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Sylvester Mittee, Welterweight Champion

August 5, 2019
by the gentle author

This interview and photographs were commissioned by Ally Capellino and are published in a booklet entitled BOXERS. Free copies are available from press@allycapellino.co.uk

Sylvester Mittee by Alexander Sturrock

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 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

Photographs copyright © Alexander Sturrock

You may also like to read my interview with

Sammy McCarthy, Flyweight Champion Boxer

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina permalink
    August 5, 2019

    A tenacious fighter and an artist. Bless him!

  2. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    August 5, 2019

    You sound great!

  3. Ian Silverton permalink
    August 5, 2019

    Great boxer Great Guy Great Story, but what went wrong? Still in Bethnal Green living it looks like in a council flat, reads like something or somebody or both have let him down,could be the country he tried to help and make it his own, more up date please on this Ex British Champion Boxer think we need to know and learn IMHO that is of this respected citizen. Have a great day UK.

  4. August 5, 2019

    A colourful character who’s fighting his way through life – that’s the way to go! Valerie

  5. aubrey permalink
    August 5, 2019

    Nice one. I used get blinded with a migraine but with advanced ageing I have found that it has more or less, disappeared. The frequencies of the occurrence become fewer – in my experience.

  6. Eric Forward permalink
    August 5, 2019

    Ian, I would suggest nothing has gone wrong. London is an expensive place to live unfortunately, and none of us know anything about Sylvester’s finances, so best not to judge in my opinion. What is obvious is that the man was a champion in boxing and is a champion in life. He’s one of the few that continues to give more than what he takes through his work & life.

  7. eastendbutcher permalink
    August 5, 2019

    Also visited Sylvester at his flat in Hackney along with my Dad. My Dad was a big boxing fan and Sylvester gave him a lot of old books and programmes to read when he came out of Hospital. Great fighter, great character!

  8. Pamela Traves permalink
    August 5, 2019

    I Love Boxing and this was Great to Read. What a Wonderful Man!!

  9. John Munday permalink
    August 6, 2019

    No mention of the Crown and Manor Club where Sylvester laced his first pair of gloves and later excelled. In his early days at the club I remember him always with a cheeky grin and the time I had cause to reprimand him for kicking a ball in the gym when weightlifting was taking place. A good lad (some of the time).

  10. Saba permalink
    August 7, 2019

    Sylvester, thank you for sharing your time with us!
    GA, do you get migraines often? If so — mine have been cured with botox treatments, a new life for me.

  11. Danny Birch permalink
    December 31, 2019

    Sylvester and I grew up in Hoxton together we both went to Lion Boys Club, where he started his boxing before going on to the Crown and Manor. I went to see many of his fights at the York Hall and Albert Hall.

    What a lovely guy!

  12. Pat brogan permalink
    April 20, 2020

    Sylvester boxed for me a couple of times wat a great guy no chips on his shoulder great example to younger guys one of my favourite people

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