Sylvester Mittee, Welterweight Champion
It is my pleasure to publish this interview with Sylvester Mittee that I contributed to BOXERS, Photographs of Boxing in London by Alex Sturrock , a large format colour book recently published by Ally Capellino. A few copies signed by 1976 Montreal Olympic veteran Sylvester Mittee and by 1948 London Olympic veteran Ron Cooper are available by clicking here.
I shall never forget my visit to Sylvester Mittee, unquestionably one of the most charismatic and generous of interviewees. We met in his multicoloured flat in Hackney where Sylvester keeps his collection of hats that he waterproofs by painting with the excess gloss paint left over from decorating his walls. During the course of our interview I began to go blind due to a migraine, yet Sylvester cured me by pummelling my back as a form of massage. Thanks to Sylvester’s therapy, I was bruised for weeks afterwards but my migraine was dispelled, and I came away with this remarkable interview.
“666 is my birth number, and my mother got scared until a priest told her that 666 is God’s number. I was called “spirit” back then. My mother, she went to the marketplace a few months before I arrived. She told people she could already feel me kicking and they said, “I think it’s the devil you got in there!”
My father was born in 1906, he was a very sober man and he liked to give beatings. He especially liked to beat me and I learnt to take it. He came to Britain from St Lucia in 1961, he’s passed away now. My mother still lives in St Lucia, she was born in 1926, she’s a tough old girl.
1966, 1976 and 1986 were important years for me, and at school nobody got more sixes than I did. Six is the number of truth and love and enlightenment. The only time I believed six was unlucky was when I was ill and life wasn’t happening for me.
I’ve been fighting for my life since I stepped off that banana boat at Southampton in 1962. Does a banana boat sound primitive? Ours had air-conditioning and a swimming pool.
My dad worked his bollocks off, doing everything he could to keep us alive. At first, he had a place in Hackney, then he rented a little run-down one bedroom flat in Bethnal Green, with my parents in one room and eight kids in the other, two girls and six boys. We had to live very close in them days. I came from St Lucia with my mum and dad in 1962 and my four sisters came in 1964 and my remaining four brothers in 1966.
When I came to England racism was bare. The kids in the playground ganged up on me and outnumbered me and they attacked me. Nobody did anything about it, parents, teachers, nobody. There was etiquette in fighting back home, but there was none of that in England. I was taught that you let people get up and you don’t hit people when they are down. But, if somebody hits you, you hit them back – that’s how I was brought up. I had to learn to fight. And I had to be good at it to survive. I had no choice. I fought to live and boxing became my life.
Before I knew how to reason, boxing was a short cut. The demons that you have inside, they control you unless you can think in a philosophical way. Boxing becomes a microcosm of the world when you are exposed to the extreme highs and lows of this life.
The experiences that boxing gave me have allowed me to grow. I’m like a tree and the punches I throw are the leaves I drop, so boxing is like photosynthesis for me. I fulfill my immediate needs, but I can also recognise my greater needs, and it is a chance to grow stronger.
Boxing is an opportunity to profess your philosophy through your actions and discover who you truly are. We are born into a part in life and expected to play our part bravely, and I am playing my part as good as I can. Boxing taught me how to grasp life. But the achievement is not in the winning, the enterprise will only hurt you if you seek perfection. I was European Welterweight Champion, but I say boxing just helped me get my bearings in life.
The boys in the playground who beat me, they were the ones who bought tickets to see me fight and they were cheering me on, supporting me. It gave me heart. I like to think it changed them, made them better people. I am a youth worker now in Hackney, and I also go to old people’s homes to do fitness classes and mobility exercises. Those kids that fought me in the playground and beat me, they live around me still. Now they are grown up and I work with some of their kids, and they come to me and tell me their parents remember me from school.”
Sylvester Mittee, European Welterweight Champion 1985.
Sylvester in his living room.
Sylvester on the cover of Boxing New 1985.
A few copies of BOXERS, PHOTOGRAPHS OF BOXING IN LONDON signed by 1948 London Olympic veteran Ron Cooper and by 1976 Montreal Olympic veteran Sylvester Mittee are available here
Photographs copyright © Alex Sturrock
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