John Hillier, who died on December 30, was a legend at Crawley Boxing Club and modestly described himself as a “small cog” in the career of world champion Alan Minter. In 1998, he gave the following interview to the Crawley Observer.
John Hillier has enjoyed a lifetime in boxing. He could write a book of anecdotes and stories from a varied boxing career that spanned an amazing five decades.
The former Langley Green newsagent manager and ex-chief trainer at Crawley Boxing Club has now retired from the sport. But Hillier has plenty to look back, remember and reminisce in his Crawley house, aptly called the Ringsider.
The 65-year-old recalls: “It all started properly when I was around 12 – before that I fought in the street. We had a belt. We put old army badges on it and thought it was the Lonsdale belt.”
After joining the Mitcham boxing club, Hillier’s dad encouraged him to go to the Croydon club where his uncle was a PE instructor – he ran the boxing team in the army.
In his first fight for Croydon BC, Hillier boxed the Surrey schoolboy champion and knocked him out in the first round with a straight left.
Hillier remembers his fifth fight when he won a novice competition which was the step before becoming and intermediate.
He said: “I remember there was two of us – I was nine stone and Peter Timmins was eight stone seven. We used to train together in the gym. We were in different competitions. We both won three fights in an evening.
“When I was about 17 I had problems with cut eyes. I had a few fights - won a few and lost a few. Then I joined the Air Force and boxed in the RAF.”
While he was in the Air Force, Hillier earned a little bit on the side for just one day – and his dad was furious!
Hillier revealed he walked past a boxing booth in Manchester. He said: “There was a call for boxers and I put my hand up. I boxed three rounds and won £3. I thought this was good and the guy there said to me to go again next week.
“I wrote to my dad and told him I boxed in a booth and he was furious, saying it was a terrible thing. I could have got court marshalled if the RAF ever found out.”
Hillier’s boxing booth days were over but he went on to win the RAF title in 1951, boxing against the army twice. A year later and he came out of the forces and was about to marry Connie.
He was matched up to fight in Croydon. His wife-to-be and mum did not like boxing but reluctantly went to watch him. He invited all of his friends from the RAF down to watch him as well.
Hillier said: “They were halfway through the bill and my opponent had not turned up. They had another boxer there who was 10lbs heavier than me. I looked at my trainer, who didn’t want me to take the fight. But I had all my family there, the RAF and friends, so I decided to fight him.
“I was knocked out in the first round! That was a good lesson - I found out the hard way to never give weight away.
“My mum never saw me fight again!”
In 1958, Hillier was starting to make his mark in Crawley boxing circles.
He started the New Town Amateur Boxing Club, based at Hut 13 in Tilgate Forest, with Chips Bellchambers. Two of the boxers to join were Geoff Hopcraft and his brother Peter.
A lot of the membership was made up by Sea Cadets who had an interest in boxing.
That ran for a year before Hillier was approached by Crawley ABC. They proposed that the two clubs should join together, which is what they did.
Hillier’s training, coaching and management days were all at Crawley. He said: “I had great help from Bert Pontremoli in my amateur days and his is still a great friend.” (Bert died on September 4 2001, aged 84.)
He worked with the legendary Crawley boxing figure Alan Minter, who put the New Town firmly on the map on the national and international stage.
Hillier said he was just a “small cog” in the Minter machine and paid tribute to manager Doug Bidwell. He said: “Doug was a great matchmaker and he got Alan through the amateurs. Doug and I worked closely together at the club and had a good understanding.”
Bidwell and Hillier used to watch boxing together at the Albert Hall. Hillier remembers: “Doug had his eyes on turning pro. I wasn’t really interested at the time unless we had a real champion. That happened with Alan.
“With Alan going to the Olympics and winning bronze, that had a lot to do with turning pro.”
Hillier became a pro trainer in 1972 and was banned from Crawley ABC as he had a pro licence. He joined up with Bidwell and was corner man for many of Minter’s fights, as well as training the other fighters in Bidwell’s camps.
In 1977, Hillier decided to go his own way and split up from Bidwell and Minter, leaving Bobby Neill to take over in the corner. Hillier explained: “I just felt I wanted to get on with my own thing.”
Minter went on to become a world champion. Hillier admitted: “I didn’t think he would win a world title. I always thought he would win a British title. I didn’t think he had the class to win a world title - but Alan proved me and everybody wrong.”
A number of top boxers went through Hillier’s door when he went alone. Shaun Chalcraft was one fighter that was close to him, like one of the family.
One of Hillier’s best moments in boxing was when Chalcraft travelled to Rotterdam to train with Dutchman Rudi Koopmans as a sparring partner - Koopmans was the European light heavyweight champ.
He ended up on the bill and enjoyed the best fights of his career, winning every round over Frenchman Robert Amory.
That moment was up alongside Minter winning the British middleweight title against Kevin Finnegan.
Hillier advised Chalcraft to quit after his eyes began to cut up, and from there Hillier went back to concentrate on his shop before joining up with the Crawley club committee.
Hillier’s last stint in boxing came at the Horsham club, although he was reluctant to get involved at first. But he went to the club on a training night and the adrenaline started to go again.
He said: “Phil Morris was down there - he used to help me in the corner with the pros. I got that old feeling back again and I was hooked. It’s a nice club with some lovely people there.”
Hillier says the good times outweighed the bad and almost regarded some of the boxers as his family. He said: “I always see friends from boxing, ex-boxers come up to me and put their arms around me. They don’t walk past on the other side of the road, they all come up to me.
“None of them let me down. They all gave me 100 per cent, turned up for training all the time and on time.”
The curtain falls on Hillier’s boxing career, a jam-packed lifetime in the sport.
He said: “It’s been a good life - I’ve enjoyed it. It’s had its ups and downs during my lifetime, but I’ve had more ups than downs.”