Don Atyeo, the
journalist, stood nearby taking notes, and Carrington saw him. ‘Take no notice of them,’ he said. ‘Lew Yates can’t see out of either eye in there, and they say it’s fixed? Come on, let’s go celebrate.’
Neither Roy Shaw nor I had cause to celebrate that night. It seemed obvious to me that the art of boxing, which had been my lifelong love, had been dragged into the gutter and shamed by faceless men motivated by money. I may have lost in their eyes, but I firmly believe the best man walked away from that fight with the support of everyone in the crowd who witnessed it. The fighter who had been crowned king was little more than an impostor.
I WAS BORN ON 3 JUNE 1945 AT 105 EDGEWORTH STREET, SUTTON OAK,
St Helens in Lancashire. The German Army had surrendered to the Allies in Europe four weeks earlier. The war, everyone said, was finally over. For me, though, war had just been declared: Lewis Martindale was going to take on anybody that stood in his way.
St Helens is situated 12 miles from Liverpool and 25 miles from Manchester at the heart of the north-west’s busy motorway network. The borough comprises the town itself and smaller settlements such as Haydock, Newton-le-Willows and Billinge. Two-thirds of the area is rural land. Famous for its glass factory, Haydock Park horse-racing track, all-conquering Saints rugby club and little else, opportunities for its inhabitants were and are, at best, limited. My father, William Martindale, was a keen rugby player and more than capable of holding his hands up (fighting) if he had to. Bill, as he preferred to be called, was a hard-working, decent, down-to-earth man whom everybody in our neighbourhood liked. I am extremely proud and privileged to have had him as my father. Times were tough for everybody after the war: unemployment was high; jobs and money were scarce. In an effort to make ends meet, my father undertook an array of jobs, the most unusual of which was breeding mice. The garden shed always held up to 350 of these creatures. Once or twice a week my father would pack some of them into boxes and cycle to towns as far away as Widnes and Wigan, where he would sell them to pet shops for nine pence each. My mother, Gwen, was Welsh and had a very quick temper. I inherited her temperament and the name of her father, Lewis.
I have one elder brother named Jim and two younger sisters named Jean and Barbara. I was particularly close to my sister Jean. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s because she was the baby of the family when I was growing up. I was extremely protective of her. Would-be boyfriends were often warned off with a menacing stare or a word of advice in their ear.
Home was a two-bedroomed terraced house with a huge back garden. The ‘street’ we lived on was in fact a dirt track rather than a tarmacked road. When it rained, which was more often than not in the north-west, the track was reduced to a flowing river of mud. The local children loved playing in it, while house-proud mothers in the neighbourhood cursed it. Mum and Dad slept in the front bedroom of the house; Jim, Jean and I in the back bedroom. (Barbara was yet to be born.)
At the age of five I started school at St Anne’s Roman Catholic Primary on Monastery Lane. The school’s current mission statement bears little resemblance to the mindset of its governors in my day: ‘Our challenge is to build a lively school community on the foundation of shared Christian beliefs and values. In this community each child will be encouraged to develop their talents to the full.’
The only thing I was ever any good at was fighting, both in and out of the ring. I was certainly not encouraged to develop my particular talent at school. One of my earliest memories is of me fighting with another lad in the playground. I was five and he was six. I punched him as hard as I could in the head and he ran away crying. A nun grabbed me by the hair and marched me into the main school building. I was taken to a dormitory, which had several beds in it. A coal fire heated the room, but it was rarely lit. From the mantlepiece hung a thick leather belt with a large metal buckle. Unruly or disobedient children were usually flogged with the leather strap of the belt, but for some reason I was thrashed with the buckle. The steel pin cut and blistered me so badly I had difficulty walking for days. That is the way problem children were dealt with back then.
Spare the rod and spoil the child, they would say. Sick perverted bastards. Because my elders had just endured the horrors of a bloody world war they seemed to think the use of threats and violence was the way to maintain order. Right or wrong, threats and violence were undoubtedly the preferred instruments of control. When my mother saw the injuries that the nun had inflicted upon me, she was horrified. Mum made her feelings known to the school governors and I was moved to Robins Lane non-Catholic school shortly afterwards. I knew from that first beating that school was never going to be beneficial for me, nor was I ever going to be of any use to it. Using violence was apparently acceptable when punishing children, but children following their elders’ example were thrashed and demonised. It’s hardly a justifiable policy. I have always loathed bullies, and I saw those nuns as nothing more than power-crazed thugs.
One day I got into an argument with a group of boys outside my home. The most vocal, Wilf Peel, pushed me in the chest and a fight started. Wilf and I stood toe to toe trading punches; neither one of us was prepared to give any ground. I sidestepped a left hook from Wilf and, as his fist whistled past my head, I caught him with a good right hand to the chin. He looked at me in disbelief before crashing to the floor, where he remained motionless until his friends helped him to his feet. The fight had taken place outside my Uncle Bob’s house, who, unbeknown to me, had been watching from his living-room window. When Uncle Bob came out and called me to him, I thought I was going to be told off, but to my surprise he said the punch that floored Wilf was one of the best he had seen a young boy throw. Uncle Bob had seen plenty of young boys throw plenty of punches. He ran a boxing club named the Roundhouse, which was situated above a local pub of the same name. Uncle Bob, or Robert Jones as he was known to others, was an ex-boxer whose nose meandered aimlessly across his face, the result of taking too many punches.
Bob was a giant of a man who reminded me of the comic-book character Desperate Dan, except Bob didn’t have Dan’s large beer gut. ‘If you can punch like that, Lewis, you ought to take up boxing,’ Uncle Bob said. ‘Come down the gym with me tomorrow and we will see what you can do.’
To gain access to the gym, I had to climb a ladder, which was fastened to the wall. At the top of the ladder was a trapdoor, which I had to use all of my strength to push open. It fell to the floor with a crash, sending a cloud of dust into the air. In the room I climbed into were punchbags, weights, skipping ropes, the odd medicine ball and a boxing ring. Uncle Bob showed me how to block punches, land punches, duck, weave and move around the ring to avoid an opponent. I loved every minute of the hours we spent in the gym that day and every day thereafter. Boxing became my life; every spare moment I had was spent training. Shortly afterwards my enthusiasm infected my brother Jim, and he began training with me. Once while sparring, I hit him so hard that he flew out of the ring via the bottom and middle rope. Unfortunately the trapdoor, which was only about 3 or 4 ft from the ringside, had been left open. Everybody thought that Jim was going to disappear head first down it. As I watched him slide across the floor to a certain death, all I could think was what on earth was I going to tell Mum and Dad? Fortunately Jim, dazed but uninjured, ground to a halt with his head hanging precariously over the large drop.
I trained at Uncle Bob’s gym until I was eight years old. A row with my parents concerning my reluctance to attend church and Sunday school brought my boxing career to an abrupt halt. I had said I wasn’t going to attend church, and they said if I didn’t, I couldn’t go to the gym, and that was that. Neither party was prepared to give an inch. Uncle Bob tried in vain to make me see sense, but, like my mother, I was fiery tempered and extremely stubborn.
Giving in to their demands was accepting defeat, and that’s something Lew Martindale has never and will never do. Being out of the ring didn’t mean I could no longer fight. There were countless contenders at school who were trying to make a name for themselves. Few, if any, were familiar with the Queensberry Rules and the noble art of boxing. During a gardening class a boy I was arguing with tried to hit me across the head with a shovel. I retaliated by pinning his foot to the ground with a gardening fork. He did a deranged one-legged dance before falling to the floor, where he screamed loudly while clutching his impaled foot. Incident after incident resulted in me spending more time outside the headmaster’s office waiting to be punished than I did in class. My behaviour earned me the nickname ‘Rowdy Yates’, who was a character played by Clint Eastwood in the television series
. It was about a group of cattle drovers and their weekly adventures as they tried to guide a herd of cattle up the Chisholm trail from Texas to Kansas. ‘Rowdy Yates’ was always getting into fights and was described by TV critics at the time as a hot-headed punk. It was a nickname I thoroughly deserved.
At the age of ten I asked my parents if I could take up boxing again. They could see that I was going to end up in trouble for the rest of my life if I didn’t have somewhere to channel the vast amounts of aggressive energy I had. For that reason, and that reason alone, they relented. Before Mum and Dad had finished lecturing me, I was out the back door, on my bike and pedalling like fury to the Britannia Boxing Club in Peasley Cross, St Helens. The club was housed in an old church building, which had a huge spiral metal staircase that led to the gym. Mr Owens, a slim but muscular man in his 30s, was the trainer. I can remember walking in and seeing all these big men hitting punchbags alongside kids my age. I was buzzing – a church where the congregation came to practise the same thing I believed in: violence!
Mr Owens asked me if I had any experience, and I told him I had done a bit with my uncle. ‘We train here three times a week,’ he said, ‘Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Go home, get your kit sorted out and we will see you next week.’ Riding home, I was bursting with excitement. I could not wait for the weekend to end so that I could pull on my gloves and climb into a ring again. From that first Monday onwards I was at the Britannia Club training three times a week without fail. I was always the first person to arrive and always the last to leave. Mr Owens, realising just how keen I was, even gave me the gym key so I could go in earlier and leave later. I would park my bike up at the front door and use this huge old medieval-looking key to let myself in. Switching on the fluorescent lights, I would have to stand in the darkness while they flickered madly before finally coming on and flooding the room in light. All the boys used to say that the back room was haunted. It was full of old books, half the windows were missing and the wind would howl through it. It really was scary for a boy of my age. I would stop pounding the punchbag or stop skipping, thinking I had heard voices or footsteps on the concrete stairs. I never could really relax until I heard the front door crash open and Mr Owens call out, ‘Lewis Martindale, are you up there, lad?’
At the age of 11 I had my first competitive fight for the Britannia Boxing Club. I was matched against a boy who had 14 previous fights under his belt, and I was warned that he had given a good account of himself in all of them. To be honest, I was totally outclassed and beaten on points fair and square. For the first two rounds I was punching him all around the ring, but he kept backing away and wouldn’t go over. By the time the bell went to signal the start of the third round, I was exhausted, and so my opponent was able to jab and score points almost at his leisure.
After the fight Mr Owens was furious. He ranted and raved, saying I should have paced myself and could have won if I had done so. Defeat was not something I had experienced before; it wasn’t something I intended to experience again. Training just three nights a week was never going to be enough to make my dream of becoming a champion come true. Next door but one from our house lived a man named Mr Keeley. A quiet thickset balding man in his 40s, Mr Keeley was a keen boxing and rugby fan who kept himself extremely fit. After regularly seeing me leave home with my kit to go training, Mr Keeley called me over one day and asked me if I enjoyed boxing. For the next hour we stood talking about the sport we both loved. When I told him about the defeat I had suffered, he advised me not only to train but to attend boxing matches so I could watch, learn from others and, more importantly, get used to the atmosphere of a fight, because so many good boxers get into the ring and become distracted by the noise and crowd and end up losing. ‘I will take you to a boxing match if you like, Lewis,’ he said.
The following Saturday Mr Keeley took me to Lowe House Boxing Club in Halefield Street, St Helens. I will never forget walking in there with him. The walls were covered in photographs of men and boys boxing, and numerous glistening trophies were displayed in cabinets. Formed by Father Robert Finnemore in the early 1930s, Lowe House had produced some great fighters. In 1951 Bill Connor had become the ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) light welterweight champion (Mr Connor is the current secretary of Lowe House Boxing Club) and in 1960 Johnny Ould became the ABA light heavyweight champion. Other boxers who honed their pugilistic skills at Lowe House range from Jimmy Molloy and Jack Hughes to former British light middleweight champion, now Hollywood star, Gary Stretch. Sitting in that smoke-filled room hearing the crowd roar their approval as two men slugged it out in the ring filled me with excitement. The buzz I got from being there has never really gone away. The thrill of boxing infected me, and I have never wanted to be cured.