by Miles Templeton
For the modern fight fan it is remarkably easy to get up-to-date stats on any active British professional boxer. The website boxrec.com contains career stats of every active professional, and this resource has become the dominant source for such data. In fact, with the recent cessation of Barry Hugman's excellent boxing yearbook, there are now no record books published in the UK at all.
To get one's hands on up-to-the-minute data on every professional in Britain at the click of the mouse is probably taken for granted by most current fight fans. But things weren't always that easy.
Prior to the advent of the internet, fight records were only available in print. Since the Second World War there has been a consistent run of reliable record books, and two in particular stand out.
Barry Hugman's Boxing Yearbook was published every year between 1985 and 2010. It was the primary source for up-to-date records, and took over where the Boxing News Annual left off.
The Boxing News Annual was published each year between 1945 and 1984. This and Barry Hugman's record book were a must for anyone following the game. They were the only source of reliable fight records.
Since the mid 1960s these volumes have contained the career record of every active British professional, and so, for anyone with a complete set of these Annuals, the career records of every British fighter of this period are available.
Before the Second World War the picture was very different. Most of the many thousands of professionals active before 1945 never saw their career record in print. There were fighters who had 100 and more professional contests, men who boxed for British titles and men who were household names whose records have never been published. Only the very best were lucky enough to have had their contests listed within the few record books that were available up to 1939.
This article charts the development of the boxing record book in Britain and pays tribute to that small band of statisticians who produced the records. It is intended to complement the forthcoming publication on boxinghistory.org.uk of the career record of every British Champion between 1909 and 1945 - the first time this has ever been done.
In the opening years of the 20th century there were no specialist boxing magazines at all. The Mirror of Life was the only weekly newspaper dedicated mainly to the noble art. This publication reported on most of the big contests from up and down the land and it frequently carried pen pictures of the leading boxers of the day. These articles often contained lists of the contests the boxers had taken part in, although precise dates and venues were usually excluded. They were, I believe, the first example of boxing records that were made available to the followers of the sport.
The Sporting Life, primarily a racing paper, also carried a large number of reports of boxing matches, and it was this publication that led the way when it published the first record book in 1910. This book contained records of the leading boxers up to October 1909. There were 106 boxers who were described as 'English' which, oddly enough, included Welsh, Scottish and Irish fighters, as well as some Americans who were active at the time in the UK. The records were by far the best published up to that time but were also far from complete. Records for some of the leading American and Australians were also in the book, which was available in softback for twopence and hardback for sixpence direct from The Sporting Life at St Bride Street, London. It's publication was well received and the following year a second book was produced containing fighters records up to October 1910. This appears to have sold less well and surviving copies are harder to find than the 1909 edition.
In 1914, Boxing, which had, since its establishment in 1909, become the leading specialist boxing newspaper in the country, published its own record book. This was a more ambitious booklet than the The Sporting Life's. It contained the records of nearly two hundred fighters up to 30 June 1914 and was priced at one shilling. The emphasis was primarily on the leading British boxers but space was found for those from the USA, Australia and France. As well as the boxing records, the book contained lists of ABA Champions, Public Schools Champions, Navy and Army Champions, the Inter-Varsity Champions, plus a list of the leading referees. Once again the records were reasonably accurate and were drawn from the many fight reports published in the weekly magazine. The 1914 edition was intended to be the first of a series of annual publications. But its launch, in July 1914, coincided almost exactly with the outbreak of the Great War and so the plans for the publication of the 1915 edition on 15th January 1915 were scuppered.
A second Boxing record book was published in 1921. Similar in size and scope to the 1914 edition, the records were accurate up to May 1921. The book was available for two shillings and sixpence and in the foreword it was stated 'The compilation has occupied a large and expert staff nearly two years. Every entry has been checked and cross-checked with the utmost care. The next issue of this book will be made on the 31st January 1922 and will contain the records down to 31st December 1921. After this the book will be published annually on 31st January'.
The Sporting Life attempted to re-invigorate its attempt to record the careers of the leading boxers in 1923 when it published its third booklet. This was the last such effort and, despite retailing at 1/6d for a 160 page booklet, it did not sell well. For the next 15 years, the busiest time in the history of British boxing, with the exception of a small booklet produced by the newly formed Welsh Board of Control, no records were published in book form at all, and very few were printed in the trade paper Boxing.
It wasn't until 1936 that any detailed records reappeared when Laurence Mahon, a contributor to the Topical Times started to produce a series of records not only for active boxers but also the ex British Champions. The Topical Times was primarily a football paper. Published weekly in Scotland by DC Thompson, it usually contained four or five pages of boxing gossip. As well as being a good resource for boxers' photographs, it contained some excellent records by Mahon.
Commencing on 29 February 1936 with the records of Jackie Brown and Ernie Roderick, the editor stated that “this is the beginning of the most amazing fight record ever compiled, and we will give to you week by week the record of all of the stars of the fight game for the past forty years. Each record is complete in every detail. The collection of this record is the work of Mr Lawrence Mahon. This is what the fight fan has been asking for for years, and now 'Topical Times' is presenting it, the most unique record of fighters in Britain today”. From 1936 to 1939 records appeared every week in this magazine and they were the best records produced up to that time.
At around this time the National Boxing Association was established. This organisation was originally known as the National Union of Boxers and was renamed in 1937, two years after the original Union was founded. The general secretary of the Association was Harry Flower and he stated that “the driving force which inspired the founders was an enthusiastic ambition to restore to Britain the world leadership in boxing which she once enjoyed”. The NBA started to produce very detailed rankings of the leading British boxers by geographic area and, in doing so, it saw the need for accurate records to be maintained and so they commissioned a young journalist with an interest in the sport, Geoffrey W Bardsley, to produce a record book on their behalf. British Boxing Records 1939 became the best selling record book up to that time. It was a wonderful little book and copies of it can sometimes be found on ebay. This was the first record book I owned and it inspired me to become interested in the boxers of the 1930s.
Once again, war intervened and no further copies were produced. Geoffrey Bardsley emigrated to Australia to run a sheep farm and whilst he remained interested in British boxers and boxing generally, he produced no more record books. After the war the Boxing News Annual became hugely popular and the Boxing News itself regularly published records of old-time fighters, particularly the ex-champions.
For the very many thousands of old-time fighters who never reached the top, no records were ever published, and it was left to enthusiastic historians to produce their records. John Knowles, Vic Hardwicke and Harold Alderman were the pioneers in this field, and the records that they produced, with support from historians including John Martin, Fred Heatley, Brian Strickland and Graham Grant, have been sought by old-timers since the 1960s. In the mid 1960s Boxing News started to produce a regular series of old timers' records and for the first time men like Jim Lawlor, George Marsden, Bill Hardy, Len Tiger Smith and Benny Caplan could see their achievements catalogued. These records were largely the work of Vic and Harold in particular.
In 1986 the British Boxing Yearbook produced the records of every British champion, and this was, I believe, the first time they had been published collectively. Due to space limitations only the title contests were listed in full - all other bouts contained only the name of the opponent, the year and the outcome. The complete records of all of these champions have only, therefore, been part published; there are still some champions of the time whose detailed career records have never been seen.
Boxinghistory.org.uk will put that right. Between 2011 and 2013 the records of every British Champion between 1909 and 1948 will be published. These records have been produced by Richard Ireland and myself and they will contain a large number of previously unpublished contests that have only been unearthed in recent years. The compilation of these records will be completed by Richard Ireland and myself and we will cross-check our research with fellow-historian Harold Alderman where necessary.