SUCCESS in boxing is largely due to hard work and talent, but sometimes other factors can give a fighter the edge. Boxing’s first three-weight world champion Bob Fitzsimmons, for example, famously credited the development of his enormous punch to time spent blacksmithing for his father. Today, the exceptional athleticism and footwork of Vasyl Lomachenko are said to stem, in part at least, from gymnastics and Ukrainian folkdance classes he took as a youngster. Over a century before Lomachenko, there was another world champion – from Canning Town in east London – whose dazzling skills were developed outside the ring. Long before his name ever graced a boxing bill, Tom “Pedlar” Palmer was part of London’s theatrical circuit. He and his brother Matt performed a novelty act that called on Tom’s remarkable acrobatic skills. As Matt chased him around the stage, Tom would duck, slip, sidestep and turn somersaults to avoid his brother’s punches, leaving the crowds in fits of laughter. It was only as he grew older that Palmer realised he was not just an acrobat but a really good boxer.
Fast-forward a few years to May 1893 and Pedlar was boxing for the first time at Covent Garden’s National Sporting Club. There, to the amazement of club patrons, he employed many of the eye-catching tricks he had used on stage, evading the attacks of his opponent Walter Croot with comically exaggerated movements. Palmer won the fight with a 17th-round KO and his defensive wizardry earned him the nicknamed “Box O’ Tricks”.
Two years later, Pedlar won the world bantamweight title (then 8st 4lb) from the brilliant Brummy Billy Plimmer in 14 rounds. In the next three years, Palmer kept his crown through five defences and drew with future Hall of Famer George Dixon at Madison Square Garden.
In September 1899, Pedlar returned to New York to defend against “Terrible” Terry McGovern, one of the hardest hitters in the history of the bantam and featherweight divisions. McGovern seized the title in brutal fashion, flattening his fleet-footed foe in the first world championship bout under Queensberry Rules to end by first-round knockout. After that, Palmer was never quite the same. A cavalier attitude to training combined with a love of smoking, drinking and the race track saw his form become erratic.
Then in 1907 came the greatest tragedy of Pedlar’s life. On a train returning from Epsom he got into a fight with another race-goer and knocked the man out cold. To Palmer’s horror, the man never regained consciousness and he was arrested for murder, then a capital offence. At the trial the charge was reduced to manslaughter and the former world champion was given a five-year sentence, of which he served nearly four years.
Upon his release in 1911, Palmer launched an inevitable comeback. By then in his late 30s, his speedy reflexes had slowed. He scuffled through a series of minor bouts before retiring, but resurfaced in 1919, aged 43, for a match with fellow old-timer Jim Driscoll. Driscoll, 38 himself, dispatched Pedlar in the fourth round and the Canning Town man never fought again.
Palmer had won and lost a small fortune during his career, liberally spending and handing out cheques to the many scroungers who spun him a hard-luck story. At the height of his fame, Pedlar’s admirers bought him a £1,000 diamond-studded belt, which he had loaned to various acquaintances over the years. Later, when Palmer took the belt to be valued he was told it was worthless. The diamonds had been replaced with cut-glass stones. Like many ex-sports stars, Pedlar battled alcoholism and was in court many times charged with drink-fuelled offences. For the last 20 years of his life he lived in Brighton where he worked as a race track bookmaker. He died there from pneumonia in 1949, aged 72.