AS November 11 was Armistice Day this week is an appropriate time to reflect on the career of a very good professional who gave his life for his country. The many boxers who died during the two world wars have been frequently referenced in BN over the past 50 or so years, and there were some excellent fighters, including champions, among them. The death of Ernie Vickers of Middlesbrough during the Falklands War is much less well known. November 11 is a time to remember the members of the armed forces who served and died but Ernie was different, for he was a Merchant seaman. The Merchant Navy commemorate their dead on September 3, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, but as Ernie is, as far as I can ascertain, the last person to die in action who had a professional ring career. As he died on the Atlantic Conveyor, alongside men from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Royal Navy, I am going to remember him today.
Ernie came from a sporting family. His father was the Army sprint champion in 1910 and a brother became the Yorkshire champion for the quarter-mile. Another brother, Jack, boxed professionally between 1951 and 1956. Born in 1924, Ernie served with the Royal Navy as a youngster, serving on HMS Ganges during the latter years of World War Two, and he won 11 of his 12 amateur contests. In 1949 he turned pro, teaming up with manager Eric Munro, who was a very good boxer himself before the war, swapping gloves with the likes of Bobby Magee, Len Beynon and George Marsden. Middlesbrough’s “Mr Boxing” guided his young charge to 26 victories from his first 27 contests as Vickers fought his way through a series of four and six-rounders on shows in and around his native North-East. He boxed regularly at the Engineers’ Club in West Hartlepool, at the Hendon Cricket Ground, Sunderland, and he was, of course, a great favourite in his hometown at the Farrer Street Stadium.
To compile such a long winning streak was quite unusual in the late 1940s and 1950s, and Ernie looked like quite a prospect and he was a noted puncher, with many opponents being knocked spark out. Manchester’s Cyclone Kelly put his run to an end, outpointing Ernie at the New St James Hall, Newcastle in November 1950. Kelly had been around for donkey’s years at this point, having begun his professional career in the late 1920s, and he knew every trick in the book.
Another veteran of almost 20 years, Ginger Roberts of Whitley Bay, was Ernie’s opponent in the biggest contest of Ernie’s career. The two men met for the Northern Area welterweight title, over 12 rounds, in December 1951 at Vickers’ local stadium at Farrer Street. For Roberts it was the final contest in a 154-bout career, and he gave it everything. He was the reigning titleholder, having picked up the title the previous year by outpointing Billy Exley, and he was the favourite going into the bout. He could not compete with the youth of his opponent, nor with the rugged, bustling and energetic attacks that Vickers produced throughout the 12 rounds and Ernie became the champion by a clear margin at the end of the contest. Within a week of the bout his manager was advertising Vickers as available to fight any welterweight in Europe. When Ernie left the game in 1956, he had won 39 of his 58 contests in a long career.
It was no surprise that he was willing, at 57, to go halfway around the world in Britain’s latest war effort, nearly 40 years after he had first done so, and it was a tragedy that he died so far from home.