FIFTY-SEVEN years before Team GB excelled at the Tokyo Olympics, Brian Packer represented his country at the 1964 Games in the very same city. The world was different then, so too the sport of boxing that Packer thought long and hard about giving up, so crushing was the disappointment of losing a close decision to eventual bantamweight gold medallist Takao Sakurai of Japan in the first round.
Packer, who grew up in Northfleet, passed away last week at the age of 77 after a 13-year battle with dementia. He had also endured a quadruple heart bypass. By the end, he didn’t always recognise his beloved June, his wife and sweetheart since he was 16 years old.
In the early days of his career, he would get up at 4.30 every morning, go for a five-mile run, then cycle to his job as an apprentice welder at Chatham Dockyard, run again at lunch before clocking in for his second job as a night-time factory worker. Packer endured this gruelling routine to provide for his family and to pursue his dream of reaching the very top of the boxing world.
He was selected for the European Amateur Championships in 1963. His bosses at the time initially objected to him taking part, expressing concern that it would clash with the City and Guilds examination he needed for his apprenticeship. He eventually made it to Russia after signing the Official Secrets Act due to the possibility of him working on nuclear submarines at his workplace. Packer, too, was apprehensive about the trip; it was the first time he had ever flown and he was worried about the food he would be served in another country. He lost his first and only bout in Moscow to Czech Jaroslav Šlajs at 54kgs, the same division in which future lightweight king Ken Buchanan also went out at the preliminary stage (to Reiner Poser).
Packer, who won ABA titles at bantamweight in 1963 and 1964, turned professional despite his Olympic disappointment, winning 14 of 15 contests between 1965 and 1968. His sole loss was unfortunate, withdrawing due to a cut eyebrow in the fourth of a scheduled eight against Winston Van Guylenburg inside Shoreditch Town Hall. The high point of his 14-1 (6) professional journey came in 1967, when he defeated Carl Taylor to win the Southern Area bantamweight title.
It has been reported that a freak accident at work curtailed his boxing career in 1972, despite there being no record of him being an active boxer at that time. At the damages case, in which he was awarded £8,500, his counsel told the judge that Packer was preparing for a bout with view to challenging for the European super-bantamweight title. At the time of the accident Packer was keen to get to the gym above the Thomas ‘A Becket pub in Old Kent Road where he was training.
Packer started boxing at the age of 11 and joined Dartford ABC a year later under the guidance of Dick Wemban, June’s uncle. Brian and June, who married in Gravesend, would go on to have four children, three sons and a daughter who between them would provide the couple with 11 grandchildren.
His daughter, Jane, is adamant that her father’s dementia was caused by his boxing career and is actively campaigning for reform in the sport. “For over 40 years, Dad has suffered terribly from brain injuries he sustained during his career and the mental strain that being a boxer for GB caused,” she told Kent Messenger a few weeks before Packer died. “They should offer long-term support, especially to those in high-risk groups, like my dad.”
Jane believes her father was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that cannot be proved until a post-mortem is performed. “We need to fund research to ensure earlier diagnosis to help athletes,” she added.
In 2012, ahead of the London Games, Packer nominated his granddaughter, Beth, to carry the Olympic torch as it made its long journey to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Beth had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumour on her kidneys as a toddler. “She’s far braver than I ever was as a boxer,” he said at the time.
On Sunday September 12, Beth led a team in a fundraising 5k Memory Walk run by Alzheimer’s Society in support of her grandmother and Brian’s widow, June. Anyone wishing to donate can do so via justgiving.com/team/TeamPacker
Ringside Charitable Trust have donated £350 to the Packers to help with the cost of his funeral. We are all thinking of the family at this difficult time.