I WAS packing for a family trip to Llandudno when this assignment was handed down to me from BN Towers. I wondered how I would go about finding, and getting to, a bona fide ‘traditional boxing pub’, as most of them have closed down. Sure, the Tom Cribb in the West End and a few others are still scattered about, yet they are marketed towards theatre-goers and tourists rather than serving as places where boxing aficionados can gather.
Initially, boxing pubs stemmed from prizefighting’s status as an illegal pursuit. Public Houses could secretly stage fights, bets could also be placed there, and by the 1840s they had become central to what would become modern-day boxing. Some ex-fighters, Cribb among them, started a long tradition of entering the pub game after calling time on their careers.
In the bare-knuckle era, James Figg established a boxing academy at The Adam & Eve pub in London. By 1943, the Thomas A Becket pub opened a gym on its second floor, attracting a clientele that went on to include the likes of Henry Cooper and the Krays. It is now a garish TGI Fridays-style food place, its heritage only reflected via a blue plaque that commemorates Cooper and by its status as a listed ‘asset of community value’.
All this was well and good, and killed some time on the train ride to Wales, yet that still didn’t help me with the fact that most of these places are now closed or have been absorbed by chains. However, when we reached our hotel my wife stopped in front of a notice board.
“Is this the type of place you are looking for?” she asked while pointing to a flyer for the Randolph Turpin Bar, a pub and sporting venue opened by Turpin, who was the licensee between 1952-1961, atop the region’s Great Orme Country Park.
Later that evening, and with my stomach stretched by two carvery meals, my wife turned to me and said: “You should head up to that pub.” As I was pulling on my sandals she added a rejoinder: “Have you checked the incline of the roads and if it is open?”
I hadn’t, of course, as I’m a man and things like checking if somewhere is open before scaling a few small peaks in footwear that hasn’t been properly broken in is outside of my remit. I would master the peaks. It would be open. I’d have a few beers with the grizzled, boxing-obsessed landlord. Then I’d stroll back to the B & B.
Roughly 30 minutes later my GPS was telling me that I was only 15 minutes away, which was great, yet the incline had gone beyond steep to “For God’s sake help me!” My legs were gone, my arms too, strangely enough, and my chest was bursting – this must have been exactly how Turpin would have felt going into the 15th and final round against Sugar Ray Robinson on that memorable night in July 1951.
I looked back down at Llandudno Pier, which glistened in either the gloaming or due to the fact that sweat was cascading down from my head, waved goodbye to my 20s, and made my way down the hills. I stumbled across a pub at the foot of them and crawled in for a drink. Talking with the locals it soon became clear they knew that there was a bar and restaurant on the Orme yet had never heard of Turpin and definitely didn’t watch fights up there.
When I returned, my wife asked me how it had gone. Before I could make up a lie she told me that she had looked at the opening hours online and it had closed at 5pm, three hours before I made my epic attempt to scale the hills.
A few days later, we were on the Great Orme Tramway en route to the summit. I was greeted by the shift manager, she told me that boxing wasn’t really her forte, or the current owner’s for that matter, then very kindly allowed me the run of the place.
Turpin’s Bar is not really a boxing pub, it just has some Turpin memorabilia in it and a now-tenuous link to one of our greatest fighters. It is pleasant and worth the trip; however, like most modern bars it is a facsimile of a traditional pub.
A group of Americans asked me who Turpin was and what he looked like. “You’re standing on him,” I replied, pointing to a likeness of “The Leamington Licker” etched on the floor beneath their feet.
Sadly, within 15 years of his greatest win, Turpin was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound; left lingering in history not as the man who achieved a spectacular feat, but, rather, the ‘64-day champion’ following his rematch loss to Robinson at New York’s Polo Grounds.
It wasn’t my first experience of making a pilgrimage to a boxing bar. Back in 2010, I was preparing for a trip to New York when Frank Warren’s late, great matchmaker, Dean Powell, insisted that I try out Jimmy’s Corner, an off-Times Square bar.
The walls are adorned with fight posters and posters of fighters, yet these looked like they were either purchased at the time they were printed or handed down to the former fighter, cornerman, and owner, Jimmy Glenn, by real fight figures. It felt authentic. Not like an eBay boxing bar with images on the wall that have been sourced decades after the fact.
A few years later, and not too long before his suicide in September 2013, Dean phoned me late of an evening to ask if I had managed to get to Jimmy’s. When I told him I had, he remarked that it was a proper boxing pub and then abruptly went into a non-sequitur about a book he hoped to write.
The provisional title was Pictures On My Wall, Powell’s collected recollection of the celebrities he had met via boxing and his first big role in the sport as gym manager at the Thomas A Becket, which was also used as a rehearsal space by David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust period.
Each chapter would be named after someone, Frank Bruno for example, and Powell would bring in other idols he had met. “I’m just a boy from Dudley who loved his boxing and music, you know?” he mused, his words drifting back via a recording from what seemed like a lifetime away to me and, so very tragically, is a lifetime ago for him.
“Imagine what it was like for me to get a job like that in such a prestigious place. I was meeting all these names, people who had been up on my walls on posters, and I was rubbing shoulders with them.
“I went down there to live and achieve my dream. I was at the Thomas A Becket, the most famous boxing gym in the world. Over a hundred world champions had trained there: Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard – they have all trained in the Beckett. To have on your business card ‘Gym Manager – Thomas A Becket’ at 22 years of age, well it was a great thing for me.
“Moving on, I went to work at the Royal Oak with Terry Lawless and Jimmy Tibbs, which was something else – another dream. To go there and work with the likes of Mark Kaylor, you can’t buy that kind of experience.”
Powell was deep into his depression during those days yet still found enjoyment and solace in recalling the distinctive places in the sport he had served with distinction and that had shaped his life.
“The Thomas A Becket would be a great place to be on Sunday lunchtime,” he said. “The fighters would come and train, and we would go downstairs and have a drink in the bar. You haven’t got that anymore. There aren’t those great boxing pubs near the gyms. You had the Beckett, the Royal Oak, Freddie Mills’ pub, The Ring at Blackfriars, The Mason’s Arms in Battersea, The Craven Arms in Lavender Hill, The Wellington in Highgate, and the Ringside restaurant in Shoreditch. All those boxing pubs and places, they are gone now. It is a shame because we are losing characters.”
“Dean came to see me to get my autograph when he first started out in boxing,” said former WBC flyweight champion “Champagne” Charlie Magri, who was the landlord of The Victoria in Mile End from 1989 to 1997 and was there as guest of honour for its relaunch in 2014.
“It was always hard work, the pub game, yet it used to be quite good as we had the legends nights with people like John Conteh, John H Stracey and myself. People would pay on the door. It used to attract a lot of people. They’d come down from all over to meet us. We had photos all over the place. It was like a little museum as well as a pub.”
Some former footballers opened pubs post-retirement. Now most of them can afford to move into the restaurant game. Boxers, though, are lucky if they emerge with their brain cells intact, let alone with enough money to go into the pub trade.
“I remember when Bobby Moore opened up his pub and we all went down there,” recalled Magri. “It isn’t the right thing to do for these young lads today because the game is gone. They’ll lose their money unless it is a restaurant pub.
“It is life. The way the country is going now makes it hard because prices are going up and it was hard to keep up with them. The bills went up, the rent, the rates, the price of beer – the whole cost of doing business. They see you doing well and put things up a bit, don’t they?”
Pubs used to be beneficial to active fighters, too, as having a presence in a few locals was a good way of promoting fights and selling tickets. Fighters could shift hundreds through the networks they had built over a few beers.
“We’d always be in pubs selling our tickets – that is how I became such a big ticket-seller,” said Kevin Mitchell, a former two-time world title challenger and no stranger to London’s old-fashioned boozers. “It wasn’t just boxing. Years ago, people used to go down the pub and pick up some work. They’d earn a few quid if they were struggling just by meeting someone who had a bit of work going.
“All the old pubs are gone now, you’ve got property developers turning them into apartments or shops. People used to love those places. I was thinking about it myself: buying a pub, doing it up, and putting a boxing gym above it. I’d love to do it, but you need huge money to buy a pub outright in London.
“My friend has got a pub in Mile End, local families and people like the Kray brothers used to drink in there – that pub must be worth millions now if he was to sell it. Who has got millions to buy and convert a pub into a boxing gym? It is all about finance. It is a shame what has happened to the locals.
“I’m an East End boy, all the local boys would know and support me through the pubs. I still try to get down to them now, places like The Palm Tree, to see my mates and enjoy an old-school pub. I’m in Dagenham now, The Railway is still there looking like it did but then you get closer and it is a Tesco Express now. Everything has changed.”
Working men’s clubs also played a role, particularly north of the Watford Gap. The late Errol Christie once told me that they may have hosted ‘A joke or two, one borrowed, two blue and a few racist’ comedians on a typical weekend in the 1970s, yet they also opened their doors to local kids during the week.
“One thing that got me into training and sports at that time was the working men’s clubs,” he had recalled. “They would have events and they would get everyone from the community together. You don’t seem to have that anymore. I could go and train there for almost nothing in the working men’s clubs.”
Things have moved on apace over the past decade. The Beer Duty in the UK, which currently stands at three times the EU average, with one in every three pounds spent in the pub finding its way to the taxman, has put the squeeze on pubs with another 3 per cent hike forecasted for the next budget. Over the last decade, boxing fans have moved from forums, which felt like pubs during their peak, to Twitter, and that particular platform is arguably the equivalent of texting people while sitting in a crowded pub.
The Beer Duty increased every year between 2008-2013, resulting in a 24 per cent decline in sales, five thousand closures, and the loss of 58,000 jobs. Naturally, it meant that the traditional ‘wet’, i.e. no food service, boxing boozer fell by the wayside. There wasn’t a war on those types of places, they just steadily ceased to be as the attitudes of fans changed and prices rose.
When fights take place at places like the O2 Arena, you do not need to seek out a bespoke bar first, you can simply head into that vacuous space and choose from a few watering holes. Still, Brigid Simmonds,Chief Executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, sounded a note of cautious optimism when talking to Boxing News.
“Pubs have always played a key role in supporting local sport, from boxing clubs to pub football teams,” she said. “Pubs face considerable cost pressures from a range of sources: particularly high Beer Duty, unfair business rates and VAT. Action is needed by the government to alleviate these pressures, which is why we are backing Britain’s Beer Alliance, who have launched a new campaign, longlivethelocal.pub, to call on the government to cut beer tax. Pubs are vital to our communities and are often the social hubs across the UK and London.”
In truth, a time will come when we will ask “What happened to the old boxing pubs?” and the reply will be “What is a ‘boxing pub’?” It does make the heart ache a little for an age that in some cases, mine included, came before our time. It works in much the same way that many people who didn’t live in the 1970s still feel the pinch of nostalgia when watching Life on Mars – a wistful longing for a period that we haven’t lived in, and probably wouldn’t enjoy if whisked back to it.
Proper boxing pubs should still exist somehow and in some capacity for reasons we can’t quite explain or have to boil down to buzz terms: camaraderie, community, tradition and a shared life-lived experience – all increasingly outdated concepts. For many, modern life and boxing feels very much like standing on a hill while waving goodbye to the past and wondering if the loss of things like training above pubs or selling tickets in them is a good or bad thing. Or maybe it is an equal measure of both. Served without ice. And with a dash of bitter lemon optional.
TIME FOR A SWIFT ONE?
Some boxing pubs to wet your whistle…
THE RING, SOUTHWARK
BEFORE it was bombed in 1940, the Blackfriars Ring arena would stand opposite this pub. Today, the boozer pays homage to that legendary fight venue, though the ring it used to house upstairs is long gone.
LAMB AND FLAG, COVENT GARDEN
THIS watering hole would stage bare-knuckle prizefights out on the cobbles or in a back room which became known as ‘The Bucket of Blood’. Few clues to its violent past remain, but it’s certainly worth a visit.
TOM CRIBB, PICCADILLY
UPON his 1812 retirement, bare-knuckle king Tom Cribb became the publican when it used to sit just down the road from its current location. Today, while small and cosy, it’s full of boxing artefacts.
ALSO WORTH A VISIT…
IF the walls of The Globe in Hackney, which still regularly hosts boxing events, could talk they would enthral fans; The Ringside Bar sits out the back of Dublin’s National Stadium; Bar Sport in Cannock is a popular haunt for boxing fans in the Midlands; Jack Solomons Club in Soho was recently featured in the excellent Freddie Mills documentary; The New Inn in Hyde is where Ricky Hatton famously enjoyed the odd Guinness.