By David Brookes (LDNBOXHISTORY)
“There was a time when nobody would cross the road to speak to The Turpinʼs – We were just poor black kids from Leamington. Then all of a sudden one of us (Randy) is world famous and everyone’s crossing the road to shake our hands!”
Jackie Turpin – Professional featherweight and older brother of Randolph Turpin.
Born Randolph Adolphus Turpin, at 6 Willes Street, Leamington Spa in the summer of 1928 to a Guyanan immigrant father Lionel (Lionel had come to Britain to fight in WW1 and was badly injured in The Battle Of The Somme) and a local white woman Beatrice, early life for Randy (as he would become) would be no picnic. Money was tight and Randy and his brothers Dick and Jackie (also highly successful professional fighters in their own right) would tragically lose their father with Randy just a year old, having succumbed to the long term lung disorder caused by a German gas attack. The boys would grow up to box in order to protect themselves from racist abuse but mainly as a way of earning a hard but fast buck.
The early days
Randy and his brother Jackie would box at the booth at their local fairground in order to make a few pounds before Randy joined the Leamington Boys ABC and eventually the Royal Navy in March 1941.
It was here that his real prowess as a fighter would first come to fruition. He would excel as a junior before winning the ABAs as a senior – at Welterweight in 1945 and at his natural weight of Middleweight in 1946. Turpin was now one of the hottest properties around and would turn down a host of promoters and managers to sign with his brother Dickʼs manager (Dick was by now a British Title Challenger) – George Middleton, a local businessman who would stay with Turpin throughout his whirlwind career.
Turpin would make his debut in the paid ranks on the Jack Solomons promoted undercard of the huge heavyweight fight between Doncaster’s Bruce Woodcock and American superstar Gus Lesnevich at the now defunct Harringay Arena. The talented 18 year old would stop the limited Gordon Griffiths in a round to get his professional career off to a winning start. Randolph would continue his winning streak before a shock draw with Mark Hart in his 16th outing at his now second home of Harringay.
Randy steps up
After the Hart setback, Turpin would win twice before a step up in class against the vastly experienced former British Middleweight king Vince Hawkins in March 1948 (Hawkins had recently lost to Randy’s brother Dick for the British Empire Title). Randy – now known by his childhood nickname of “The Leamington Licker” would have his hand raised at the end of the 8 rounder to inflict a rare defeat on the wily Hawkins.
Turpin – now brimming with confidence, would be stunned in his following fight as he again stepped up in class to face future British Champion Albert Finch at The Royal Albert Hall. This time the 19 year old Randy would see himself on the wrong side of an 8 round decision defeat.
Turpin would suffer the indignity of his first stoppage defeat at the hands of decent French Champion Jean Stock (a future Sugar Ray Robinson opponent) – Randy would stopped in 5 at the hands of the Parisian, again at Harringay. The Warwick based fighter would recover from the setback to record 12 wins over a two-year period to set up the biggest fight of his career – a rematch with old foe Albert Finch for the coveted British Middleweight Championship.
British Middleweight Champion
This time Randy would start far better and batter Finch into a fifth round defeat to be crowned champion at his beloved Harringay. Promoter Jack Solomons was now eyeing up an imminent shot at the European Title for his brilliant 21 year old boxing star. Kingpin Solomons – a former Jewish fishmonger cum bookmaker would make good on his word and deliver a shot in the form of 100 fight Dutch veteran Luc Van Dam in February 1951. Turpin would waste no time in dispatching Van Dam in a round to secure the EBU belt. Van Dam would last just 48 seconds with the devastating “Licker”- bearing in mind he had gone four rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson, people began to start seeing Randy as a genuine World class fighter. Turpin was now the hottest property in British boxing and his date with destiny was just a few months away.
Turpin would have three fights in quick succession, this time in front of home crowds in the nearby cities of Leicester, Coventry and Birmingham before a final warm up victory over American import Jackie Keough at White City set the scene for Turpinʼs July clash with arguably the greatest fighter of all time – the imperious “Sugar” Ray Robinson at London’s new premier indoor arena, Earls Court.
Robinson who had just finished a six fight European tour (a common practice for American world champions in the post war years) arrived in London full of confidence and in relaxed mood. It is claimed that Robinson – who was a 1-7 betting favourite with some bookies, did almost nothing but play golf in preparation for the challenge of Turpin but if he thought the brilliant Brit had come to make up the numbers then he was sorely mistaken.
The Solomons promotional team went into overdrive although no gimmicks were needed to sell this fight – 18,000 tickets sold out in no time and the touts has a field day.
The scene was set, Earls Court was full and an estimated 20million tuned into BBC World Service around the world to hear Raymond Glendenning’s fight commentary. This was the biggest sporting event in Britain for many a year and was a welcome distraction in the bleak post war years of single mums, rationing, abandoned bomb sites and unemployment – Turpin was under pressure to deliver and deliver he did. Robinson, oozing confidence in a silk blue gown would be introduced as “The Black Prince Of Harlem” as he entered the ring to a chorus of boos and whistles. Turpin – who had been in the ring for several minutes, sat calmly but confidently on his stool. It was left to Referee Eugene Henderson (a former Scottish heavyweight) to get proceedings underway – “Seconds Out”….
A final warning of “Watch his left hook, Lick” is uttered from the home fighters corner and the fight is underway. The fighters move in and predictably the first shot is a Robinson left hook that lands on the Turpin head. A couple of hard Turpin rights shake the champion and as the first round comes to a close Robinson looks at Turpin with a new sense of respect – the challenger is here to win. Randolph would take the second before a booming right to the head in the third shakes the Brit to his boots to the gasps of the partisan crowd – Robinson appears to be following the script after all but Turpin holds and grabs to see the round through. The challenger continues to jab and Sugar continues to miss as they get to round seven – by now Robinson’s good looking face is marking badly and his hair is all over the place. He is beginning to realise he is falling behind at a rate of knots with most ringsiders giving Turpin at least five of the first seven rounds. Blood! Sugar is cut as thick red liquid pours down his face from a gash above his left brow – the 18,000 now REALLY believe their man can become king!! Referee Henderson calls over the American. He takes a long look at the worsening cut…….. But waves the fight on and the bell rings.
Turpinʼs stamina will be put to the test as in his 44th professional contest he enters the ninth round for the first time. Sugar Rays corner are fully aware of this and point out this to the champion who by now is the unlikely underdog. The Warwick man continues to dominate the legendary champion and rounds 9, 10 and 11 continue to go in his favour as the American sways from left to right looking for a one punch finish but Turpin although still getting tired is just too evasive. The bell rings for the 15th and final round, the fighters touch gloves and a mutually respective smile from both beams across the ring. Only a miracle can see the champion retain his title. 180 seconds of concentration and the scruffy black kid from Leamington Spa is the Middleweight Champion Of The World!
The bell rings!!!
“TURPIN HAS WON! TURPIN HAS WON!! THE 23 YEAR OLD FROM LEAMINGTON SPA IS THE NEW MIDDLEWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD!!!” Raymond Glendenning – BBC World Service Radio Commentator.
Legend has it that even King George VI himself left a dinner at Buckingham Palace to listen to the fight in his bedroom on the wireless before running back into the dining room exclaiming “He’s done it!! Turpin has won”.
Turpin has done it alright, against all of the odds, Turpin had done it. The Robinson corner looked downbeat with an expression of total disbelief that Sugar has been done but he had, and already
their immediate thought was a quick rematch – as per the fight contract. (Sound familiar Andy Ruiz Jnr?!)
The crowd sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow” long into the night and an exhausted Turpin left Earls Court a hero – a 64 day hero, as he would famously become…..
64 Day Hero
Despite Turpin having a homecoming in Leamington Spa, Warwick, a meet and greet at Gwrych Castle and a free dinner ticket wherever he went, he could not get away from the fact that he knew he would have to face a rematch with Robinson, undoubtedly in the USA and within the 90 days mandated in the fight contract.
The fight was made within a matter of weeks and fixed for 12th September 1951 (64 days later) at the legendary Polo Grounds in New York – Turpinʼs brothers Jack and Dick, promoter Jack Solomons and even politician Anthony Eden were concerned that Randy stood no chance if the fight was staged in the USA but the champion himself was his usual confident self.
Turpin and his team would leave Southampton on a 7 day voyage bound for New York City on the Queen Mary just 36 days after the gruelling 15 round battle at Earls Court. The Turpinʼs were coming to America.
New York City
Team Turpin would stay at “The Edison Hotel” and train at Grossinger Airport (later the base of Rocky Marciano amongst others) in The Catskills.
Tickets went on sale and the 61,000 went within a matter of hours – this fight was huge. Boxing fever had gripped New York and the vast majority of the crowd all thought Robinson was nailed on for victory.
The fight gets underway and as per the first fight the Englishman starts strong and Robinson starts to get frustrated. By the end of Round Six both fighters could stake claims to have been in front but Turpin is favoured. Round Eight comes and the pair throw a barrage of punches before a smile beams at each other as the stanza draws to a close. The ninth is close and the referee scores it Turpin 4 Robinson 4 with one drawn round. The fight is in the balance but there are no questions about Randy’s stamina as there was in the first fight – going the full 15 once again will suit the younger man….. Rd10 – Disaster strikes – Robinson opens up an awful cut above Turpinʼs left eyebrow and blood is everywhere. Everywhere. The crowd go wild and chant “Sugar, Sugar, Sugar” as they bay for the Brit’s blood. The ringside physician is called over…… Turpin is good to go. Randy cannot get thought the next five rounds with the amount of blood – he must stop Robinson, and soon. Robinson can taste victory and the smiles turn to hard faced grimaces as he gets to work on the champion. Down!!! An onslaught of punches from Sugar and a huge left uppercut sends the Licker down…. The count gets to 9 and Randy somehow rises from the canvas to beat the count but it is clear that his crown is slipping away. The crowd are electric as Robinson finishes the job, Turpin is brave and in survival mode but referee Ruby Goldstein waves it off despite protests from Turpin and his team.
It’s over and Robinson is Middleweight Champion Of The World once again. Just 64 days after that iconic night in London.
Turpin was still only 23 years old and had narrowly lost his title to arguably the greatest fighter of all time in New York City. A promising and long profitable career was surely still ahead. Turpin would move up to Light Heavyweight and claim the British and Empire Title’s against the very useful Don Cockell (Cockell would challenge Rocky Marciano for the World Heavyweight Championship) in June 1952 and would return to New York to again challenge for the World Middleweight Title against Carl “Bobo” Olson (L PTS 15) and win a European Title to boot in the middle. He would officially retire (after a few premature announcements) in 1964 aged 35 with a record of 66 wins 8 defeats and a solitary draw.
Turpinʼs personal life was complicated, his womanising and troubles with the taxman are well documented and Turpin would be forced to wrestle to earn a living in the early 1960ʼs having struggled to pay off numerous tax bills following supposed bad investments and mismanagement of his funds by himself and others.
As fast as Turpin could pay or fight a tax bill, another would arrive. Turpin claimed he thought the fight money he had received from manager/investor Leslie Salts was after tax but ultimately the Inland Revenue wanted close to £100,000. Turpin would purchase a transport cafe in Leamington Spa which he would run with his wife Gwen – it would be here in the flat above after a final demand from the taxman (and a compulsory purchase order of his cafe by the local council) that an a increasingly anxious Randolph could seemingly take no more and would take his own life while making a cowardly attempt on the life of his 18 month old daughter Carman. Turpin would be found dead on the 17th May 1966 with two gunshot wounds – one in the chest and one in the head, seemingly self-inflicted, aged just 37. The Turpin family refused to accept that a doting father like Randy had committed suicide and attempted to murder his beloved daughter – a whole host of wild theories started including a Jack Solomons paid hitman amongst others. The evidence however suggests otherwise – Turpin has killed himself and had attempted to kill his daughter too. And that would be the official verdict.
Turpin would be buried in Leamington Spa and his boxing legend lives on with a fantastic statue in the marketplace of his adopted home of Warwick, despite his tragic demise the memory of Randolph Adolphus Turpin should remain strong in Britain.
Randy Turpin – The 64 day hero – RIP