Stories are powerful tools, more than fun, more than entertainment for kids at bedtime. They are essential to the human mind. By organising the randomness of life into beginnings, middles and ends we stave off chaos and create emotional security and order – a reassuring sense of understanding – that we are not just cast adrift on a sea of nothing.
I’ve always loved stories and I’ve always loved boxing, so it’s no surprise that my preference is to combine the two. Like so many boxing tales, this one is ultimately a tragedy. Some might say a senseless one.
It involves a man who 56 years ago tomorrow found himself in the final throes of a briefly glorious career. That night, at 30, old before his time, defeat brought a near-final crisis-point, a moment when all hope of order was lost. Chaos returned. His tale serves as a poignant reminder of the incredible psychological stress that fighters can endure.
The bout in question was staged at the Perry Barr stadium in Birmingham, 56 years ago. Among the 15,000 in attendance that day was my father, himself a middleweight amateur who had travelled up from Bournemouth, on the south coast, to see one of his idols in the flesh.
25 years later and with his ring years long behind, Dad and I would sit with mugs of tea in the kitchen of our South London house while he regaled me with boxing tales. For him it was a nostalgic exercise, a way of keeping the fighting man in his soul alive, passing a torch to his toddler son. For me it was like a baptism. My head has been full of them ever since.
“I saw a lot of great fighters up close.” He would say, deadly serious. “I watched Freddie Mills lift a hundred-weight of cement off a table with one punch, when I was training in Poole.”
He would let go of his tea and swing a fist at the air, reliving the moment.
“Most lads could barely put a dent in it. I watched Tommy Farr spar in Pontypridd. He was a tough old bugger. But the best fighter I ever saw?” His voice would get quieter. “Well, of course he was a middleweight. Do you know why middleweights are the best? I’ll tell you. Speed, power, movement, they have it all. Too many heavyweights are plodders, most flyweights are like boys, but a great middleweight? You can’t top that. And the best middleweight I ever saw was Randolph Turpin.”
Turpin was born in Leamington in the Midlands to an English mother and a Guyanese father who had served in the British Empire forces in World War One. Before his first birthday his Dad died, still suffering the after effects of chlorine poisoning from a battlefield gas-attack. This left tiny Turpin, with his curly hair and dark skin, to grow up in a small, provincial town in the 30s with no protective paternal influence. It was a time when terms like ‘racial equality’ or ‘tolerance’ were yet to become part of the national vocabulary. He and older brother Dick were the only non-whites around. They had to fight. It was either that, or spend their lives as victims.
By the age of 12, Turpin was already the toughest kid at secondary school. He was also the fastest. His physical superiority over other students was such that the school stopped him competing at their annual sports day, as he was capable of winning virtually every event. He soon became leader of the locally infamous Wathen Street Gang, before finding his way to boxing via the Leamington boys club. His natural talent shone out.
After a glorious amateur career involving multiple ABA wins, he turned pro. In his early days he boxed frequently in London and Dad saw him often. “He could fight at range or up close,” Dad would tell me, eyes far-away, half-smiling. He spoke of his favourite fighters far more fondly than any of his three wives. “He could box or mix it up and he was the strongest 11-and-half-stone man I’d ever seen. They said he could bench press 300 pounds. That’s a hell of a lot for someone with that frame. He tore through the domestic scene and in 1951 he became Middleweight champion of the world!”
He did indeed. Already the British and European middleweight champion, Turpin outhustled and outpointed the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson at Earl’s Court in West London, in July 1951. Sure, the seemingly invincible Robinson was on a world tour at the time, cruising around Europe in a lilac-coloured Cadillac, accompanied by a flock of lady-friends and bizarrely, a midget called Jimmy. He probably wasn’t focusing too much on preparation, but he still took some beating.
By the end the legendary Sugar-Ray was hanging on, one eye shut. Turpin’s domination had grown as the fight progressed and he took a comfortable decision. The Leamington Licker returned home to a civic reception. For two-and-a-half months he was the top middleweight on the planet and a national hero.
Dad’s a traditionalist, a chin-up, chest-out, look-you-in-the-eye man. “The main thing with Randolph was he never forgot how to be a sportsman.” He said. “He always respected his opponents. A lot of kids can learn from that.”
They were different times back then. And for followers of Turpin’s career it soon became clear that his victory over Robinson for the world title, when there was still only one of those, was his peak, the centre-point of his story’s arc. It was downhill from then. Randolph was 23 at the time, already a 44 fight veteran.
The rematch in New York was a tight affair in which Turpin was eventually stopped in the tenth after roughing Robinson up. While negotiations for a rubber match stalled, Turpin returned to Britain, struggled with meagre opponents and moved up to Light-Heavyweight. (Super-Middleweight was yet to exist). His career never again caught fire.
By the time Dad went to watch him in Birmingham, against Yolande Pompey, Turpin had fought 72 times as a professional and had been British and Commonwealth champ at light-heavy. Pompey was a seasoned Trinidadian brawler who would go on to challenge Archie Moore for the world title.
“He had him in the very first round!” Dad would tell me. “Smashed him with a combination, but this is the sort of man he was. Because Pompey hadn’t completely touched down, the ref didn’t count. So Randolph touched gloves with him and gave him a few seconds to recover. He didn’t want to win unfairly.”
That old-fashioned sporting attitude might have impressed Dad, but it cost Turpin dearly. 90 seconds into round two, he was flattened with a right hook.
“I didn’t even see the knockout” Dad would say, eyes cast down. “I dropped my hat and crouched to pick it up. When I stood back up, Randolph was on the floor. That was the end of him, that fight.”
It was the end in more ways than one. His ring days were finished, apart from two unlicensed contests 5 years later, then like so many fighters, especially those who have tasted fame and success, retirement did not come easy. He opened a greasy-spoon café in Leamington with his wife. “I heard he hated talking about his boxing career in those days.” Dad said. “People would come into the café and recognise him. He wouldn’t respond. It hurt his pride for them to see how far he’d fallen.”
Pursued by the tax man for unpaid bills, struggling with terrible headaches and life in obscurity, Randolph Turpin eventually lost his mind.
On May 17th 1966, he spent most of the morning writing a letter, then busied himself as usual around the café. That evening his wife, Gwen, found him slumped over his seventeen month-old daughter’s bed. Blood pooled on the sheets.
The little girl was wounded and Turpin was dead, both from gunshot wounds. Ever since the question has hung – had he shot his daughter deliberately or by accident? Pinned to the door of the bedroom was the letter he had penned earlier that day.
In it he spoke of debts, trouble with gangsters and his difficulties in eeking out a ‘normal’ existence. Going from king of the world to frying eggs for a living had destroyed him. As a tough kid from tough times, for a short while in 1951 the world had made sense.
Randolph Turpin – one of my Dad’s boxing heroes – whose short, tumultuous life story has much to tell us about how fighting men, like everyone else, are striving to make order from chaos.