To keep myself occupied and in shape, I started training at Eric Wilson’s gym, which was in the old town-hall buildings in Burnley. Prior to Eric’s arrival at the gym, a wrestling club had used it, but he had ‘evicted them’ and encouraged boxers, cyclists, weightlifters and anybody else interested in developing their physique or skills to train there. Eric was 69 years of age and had been involved in boxing all of his life. For his age Eric was very fit. He would work out in the gym and cycle everywhere he went, regardless of the distance. Eric’s home, like his gym, was cleaned with military precision. Everything had its place and everything was spotless. The walls of his home were adorned with his excellent drawings, mainly of Disney characters. Autographed photographs of boxers, famous singers and actors, all in praise of Eric, surrounded the fireplace. He would not listen to any music other than country-and-western, and woe betide anybody who tried to handle his prized record collection.
In his younger years Eric had worked as a bouncer. During one incident he had been blinded in one eye after being stabbed with a drumstick. This made reading and some other tasks difficult, so I would do his weekly shopping, sort out his mail and do anything else that he had problems doing himself. Eric did not seem to be generally liked around Burnley. I think it was because he spoke his mind and didn’t care whom he upset by doing so. That is what I liked about him: his almost brutal no-nonsense approach to life. When Glynn and Joanne were at school, I would take my youngest son, Billy, to Eric’s home. One lens in Eric’s spectacles was made of slightly misted glass to hide his damaged eye. Billy used to drop a coin behind the lens and howl with laughter while shrieking ‘Penny Head’. When it was time to leave, Eric would give Billy a pile of drawings to take home for his brother and sister. Eric really appreciated all I did for him, and I appreciated all he did for the children and me.
In an effort to save money, I would go out in search of work on my bike rather than using the car (and this also helped to keep me fit). One lunchtime after yet another fruitless search I returned home, put my bike in the back garden and walked into the kitchen. It had been my intention to have a cup of tea and a sandwich before resuming my search. As I entered the kitchen, my old khaki-coloured transistor radio was playing some awful ’70s music. David Cassidy, Donny Osmond and the Bay City Rollers all sounded pretty much the same to me: crap. I picked it up to turn it off just as the presenter introduced a guest. ‘Welcome to Radio One, Roy,’ he said. ‘It’s great to have you on the show.’
The man didn’t reply; he grunted. Deciding against turning the radio off, I sat down and listened. Roy turned out to be Roy Shaw, a respected fighter who had made his name on the unlicensed boxing circuit in London. I had heard of Shaw through my good friend Ray Todd, who shared a flat with Brian Jacobs, Shaw’s weight-training partner. Ray had told me that Shaw was an awesome fighter; few that had fought him had lasted more than a round. ‘Despite his record,’ Ray had said, ‘I reckon you could beat him.’
As I sat listening to Shaw on the radio, I started to laugh. Shaw told the presenter that he wanted to fight Muhammad Ali. ‘I could beat him,’ he said. ‘In fact I can beat anybody.’
The presenter, astonished as I was by Shaw’s boasting, asked, ‘Anybody, Roy? Are you claiming that you can beat anybody?’
‘Yes,’ replied Shaw, brimming with confidence. ‘In fact if anybody is prepared to fight me, I will wager £10,000 I’ll beat them.’
I nearly choked on my lunch when I heard this. Here I was, struggling to find work to support my wife and children, and a guy my friend had told me I could beat was promising £10,000 to anybody who could defeat him. At that time the average cost of a house in London was £13,500; today it is approaching £300,000, so the wager Shaw offered was quite substantial by anybody’s standards. I ran out the back door, jumped on my bike and pedalled like fury to the nearest telephone box. ‘Ray, Ray, listen to me,’ I said when my friend picked up the phone. ‘Get in touch with Roy Shaw and tell him your friend Lew has just heard his challenge on Radio One. Tell him that Lew said he wants a part of Roy Shaw. He wants to meet him, beat him and take his ten grand.’ Ray said that he would contact Shaw as soon as possible and get back to me.
When Jean came home, I sat her down and said I had some good news. ‘You’ve found a job, haven’t you, Lew?’ she beamed.
‘Kind of,’ I replied.
Jean’s face displayed her disappointment. ‘Kind of’ could only mean there was some sort of catch. Jean knew the good news would be followed by a devastating big ‘but’. ‘What’s the story then, Lew?’ she asked.
‘I am going to London to fight a guy named Roy Shaw,’ I replied. ‘They say he is the best, but if I beat him, and I know I can, I get £10,000 in prize money.’
Jean was neither excited nor despondent. She just looked up at me and said, ‘If you have to go, Lew, then go.’
The following morning I headed for London. When I arrived at Ray’s flat, I was introduced to Roy Shaw’s friend Brian Jacobs. He told me that he was going to be acting as a go-between for both parties, and I said I had no problem with that. ‘Has Roy ever met you, Lew?’ Brian asked.
‘No, he hasn’t,’ I replied. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘No reason,’ Brian said. ‘I am just looking at the size of you and imagining he hasn’t.’
Moments later Brian left to begin the process of arranging the most lucrative fight of my life. There was not a shadow of doubt in my mind that I would win. I had been training hard at Eric’s gym and every ounce of my 17.5 st. muscular frame was bursting with energy. I was physically and mentally sharp. Eric’s experience, expertise and training skills had perfected my ring craft. With all due respect to Roy Shaw, I didn’t think he stood a chance against me.
When Brian returned from his meeting with Shaw and his manager, I could tell by the expression on his face that my challenge had not been accepted. ‘There’s a problem,’ Brian said. ‘Roy will fight you, but he now wants you to pay £10,000 up front. He will match it, and at the end of the fight it will be winner takes all.’
Shaw couldn’t have hit me as hard as this news hit me. ‘Where the fuck am I going to get £10,000 from? He didn’t say all this when he was on the radio.’
Brian, unable to answer for his friend Shaw, said, ‘That’s what I have been told to tell you, Lew, and more than that I cannot say.’
The journey home to Jean and the children was torture. I was dreading facing them. I had departed with promises of wealth and was returning home empty-handed. My face said it all when Jean opened the door. She didn’t speak; she just hugged me and said, ‘Never mind, Lew, you tried.’ But I had not tried; the fight with Shaw had not taken place. I had been robbed of my chance to succeed.
After just a few days of hanging around the house in a dejected mood, I decided to do something about our intolerable situation. The prospect of finding local work was nil and our debts were mounting. I told Jean that, while in London, Ray had told me there was plenty of work available in the building industry. I had decided to go down there, stay at his flat, work and send money home until the employment situation locally had improved. Neither of us wanted to be apart, but it was a case of needs must, so, with a heavy heart, Jean agreed. That weekend I kissed my wife and the children goodbye and headed back down the motorway to London.
WHEN I ARRIVED IN LONDON, I WENT STRAIGHT TO MY FRIEND RAY’S FLAT IN
Windsor Road, Forest Gate. His flatmate Brian Jacobs had moved out, so Ray had agreed to let me rent his room. After dropping off my meagre possessions, Ray introduced me to a friend of his named Fat Joe, who lived two doors away. I made small talk with Joe and mentioned that I was a keen boxer. Joe said that he was a friend of Terry Lawless’s, one of the most successful managers in British boxing history. At first I thought Joe was winding me up, but he insisted he knew Lawless and told me to go down to his Old Royal Oak Gym in Barking Road, Canning Town, the following day. After being reassured by Ray and Joe that I was not the subject of a practical joke, I said I would go and introduce myself.
When I entered the gym early the next morning, Terry Lawless was standing to my right near a line of shadow-boxing mirrors. I recognised him immediately. The boxer Jim Watt was training nearby. Watt was to become world lightweight champion after Roberto Duran left the title vacant in 1979. He knocked out Alfredo Pitalua in 12 rounds to claim the title. On the walls of the gym there were photographs of other fighters that Lawless had managed, such as John L. Gardner from Hackney, who had thirty-nine fights, winning thirty-five and losing just four. Gardner’s speed and aggression were to take him to the edge of world-class boxing at the turn of the 1980s. He won the British and Commonwealth titles by stopping one of my old opponents, Billy Aird. Gardner also stopped Rudi Gauwe and Lorenzo Zanon, a world-title challenger from Italy, in European title fights. There were also photographs of world welterweight champion John H. Stracey, world light middleweight champion Maurice Hope and Charlie Magri, the world flyweight champion. As I stood there in awe of these great fighters, Lawless approached me. ‘Can I help you?’ he asked.
‘My name is Lew Martindale,’ I replied, ‘and I would like to train at this gym if that’s possible.’
Terry shook my hand, introduced himself and said, ‘I can see you have had cut eyes in the past. It certainly looks as if you have been around a ring before.’
After talking about my boxing record and the various trainers I had worked with, I was told by Terry that I was welcome to train at the gym.
The following evening, while working out and training, Lawless approached me. ‘I have been watching you for a while tonight, Lew,’ he said. ‘It’s obvious that you’re a powerful, skilful fighter. Have you ever thought about turning professional?’
I explained to Terry that I had been through the motions before with Johnny Sullivan but nothing had come of it because Johnny had been denied a management licence. ‘Keep at it, Lew,’ he said. ‘I will certainly be keeping my eye on you. I think you have the makings of a great heavyweight.’
I thanked Terry and asked him if he knew where I could find a bit of door work. I explained that I was struggling to find a job in the construction industry despite assurances from friends that there would be plenty when I arrived in London. Terry suggested that I speak to a Nigerian guy named Jamie, who regularly used the gym. When I contacted Jamie, he said they needed a couple of guys at a club called the Room at the Top in nearby Ilford, Essex. There had been an incident at the club recently that had resulted in a man losing his life. The police were treating the man’s death as murder, and two members of the door staff had been arrested and bailed while enquiries continued. A condition of their bail was that they could not enter the club, so replacement door staff were required. Jamie advised me to go to the club and ask for a guy named Peter Koster.
That evening I drove to Ilford and found Peter sitting at a table in the club. I asked him if he was looking for door staff. Peter replied that he was, shook my hand and asked me my name.
‘Lew Martindale,’ I replied.
Peter looked me up and down and said, ‘Not your real name, Lew. What name do you want to use if you end up working here?’ Doormen back then, for a variety of reasons, including tax avoidance and evading police enquiries following incidents where customers had been hurt, used to give false names to the head doorman. I thought for a moment but couldn’t think of a pseudonym to give to Peter. ‘Any name will do,’ Peter urged.
I suddenly remembered the nickname that other children had given me at school: Rowdy Yates. ‘Yates,’ I said to Peter. ‘You can call me Lew Yates.’
We sat and talked about the various nightclubs that I had worked in and the men I had worked with and boxed in the ring. I liked Peter from the moment I met him. Despite being 6 ft 2 in., weighing 17 st. and being a broad-shouldered, very strong man, he was unusually calm and very diplomatic. I’ve never been able to explain it, but when Peter Koster has something to say, regardless of the situation, people stop what they are doing and listen. Peter said that I sounded as if I knew what I was talking about regarding working on the doors, so I could start work that weekend. ‘I will give you a night this week and see how you get on, Lew. If you’re OK, I will give you more shifts next week.’
On my first night at the Room at the Top club a guy named John Chinnery showed me around. The club was situated approximately 120 ft above the street on top of Ilford shopping centre. Two or three doormen worked at ground level, where a lift, which held nine or ten people, would take customers up to the club. When they got out of the lift, they would enter the main reception area. Beyond that to the right was a restaurant and through a set of glass doors was the main room and dance floor.
It was a trendy club, which attracted in excess of 1,000 people a night at weekends. If there was any trouble in the club or at the front door a ‘panic’ button would be struck by a member of staff, which would illuminate a light on the DJ’s console. The DJ would know which panic button had been pressed by looking at the particular light that was illuminated. He would then announce, ‘Door staff to the front door,’ ‘Door staff to the dance floor,’ or door staff to wherever. It was certainly a well-run club, but it needed to be because of the area it was in. The good people of Ilford were no mugs, and the local hard men were premier division. Times change, fortunately, and these days the Room at the Top is relatively trouble-free, but that wasn’t my experience of it.
Early in the evening during my first shift there was an altercation outside the lift near reception. Three men were refusing to leave and one in particular was getting very aggressive. ‘Leave now or I will knock you out,’ I said.