony Joshua’s defeat of Klitschko, because he’d been involved in his own battle in an operating theatre. Missing such a monumental contest stung a little bit, but not as much as his face full of stitches. “It was heartbreaking to miss that fight, and I use that phrase advisedly. But I got the verdict I wanted.”
Costello was back in harness for Kell Brook’s defeat by Errol Spence, alongside his old mucker Steve Bunce, two South London boys still not quite believing how far they’d come. “When I was at World Service, Steve would come over and practice voice pieces. We used to say: ‘Imagine if we were on air together? Two kids with Cockney accents on the BBC at the same time… no chance.”
Costello believes he is commentating on a golden age of British boxing, while his listeners believe it couldn’t have a better voice. Now you know the man behind the voice is as decent as he sounds. The sport is lucky to have him.