As the first – and until recently, only – man from the North East to win a world professional boxing title, Glenn McCrory holds a special place in the region’s sporting history.
But the former cruiserweight from Stanley has revealed he would never have boxed at all if he had not cheated the sight tests he was obliged to sit before being given his licence.
In May McCrory underwent lens replacement surgery after his eyesight got so bad it became illegal for him to drive.
By rights it ought to have robbed him of his whole working life as a top boxer-turned-pundit too.
For their own safety, boxers have to undergo a series of tests to ensure they are in the right physical condition to take on such a dangerous sport. Those checks were not always as sophisticated and rigorous as they are now.
“For as long as I can remember I’ve always had a problem with my eyes – a pretty bad problem,” McCrory explains at the offical opening of Optical Express’ new Eldon Square clinic in Newcastle.
“My biggest fear growing up was that I wouldn’t be able to play sport. When I started boxing my biggest worry was that you had to have an eye test.
“I knew as a kid the tough guys were supposed to sit in the back of the class and all that sort of thing, but being the Stanley tough guy I couldn’t, I had to sit in the front row because I couldn’t see anything otherwise!
“My great aunty and my great uncle are both blind. One sister is blind in one eye, both my sisters wore glasses, and my brother wore glasses, so I knew I would have problems.”
In recent years local fighters Akash Hussein and Daniel Cope had to undergo laser eye surgery to be allowed to box professionally, but in the late 1970s and 80s McCrory sought a different solution.
“I remember seeing something about you having a muscle in your eye and you could train that if you did exercises with it,” he said. “As a kid I’d put something five foot away, then six foot, then seven foot. I would try and train my eyes and it worked in as much as I don’t think they got decidedly worse.
“I also learned to cheat. We had a lovely guy at the Boxing Board of Control, Dr Bob Graham. Because he was so lovely he’d have a good chat to you before you did your eye test, which was standing six foot away and reading off a chart.
“That gave me time to memorise the lines.
“I would never have boxed if the tests had been stricter.
“People that knew me knew I had a problem. I went and got my eyes tested a couple of times but when I tried glasses it felt like I was going to fall over. I’d put a pair on for half a day and I couldn’t judge distances, so I’d take them off.”
While the authorities would never have let him fight had they known of McCrory’s problem, he insists it did not really hinder him.
“As far as fighting was concerned, it was never really a problem,” he says. “Harry Greb boxed (in the 1920s) and he was blind in one eye (the result of a boxing injury) and half-blind in the other, and he was probably the greatest fighter of all time.
“My favourite film, Scent of a Woman, is about a blind man. My favourite boxer was Harry Greb, who was half-blind. You had heroes who could cope with their handicap.
“My brother David was badly physically handicapped (with muscular dystrophy), so you just get on with it and do it.
“(Former boxer) Spencer Oliver’s a great pal and he’d say, ‘Can you see that?’ and you’d say, ‘What?’ and he’d say, ‘That there.’ It’d be a bit of a joke. You’re able to laugh at it but there’s now and again when it affects you.
“But you just put up with the handicap.”
Not only did McCrory manage to blag a career in the ring, overcoming his problem to reach the top of world boxing, he has also carved out a living for a quarter of a century as someone who watched the sport as one of Sky TV’s top pundits.
“It was never a problem when I was commentating,” he explains. “If I had been sat at the back of the room, it might have been but you’re at ringside, so you’re close enough.
“If I couldn’t see I would have put my hands up and said I need helped but it never harmed my job – other than struggling to pick the right winner at times!
“It’s the normal things. Day-to-day things, that’s your life. That’s how you live and get by.
“If you’re sitting four foot away from a fight you can see what’s going on. If you’re then going down the motorway late at night and everything’s just a blur, that’s dangerous. That’s wrong.
“A few years ago I had a few near-misses driving. I’d be driving into bollards with people screaming, ‘Can’t you see that?’ That made me realise I needed to do something.
“I went to get laser treatment. The doctors did say it might not work and it didn’t. Then this year at the Burns Dinner in Glasgow I was straining my eyes.
“Sat next to me was John Morgan, a lovely man from Scotland who worked for Optical Express. He asked me what I was doing. I couldn’t see the menu so he asked what was wrong with me and told me to put my glasses on. I told him I’d never worn glasses my whole life.
“He said, ‘You need to come and see us’. I couldn’t see long distances and now I was struggling with short distances.
“I went to see Optical Express in Glasgow and they told me I needed lens surgery.
“They said they’d put a needle in my eye and make a couple of incisions. I said, ‘No thanks! I think not!’
“They told me it was far less intrusive than the laser surgery, which was uncomfortable. They looked after me and talked me through it before and after the operation.
“When I went in to do the test they asked if I drove and told me it was illegal. They showed me the line I should be able to read for me to drive and I was just like, ‘What?!’ Now I can read the tiniest line.
“There was the realisation, ‘What on earth are you doing? You can’t see! Madness!’
“A couple of weeks later I was on the train home and I rang Mr Morgan up with tears in my eyes, saying, ‘I can see sheep, I can see cows, I can see!’ I could see for miles, I could see everything!
“It’s another world, the gift of being able to see. It’s amazing.
“My worry was about coming into a room of artificial light. For most people that’s just things like watching television but two weeks after the surgery I went to Wembley in front of 80,000 people with 40,000 phones flashing (to cover Carl Froch’s world title fight against George Groves for Sky). I must admit, I did panic. I knew I had to do it and do it right.
“I picked the wrong winner (Groves) but it went well!”