ON TUESDAY, July 10, 1951, Pete Price watched his boyhood friend become the most famous fighter in the world. “Once in a while there’s
a fight that comes right out of the blue and shakes the world,” was how Boxing News’ Gilbert Odd described the night Randolph Turpin took the world middleweight title from Sugar Ray Robinson in front of 18,000 fans in the exhibition hall at Earl’s Court.
Only Jake LaMotta had beaten Robinson in 132 previous fights, LaMotta’s sole victory in their six contests, while 23-year-old Turpin had yet to go beyond eight rounds in winning 40 of 43 fights (two losses and one draw) at domestic and European level.
Price remembered: “You could hear a pin drop every round. Everyone was waiting for Randolph to get knocked out. To me, nobody could beat Randolph. It was just impossible.”
Price had formed that opinion as a boy. “When I was four years old, Randolph and I were running down the street and he fell over,” recalled Price in memoirs written before his death, aged 79, in 2010. “His knee was bleeding, but he didn’t cry. That wasn’t right. There was something wrong with that lad. Why didn’t he cry? I would have cried. I thought that was strange. That was my first ever recollection of Randolph.”
Price grew up with the Turpins in Leamington Spa – Randolph was known as “The Leamington Licker” – and wrote: “I was the first to ever put on a pair of gloves with Randolph. This was in a little square back yard we used to have. I punched him once and I remember him swinging around 360 degrees and bashing me on the side of my face and I ran in crying.”
The Turpins were all fighters. Elder brothers Dick and Jackie were professionals and Price reckoned sister Kathy “would have been the best fighter of the whole family if she had been a boy.”
Price was around “five or six years old” – Randolph a similar age – when he went to support Dick in a fight at Leamington Ice Rink.
“When that was done, Jackie and Randolph got in and boxed an exhibition as Alexander and Moses,” recalled Price, “and they chucked money in.”
Turpin made his amateur debut three months before his 14th birthday and was beaten on points, but many of his early fights finished in quick wins, courtesy of his right hand.
His interest in boxing was fuelled by reading the story of Harry Greb, the roughhouse “Pittsburgh Windmill” who took on all-comers in his 298-fight career and won the world middleweight title.
Price wrote: “He’d read it in bed and he’d laugh and say: ‘Listen to this’ and then he’d read a passage out of the book where his manager is imploring him to come out of the dressing to fight for the world middleweight title and he’s got two women in there.
“That’s why he was Randolph’s hero.”
Turpin had similar appetites. Price remembered a story from when his friend was boxing as an amateur in France. “There was a featherweight from Coventry, I can’t remember his name,” he wrote, “and he’d got a date with this girl. Randolph found out about it, locked him in the toilet and met this girl himself.”
Turpin declared he was finished with boxing after meeting future wife Mary Stack, but was convinced to continue and at 17 years old, he won both the Junior and Senior ABA titles in the same season.
He joined Dick in George Middleton’s professional stable and brought the British middleweight title back to the family in October, 1950, by knocking out Albert Finch, who had taken the belt off Dick six months earlier.
Turpin took only 48 seconds to add the vacant European belt, his demolition of Luc Van Dam sending out a message to Robinson. It had taken him four rounds to beat the Dutchman four months earlier.
Robinson was more than the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. He was a celebrity, known to those who only had a passing interest in sport.
On his seven-week, seven-fight European tour that culminated with the Turpin fight, Robinson took with him a barber, chauffeur, his personal golf professional and a dwarf to keep him amused. They went with Robinson in his pink Cadillac to France, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and, finally, London.
Eamonn Andrews, previously a good amateur boxer, quizzed Robinson about his busy schedule as he prepared to defend his title against Turpin. “My manager and I, we’ve been doing this so long, it’s nothing new,” said Robinson. “I’ll make this prediction – I don’t usually make predictions on fights – but in this case I think I should make a prediction. I predict that the fight won’t go over 15 rounds.”
Robinson wasn’t alone in thinking that. The bookmakers made him a 1/7 favourite with a Turpin points win seen as a 20/1 long shot. Len Harvey gave Turpin some words of comfort by telling him: “Nobody’s invincible” and he showed his sparring partners no mercy at Gwrych Castle in North Wales.
“We were all getting regular beatings,” remembered Jackie Turpin before his death aged 84 in 2010. “It wasn’t much fun for us and it wasn’t good for Randy because he was too far ahead of himself, too fit, too soon, and I felt I had to do something.”
So Jackie bought women’s underwear. “I took off the dressing gown and climbed into the ring,” he remembered of the next spar. “I had on my bra, bloomers and garters and across my stomach I had written in lipstick: ‘Do not strike here.’ On my forehead I had written: ‘Out of bounds.’
“For once, he couldn’t hit me for laughing. I said to him afterwards that it was for his own good, that he was way over with a month to go.”
Tickets for the fight were snapped up within three days.
Price was one of the lucky ones. “My brother asked if I could get him a ticket for the Sugar Ray fight, so I got two,” he wrote. “They were only 10 bob in those days, on the back row.”
From his seat, Price reckoned Turpin won the early rounds with a jab that Robinson struggled to read. Others weren’t so sure what they were watching.
There were stories of Robinson “carrying” opponents and given that he was such an overwhelming favourite to beat Turpin, that seemed a possible explanation for what was unfolding.
Robinson fought with real intent in the seventh round. “I saw Sugar Ray hit him with a right hand and I thought I saw his legs go for a fraction of a second,” remembered Price, but by the end of the round, Robinson was bleeding from a bad gash on his left eyebrow.
Daily Express reporter Peter Wilson wrote: “The two men’s heads came together – the fault of neither – with a sickening click like two billiard balls colliding. Turpin came away unmarked, but Robinson was so badly gashed that after the fight his doctor had to insert 14 stitches near his left eye.”
Robinson’s corner were able to control the bleeding from the wound, but still, the crowd sensed the fight was going Turpin’s way and during the 13th round they started singing, For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.
Peter McInnis remembered a sense of euphoria as the final round got underway. “The crowd was on its feet with men invading the aisles, hugging total strangers and shaking hands with one and all,” he wrote in his biography of Turpin, titled ‘Randy.’ “Women screamed, wept and fainted.”
The 20 million listeners to Raymond Glendenning’s breathless commentary on the radio heard a thrilling climax.
“Ray Robinson is being chased around the ring by Turpin. He’s hanging on and he certainly looks the more agonised… In comes Turpin, a right under the heart, left, right to the face. Robinson’s head sags on its shoulders… The English boy has got a grandstand finish.
“He drives Robinson back, clouts him with a left and right to the face. He’s got the champion in trouble. The champion fights back and they are milling away as hard as they can go. Robinson’s eye is a bad picture now and Turpin is still comparatively unmarked. Turpin scores the last punch of the round… and who has won?”
Moments later, Glendenning delivered the news: “Turpin has won! Turpin has won! Randolph Turpin, 23 years old from Leamington Spa, is the new middleweight champion of the world.”
Upon hearing that, King George VI reportedly returned to his dinner guests and told them: “Turpin has won.”
Fans swarmed around the London hotel where Turpin was staying, forcing him to leave via the staff entrance, but the good times didn’t last.
The rematch took place in front of 61,370 at New York’s Polo Grounds only 64 days later and was close on the scorecards after nine rounds.
There was a clash of heads in the 10th that left Robinson cut on his forehead and he remembered: “I noticed the referee staring at the blood on my face. His concern made me think that the cut might be dangerous enough for him to stop the fight.”
Robinson found the shots to drop Turpin and then unleashed a desperate 31-punch barrage in just 25 seconds to force the stoppage.
Jackie said: “When we were kids, he [Randolph) always said he would be the best in the world and he had achieved that. He had nothing more to reach for and the second Robinson fight came much too soon for him. Randolph needed to reach a peak, come down and then climb another.”
Turpin actually squeezed in another fight between the two Robinson battles, according to Price. He went with Turpin to a local boxing booth. Price, who had 11 professional fights himself, wrote: “This girl said: ‘You’re not Randolph Turpin. As if Randolph Turpin would come to a boxing booth, the world champion. We’ve got a PTI who’s coming to box you tomorrow.’
“The next night we’re on the front row and ask: ‘Are there any challengers in the crowd?’ ’Yes,’ said this bloke in an RAF uniform. ‘I’ll take Randolph on, if it is Randolph.’
“The bell went and Randolph hit him once with a left hook and on the way down he caught him with the same punch and it was all over. He must have been down 10 minutes. We were starting to get worried. He got up and said: ‘Come on, what’s the trouble. I haven’t been knocked down.’ He wanted to carry on.’”
Turpin stayed in touch with his boyhood friend until his death in 1966 and Gary Price, Pete’s son, has memories of him. “Even when Randolph had nothing, he was still generous,” he said. “I remember dad telling him: ‘Don’t you give your money away,’ but every time he came to see us he left something under my pillow.”
Pete recalled the last time he spoke to Turpin. “I repaired his record player,” he wrote, “and about a week later he called me again. I said: ‘Licker, that one’s packed up, you might as well sling the bloody thing and I will get you a cheap one.’ He said: ‘Pete, I haven’t got the bleeding money.’”
The estimated £300,000 earned during his ring career had gone, some of it invested in a Welsh guest house that flopped, and the Inland Revenue wanted money Turpin simply didn’t have.
On May 17, 1966, Turpin shot himself. “The Leamington Licker” was dead, aged 37 years old.