Duff, the Jewish rabbi’s son who managed or promoted a host of world champions while dominating the often murky world of British professional boxing from the 1960s to 1980s, died on Saturday aged 84.
“I was at loggerheads with Mickey Duff for years,” declared Frank Warren, the rival promoter who was to knock Duff off his throne in the 1980s with the backing of commercial television.
“But our differences never stopped the admiration I had for him as one of the most, if not the most, influential figures British boxing has seen,” Warren told The Sun newspaper on Monday.
Fellow promoter Barry Hearn spoke of the passing of a ‘legendary’ figure while a tribute on the London ex-boxers association website mourned “the end of a golden era”.
Duff, a short man with thick-rimmed glasses, glistening forehead and the flattened nose of an ex-pugilist, was called many names over the years but rarely anything complimentary and he always gave as good as he got.
“If you want loyalty, get a dog,” was one of the sayings that contributed to the legend.
“A lot of promoters couldn’t match the cheeks of their own backside,” was another of his favourites.
When Warren was shot and seriously wounded by a hooded gunman in east London in 1989, the wisecracking Duff commented: “It couldn’t have been anyone in boxing. They wouldn’t have missed”.
Born in Tarnow, Poland in 1929 as Monek Prager – although he also referred to himself as Morris – he arrived in east London in the l930s and was then evacuated during World War Two to a Jewish hostel.
There, as he related later, one of the other refugee kids had two pairs of gloves and he put them on and pummelled the owner. He then stole a letterhead from his headmaster’s desk, forged a signature and entered a schoolboy boxing competition.
The ‘Kid from Krakow’ changed his name so his parents would not know about his ring activities, supposedly after watching a fight movie featuring the character Jackie-Boy Duffy.
By the late 1950s Duff and associates were challenging the then-dominant impressario Jack Solomons and soon controlled all major promotions in Britain.
In 1966 he and Harry Levene promoted Henry Cooper’s unsuccessful world heavyweight title bout against Muhammad Ali in front of 40,000 spectators at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium in north London.
Duff went on, with business partner Jarvis Astaire and manager Terry Lawless, to work with the likes of Jim Watt, Barry McGuigan, Lloyd Honeyghan, Alan Minter and Frank Bruno among other champions.
Duff’s success also brought him into contact with the criminal underworld.
The Kray twins, notorious London gangsters, once sent his wife a gift-wrapped box of four dead rats after he barred them from his Anglo-American sporting club that had opened with a Sugar Ray Robinson fight.
Despite reaping the financial rewards of boxing, Duff said he would have broken his own son’s hands if he had shown signs of wanting to fight.
“In the old days a lot of Jewish kids got into boxing because of the poverty,” he told Reuters in an interview in 1990. “Today the smart ones become accountants and the others, the street smart, wind up in casinos.
“I would have been a pit boss in a casino.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Tony Jimenez)