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Boxing clever: Harry Carpenter, RIP

March 28, 2010

Little and Large: Harry Carpenter and Frank Bruno – the ’80s top comedy duo?

It’s always sad when a broadcaster from your youth whom held something of a fond place in your heart passes on, and Harry Carpenter’s death last week was no exception for me.

In recent years we’ve lost some true bastions of TV and radio, the likes of the BBC World Service’s Alastair Cooke, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, British gameshow Countdown’s Richard Whiteley and, most certainly, the voice of snooker and skiing in the UK, David Vine. Like Vine was for ‘his’ two sports, for me, Harry Carpenter simply was the voice of boxing. He was also a man seemingly of a different, fairer, perhaps more sensible and more gentlemanly age. Whether such an age ever existed is a moot point – but it may have done in the world of boxing, and to a good extent this real gentleman represented it.

“Suddenly Ali looks very tired indeed. In fact Ali, at times now, looks as though he can barely lift his arms up . . . Oh, he’s got him with a right hand! He’s got him! Oh, you can’t believe it. And I don’t think Foreman’s going to get up. He’s trying to beat the count. And he’s out! Oh my God, he’s won the title back at 32!” ~ Harry Carpenter commentating on the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’

Carpenter passed away last Saturday (March 20) at the age of 84. He lived a good, long life, into which he packed a great deal of professional success. He started out as a Fleet Street journalist, but spent 45 years of his career at the Beeb, during which time he presented its Saturday afternoon sport magazine Grandstand, its Wednesday night round-up Sportsnight and the Wimbledon tennis championships. But it’s for boxing that he made his name, in spite of seeming to be the sort of chap who didn’t seek fame. He presented coverage of, commentated on and interviewed figures from boxing for decades.

He was present at the iconic 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, at which Ali won back the World Heavyweight title for an extraordinary third time. However, it was the relationship – and friendship – he struck up in the ’80s with British boxing superstar and grandmother’s favourite Frank Bruno that he’ll surely be most remembered for.

After presenting the coverage of Bruno’s fights and commentating on them, he would interview the boxer, giving rise to the latter’s unforgettable ‘Know what I mean, ‘Arry?’ exclamation, something which very quickly became a catchphrase and, maybe oddly but rather wonderfully, turned the two men into a sort of televisual double-act for a few years. The highpoint for them both probably came on 25 February 1989 when Bruno heroically lost in his bid to become undisputed World Heavyweight champion against American animal-cum-punching-machine Mike Tyson – the fight was stopped in the fifth round. It was real David versus Goliath stuff and, for the UK, at least, such a big event it was like a cross between an England World Cup football match and a royal wedding. Memorably, on this occasion Carpenter lost his impartial cool and willed Bruno on from the commentary box; the only time his professional polish ever faltered. He retired from the BBC in 1994 and was awarded an OBE for his contribution to broadcasting.

So goodbye, Harry, and rest peacefully – sport in the media  has lost one of its greats, know what I mean…?

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