'Contenders Ready?!’ Former Gladiators referee enjoying retirement in Wombourne

Gladiators is back on Saturday night as the BBC relaunched the classic 90s show.

And a ShireLiving resident has been sharing his experience as a referee on the famous show.

John Coyle, 86, lives at Maywood in Wombourne, an independent living scheme operated by the Wrekin Housing Group. Originally from London, John moved to Staffordshire with his wife in 1964 when his work as a draughtsman required him to relocate.

The couple went on to open their own sports shop in the town after the death of their first daughter, aged 9, from muscular dystrophy in 1974.

Despite being the regular face on the show, John is largely known for his work as a professional boxing referee. Over a career spanning 38 years, John officiated 120 world titles featuring some of the biggest names in boxing – including Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank.

John said:

“I was brought up in London in the days where every boy in every school boxed, whether you wanted to or not. Even if your mum didn’t like it. You get your gloves on and have a go. No gum shields or head guards – you get in a ring and have a go. I boxed amateur for a while in a club in London and in a little the army during my national service. I always had an interest in the sport.

“In 1969, I read an article in the local paper saying that there was no young people coming through and two referees were coming to retirement, there was no one in pipeline to replace them. It triggered my interest and I thought I’d take a look.”

John’s first fight was at Solihull Civic centre but he soon trained to be a top-level referee, where he could work all over the world for fights of any duration. He went on to officiate fights as far afield as the USA, Japan, Venezuela and Australia.

It was during an infamous fight in Glasgow in 2000 between Mike Tyson and Lou Savarese that John found himself knocked to the floor by the former heavyweight champion.

He added: “The first round they come out and Tyson catches Savarese with a left hook and he goes down. I didn’t think he would get up but he did. His eyes were clear and he was responsive so I said put your gloves up, now box. The kid was defending himself well, then all of a sudden he took another left hook and his hands dropped. When that happens and a man is defenceless, that’s it - the fight is over. I leapt in shouting ‘stop boxing’ but Tyson wanted to carried on. He tried to punch past me and his forearm caught my ear. Next thing I know I’m on my knees. I had to jump back up to get between them. I turned around and shouted “It’s finished, you’ve won the fight!”.”

Whether the buzz of the crowd during a thrilling match Nigel Benn vs Michael Watson or the glitz and glamour of Frank Bruno vs Joe Bugner, John remembers fondly the spirit around the sport.

John said: “When the lights go down that’s my cue to go up into the ring. Then everything starts - the lights, the fanfares. After 100 times the hair on the back of my neck still stands on end. And I think to myself, I hope I don’t do anything stupid! Atmosphere at a big show is fantastic, always special no matter how many times.”

It was after retiring from refereeing that John had a call from his agent. He’d been invited to Shine Productions in London to audition for the role of referee in the 2009 reboot of Gladiators. He got the role and spent 4 weeks filming at Shepperton Studios.

Speaking about his time on the show, John said: “I loved it, I loved working with professional people. There’s no time wasting, they didn’t take any chances. Everything is timed to perfection, and I loved that. They used to come up to me and ask if I’d been to hair and make-up – I’d say are you taking the mick! We had some great laughs with the team, they were great.

“The gladiators were a nice crowd. Oblivion was the bad one, he used to have to argue with me in front of the cameras. I enjoyed it, at least I can say I did it. Everyone was so very nice, friendly and very good at what they did. It was a shame it didn’t continue back then but I have been watching the new series!”

These days John is enjoying his retirement, spending his time on the bowling green and with his daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He also gets stuck in with the social life at Maywood, helping to organise activities for fellow tenants.

“I love it here. I’ve got my own lock and key and can do what I like, but there’s support here if I need it.”

john coyle maywood

15th February 2024