AMONG the saddest experiences I’ve had as a boxing historian is discovering long-forgotten contests in which one of the protagonists died at the hands of his opponent. Since the war there have been a number of fatalities in British rings, some involving well-known fighters, but thankfully these happen far less frequently than they used to do. Back in the early days of the gloved game, and onwards throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the safety side of the game was considerably overlooked, with just one doctor typically in attendance at professional tournaments and medicals for applicant boxers, so routine today, unheard of. Referees often allowed boxers to suffer considerably more punishment than would be allowed today and the general public, hardened as they were by both the Great War and the huge number of children dying at a young age, had a more lenient attitude towards death in general. A boxer dying in the ring did not hit the headlines in the way that it does today. I recently came across an old postcard of a Royal Marine, Private Sampson, whose name seemed particularly familiar to me. When I looked at my records for him, I saw that he had died in a contest at the Cosmopolitan Gymnasium in Plymouth in March 1914. I think it would be appropriate to honour this unfortunate young man by telling what I know of his story.
William James Sampson was a member of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and at the time of his death he was serving aboard HMS Majestic, a pre-dreadnought battleship. The RMLI produced many good professional boxers at this time and most of them fought frequently at the ‘Cosmo’, as this famous old venue was known by fight fans of the period. Sampson, a native of Taunton, had his first contest in February 1911 while serving with the Navy. At the time of his demise he was 26 years old. He had 14 professional contests and every one of them took place at the Cosmo.
After losing the first three contests that I can find for him, he outpointed Dick Hillson, of Plymouth, in December 1912. This was the first of a string of victories that would lead to his two final contests, both of which were against one of Plymouth’s best men at the time, Young Lippo. Throughout 1913 and the early part of 1914 Sampson was unbeaten in eight contests, and these saw him progress from six-rounders to eight, then 10, and eventually to 15-rounders at the top of the bill.
On 13 February 1914 Sampson was matched against Lippo in his first 15-round bout. Sampson had fought the previous week, when he created something of a surprise by knocking out Seaman Bob Savage in four rounds. He came in as a very late substitute against Lippo, who had originally been due to box the Frenchman, Auguste Dumas. Lippo was a cut above Sampson in class and few gave the Marine much of a chance against him. The BN headline read, “Private Sampson creates a sensation” in describing the game struggle that Sampson put up against Lippo. After running out of steam in the ninth, and ahead on points, Sampson retired. The two were immediately matched for the West of England lightweight title and three weeks later they met again. Again, Sampson took the fight to Lippo, flooring him in the third, but once more he ran out of steam. In the 12th, he suddenly fell to the canvas. He was carried to his dressing room but he never regained consciousness. Private Sampson died the following afternoon. According to referee JT Hulls, Sampson was leading at the time of his collapse.
His ship, the Majestic, lasted just a year longer, being torpedoed at Gallipoli with the loss of 49 of Sampson’s comrades.