TONY Burns, who has died at the age of 80, left a huge mark on amateur boxing both as a boxer and coach. As the driving force behind the Repton club in Bethnal Green for half a century, he produced numerous boxers who achieved at all levels of the sport, from the Olympics to national champions.
When Audley Harrison ended Britain’s 32-year Olympic gold drought in 2000, he was a Repton boxer. And Repton Olympians John H Stracey (1968) and Maurice Hope (1972) both went on to win world professional titles.
Burns’ longevity as a coach can be seen in the Barker family’s achievements with the famed Bethnal Green outfit. In 1979-80, Terry Barker won ABA Junior and Senior titles in the same season, when still only 17. A generation later Terry’s son Darren won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games – and would later become world middleweight champ in the pros. Darren paid an emotional tribute on social media, saying: “I’m heartbroken to hear of the passing of my old amateur coach Tony Burns. The man was a legend who spent most of his life down his beloved Repton helping the fighters fulfil their dreams. I will cherish all the great times we shared together. I owe him so much.”
Tony missed out on top honours in his own boxing career, although that was due to the strength of the 1960s British amateur scene – plus sheer bad luck. Among the many close decisions the classy featherweight dropped was one on a 1965 club show to future world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan. BN called the result “highly controversial”, although in his typically understated style, Tony never made a big deal of it.
Tony was then representing Fitzroy Lodge, having fallen out with Repton over his decision to enter the Welsh championships through a local club (his grandfather was Welsh, although Tony was Bethnal Green through and through). After an unlucky exit in the 1967 ABAs, Tony called time on his ring career with 22 appearances for Wales and the ABA quarter-finals as his best achievements.
He spurned pro offers to become Repton head coach and the following year the club had three boxers in the Mexico City Olympics – a feat repeated at Munich in 1972. Achievements too numerous to list would follow, in 2009 bringing Tony a trip to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE of which he was enormously proud.
In my time covering the amateur code in these pages, I got to know Tony well enough to learn that his gruff exterior hid a heart of gold.
If he felt his beloved Repton was being unfairly treated he was quick to get in touch, but there was never any malice. Once, when he felt we’d been harsh on one of his boxers, I ended up interviewing said boxer a few days later – and it made a really interesting feature.
Tony regarded Repton as a sort of family, of whom he was fiercely protective. That extended to matchmaking, an area in which he was a master. Repton boxers might lose now and again, but it was unheard of for one to be battered.
Once, I made the mistake of asking Tony to pick out the current star of his gym. “What do you mean star?” he replied with (deserved) disdain. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re all stars!”
He meant that any boxer wearing the famous green vest had his backing – which they first had to earn by putting in the effort in the gym.
Tony kept us up to date with Repton news and was surprised to learn not all clubs made the same effort. “Why wouldn’t clubs want coverage?” he remarked. “The boxers work hard and deserve it.”
And he hated the term “trainer”, explaining, “You train a dog. I’m a coach.” For years he went under the title Head of Coaching at Repton and even when his health started failing a few years ago, he would still go to the gym.
Sadly, he was predeceased by his wife Babs and one of their four children, but was still living in Bethnal Green when on Monday (February 1) he suffered an aneurysm. Taken to the London Hospital, he passed away on Tuesday morning.
A 1969 BN feature on Tony Burns’ ring career was headlined “Best Fighter Never To Win A Title”. As a coach he never stopped winning titles, making Repton the most famous club in the country. He will be a huge loss to the sport.