The last days of two old Kids
Stories of proud, popular and admired fighters who became wealthy but spent their last days in a dirty little room are part and parcel of boxing.
Another of those sad tales is poignantly described in an unusual book with an unusual title, This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own – a journey to the end of boxing.
The author is Jonathan Rendall, who studied at Oxford and represented the university at boxing.
Rendall, who was born in 1964, was 19 when he first went to watch fights at Wembley, the Albert Hall and Bethnal Green.
“The ticket buyers would turn up for any promotion; not just big fights,” he recalls. “They were knowledgeable. They always clapped when a boxer who was in trouble turned his man on the ropes. They liked to see a puncher, but they could appreciate a pure boxer too.”
Rendall’s observations, scene-setting and descriptions make for delightful reading.
“Every newspaper had a specialist boxing correspondent, and sometimes even two. The boxing writers sat down at one side of the ring. They each had an old typewriter and a black telephone. There were no ring-card girls. The number of the next round was carried around the ring by a man. In the minute’s break between rounds, the clackety-clack of old typewriters drifted up to the gods as the boxing writers hammered away with two fingers, with the phone receiver tucked under their chins.”
Rendall tells of his romance with the sport, as a boy and as a boxing writer, and about the time he managed Colin “Sweet C” McMillan on his way to the WBO featherweight title.
Among the most striking parts of the book are his recollections of his meetings with the 80-year-old former world junior welterweight champion Jack Kid Berg, a renowned ladies’ man, and the ailing former world junior lightweight champion Kid Chocolate, a Cuban.
The first time he went to meet Berg, who was known in his fighting days as The Whitechapel Windmill, the old-timer was not at home at the prearranged time.
Berg’s daughter Stephanie opened the door and said, “I hope you know what you are getting into … My father can be a very difficult man … he can be a bit relentless.”
Relentless he was, but Rendall spent many hours with him and they even travelled to America to visit Harlem and the old Polo Grounds where Berg had been in the 1930s.
Harlem proved to be a shock to Berg. It had changed drastically since he had fought in the United States. The Polo Grounds had been demolished and had become a rather downtrodden area.
Rendall used to meet Berg in Cable Street in London before the Docklands development had begun in earnest. Even though his last fight was in 1945, Berg was amazed when people said they did not know who he was.
THE CUBAN BON BON
Kid Chocolate, who was known as The Cuban Bon Bon, grew up in a poor area of Havana. As a boy he used to fight on the streets in what was called Battles Royale.
The spectators were mainly white and there was money to be made. Up to ten boys were blindfolded and put into a ring where they fought until there was only one left to take the money.
Chocolate, who fought from 1928 to 1938, took part in 148 professional fights and became a wealthy man who at one time owned six cars.
Shortly before Chocolate died in August 1988, Rendall went to visit him in Cuba. After a long search he found the former fighter in desperate circumstances in a dilapidated old house.
“The door inched open to reveal a bare-footed old man wearing a torn cotton shirt and a pair of trousers held up by a piece of string. The walls were dotted with boxing mementos, but some had fallen down and lay on the floor. With the shutters closed, the light was dim and the air was thick and sour,” Rendall recalls in his book.
His last memory of Chocolate was seeing the ailing man’s son leading him to his bedroom with its urine-stained mattress, half covered by a dirty sheet, and a pile of human faeces on the floor.
Six weeks later Kid Chocolate was dead.
Rendall later became an investigative journalist and became disillusioned with boxing; partly because of the violence – not inside the ring but manifested by casual threats of violence outside the ring.
The book, an unusual but commendable boxing story, is a hardback, published by Faber and Faber. It has 186 pages.