Maybe it’s the sign of a misspent youth when the phrases of commentators are recalled as quickly as those of a parent’s chiding but then Harry Carpenter’s voice was as golden as the Las Vegas sun under which he called many a World title fight.
You know you’ve made it when your status is as high as the sportsmen whose careers are capturing a nation and Harry, who passed away yesterday at the age of 84, was adored by the public as he became synonymous with legendary fighters such as Muhammad Ali and Barry McGuigan and most notably former World heavyweight champion Frank Bruno.
Harry, who had a naturally shy persona, brought passion to his commentary but without the nauseating persistent hyperbole so prevalent in today’s men behind the mic.
Maybe that is why he was so at home with the BBC. One could hardly imagine him screeching across the Sky television airwaves.
He was able to enjoy and convey with charm and eloquence the rise and fall of Ali. The savagery of Ali-Frazier III — ‘Thrilla in Manila’ — stands out as well as his ecstatic, disbelieving lilt as the Greatest felled George Foreman in 1974: “Oh my God he’s won the title back at 32!”
Foreman was as quick to hail Harry as McGuigan or Bruno and last night the former World heavyweight champion said: “We all knew if there was going to be some class in boxing, someone who really brought out boxing and the human being probably, it would be Harry.
“We were all accustomed to boxing people bustling in and arguing but Harry was a real classy human being. Always a good smile, sticking right to the point as though he wanted to give the public a bird's eye view of the human being and of the boxer. It's a sad day because when I think of my trips back to the United Kingdom I always expected to run into Harry because he would always be there.”
Of Ali himself, Harry would say, “He is not only the most remarkable sports personality I have ever met, he is the most remarkable man I have ever met.”
Harry entered my life when describing the disgraceful scenes fuelled by racism which marred Marvin Hagler’s World middleweight title victory in 1980 but before that he was already tracking the career of Barry McGuigan at the 1978 Commonwealth Games. Then alongside the rise of the Clones Cyclone he struck up a relationship with a certain heavyweight called Bruno and a double act as famous as Morecambe and Wise unfolded.
McGuigan said: “Harry commentated on my Commonwealth Games and Olympics contests and then after I won the British title and went network he started to do my fights and became a significant part of my career. Somehow with Harry doing the commentary it brought a certain gravitas. His commentary on the night I won the World title against Eusebio Pedroza at QPR Football Club was great. It was the first time the BBC had done a live outside broadcast fight and it certainly worked for them because they had 20m viewers. Everyone remembers his commentary in the seventh round when I floored Pedroza.
“Harry was a hugely important figure. He had that smooth, silky voice and he believed that less is more. He knew when to speak and the right time to let the action do the talking. He was a lovely man and was respected by everyone.”
For all his professionalism, Harry could also be lost in the emotion of a British fighter shooting for the summit and none more so when it was Bruno who famously asked ‘Where’s ’Arry?’ after boxing on ITV.
Bruno was a huge underdog when he travelled to Vegas to face former World heavyweight champion Tyson and for one moment in 1989 he had the self-proclaimed ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ in trouble. Cue Harry’s patriotism and the cry of ‘Get in there Frank’.
Harry was there to comfort Bruno after the painful beating, just as he had done after watching him lose to Tim Witherspoon three years earlier.
Bruno’s agent said: “"When I told him, he said it was 'terrible, sad news'. Frank has many acquaintances but not many real friends. Harry Carpenter was a friend."
Whether it was The Open, Wimbledon, boxing or the Beeb’s midweek gem ‘Sportsnight’, he brought his own brand of panache and passion which stood out from the rest.
Harry may have left us but his crisp, engaging observations on the Noble Art will live forever.
Five top fights Harry Carpenter commentated on
1. Ali-Frazier III, 1975: Dubbed the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought in arguably the most brutal fight ever seen in the ring. Carpenter, like everyone else, hailed the wisdom and compassion of coach Eddie Futch who pulled Frazier out of at the end of the 14th round. Ali would later say it was “the closest thing to death”.
2. Ali-Foreman, 1974: This was the night in Zaire when Ali played his rope-a-dope on George Foreman and won back the World heavyweight title with an eighth round knockout. Harry, who had a great relationship with the ‘Greatest’, was as shocked as anyone else at the result.
3. Ali-Frazier I, 1971: After three years out of the ring, Ali returned and had two wins before the ‘Fight of the Century’ at Maidson Square Garden. Two unbeaten legends going toe-to-toe and it lived up to all expectations as they battled for 15 pulsating rounds with Frazier winning on points
4. McGuigan-Pedrosa, 1985: Before around 25,000 supporters at Loftus Road, Barry McGuigan fulfilled his dream and became World featherweight champion. In a tight contest McGuigan won on points, with a seventh round knockdown proving crucial.
5. McAuley-Bassa I, 1987: Voted the Fight of the Year, this was a King’s Hall epic as Dave McAuley climbed off the floor to drop World flyweight champion Fidel Bassa but let him off the hook and was stopped in the 13th round.