Sport

The smiling assassin - remembering Sammy Vernon, a star in the ring

Sammy Vernon, centre, with friends and former foes Davy Larmour (left) and Paddy Maguire
Sammy Vernon, centre, with friends and former foes Davy Larmour (left) and Paddy Maguire Sammy Vernon, centre, with friends and former foes Davy Larmour (left) and Paddy Maguire

SITTING in the Holy Family club six years ago, Gerry Storey is running the rule over a lifetime’s worth of memories when the door slowly opens. So quiet is the push from the other side that the veteran trainer, with his back to the entrance, hears nothing.

A bespectacled figure with wavy grey hair soon moves into view, immediately raising his finger to his lips as he approaches gingerly before grabbing hold of Storey’s shoulders.

“Sammy Vernon!” he says, swinging around in his seat to see the surprise visitor.

“Gerry Storey! How are you keeping?”

In that moment, the pair embrace like a father greeting a long-lost son. Vernon was one of the many great boxers to pass through Storey’s hands, following his mentor onto the international stage as a teenager before his life took off in a different direction.

Having spent some time in Spain, it’s been a while since the pair were last acquainted. Not that you would know, of course, as their conversation immediately settles into a rhythm familiar to them, the sound of laughter soon filling the famous gym as yarns from yesteryear are retold.

From then on, you would see Sammy about the town every now and again, more often than not on the way to meet other former boxers for a coffee and a chat, a connection unbroken all those years on.

Sadly, following a recent accident in Belfast city centre, Sammy Vernon was laid to rest last Thursday morning.

Davy Larmour, one of those with whom Vernon would have met occasionally, admits he is “still in shock”, having bumped into his old friend just days before.

“I was walking down High Street and I saw him coming my way with that big grin on his face – you could see that smile coming a mile off…”

For Storey, meanwhile, it never gets any easier saying goodbye to those who remain forever young in his mind.

Vernon, like so many others, was just 11 when he first came to the old Holy Family club, convinced by friend and flyweight fighter Patsy McAuley to give boxing a try – even though his heart lay elsewhere.

“I grew up in a snooker hall,” he told Eamon McAuley in an interview a few years back, “the Tin Hut in north Queen Street. I had to use a box and stand on tip-toes to play billiards.”

One day Vernon would return to his first love, but not yet.

Storey remembers a natural talent who took to the noble art “like a duck to water”, so much so that his first-ever fight was an Ulster Championship showdown against another Belfast wonderkid, two-time Irish champion Paddy Moore.

With Vernon still so green, Storey was wary of pitting him against one of the best around.

“It’s something we would’ve been very, very careful of, making sure nobody was over-matched.

“We left it until the last minute to make up our mind, said we would have a look at him when he got here, see how he’s reacting. When he was late, I thought ‘oh here we go, he’s nervous, having second thoughts’, but eventually the wee head pops up around the bottom of the New Lodge, big smile on him as always, and he says ‘Gerry if my mother hadn’t wakened me I’d still be sleeping’.

“Sammy was relaxed, so we put him in and, although he lost, he did very well. I always remember Bob McClurg, who refereed that fight, coming over and kneeling down after the first round, pretending to tie Sammy’s lace, saying to me ‘is this really his first contest?’

“He couldn’t believe it.”

Vernon would have his revenge on Moore when the pair were 15, and cemented his reputation as a rising star of Irish boxing with a brace of wins over both Larmour and Paddy Maguire.

Indeed, his first fight with Maguire remains the stuff of local legend.

Having returned with a silver medal from the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica earlier that year, Maguire was the man of the moment going into an Ulster senior final meeting with Vernon.

A great tussle broke out, with southpaw Vernon using his counter-punching skills to negate Maguire’s aggression. Despite having just celebrated his 17th birthday, it was Vernon’s hand that was raised.

The same pair met a few months later, in the 1967 Irish final, with Vernon again getting the nod.

“Sammy was a very clever boxer,” recalls Larmour, “he used to use the right hand over the top of the left… Sammy wasn’t a run of the mill operator. He was very smart in the ring, and he could bang – I know that from experience.”

Coach Bobby McAllister is another who has often spoken about Vernon’s power and, with his star on the rise, the north Belfast man appeared destined for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

However, Storey was left in shock when his young stylist opted to sign a professional deal with promoter Bert McCarthy, bringing an abrupt – and unexpected – end to his amateur days.

“He was a certainty for the Olympic Games,” says Storey, “there was nobody else around who could touch him.

“But then he turned pro... I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know - I got a call from a reporter to tell me it was going to be all over the paper the next day, and it was the first I’d heard.

“He was only about 18 at the time, and I think he lived to regret that decision, Sammy was such a clever boxer, but they changed him to a more attacking style. It was a shame because who knows what could have happened if he’d stayed amateur.”

As it was, Vernon made his pro debut at the Ulster Hall in October 1967, fighting 22 times (11-9-2) before his final bout in late 1972.

After moving his family to London to escape the Troubles, he ended up becoming a sparring partner for the great Welsh boxer, Howard Winstone – “he always said he was one of the best,” recalls Larmour – before a return to the snooker halls of his youth.

A man capable of chalking up maximum 147 breaks in his pomp, Vernon rubbed shoulders with the likes of Alex Higgins, Ray Readon, Rex Williams and John Virgo at various championships as his sporting career took another turn, with work and life also taking him to Las Vegas and Spain on different occasions.

But it is for boxing that Sammy Vernon will always be best known here, his talent between the ropes and the warmth of his personality outside them never to be forgotten.

“You never saw Sammy without a smile on his face,” says Storey.

“He was exactly that way from he was no age… he never lost that smile. That’s how I’ll always remember Sammy.”