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My England debut - Manchester Ex Boxers Association

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My England debut

My England debut: by Eddie Copeland

I received a letter from the Amateur boxing association of England saying I had been selected to represent England in a Multi-nations tournament in Tampere Finland in October 1978. The months of training with the England squad had paid off and I finally was going to make my England debut.

I must admit I was both excited and nervous, excited because it was a chance I had hoped for and nervous because it was a multi nations tournament to which I had no experience and could face the feared eastern Europeans that seemed to dominate European amateur boxing at that time.

My club coach Kelvin Travis from Cavendish put together a training programme that would get me fit and ready, I followed the plan to the letter and was as fit as the proverbial ‘butcher’s dog’ when I reported to the England squad at a hotel in London ready to make the long trip to Finland.

When we arrived in Tampere Finland we had been travelling all day and the last part of the journey involved a 3 hour coach journey from the airport to our hotel. The team undertook check weigh in’s to ensure we were not too far off our weight limits.

The official weigh in next day was an interesting affair, the Nordic boxers who were dressed for the extreme cold stripped down into their all in one underwear, some of which were tartan and multi-coloured (the only time I’d seen anything like it was in the American films when the old cowboys in the Klondike would wear these all in one underwear). I was a few ounces over the Light Welterweight limit and had to strip naked to make the weight. A picture of me on the scales naked was published on the back page of the Finnish times (fortunately it was a back view, that country was far too cold to be a flasher).

The draw was undertaken and I found myself up against the Bulgarian number 2 (the number 1 was in the other group). I must admit my nerves were working overtime when I made my debut. The bell went for the first round and the adrenalin was working overtime, I was on high alert. As the contest unfolded and I started getting my shots off, I found I was scoring with hard shots and my opponent couldn’t handle them, by the 3rd round I was hitting him with hard combinations, the crowd got right behind me and the referee stopped the contest in the 3rd round to save my opponent further punishment.

The following day I was drawn against a Swede in the quarter finals, he was very stocky and muscled and had scored a knockout in his first round contest. He was dangerous but limited. The contest was over in the first round, he’d launched one of his big right hands but I got my right hand off fractionally quicker and the ref counted him out.

The next round was the semi final, my opponent was a Canadian called Rick Anderson, he was a former world junior silver medallist, he was the favourite, he was cocky, brash and arrogant and those weren’t my words but those of his team mates, they were fed up with his arrogant boasts and show boating with his opponents, he was tall, a southpaw and could punch, he was like a Sugar Ray Leonard (including the red tassels on his white boots). Before the first round of each bout he would pray in his corner as per Mohammad Ali. From the start of the tournament he shared the same dressing room as me and he knew he may meet me if I got through the quarter finals. To intimidate me he would show off his flashy skills when warming up and he would be constantly mouthing off.

Come the night of the semi finals, we had all 5 of our team in the semi finals; we were all supporting each other. The atmosphere was fantastic, the bouts were televised and the crowd were eagerly anticipating the bouts and they knew which bouts were the ones to watch, my bout with motor mouth was eagerly awaited and I was the underdog, I was also in the strange position of having not only my own team mates supporting me but his team mates also.

Kevin Hickey the England national coach worked out a simple but effective battle plan. As soon as that bell goes for the first round you run across the ring, trap him against the ropes and keep him there, give him no room to use his skills or fire that powerful left cross. I warmed up well ready to sprint out of the blocks.

After the introductions where he was show boating and trying to intimidate again, I couldn’t wait to get at him. He turned in his corner raised the palms of his gloves and put his head down to pray. The timekeeper announced round 1 and rang the bell, I was off like Linford Christie, the bell hadn’t finished echoing when he got his first hook straight in the gob followed by 2 hooks straight in the ribs and that set the pace of the bout, it was like a smaller weight version of Ali Frazier, me boring in on him and trapping him on the ropes and he trying to counter and pot shop off the ropes, the crowd went wild and loved every minute of it.

In the second round his corner had told him to move and work the angles, stop me getting set, this worked for a short while and because he was a southpaw his left hand was dangerous, I was hit glancing blows and I felt his power but was able to slip most of them, within 30 seconds I had him back against the ropes desperately trying to keep me off. This was the pattern of the bout and in truth we could have held that bout in a telephone booth. At the end of 3 hard rounds I came away with a unanimous decision from all 5 judges. The bout was an entertaining bout and made the headlines in the sports section of the Finnish Times, both myself and team mate Peter Hanlon featherweight from Gloucester had stormed the semi finals with pulsating wins, the headlines next day screamed ‘The British are Terriers’.

Following the semi finals we had 4 of our team through to the finals and one achieved a bronze medal in his losing semi final.

We had a day’s rest before the finals which were to be held on the Saturday. Fortunately I had not picked up any hand or facial damage during my 3 contests over the 3 day period and I was fit and ready to give it my all.

My opponent in the final was a Pole, he had despatched the Bulgarian no 1 in a hard fought semi final, he was a bit smaller than me, and was 26 years old and been around a long time, with a wealth of international experience, there was no professional boxing in Poland at that time due to Poland being an Eastern Bloc country, therefore their boxers stayed as amateurs and were older and more experienced than their non communist counterparts. My opponent looked like Charles Bronson, was thick set, very strong and had a wallop that had to be avoided. I was very nervous about meeting someone of this calibre and wondered if my lack of international experience would tell at this level. I always remember Kevin Hickey saying that boys will get away with flaws in their style at club level but at International level those flaws could be cruelly exposed. Well I thought about all my flaws and I’m not ashamed to say I was a bit scared of him, he was a handful and I expected a hard contest.

The finals night had an air of expectancy from the crowd, the Finnish people were sporting and really appreciated the boxing, the finals got under way and we won gold at Flyweight in Bobby Jones, Gold at Featherweight in Peter Hanlon and then it was my turn in the Light welterweight final.

Kevin Hickey once again came up with the right tactics, hands up, behind the jab, stop him getting set, step out or under his swings and hooks. Speed was the key, I was faster than him but he was physically stronger, at 26 he had a man’s strength and at 21 I was still developing. With my baby face and his hardened features it looked like man against a boy. It was at this point I found out that adrenalin was coloured brown.

The first bell came and I circled throwing jabs that fell short, I kept on the move and he stalked and would rush in throwing right hands and hooks that would have taken my head off if they would have landed, on the first clinch I felt his strength and knew I couldn’t afford to get into a fight with him, that would have played into his hands like a spider and his web setting the trap for a fly. At one point during the first round he manhandled me to such an extent that I lost my balance and I found myself on my knees with my arms wrapped round his left leg holding on for dear life in case he tried to hit me. By now I had warmed up and had survived the first minute and my confidence began to grow, I thought to myself maybe I can win this; all I have to do is hit without being hit. Id trained like a madman before coming to Finland and I was able to call on all 4 cylinders. Fitness and fear were the 2 factors that got me going, I jabbed, moved, double jabbed, hitting him frequently without taking anything of consequence in return, when he got close I tied him up until the ref told us to break.

In the second and 3rd round I became a little more adventurous and started mixing in fast straight right hands which landed every time.  In close he would rough me up and land sledgehammer hooks to my body, he was getting desperate in the last round, he had to knock me out to win, he went for it big time and one punch hit me that hard I thought I was Julie Andrews in the sound of music (must have been a hard shot). My head cleared and I stepped on the gas for the last minute hitting him with straight crisp punches right down the middle, the last round was the best round of the fight. Although the final wasn’t as entertaining as the semi final it was an intriguing bout that was tactical on my part and in many respects it was the bull and the matador. Many thought the semi final against Anderson would have made a great final but the way the draw was made meant we had to meet in the semis.

At the end of the bout I knew I’d done enough to win and thankfully the judges saw it that way to. The podium was brought out and the brass band played the national anthem and I was given my Gold medal, okay it may not have been the Olympics but it was a marvellous moment which I will never forget, it was a dream England debut, Gold medal in my first multi-nations away from home.

This was the days before mobile phones and e-mails, my family knew I had got to the final and were waiting for news of the final result, they were over the moon when they found out, the Pink newspaper boxing column had the headlines Copeland conquers Europe (a bit of an overstatement but that’s how I felt). To cap what was a fantastic experience at the awards dinner the day after the finals I was awarded the best technical boxer of the tournament for the totally different tactics used in the semi final and the final. Peter Hanlon my team mate got the best fighter award. This tournament saw England get its best medal haul with 3 gold’s a silver and a bronze. They still hold the multi nations tournament every year in Finland and I read the results in boxing news and fondly cast my mind back to October 1978 and reminisce.

My only negative of the whole experience was that on our last night in Finland I celebrated too much and was really ill all the way home, I was sick on every mode of transport from Tampere to London and back to Manchester.

Eddie Copeland