Sammy McCarthy, Flyweight Champion
Let me tell you the story of “Smilin’” Sammy McCarthy, one of legends of East End Boxing. Voted “Best British Boxer of 1951″ by Boxing Times, Sammy was a golden boy who won eighty-three out of his ninety amateur contests and represented England four times in the nineteen fifties, before becoming British Featherweight Champion twice and then Lightweight Champion after that.
Yet to this day Sammy is resolute in his refusal to be called a hero. With his impeccable manners and old-fashioned proper way of talking, he is the paragon of self-effacement – an enigma who modestly ascribes his spectacular boxing career to no more than a fear of disappointing others. His contemporaries informed me that only once I knew about his background, could I fully appreciate the true impulse behind Smilin’ Sammy’s suave temperament, but what I discovered was something far more surprising than I ever expected.
Born in 1931 as one of ten children, Sammy grew up in a terrace off Commercial Rd next to Watney Market as the son of costermonger. “My father used to go round the streets selling fruit and veg and we all helped him, and I helped him more than anyone but I always hated it,” Sammy revealed to me, explaining how he visited Spitalfields Market each day with his father in the early morning and stood outside the church while his father bought the produce. Then Sammy had to wheel the loaded barrow back to Stepney but, although it gave him the physical strength which made him a boxer, it was also was a source of humiliation when Sammy’s schoolmates jeered. “Subconsciously, I suppose I was a bit of snob – I wanted to be posh even though I didn’t know the meaning of the word.” he confided with a blush, expressing emotions that remain current even after all these years.
Sammy’s elder brother Freddie – whom he still visits each week, now aged ninety – was a boxer before him, and Sammy has a vivid memory of hiding under the table as a child, while his father and brother listened to the celebrated Tommy Farr and Joe Louis fight on the radio. “All the talk was of boxing and I so much wanted to participate but I was naturally timid,” he admitted to me shyly, “I was frightened of being frightened, I suppose – but after my fights I was always so elated, it became like a drug.”
Sammy joined the St George’s Gym in Stepney where his brother trained. “I absolutely loved it but each time I went, I was extremely nervous.” he continued, breaking into his famous radiant smile, “At fifteen I had my first fight and lost on points, so I didn’t tell my father but he found out and cuffed me for not telling him, because he didn’t mind.”
“I had a great following thanks to my two uncles who sold tickets and everybody in the markets bought them because my brother was already well-known. So there used to be coach loads coming to watch me box and I was always top of the bill, not because I was good but because I always sold plenty of tickets.” It was a characteristic piece of self-deprecation from a champion unrivalled in his era.
At nineteen, Sammy turned professional under the stewardship of renowned managers Jarvis Astaire and Ben Schmidt. “Every time I go to West End, I still go to Windmill St and stand outside where the training gym used to be. All the big film stars, like Jean Simmons and John Mills, they used to go there to the weigh-in before a big fight.” he told me proudly.
In spite of his meteoric rise, Sammy was insistent to emphasise his vulnerability. “Everyone’s nervous, but I was petrified, not of fighting but of letting the side down,” he assured me. “I’d rather fight a boxer who thought he could fight but actually couldn’t,” Sammy announced, turning aphoristic and waving a finger,“than a boxer who thought he couldn’t fight but really could.” And I understood that Sammy was speaking of himself in the latter category. “It makes you sharp,” he explained, “your reflexes are very fast.”
‘”I retired at twenty-six, but I didn’t know I was going to retire,” admitted Sammy with a weary smile,“I had to meet these people who were putting a book together about me and it turned out to be the ‘This Is Your Life’ TV programme. It was 1957 and they expected me to announce I was going to retire. I must have been a little disappointed but maybe I hadn’t seen I was slowing down a little.”
Married with two children and amply rewarded by the success of his boxing career, Sammy bought a pub, The Prince of Wales, known as “Kate Odders” in Duckett St, Stepney. You might think that Sammy had achieved fulfilment at last, but it was not so. “I hated every moment because I like home life and as a publican you are always being called upon.” he confessed, “I had a little money and I spent it all unfortunately.”
“My boxing career, it gave me confidence in myself. Boxing made me happy.” Sammy concluded as our conversation reached its natural resolution,” I didn’t enjoy the fights, but I love the social life. You meet the old guys and you realise it’s not about winning, it’s about giving of your best.” Living alone, Sammy leads a modest bachelor existence in a neatly kept one bedroom flat in Wanstead and he meets regularly with other ex-boxers, among whom he is popular character, a luminary.
And that is where this story would have ended – and it would have been quite a different kind of story – if Sammy had not confronted me with an unexpected admission. “I want you to know why I am divorced from my wife and separated from my children,” he announced, colouring with a rush of emotion and looking me in the eye, “I’m telling you, not because I’m boasting about it but because I don’t want you to make me out to be a hero.”
There was a silence as Sammy summoned courage to speak more and I sat transfixed with expectation. “I robbed banks and I stole a lot of money, and I was caught and I was put in prison for years.” he said.
“I think I was too frightened not to do it,” he speculated, qualifying this by saying,“I’m not making excuses.”
“I’m reformed now.” he stated, just to be clear.
“I was alright in prison because I’m comfortable with my own company and I read books to pass the time,” he added, to reassure me.
“But why did you do it?” I asked.
“Because we never had anything,” he replied, almost automatically and with an abject sadness. His lips quivered and he spread his hands helplessly. He had been referring back – I realised – to his childhood in the family of ten. A phrase he said earlier came back into my mind,“I can’t say that I experienced hardship,” he told me,“not by comparison with what my parents went through.”
Subsequently, a little research revealed that Sammy had been convicted three times for armed robbery, and served sentences of three, six and fourteen years. When I think of Smilin’ Sammy now, I think of his sweet smile that matches the Mona Lisa in its equivocation. It is a smile that contains a whole life of fear and pain. It is a smile that knew joy yet concealed secrets. It is a brave smile that manifests the uneasy reconciliation which Sammy has made with the world in the course of his existence.
Smilin’ Sammy McCarthy
Sammy McCarthy, the Stepney Feather, has Peter Morrison against the ropes under a fierce attack at the Mile End Arena.
Sammy McCarthy makes Denny Dawson cover up under a straight left attack.
Jan Maas goes headlong to the canvas after taking a Sammy McCarthy “special” to the chin.
Still smiling! Not even a knockdown can remove the famous smile from Sammy McCarthy, as he goes down for a count of “eight” in the fifth round.
Smilin’ Sammy McCarthy
Boxers, Photographs of Boxing in London by Alex Sturrock with interviews by yours truly was published last week by Ally Capellino
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