NOT many can claim to have coached a future world champion boxer and Hall of Famer but Brian Rousseau, who died aged 82, was one. As an assistant coach with England, the Jerseyman was in Ricky Hatton’s corner when, as a promising teenager, he boxed for his country as an amateur. In losing Rousseau, boxing in the Island has lost an old-schooler who lived and breathed the sport.
A decent amateur himself, it was as a no-nonsense coach that Rousseau really made his mark, first at Leonis and then Pisces. At Advanced ABA level, he was the most qualified boxing coach Jersey has ever had and at Pisces he took under his wing two talented young boxers from the north-west who went on to represent the Island at the Commonwealth Games before turning professional.
Bantamweight John “Sillo” Sillitoe, originally from Liverpool, was a boxer of great promise who Rousseau helped to mould. After becoming the Western Counties champion, Sillo, at just 18 years old, was selected by Jersey for the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, with Rousseau in his corner as team manager, going on to win bronze medal. It was only the second time Jersey had ever won a medal at the Games, repeating what Bert Turmel had done in the welterweight division in Perth in 1962. Like Turmel, he won only one fight to achieve it, beating Canada’s Chuck Evans on points before losing to Northern Ireland’s Roy Nash in the semi-final. However, Sillo’s greatest achievement, with Rousseau by his side, would come a year later when he became the first and only boxer from a Jersey gym to win the much-vaunted ABA National Championships.
In front of the BBC cameras at Wembley Arena, Sillo went into the final against the Scottish champion Michael Devaney, having stopped the Welsh champion Martin White in the previous round in Preston in just two minutes and ten seconds. Sillo hurt Devaney in the opening round and kept him at bay for the other two to win the coveted belt. The win should have seen him gain automatic selection to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games in Seoul but, incredibly, Sillo passed up the opportunity, with Devaney taking his place instead. Sillo would eventually return to Liverpool to turn pro, retiring in 1996 with a 9-2 record.
Two years later, Salford-born Lee Meager would be the second man that Rousseau would take to the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, in 1998, beaten in the first round by Northern Ireland’s James Lowry. Under Rousseau’s continued guidance, however, Meager shined in the amateur ranks, representing England on a number of occasions and making it to two consecutive ABA National Championships finals in 1998 and 1999, losing to the Army’s Darren Williams (featherweight) and Liverpudlian Stephen Burke (lightweight) respectively. Meager would return to Salford in 2000 to turn professional and enjoyed a successful 21-3-2 career that included becoming British lightweight champion in 2006 with a TKO over Dave Stewart.
Rousseau’s own dedication to the sport was reflected in his approach to coaching. Meager remembers: “He was pretty militant. He said: ‘You either do it or you don’t do it’.” When Rousseau won the Sid Guy Award in 2009, at 67 years old, he was said to still be in the gym three times a week training the latest generation of eager pugilists, which increased to six times a week in the lead up to championship contests, and had done so for 36 years without a break.
He first got involved in boxing when he was 14 years old, joining St Helier ABC. He got his first fight soon after, winning in Guernsey. It was the first of 105 contests, most at light-middleweight, that included 76 wins and no draws before hanging up his fighting gloves at 29. He had long moved to Leonis, at 17, because “their boxers were getting more contests, up to eight or nine fights a year”.
Rousseau fought some pretty tasty boxers in that time too, but none more so than in his final year when he faced up to the great Alan Minter. As Rousseau’s fighting game was coming to an end, Minter’s was just beginning. Rousseau was stopped in the second round by the tough southpaw, with Minter going to become ABA Middleweight champion. A year later, in 1972, Minter would win bronze at the Munich Olympics before going on to become the undisputed World Middleweight Champion in 1980 when he beat Vito Antuofermo by split decision at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Minter would retain those titles in a rematch before being blown away in three by the “Marvellous” Marvin Hagler. Coincidently, Minter even trained in Pisces gym in the lead-up to the fight.
Rousseau, meanwhile, instantly took up coaching as soon as he had finished boxing and poured his heart and soul into it.
“I’m glad I took up coaching as soon as I’d finished because I did miss going out there, in the ring,” he told JEP’s Chris Lake in an interview in 2006.
He served his apprenticeship at Leonis under Turmel for ten years before moving to Pisces after the club had lost its ABA coaches. It was only meant to be a temporary arrangement but Rousseau remained there for the next three decades, before handing it over to one of his former pupils, Andy Sellars, to run in 2014. The gym now focuses on Muay Thai and kickboxing, with some of their fighters experiencing competition in England, including Amanda Falloon, who makes her competitive debut in Wilmslow on Saturday.
Sellars posted on the Pisces Facebook page: “Very sad to hear the passing of Brian Rousseau. Brian was your typical old school ABC boxing coach and was so passionate about being just that. Thank you for your time and guidance, not only from myself but all who trained with you at Pisces ABC.”
Keeping the club going with Rousseau through thick and thin was Laing Gilmour, the long-term club secretary and treasurer.
“A great man and a humble man. He was tough but a gentle chap,” remembered Gilmour. “He was so dedicated. If a boy was dedicated, then he dedicated himself to that boy,” which was reflected in the success that Sillo and Meager both enjoyed.
“Ability is important, but it is dedication that counts and I tell my boxers: ‘I don’t know what standard you’ll reach but, with real dedication, you’ll reach the highest standard your boxing deserves,’ said Rousseau, who was also an assistant coach for England on a few occasions, with future stars such as Hatton, while his day job was fixing cars as a mechanic at Cleveland Garages.
Always by his side, supporting Rousseau’s own dedication to the sport, was wife Sally. “She never missed a bout when I fought in Jersey. She knows it’s my passion,” he added. She survives him, along with his two children Karl and Lee, who also became quite handy under his father’s tutelage, making the Western Counties finals four years in a row at light-heavyweight.
nBrian Rousseau, born 20 July 1942,died 3 February 2024.