LARRY O'CONNELL, 1938-2019

Posted by Mickey Cooper on 5 January 2020

Anyone connected with Erith & Belvedere FC and anyone interested in boxing will be sad to hear of the death of the club’s President, Larry O'Connell.  Larry, who died on 30 December at the age of 81, had suffered with Alzheimers in recent years.

As a referee and judge, Larry handled dozens of title fights involving many of the sport’s biggest stars of the past 45 years, including such names as Tyson, Lewis, Bruno, Hamed, Calzaghe, Haye, Mayweather and Pacquiao.

What people might not know about him is his skill as an engraver.  By the age of 19, too, he was an established engraver with premises in Pier Road, Erith, and his engraving career, alongside his career in boxing, included seven years working for Cartier, the most famous jewellers in the world.  Larry engraved for the Royal Family, including a commission for Charles and Diana’s wedding; he engraved the wedding ring Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor; he designed and engraved a trophy for Celtic Manor golf club which later hosted the Ryder Cup; and other customers included Stewart Grainger, Rosemary Clooney, the Sultan of Oman and the Beatles!

For the other two major strands of Larry’s life we partially have his father to thank.  Len O’Connell was a committee man at Erith and Belvedere, and one of his memorable acts of parenting dates back to 1949.  As Larry told it: “I was 11 years old.  To earn some money in those days I did a paper round and my brother Brian did a log round for the gipsies.  We got up at six o’clock.  One day I made some toast then went to the toilet.  I came out and my brother had eaten my toast.  We immediately went outside and had a punch-up.  My brother put his head down, throwing punches, I just stood there and jabbed him.  My father came downstairs, went outside and stopped us – clipped us round the ears and said “alright, let’s see how clever you are under rules”.  He took us to Erith Boxing Club, and we began training and started boxing.  My brother won his first fight, lost the next two then packed up.  I lost my first fight… and went on to win 126 fights, losing 29."

Larry was involved in the fight game for over 50 years.  He won the Kent Schoolboys title in 1953, and two years later boxed for England juniors against Poland.  As a member of Fitzroy Lodge Boxing Club, Larry became SE London ABA lightweight champion in 1958 at the age of 19, and was twice runner-up in the national ABA light-welterweight championship, in 1963 and 1965, both times to Olympic gold medallist Dick McTaggart. 

He did have the consolation of beating McTaggart in a non-title bout, and beating the great German Gerhard Dieter who had beaten both McTaggart and Poland’s double Olympic champion Jerzy Kulej.  Yet Larry lost to Kulej: “it’s all about styles,” he commented.  Larry’s own Olympic ambitions ended with defeat to Bobby Kelsey in the 1960 trials.  On retirement as a boxer he was a trainer at Fitzroy Lodge for four years, then decided to become a referee, which he described as the best decision of his life.

In May 1975 he handled his first fight as a referee at the National Sporting Club at the Cafe Royal, and over the next few years built a reputation for his knowledge and authority, handling early fights involving Kirkland Laing, Clinton McKenzie and Lloyd Honeyghan.  He refereed his first title fight in December 1984, when Barry McGuigan defeated Clyde Ruan in Belfast to retain the British and European featherweight title.  The previous month Larry had made his big fight debut as a judge, at a British, Empire and European middleweight title bout in which Tony Sibson beat Mark Kaylor at Wembley Arena.

By the time he retired in 2009 Larry had refereed and judged 1,173 fights, 198 of which were world titles, from Luton Town FC to Las Vegas via South Korea and Shepton Mallet (scene of a Naseem Hamed fight in 1995).  His biggest fights include Lennox Lewis v Gary Mason (referee, 1991), Chris Eubank v Nigel Benn (referee, 1993), Mike Tyson v Frank Bruno (judge, 1996) and Lennox Lewis v Evander Holyfield (judge, 1999).  The last of these was the controversial drawn bout at Madison Square Garden, where Larry scored the fight as a draw – and many others will always be ready to defend the verdict!  The General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, Robert Smith, has said that Larry was a true gent and a credit to British boxing throughout the world.

But back to his father Len.  The other defining moment of Larry’s childhood came in 1945.  “I was seven years old when my mother took me and Brian down to the train station at Belvedere to welcome home my father from the Second World War.  I had only seen photographs of him so far in my life.  He appeared in all his glory, dressed in his uniform, carrying his SLR rifle.  We celebrated that day with family and neighbours.  The very next day he took me on his shoulders down to Erith & Belvedere Football Club.  I have supported this club ever since.”    

He was a keen footballer but said that it was when he came up against Peter Bird, a Deres Colts player in the mid-50s and later a club director, that he was persuaded that as a footballer he would make a good boxer!  (He nevertheless spent time as a fitness trainer with Slade Green FC while ex-Dere Charlie Fuller was their manager.)  When his father died Larry made sure his name was remembered by joining the supporters’ club.  He later became a director and, in 1986, club President.

Generations of Deres players and supporters had the immense pleasure of his company over the years: always immaculately dressed and unfailingly polite.  Although as anyone who fancied a friendly spar will recall, he had a fast punch well into his 70s!  I was particularly proud to organise "An Evening with Larry O'Connell" back in October 2010, at which this wonderfully modest man was persuaded to talk about his career to an enthralled audience, one of whom was an old boxing friend he hadn't met since 1960!

However it was six years ago this week that we learned he had been diagnosed with dementia, after which his visits to the club became increasingly rare.  He lived his last couple of years in a care home.  We will remember him as a man who had time and a friendly word for everybody, and one of the greatest gentlemen you could ever wish to meet.  Rest in peace Larry.

His funeral will take place on Tuesday 21 January at 12 noon, at Thames View Crematorium, Gravesend Road, Gravesend DA12 3JH.

Brian Spurrell

Larry O'Connell, 22 June 1938 - 30 December 2019.

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