“Liverpool is the pool of life. It makes to live.”- Carl Jung
Anfield and Goodison, The Beatles and the Mersey. Liver birds, the grand national and the world famous accent. Diverse culture and impeccable individuals are around every corner. Liverpool is as unique a city as any you will find on this planet.
World class football and music though are not it’s only exports, a deadly parade of fighters too, have set sail from the Albert dock to conquer the world of boxing.
Fighting is in the very blood of the city, you don’t have to walk far from Lime Street Station to find the city's rich boxing history. Legendary amateur clubs like the Rotunda and the Red Triangle might have the most history but now there is boxing everywhere as the city boasts 22 amateur boxing clubs from Speke to Crosby.
The story of professional boxing in the city though, starts with the Legendary Nel Tarleton. Born on 14 February 1906, Tarleton would win the British featherweight title three times, fight in New York and challenge for a world title against all time great Freddie Miller.
Nel became a cult hero in Liverpool, becoming an enormous celebrity. When it came time for him to rematch his arch rival Johnny Cuthbert he sold out Anfield Stadium with his passionate fans.
Cuthbert v Tarleton programme
While Tarleton was ruling featherweight, another scouser, Earnie Roderick, was dominating at both welterweight and middleweight, winning both Lonsdale belts. He beat hall of famer Jack ‘Kid’ Berg and even took on the best pound for pound fighter in the world at that time Henry Armstrong. In the 1930’s, Liverpool ran british boxing.
In the late 50’s early 60’s, Liverpool also played host to a champion who is not just an honorary scouser but an all time great at both Middleweight and Light Heavyweight; Dick Tiger.
Unable to live in his native Nigeria due to the long running Biafran war, he got on a boat to the closest boxing city, he found Liverpool. Tiger won the middleweight, light heavyweight and two fighter of the year honours while training and fighting out of the city.
Tiger might have got the international headlines, but it was proud Dingle lad Alan Rudkin that captured the imagination of the people.
Alan swept up every domestic honour in sight, British, Commonwealth & European titles at Bantamweight, as well as British title at Featherweight, twice beating the legendary Walter McGowan.
He then moved on to challenge two of the most fearsome bantamweights in all of history. Japan’s Fighting Harada and Mexico’s Ruben Olivares. Although beaten by Olivaries, he fought gallantly against Harada and most thought he won.
Despite not getting the decision he was still welcomed home as a folk hero. In 1973 he was awarded an MBE and remained a legendary figure in the city until his passing in 2010.
Tarleton, Roderick,Tiger and Rudkin all fought in the ‘Liverpool Stadium’. Opened in 1932 the stadium on St. Paul's Square, Bixteth Street, became an integral part of boxing in England, playing host to hundreds of boxing matches. Specifically designed to house boxing the foundation stone was laid by Lord Lonsdale himself, father of British boxing.
Alan Rudkin and the Liverpool Arena
Although it was demolished in 1987, it would play host to one last great Liverpudlian champion before its closure. John Conteh.
Born in Toxteth on 27th of May 1951, John Conteh was undoubtedly one of the greatest fighting sons of Merseyside. His path to the top was meteoric. Only two years after turning professional, in 1973, he won the British and European Light Heavyweight titles. Just one year later, in 1974, he would win the WBC World title.
Stunning defences against Yaqui López and Len Hutchins followed, where he showed a sublime mix of boxing skill and raw power. Although his career ended with personal issues and losses to Mate Parlov and Mathhew Saad Muhammad, Conteh is still boxing royalty in Liverpool.
The King, John Conteh
While Conteh was performing at the highest level, the frequency with which Liverpool boxers found success increased. Toxteth’s George Turpin won a bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Kirkby’s Joey Singleton won the British light welterweight title.
Conteh’s success meant that more and more kids were picking up boxing gloves and finding boxing gyms.
Kirkby’s Paul Hodkinson, won British, European and world titles at Featherweight in the 1990’s, Kensington’s Shea Neary held the WBU light-welterweight title from 1996 to 2000 until he took on Irish Mickey Ward. Andy Holligan won two British titles and even challenged superstar Julio César Chávez.
Liverpool boxing was on fire. As successive Conservative governments implemented the 'managed decline' of Liverpool, more families suffered, but more kids found solace in boxing.
In a sport as tough as this, affluence doesn’t breed success, instead a hard upbringing breeds tough and durable fighters.
The new millennium saw those born in the tough 1980’s turning professional. Anfield's Derry Matthews turned professional in 2003 and won British and Commonwealth belts, twice challenging for a world title. He now runs a popular gym in Center of Liverpool training fighters.
2003 also saw the debut of Paul Smith Jr. The first of a family that would come to embody boxing in the city, Liverpool’s other Fab Four, the fighting Smith brothers. Four brothers from Kirkdale; Paul, Stephen, Liam and Callum, all of whom have won British Titles, two of whom have become world champions.
A warrior tribe, the brothers have taken on a killer's row of some of the 21st century's great fighters including; Canelo Alvarez, Andre Ward, George Groves and Jose Pedraza.
The Beijing Olympics brought another scouse superstar in the form of the hulking super heavyweight, West Derby’s David Price. On the back of European and Commonwealth gold, he won bronze at the Olympic Games, only losing to 3 time Olympian Roberto Cammarelle.
Although the professional side of the game has proved a more up and down affair for Price he still won British and commonwealth belts by way of stunning knockout
Next in the story of Liverpool boxing came a man who would tie football and boxing closer than anyone since Tarelton, but this time on the other side of Stanley park.
Wavertree’s Tony Bellew won British and Commonwealth titles and had two shots at a world light heavyweight title, but his big break came at cruiserweight. In 2016, 85 years after Tarelton boxed at Anfield, Bellew fought for a world title at Goodison Park, the home of Everton football club.
Bellew and his beloved Goodison
Knocking out Illunga Makabu in front of his home fans propelled Bellew to national acclaim and earnt him three back to back mega fights. Two epic pay per view fights with David Haye followed, both of which he won by knockout. Then one final roll of the dice against pound for pound star Oleksander Usyk.
Bellew retired in 2018 but he left a Liverpool boxing scene as strong as it has been at any time in history.
Rocky Fielding from Stockbridge Village, won a world title and fought Canelo. Callum, the youngest Smith brother is the reigning ring magazine super middleweight champion. Natasha Jonas, who was among the first women to box at the Olympics, recently fought to a draw in her world title tilt.
Paul Butler, James Jazza Dickens, and Martin Murray have all had cracks at the big time, fighting for the highest honours in the sport against some of its biggest names and continue to pursue them.
A parade of young professionals too are campaigning out of Liverpool. Shea Neary’s son, JJ Metcalf, fan favourite Anthony Fowler and former British champion Robbie Davies Jr are all on the verge of fighting for big titles.
Prospects like Peter McGrail, Nick Ball, Thomas Whittaker-Hart, Meshech Speare, Blane Hyland and James Heneghan are all finding their feet in the boxing game, looking to be the champions of tomorrow.
2021 Olympic Hopeful Peter McGrail
Liverpool is a city of fighting people, of smiling and joking through hard knocks. That has always translated to success inside the squared circle. To some of the bravest and gutsiest performances we have ever been treated to.
From Bold St to Lark Lane, from St George’s Hall to Sefton Park, from Penny Lane to Matthew Street, boxing is everywhere, a stitch in the social fabric of Liverpool, as essential as music or football. As quintessentially scouse as a joke told over a pint in the Baltic fleet.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx as Part of the Fight Cities Series.