LOOKING BACK: When ‘Wazza’ ruled the ring in Burnley

editorial image

LAST week one of Burnley’s preponderate sporting figures celebrated a 47th birthday.

Standing as prominent as one of Philadelphia’s most famous pieces of public art - a sculpture which is dedicated to celluloid hero Rocky Balboa - Warren Stowe started making his name in the amateur ranks at a similar time as Sylvester Stallone’s protagonist was immortalised in bronze.

Stowe perfected his trade at Sandygate ABC, one of the town’s most prestigious clubs, under the expert guidance of Bob Rosbotham and Derek Clarke at its former premises in Hammerton Street.

His amateur record read 52 wins from 67 bouts, including a super heavyweight British ABA title, though he didn’t turn professional until the age of 26. “I was a late developer,” Stowe joked. “I only turned pro when there was nowhere else for me to go as an amateur. I didn’t do it for the money, I did it because I love boxing.”

He added: “Bob taught me to box; he was the one that brought me up. I owe everything to Bob and Derek. I look up to Bob and I’ve got a lot of time and respect for him. He spent a lot of time with everyone and did anything for them. He took me on the pads, sparring, and helped me go from A to Z.”

Stowe’s first steps into professional boxing arrived on October 21st, 1991, as he was matched up with Matt Mowatt at Castle Leisure Centre in Bury.

“I remember my first fight more than any of the others,” he said. “I was frightened to death but everything went well from there. You always remember your first fight and I had great support for mine. I used to get half of Burnley turning up.”

After Stowe forced a stoppage midway through the clash he went on to win his 13 opening fights, including a BBBofC Central Area light middleweight title triumph over Robert Riley.

The Burnley boxer then landed a lucrative bout on the epic WBC/WBO super middleweight championship unification rematch between Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank - dubbed Judgement Day.

Stowe faced Paul Wesley on the undercard at Old Trafford in front of 46,000 people inside the stadium. The contest went the distance, 10 rounds, but ringside judges awarded the bout to Wesley.

“What an honour that was,” Stowe said. “It was an incredible experience and one that I’ll always remember. It was brilliant and I had an unbelievable following.”

Stowe cruised past Rob Pitters, Chris Richards and Jimmy Alston in the aftermath of his first pro defeat before squaring up to Paul Busby for a shot at the WBO Inter-Continental middleweight title. Again Stowe went the distance at Worcester’s Perdiswell Leisure Centre though Busby had his arm raised aloft by virtue of a unanimous decision.

What was to follow nobody would have expected. November 26th, 1995, Guguletu Sports Centre in Cape Town where Stowe faced South African champion Simon Maseko. The bout had entered the eighth round when the sound of gun shots pierced that of the legitimate violence. Stowe, his trainer Jimmy Moore and Maseko took refuge under the ring. A cashier was later confirmed dead following the raid.

“That was just unreal,” said Stowe. “I still can’t believe it happened. I thought they were shooting at me.”

I rolled back the years with Chris Boden in search of the front page story via the magic of microfilm. Sure enough we found the relevant edition of the Burnley Express. Chris reported: “Burnley boxer Warren Stowe feared for his life as crazed gunmen opened fire at his latest fight in South Africa. Stowe - The Burnley Bulldog - dived for cover as a guard was shot in the head during his middleweight bout.”

At the time of the shooting, a story which made national headlines, Chris had been in regular contact with Stowe as he was holed up in a hotel for safety. Stowe had said: “I honestly thought I was going to die. I hid under the ring while the mayhem went on outside. People kept telling me to stay there.”

After recovering from the shock his voyage as a boxer didn’t get any easier; a last-minute match-up against the undefeated Joe Calzaghe was next - a moment he claims was the most frustrating time of his career.

Stowe, who had faced a six-week absence from the gym due to illness, agreed to the fight just hours before stepping in to the ring. And it was a bizarre occurrence that forced referee Roy Francis to stop the bout.

“If I’d have been ready for that I’d have put in a smacking performance,” reminisced Stowe. “I hadn’t been in the gym for six weeks and then four hours after the phone call I went down there and fought him.

“The frustrating thing is that it wasn’t a stoppage forced through a boxing injury. There was a huge blister at the back of my ear, the referee took one look at it and stopped the fight. It was pushing my ear forward but if they hadn’t have drained it, my ear would have been ruined.

“I didn’t think Calzaghe packed that much power on the night. If I’d have been given two months to prepare I’d have pushed him all the way.” Instead Calzaghe went on to win all 46 of his professional fights, becoming WBO, WBC, WBA, IBF and British super middleweight champion along the way.

Stowe’s final fight was held at Turf Moor where he was beaten on points by Darren Ashton. But at 34 he hung his gloves up with his head held high and with the respect of many individuals involved in the sport at various levels. He is arguably one of the greatest fighters to come out of the town and he is more than deserving in this esteemed, yet unofficial, hall of fame.

“I took a lot of pride in representing my town at that level,” Stowe said. “I even changed my colours to claret and blue. Everyone in the town was behind me 100% and it’s down to all of them why I did so well.”

He added: “Boxing has been good to me. I would recommend it to anyone and I recommend them to go to Sandygate ABC. They looked after me and taught me everything I know.

“I think boxing in Burnley is picking up again. It’s definitely getting a good reputation again now and more great fighters will come out of the town.”