YOU won’t find many households with a picture of Winston Churchill on the mantlepiece in Tonypandy, South Wales. For it was here in this once fiercely proud mining town that Churchill deployed the British army to quash an uprising by striking miners in 1910 when he was home secretary.
The Tonypandy Riots occupy a proud place in the history of the British working class and an ignoble one in the history of the country’s ruling class. They also put paid to the cult of Winston Churchill, a man twisted by hatred of those who refused to know their place of him in the perverse hierarchy of human worth which consumed his being of him.
In 1913, just three years after the riots, a child was born in Tonypandy who would grow up to become one of the most illustrious fighters that Wales and Britain ever produced. His name was Tommy Farr.
The “Tonypandy Terror” was a child of flesh and blood whose character was forged by abject poverty and the bitter legacy of the 1910 riots. The son of a bare knuckle fighter, Farr’s education in the “art” of fighting began as a child with the organized bare knuckle fights he himself participated in against his peers in large ditches specially dug in the slag heaps that punctuated the town. The small change he received from the men spectating at these arranged illegal bouts he handed over to his mother de el, whose life was a permanent struggle to keep food in the stomachs of eight kids.
In 1926 during Britain’s general strike Farr was 13. It was then he fought his first professional fight at a miners’ benefit in the Rhondda. A year later at 14, he entered the mines and during his first week was buried in a roof collapse. His father was seriously injured in the same accident, resulting in Tommy becoming the family’s primary breadwinner.
The ring under such desperate circumstances represents salvation rather than sport and starting his professional career in 1930, Farr learned his trade on the job, losing as many fights as he won in local bouts fought in and around South Wales. Hunger – both of the stomach and spirit – drove him on regardless and by 1935 he was on a seemingly permanent winning streak. By this point he’d moved to London, having walked all the way there from South Wales in the midst of the depression, and begun to make a name for himself.
Over the next few years Farr fought some of the most legendary light heavyweights and heavyweights of the pre-war era. Those included Tommy Loughran, Bob Olin, Jim Braddock and Max Baer. After winning the British and Empire heavyweight title against South Africa’s Ben Foord at Haringay Stadium in London in 1937, the Welshman put himself in contention for a shot at the world title against an in-prime Joe Louis.
By the time he stepped into the ring at New York’s Yankee Stadium on August 30, 1937 to face the Bronze Bomber, Tommy Farr had had an astonishing 100 fights in bouts that were fought over 15 rounds. Such a grueling legacy is unheard of in the modern era, but then so is such a grueling life.
The son of a sharecropper in America’s Deep South, Joe Louis was no stranger to adversity himself – and watching footage of the fight today, you can’t help but be struck at how much more both men had in common with one another than not, despite existing an ocean and a race apart.
Louis was the dominant fighter of his era who transcended the ring to become a lightning rod for the hopes and aspirations of oppressed black communities all across America. As a fighter he combined power in both hands with supreme reflexes and timing. As Mike Tyson said of him: “When you’re a great finisher, you’ll become popular. Joe Louis was a great finisher.”
The fight took place at a time when transatlantic radio broadcasts were in their infancy. Married to the prospect of a Welsh and British heavyweight champion emerging from the fight, the event attracted a mass radio audience in Britain, especially in South Wales where men, many of them with their faces marked with coal having come straight from work, congregated in pubs, working men’s clubs and other venues to listen in.
At Judges Hall in Tonypandy, 1,000 people turned up to listen to the fight in an admission-free event sponsored by the Daily Worker newspaper, while a further 7,000 listened outside over specially placed speakers. Those working at the coalface on the night shift were kept up to date as to how the fight was going with messages sent down to them after each round. A tinplate worker brought a radio into work so that he and his workmates could listen to the fight as they worked. He was caught and sacked, precipitating a walkout.
Tommy Farr, the son of a miner and a child of poverty in South Wales, gave Joe Louis one of the hardest fights he ever had, which the champion himself readily admitted afterwards. Fought at a fast pace over the distance, Farr lost the decision on the scorecards but won over the packed crowd in attendance with his all-action and marauding come-forward style.
At points Louis struggled to keep him at bay, as Farr crouched low and stepped in with a fast jab and overhand right that found the target time and again. Louis, however, began to dominate in the second half of the fight, finding his range from him and punishing Farr as he continued to come forward, losing steam but never heart. The chorus of boos from the crowd which met the sight of Louis having his hand raised after the closing bell told its own story, providing Farr with the kind of moral victory few fighters ever experience inside a ring.
By the time he retired in 1940 Tommy Farr was a wealthy man. Ten years later, facing bankruptcy, he returned to the ring. Thereafter he fought on until 1953, appearing for the last time in a boxing ring against Don Cockell, who would later be remembered for fighting Rocky Marciano in 1955.
Tommy Farr died aged 73 in 1986. His ashes are buried in his parents’ grave at Trealaw Cemetery in Tonypandy. Engraved on his stone from him are the following words: “I claim that man is master of himself when he can stand life’s blows and scars and leave this world a better place.”