ROCKY MARCIANO, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Robinson, Kid Gavilan, Carmen Basilio, Ike Williams, Willie Pep and Sandy Sadler… they were all exceptional. But if you were a fighter, would you want one of them in your division?
In the early 1950s, these were some of the stars occupying world thrones. Add to this the fact that there were only eight weights then, with one world champion to each, and it’s easy to see that – even for the most gifted boxers – winning a world crown was unlikely.
So for most UK fighters, a British title was the ultimate goal; that and a European crown were the pinnacles of realistic ambition. Accordingly, there were many more fighters vying for domestic honours and a British championship win was hugely prestigious.
I had the privilege of interviewing early ’50s British featherweight titlist Sammy McCarthy, who is today our oldest surviving former British champion. Although many will know his name, I suspect most BN readers will be unfamiliar with the occasion when he won the crown. So let’s go back to 1954…
It’s June 1 and we’re at London’s White City Stadium, where Sammy is about to end the six-year reign of British featherweight champ Ronnie Clayton (Blackpool). Clayton has proven his class already with five successful defences, winning two Lonsdale belts outright. But the 31-year-old can find no antidote this day for the skill and speed of his challenger.
As the eighth of a scheduled 15 ends, Clayton shakes his head and flops down on his stool. He’s been badly knocked about and outboxed since round one. And now, his vision blurry and his strength all but spent, he has little left.
As 22-year-old Sammy gets set to spring out for the next round, Clayton’s manager, George Dingley, calls referee Andrew Smythe over and points at his fighter’s swollen-shut left eye. Smythe asks Ronnie if he wants to retire. He nods dejectedly; and in that moment, McCarthy, the most talked-of young boxer in Britain, becomes new champion.
The crowd roars. Flashbulbs explode. And Sammy wipes a tear from his eyes and beams with a mixture of shyness and pride. BBBofC president Jack Onslow Fane enters the ring and drapes a gleaming Lonsdale belt around McCarthy’s waist.
“Everyone was expecting me to win because I’d beaten him before, but I wasn’t as sure as they were,” he says, six decades later. “I was never too confident in any fight I had. Irrespective of who I was boxing, I always doubted myself.” Such disarming modesty may sound strange in today’s hype-driven age, but I was to hear it again and again when talking to Sammy.
On sight you would never guess this slim, smart, sprightly octogenarian is a 53-fight pro veteran. Nor would you imagine from his gentle, eloquent speech that he grew up in a tough, poverty-stricken east London district, where he was born in 1931. Back then, Stepney, where Sammy lived in a ramshackle house with nine siblings, was a far cry from the gentrified place it is now. Back then boxing was ingrained in East End culture.
“In those days, there was a boxing club on the corner of almost every other street, and every street had a couple of amateur boxers,” enthuses Sammy. “If you won the ABAs, it was like being champion of the world.
“And as a little boy, I always wanted to box, but I was always very frightened, very nervous. But I was also frightened of being frightened. I thought it wasn’t masculine to be frightened so I overcame it the way you overcome things… I started doing it.”
Representing his local Stepney and St George’s club, Sammy won 7st North-East London and 7st 7lb London Junior titles. But he really came into his own as a senior amateur, amassing wins that saw him become Britain’s “Golden Boy” of the unpaid ranks.
Every time he fought a dozen coaches were laid on for his growing army of devotees. East End fight fans loved his immaculate boxing style – the speed, the smart footwork, the clever defence, punch variety and hypnotic left. But what they loved even more was the young man himself. In and out of the ring, Sammy always seemed to be smiling; after a round he would often warmly pat an opponent on the back. And this unaffected manner earned him the nickname “Smiling Sammy”, which stayed throughout his career.
McCarthy boxed several times for England, but was destined to go down as one of the finest amateurs never to win a senior ABA title. Twice injury robbed him of the chance to compete in the preliminaries. Then in his final season, at lightweight, he was beaten on a razor-thin decision by the eventual champion, Ron Hinson, whom he’d defeated previously.
Sammy dropped to featherweight for his pro debut in April 1951. On paper he was managed by Jack King, but unofficially two others were in charge. “Jack King was a sort of front man, for want of a better word,” he reveals. “Jarvis Astaire and Benny Schmidt, or Benny Smith as we knew him, were involved in the background, but mainly it was Jarvis.”
In his first 18 months as a pro, Sammy reached 20-0-1 and then beat reigning British featherweight champ, Clayton, in a non-title fight. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, watched the performance. He told Sammy that he deserved a title shot, and he got one after another 18 months.
Meanwhile, the Stepney Smiler had 10 more bouts and tackled three world-class opponents: Hogan “Kid” Bassey (Nigeria), Ray Famechon (France) and Jean Sneyers (Belgium), challenging Sneyers for European featherweight honours.
Against Bassey, a future world featherweight champ who would conquer the Willie Pep, Sammy’s unbeaten record was snapped in his 29th fight. “The fight had frightened the life out of me,” he admits, “’cause there was so much talk about it and I was petrified of letting everyone down. I lost on points, but it was a very close contest and everybody seemed to enjoy it.”
“It was first-class stuff,” wrote Boxing News at the time, “so good and entertaining to the connoisseur of boxing, that the rounds sped by and the last was coming up before we realised it.”
In his next two bouts, Sammy lost respectively to Famechon and Sneyers; but the gulf in experience between him and them was huge. With 93 pro bouts to his credit, Famechon had been ranked number-one contender to world 9st king Sandy Saddler in The Ring magazine’s last annual ratings, and had taken Willie Pep the distance in a world-title bid. Sneyers, meanwhile, had beaten Famechon to become European ruler and the first boxer to win European titles at three weights (fly, bantam and feather).
After seeing Sammy lose three on the spin, Boxing News predicated that Clayton would retain his crown when he defended against the Smiler in June 1954. As already outlined, however, BN got that one wrong.
As British champion, Sammy was more famous than ever: a household name in an era when boxing’s popularity in Britain was close to that of football. After capturing the title, he won four in a row, including a superb victory over Roy Ankrah, a top-class all-action marauder from the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
In January 1955, Sammy defended his British title against Billy “Spider” Kelly on Billy’s Belfast home turf. But when his scheduled flight there was grounded due to severe fog, Sammy had to take the overnight London to Belfast rail and sea service. After a sleepless night, he arrived in Belfast at 7am on the morning of the fight.
The lack of sleep and an injury to Sammy’s right hand, forcing him to rely mostly on his left, meant he was not at his best, and unsurprisingly Kelly outpointed him. Magnanimously, though, Sammy refuses to make excuses, saying: “I’d love to think I’d have won [if I’d been at my best], but that’s not necessarily the case. Billy was an excellent, very elusive boxer and I didn’t like elusive boxers. I preferred someone to come to me.”
There was talk of a McCarthy-Kelly rematch, but Mother Nature intervened. Unbeknown to the public, Sammy had gone through hell to make featherweight since the start of his career. “I could talk to you all day about drying out, but I could never get through to you what it was like,” he says, not smiling for once. “Sometimes it was a pleasure to go to sleep at night just to get away from the agony [of drying out to make weight]. Between fights I’d go up to almost 11st.”
Inevitably, Sammy now joined the lightweights. And in his first 9st 9lb fight, he took on the reigning British lightweight champ, Frank Johnson (Manchester), winning emphatically. Unfortunately, the title was not at stake, but Sammy was promised a shot. However, in the meantime, Johnson lost his crown to Mile End’s Joe Lucy. So in June 1956, Sammy challenged Joe instead, in a bout broadcast on BBC TV.
Lucy’s elusive style had proven an unsolvable puzzle to most of his foes, and Sammy was no exception. “Joe Lucy was a very underrated fighter,” he says. “And I could never really handle southpaws, especially people like Joe who boxed on the back foot.”
With Sammy hopelessly trailing on points, referee Ike Powell stopped the fight at the end of the 13th in Lucy’s favour, depriving Sammy of his record of never losing inside time. After that, the Stepney Smiler had five more bouts before unexpectedly retiring. He announced his retirement on live TV in March 1957, while being honoured by the hit BBC show This Is Your Life. He was then 25.
After boxing, Sammy managed several fighters, including fellow British feather champ Terry Spinks, and owned and ran a few pubs. By a strange irony, the impeccably-mannered McCarthy fell in with a bad crowd while in the pub trade. This led to legal transgressions, culminating in prison time. Typically, Sammy is open about this, though it’s an aspect of his life that is firmly in the past. “I’d love to talk to young guys now and tell them how foolish I was,” he says. “But whether this would help them, I don’t know.”