Former British and Commonwealth welterweight champion Brian Nancurvis (1937-2012) – who fought under the name Curvis – was the most talented member of Swansea’s most famous fighting family, and one of the greatest boxers produced by Wales’ second city.
The southpaw, who won the BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year award in 1960, seemed destined for the ring and began boxing at the age of eight under the watchful eye of his father and trainer Dai Nancurvis, following in the footsteps of brother Cliff Curvis, a former British and Commonwealth champion.
But Brian’s own early ambitions lay on the rugby pitch, where he hoped to follow his childhood hero, Cliff Morgan.
The Townhill man turned away from boxing, and would only return to the ring when he was pushed into it by the army.
“I did National Service like everyone else in those days,” said Curvis. “There were great privileges thrown around in the army if you could box.”
Curvis claimed an ABA welterweight title in his service days, and was also selected to fight for England at the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff, where he won a bronze.
Although the partnership proved very successful in the ring, it would later turn horribly sour with lasting disputes over money that forever poisoned fraternal relations.
“There wasn’t very good management [off Cliff],” said Curvis in a 1989 BBC documentary. “I’m rather surprised looking back over my career and so many big-money championship fights that there were no real accounts kept and I did not have a great deal of money.”
Having impressed in winning his first 13 professional fights, Curvis secured a shot against Australian George Barnes for the Commonwealth title at Swansea’s Vetch Field.
The home favourite claimed an impressive 15-round win, but promoter Jack Solomons – who had put on a high-class bill also featuring Howard Winstone – was disappointed with the crowd, and the night is regarded as signalling the end of Swansea as a major boxing venue.
Three fights after his Commonwealth triumph, Curvis added the British title to his collection with a points victory over Wally Swift in Nottingham.
The Welshman – who would never lose to a domestic opponent and would win two Lonsdale belts – stretched his unbeaten run to 23 fights, but then fell to an eighth-round stoppage against American Guy Sumlin, a defeat he would later revenge.
With just the one blemish on his career, in 1964 Curvis won a deserved shot at Emile Griffith’s world crown, a bout held at the Empire Pool, Wembley.
Griffith, one of the all-time world greats, was at the height of his powers, and was voted Ring Magazine’s fighter of the year in 1964.
Curvis had been in the crowd at Madison Square Garden in 1962 on the night that Griffith ended the life of Benny Paret in the ring, an experience that the Welshman spoke about in newspaper columns in the build-up to the 1964 showdown.
The challenger mentioned his concern for his new wife, Barbara, a feeling that struck a chord with the enigmatic Griffith.
The unorthodox champion loved to design his own hats, and on his arrival in Britain presented Barbara with one that he had personally made for her.
Curvis put up a brave performance, but he was outgunned by Griffith and had to climb off the canvas three times in a wide 15-round points defeat.
The bemused champion would later comment on Curvis’s travelling Welsh fans: “How foreign is this country? How come every time I knocked him down they start singing?”
“Griffith was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. I don’t see [the defeat] as a failure but a triumph.
“There was the greatest pound-for-pound welterweight champion since the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, and there was I not at my very best, yet he couldn’t stop me.
“There were a lot of things he couldn’t do that night. What he did do, of course, was get the decision.”
Curvis fought on for two more years after the Griffith defeat, but performances were mixed.
He was managed by Arthur Boggis after his estrangement from his brother Cliff, the fraternal arguing contributing to Brian’s disillusionment with the fight game.
“I wasn’t the same fighter,” said Curvis. “The fear that issued out as nervous energy and aggression was no longer there.
“All sportsmen live on that edge of being afraid. When that’s no longer there you know the best years are behind you.”
The Welshman did gain a 1966 shot at the vacant Europrean title, against Jean Josselin in Paris.
“The referee was what went wrong that night,” said Curvis. “I was comfortably winning the fight, but in those days you go to Paris…
“[Josselin] butted and mauled his way through the fight. I had 14 cuts on my head alone, I couldn’t see very much from the eighth round on.
“The referee had to stop it in the 13th. I missed Dicky Dobbs that night, who was a fantastic cuts man. I’d had new management, but I missed the old team.”
Curvis would fight just once more, a win over Des Rea, the number-one challenger for the British and Commonwealth titles.
After the fight it was announced from the Carmarthen Market Hall ring that Curvis had agreed a fight for Curtis Cokes’ WBC welterweight crown in Texas, but instead the Welshman chose retirement at the age of 29.
“It was about dignity, I think I wanted to go out of boxing with a win,” said Curvis.
“I do look back with regrets. The business side was not right and perhaps I retired a bit too early, but I don’t look back with bitterness at any of the fights.”
Curvis later moved to Middlesbrough, where he died from leukaemia in 2012, at the age of 74.
- Huw Richards, ‘Mannesmann to Maccarinelli: Boxing in Swansea’, in Peter Stead and Gareth Williams (eds), “Wales and its boxers: The fighting tradition,” (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2008), pp. 175-92
- Ron Ross, “Nine… Ten… And Out!: The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith” (Bloomington, 2008)