Mark Rowe, former British boxing champion, dies at the age of 74

Mark Rowe
A tribute to Mark Rowe. 'To watch him box was a pleasure. It was mesmerising to watch him slip punches.'

FORMER British and Commonwealth champion Mark Rowe passed away on December 27, 2021, at the age of 74. He was suffering from dementia.

His father, Bill Rowe, was a wildly successful pig farmer, a trade that Rowe inherited, but boxing was Mark’s real passion. Mark honed his skills at Fitzroy Lodge ABC and in 1965, after beating Jimmy Tibbs in the semis, he was pipped in the light-middleweight London divisional final by Ronnie Smith. A year later, again at the Royal Albert Hall and in the same weight class, he would gain revenge over Smith to be crowned the champion of London. Rowe went on to reach the final of the light-middleweight ABAs the same year, being stopped in the third round by Scotland’s Tom Imrie.

But Rowe would again put the record straight. In August 1966, while representing England in Kingston, Jamaica at the British Empire Commonwealth Games, he defeated Imrie on points to win the gold medal.

“He was a fantastic amateur,” remembered Bob Cheeseman, a former amateur boxer, EBA stalwart and long-time friend of Rowe. “To watch him box was a pleasure. I used to be mesmerised watching him slip punches.”

Rowe, despite suffering from a longstanding injury to his left elbow which made straightening that arm difficult, went on to have a very successful professional career.

But he always had time for the pigs. In 1967, while on the family pig farm, Grove Farm, on Three Gates Road, Fawkham, Kent he told commentator and journalist Dave Lanning that every morning before dawn he would be dispensing swill and clearing out the pigs before going over the ploughed fields for a three-mile run.   

Back then Lanning described Rowe as “shy, insular but not unfriendly.” Rowe, despite being a handsome 19-year-old whose fights would star on ITV midweek programme Professional Boxing, was not one for publicity nor shouting too loudly about his significant fighting prowess.

When Lanning asked him why he boxed, Rowe replied quietly, “It’s purely ambition. I want to be the greatest boxer in the world.”

Rowe – sporting a scar on the bridge of his nose from “a childhood accident” – told Lanning that he did not stay up late, drink or smoke. “Mind, I do go to the pictures [cinema] in the afternoons about three times a week… I shoot a bit, too. Pheasants, rabbits, you know.”

Once his job at the farm was done, Rowe would take a nap and then head into London to begin his boxing training.

He had turned over in October 1966, losing his debut by just a quarter-of-a-point to Hugh Lynch. But losses then were not the full stops they are today. Rowe, who would train at the Thomas A Beckett gym, won his next eight. A defeat to Pat Dwyer in 1967 followed but Mark once more proved his knack for revenge three years later.

In January 1970, at the Royal Albert Hall – a predominantly happy stomping ground for Rowe – Dwyer was forced out with a suspected broken jaw after four rounds. Next came a 10-round points win over Dick Duffy in a final eliminator for the British middleweight title. At Wembley’s Empire Pool in May 1970, on the same bill that Joe Bugner stopped Brian London in five rounds, Mark’s up-and-coming sparring partner John H Stracey went 9-0 and Ken Buchanan retained his British lightweight title, Rowe won the British and Commonwealth middleweight championships with a bloody 14th round victory over Les McAteer.

“He was clever and brilliant,” Cheeseman continued. “He was a gentleman and had a great sense of humour. We would have regular wind-ups where we’d tease each other about who needed the most Grecian 2000.

“You could say I was a Mark Rowe fan, 1,000 percent. He was entertaining to watch and I’ll always treasure the memories of seeing him fight. I used to get the hump whenever he lost.”

The fourth defeat of Rowe’s career, and arguably one he never really recovered from, came in the first defence of his titles. The excellent Bunny Sterling stopped Rowe in four rounds in September 1970. Sterling turned out to be one opponent that he could never better. Rowe engaged in 16 more bouts, of which he won 11, before he was matched with Sterling again in April 1973. Rowe gave it everything he had but lost the decision after 15 punishing rounds. It was the last fight of his 38-8-1 (28) career. Johnny Clark won the European bantamweight title on the same bill. Clark, Sterling and now Rowe have succumbed to dementia.

Initially, all seemed well for Rowe in retirement. The pig farm was exceptionally successful and Mark went on to become the Vice President of the London Ex-Boxer’s Association, a role he carried out with pride.

“He always used to enjoy the meetings and the company of boxing men,” Cheeseman said. “He was a regular at the ‘Friendly 8’ meetings where eight of us, including people like Larry O’Connell and Roy Francis, would get together over dinner and invite another figure in boxing to join us. He loved that.

“Though he enjoyed a laugh and a good time, he was never one to go for a drink. That wasn’t what he was about. He was great supporter of Freddie Mills Boys Club [which raises money for the disabled] and was always looking for ways to help those less fortunate than himself.”

Rowe, always reserved, grew quieter and quieter in his final years as dementia set in. It is believed that his mental health started to fail him around 12 years ago as his moods became erratic and his weight ballooned. By the end, he was a stranger to himself.

Another warrior who gave everything to the sport. Another former king whose passing barely registers in the outside world. Only those who saw Mark Rowe fight, or spent time in his company, seem to remember him today. His estranged sons have requested there be no funeral. Cheeseman plans to host an event in Rowe’s honour in the coming months.

Mark Rowe remains in the thoughts of all at Boxing News.

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