By Terence Dooley
[Writer’s note: Jackie Turpin passed away in April of last year, he was 84. I vividly remember travelling to Warwick to meet him back in 2005. The subsequent article, and original tape, became lost over time. I unearthed the recording during a recent spring clean. Jack had talked for ninety minutes straight; as I left he followed me to the door, offering to do a “Follow up piece”. We never got to do one so the following article has been updated and offers us a glimpse into the fighting spirit that made the Turpins a British boxing dynasty.]
Everyone knows about Randolph Turpin, the first man to take a professional title from the great Sugar Ray Robinson. It was said that Randolph had the whole nation behind him that night in 1951 when a twenty-two fight unbeaten run culminated in a victory over Ray yet it was support from closer to home that had helped him get this far.
The Turpin bloodline stretched back to their father, Lionel, who was born in British Guyana and had fought for our isles in the Great War. Lionel means “Little Lion” in Guyanese, when Lionel met the equally resilient Beatrice Elizabeth Manley they produced three little lions of their own in brothers Lionel Junior (known as Dick Turpin), Jack and Randolph. Jack was a featherweight who fought a mammoth amount of times, 125 recorded bouts, and he had been keen to tell me about the start of his boxing career.
“A local policeman asked me to spar with his son Frankie who was a big lad,” Turpin had reminisced. “Frankie weighed about fourteen stone and I weighed nine stone soaking wet. I said, 'I’m not going to spar with him, he’ll take my head of my shoulders!' His dad said, 'I’ve watched you spar with your two brothers and I’ve seen them hit you right over the ring post.' I told him that he was right but I was sick and tired of this. I decided I’d spar with Frankie who was, how can I explain it, in boxing you get fellas who can box, fellas who can’t box and fellas who really want to box so put themselves out on the line to make sure they do it right, Frankie was one of those. First round he comes right at me so I step aside and leave my foot out and he goes right over it out of the ring. I help him up thinking it will be over now and his father says ‘Good lad’ but then makes us start the round again.
“In the first round proper, I must have hit Frankie 42 times without reply, I even put my hands down so he could get one in, but I wasn’t going to in fight with him or anything like that as he was too tall, too heavy and I was too scared. Mr. Walker had to go back on duty so he told us to carry on sparring. Frankie had more ideas when his dad wasn’t there as his dad was a former police boxing champion and tried to get Frankie to fight a certain way, the way his old man had fought.
“Frankie asked if he could start thinking for himself now and I told him ‘Yes.’ The ring was backed up against this wood panel wall so every time I hit the ropes, I could feel the wall against my back. We’d done six or eight rounds and I wanted to go home. He threw a few lefts so I went inside them and ended up against the wall again but caught him under his nose, I moved to one side and he put his fist right through the wall and got stuck. I told him it was time to go home and I’d see him when he got loose, that was the end of that sparring session. You can get so scared in that ring you will jump on the other guys back to get out of the way especially against a much bigger lad.”
Back to the wall fights against bigger foes would become a feature of Jack’s career, had he inherited his fathers fighting spirit? Jack had told me that everyone asked about his father but the Turpin fighting spirit stemmed from his mum, Elizabeth.
“They all ask where we get the name the ‘Battling Turpins’; well my mum was the original – when she started punching we all ran off.”
Jack represented his country in WWII; it must have been a source of great pride for his mother, who was always around to ensure that her boy enjoyed his leave. He said, “I came home one night and was walking along the street singing at the top of my voice, I’d had two pints of beer you see, and I woke everyone on the street up.
“A neighbour sticks her head out of the window and tells me to shut-up! So I sent back a salutation to her. Then her husband storms down to the street and tells me he is going to whip me, I should think so as he was twice my size so I started backing up thinking about what I should do. I shouted out for my mum telling her one of her boys was in trouble and as I’m backing away from this bloke a fist comes around his back, whacks him on the chin and he falls down to the floor, my mum had knocked him out.
“Mum asked me what he was going to hit me for and I told her I’d been singing, she told me to sing as much as I wanted to because I was on leave from defending my country. I remember when I first joined the navy. I had my sack on my back and my suitcase on my arm with my hat stuck on the back of my head – I was falling over everything. An officer asked me what mess I was in and I told him I was in one helluva mess!”
From an early age, Jack had sparred with his two brothers; even though Randolph was younger he was bigger than Jack by the time they got into their teens yet Jack did better than most against his siblings due to the fact that he had a good trainer.
“Mick Gavin was the best trainer in the country,” explained Turpin, he clapped his hands twice to illustrate a point when discussing his first bout under the trainer.
“Mick told me that when he clapped I was to throw my right hand at my opponents head then we’d work out the plan for the second round because the guy would charge in with his eyes closed and I could get him with two rights. But when I heard the claps from Mick I’d forgotten whether to throw the left or right. So I threw them both and knocked the other guy out!
“I thought I’d ruined the plan. When the ref came over to hold up my hand I asked him to hold on a second because I wanted to show Mick I could follow his plan but the ref told me the other guy wasn’t interested any more. Mick slapped me on the back, told me I had done ever so well and that he’d been saving the left-right for the next round but I’d done it myself. That was Mick. A lot of the time the crowd wants to see two fighters cut one another to ribbons but Mick would never allow that to happen to me, he made me feel ten foot tall.”
Later that afternoon – when talking about how he proud he was when a statue of Randolph was erected in Warwick’s Market Square – Jack once again paid tribute to his coach.
He said, “Mick was the best corner man and trainer in England; he boxed as a youngster and fought everywhere. He was like Harry Greb, he used to fight anyone, everyone used to say they knew Mick Gavin but when he died no one turned out for him and he did so much work around here. They should put some memorial up to him as well for the work he did for British boxers.
“If I was hurt Mick would tell me I’d done right and not to worry about the other guy. I’d listen to Mick even if I was scared of the other guy because with Mick Gavin in my corner I wasn’t afraid of anyone, the only bloke I ever trusted to look after me was Mick. He had a son who got killed in Korea and when it happened Mick came to the gym with a letter in an envelope and he asked me to read it. Inside the envelope was photo of me, Dick and Randy signed by us all. The letter that went with the photo said that this photo was the only thing Mick’s son had in his pocket when he died.”
Jack had a single amateur fight. “I used to think that amateur boxing was for idiots. Randolph used to try and get me join the Leamington Boys boxing Club as he said it was good boxing [there] but I thought there was no good boxing [anywhere],” he said.
Jack went to the gym anyway as he had wanted to give Randolph a good hiding although he ended up being told off for being a bully which is ironic considering that Randolph would later develop into an impressive fighting specimen.
“Everyone used to think it was easy being in boxing as a Turpin but it was hard work, people used to come up telling me how good our Dick was as a boxer but they wasn’t having to spar him all the time. I’m surprised I didn’t end up punch drunk. Randolph could be a brilliant boxer but his outlook was if I can knock them out I’ll knock them out – a stallion reared up on him once and he knocked that out with one punch.”
When meeting Jack, I had been given the opportunity to speak to the last of a rare breed; in 1947 alone he fought 28 registered fights plus a whole heap of fairground booth boxing matches. Evidently, he had a good defence and in those days a defensive style amounted to more than skating around the ring with your hands down by your knees. Fighting so often meant that Jack could last the pace of a contest, ring rust was also eliminated. Sparring his bigger, stronger brothers must have helped as well.
“Well it gave me a lot of nerve,” he had revealed. “I got a lot of good hidings off Randy and Dick so on the [fairground boxing] booths I used to ask them to get me someone I could beat but ‘Cocoa’ Harris put me up there against all comers.”
Randolph also served in the navy. Indeed, after representing their nation’s armed forces it must have hurt Jack and Randolph to come home to a country that would not allow a black man to fight for the British title.
“We had to accept it because there was nothing we could do about it; a petition went around the country about it, though. Dick was the closest to a title fight and would box anyone to get his chance. Everyone thought it was unfair but no one helped us so we thought that we’d have to beat the hell out of any opponent we fought to make them put us in for their titles.”
Dick eventually got a British title shot, beating Vince Hawkins on points to add the British middleweight title to his Commonwealth belt. Elizabeth was there, despite her fading sight, to witness her son’s historic win. “With Dick, he thought the triumph was his alone, that was just the way he was,” Turpin recalled.
“Dick was a master boxer, when he fought Vince Hawkins it was a perfect fight and could have been used to show young kids how to box defensively. Dick was pretty good at most things as a boxer. I used to spar with him because if he sparred with Randolph it turned into a fight.”
1948 was the first high water mark in the Turpin story. Randolph added the ultimate honour in 1951 when upsetting world middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson at Earls Court, London – joining Jake La Motta in the then-excusive club of fighters who had overcome the master boxer.
As the tape crackled on, talk turned to the rematch between Randolph and Sugar Ray Robinson. Ray’s problems in the fight were exacerbated by a laceration to his left eye. Turpin came agonisingly close to a TKO victory only to walk onto a big right hand in round ten. Robinson’s follow on assault brought about the end of Turpin’s short reign. Even in 2005, the memory of that return fight cut Jack to the quick.
“The whole thing is that to me if that fight was in England it would have been stopped two rounds before because of the cut and Robinson would have lost. In this country if you get a cut that you could post a letter in and blood is running into the fighter’s eye, a referee would stop the fight. We had arguments about him [Randolph] fighting over there as he’d won it [the title] so if Robinson wanted a return bout he should have come here [to the UK] to fight. Randolph was the Champion, Randolph needed someone to look after him but he ended up with a rematch in the contract (for the first fight). People made remarks about him being the 64-day hero but he had to fight (the rematch),” Turpin had insisted, his voice cracking with emotion.
“Robinson was a marvellous boxer and he told me that my little brother was one of the best and would always give him hell, he said he was glad when the fight was over, he said after both fights that Randolph was number two in the world. Randolph was too nice to protest over the decision [to stop the fight], I told him he had won the fight as the referee should have stopped it due to the cut but he told me not to be daft.”
Randolph blocked a lot of shots with his shoulders. Even though he was avoiding a lot of blows this way and parrying some punches the defending champion was a sitting target, especially to the eyes of referee Ruby Goldstein.
“Yes,” Jack had nodded when asked if Randolph’s defensive techniques had hindered him. “Randolph learned that shoulder blocking when he was an amateur and had done it in the gym before throwing his counters so I knew he would have come back with punches. When he used to do it in the gym he’d send people flying out the ring, he never messed about in sparring.”
Randolph may have lasted the round had he taken a knee when hurt, had he been too proud to do this? “I think so, he had already beaten Robinson so why should he have gone down to him [for another eight count], that is what he would have thought. He was too proud,” was Jack's wistful reply.
Randolph fought for the world title again but lost on points to Bobo Olson at Madison Square Garden, his career had peaked too soon. In the age of paper titles we should not forget what he achieved when beating Robinson. On a personal level, the night Randolph lost against Olson must have been bittersweet for Jack as he registered a decision win over Joe Paniagua on the undercard.
Indeed, Jackie made his own piece of history by netting two wins in the USA in an age when British fighters struggled to bring home Ws from America. Jack even got a write-up from A.J. Liebling; the journalist compared him to Jack “Kid” Berg after his contest against Joe Wamsley on the undercard of the Turpin-Robinson rematch at New York’s Polo Grounds.
“Well they asked me to go back,” Turpin had reminisced when asked about his US adventures. “I liked it. I would have stayed over there under different circumstances. My first opponent had won a New York title [Wamsley won a Golden Gloves title as an amateur] so I thought if I knock his head off I’ll be Champion of New York State. Over there [the US] was OK for me because I’d get away with a bit of rough stuff like a thumb to the throat if the other feller started to thumb me.”
Towards the end of our meeting, Jack had taken a moment to lament the lack of characters in modern boxing. Saying, “You can’t even call it rough and tumble any more. In my day I’d fight anyone and if I said ‘No’ I’d not get any more fights but now they only fight twice a year.”
The former featherweight believed that the Market Square statue was a fitting tribute to Randolph, who was an amazing physical specimen as a fighter; he revealed that his brother loved to lift weights using a secret technique pioneered by a man named Arthur Batty.
“Arthur was always making gadgets for training and taught a weight-lifting technique that still left you with your mobility but it was no good for a featherweight.”
Back home, Jack felt that the British boxing authorities had not helped him get the Lonsdale title fight he had always craved. However, fighting at MSG was more than any boxer, including some title-holders, could ever ask for. Soon after, the smallest Turpin brother wound his own career down; Randolph joined him in retirement seven years later.
Randolph died at the age of 37. Dick passed away aged 69 in July 1990. Jack’s passing marked the close of a chapter in British boxing history. Jack, however, staked his own claim with those two US wins; he also carried the Turpin flame into the new millennium.
Even when he could no longer fight, Jack was a battler. His family often had to keep a close rein on the boxing mad senior, who gave them cause for concern on more than one occasion. Our 2005 meeting concluded with a good old-fashioned ghost story. His family had heard tales of a diminutive, eerie figure running around the streets of Warwick late at night; to their horror they discovered that it was Jack.
“I was only doing my roadwork and now they won’t let me do it anymore – I get away with skipping in the back garden, though,” laughed Turpin. He was 79.
Jack retired in 1954 with a 82-35-8 (36) record.
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