Freddie Mills: The Forgotten Fighter
By Garry White
Describing Freddie Mills as the “Forgotten Fighter” may seem faintly ridiculous. After all, there hardly seems to be a year that goes by without a book or some lurid news article concerning him. But what ties each revelation together is that scarcely any of them recall his ring career and instead focus on his disturbing final days.
The fact that he was once a world champion appears as a mere footnote to gutter suggestions surrounding his death. One that occurred alone in a Soho side street, that was found by the coroner to be suicide, but others have suggested was murder.
Scandalous tales abound as to the reasons and motivations concerning his tragic end. A recent book even seeking to expand on the unsubstantiated rumour that Mills was a serial killer.
The man sometimes known as ‘The Bournemouth Bombshell’ and myself share our own history. This, despite his prime fighting years residing in the 40s and his death occurring in the swinging London of the 60s, more than a decade before I was born. But growing up in the same seaside town, largely devoid of sporting supermen, Mills was a natural hero for myself as a child to adopt.
In the 1980s I recall there used to be a statue commemorating Mills in Bournemouth’s central Gardens. Well, it wasn’t really a statue, more a rectangular piece of engraved rock. On laborious shopping trips we would sometimes stop by it, and my granddad would tell us stories of the man it honoured. Tales of Freddie Mills (77-18-6), a brawler who wore the ring moniker ‘Fearless’ and used his face rather than his forearms to block bombs from the likes of Gus Lesnevich, Joey Maxim, and Jock McAvoy.
Frequently subjected to vandalism and liberally sprayed with graffiti the memorial was taken away at some point in the late 80s. Apparently Freddie’s family were given the option of a replacement but declined. The last I saw of the stone it was languishing absentmindedly in the reception of a local leisure centre.
Even then I felt that Freddie deserved better. After all, Leamington Spa has its prominent statue of the great middleweight Randolph Turpin and the same belatedly exists for poor Johnny Owen in Merthyr – It is almost impossible to speak of the “Merthyr Matchstick” without prefixing his name with “poor” or “tragic”. Perhaps even the noble and honest Owen in his own way deserves better.
‘Fearless’ Freddie Mills began his career as a 16-year-old in 1936. Most of his early fights were held at Bournemouth’s Westover Ice Rink, just a pedestrian crossing and a right-hook away from where his memorial originally stood. The ice rink survived until the 90s to be replaced by a cinema. I don’t know what it is now. In a town that has unleashed itself from its once staid conservativeness Mills has been left overlooked and consigned into an unreachable world of faded black and white.
Something that would have been unthinkable in 1950s and 60s Britain where Mills was a sporting superstar of an almost David Beckham equivalence. In this era boxers maintained an unparalleled place in the public consciousness that today’s fighters could mostly only dream of. With television in its relative infancy Freddie was a constant presence: presenting programmes, partaking in commentary and appearing in numerous film roles.
His fearless, unsophisticated, warrior style matched with his willingness to take on anyone, including leading heavyweights of the day, led to adulation from the British public. His appearance, a curious mixture of Prince Charming crossed with a ring battered ogre, together with his affable and charismatic personality, allowed him to transcend boxing. He owned clubs in the West end and consorted with the Krays. To describe him as merely well-known would be an understatement of the truth.
But today it is a depressing reality that Mills memory is mostly only revived in connection with his suspicious death or the scandal surrounding his last days. Freddie’s death was recorded as a suicide but speculation has always existed that is was an underworld murder, by heavies looking to take control of his Soho club, or to whom he owed money. Conversely others have claimed that he did indeed take his own life as he was facing arrest for the serial killing of eight women in West London. Even more schizophrenically some sources claim that he paid gangster connections to murder him, to avoid imminent arrest.
The stench of the sleaze and uncorroborated stories from greedy and unreliable witnesses is all consuming, to such an extent that it is hard to break through it and reach for the light. But if one cares to search through the darkness they will see – with the exception of John Conteh – the greatest British light-heavyweight of all-time. Think Henry Cooper’s popularity but equipped with a world championship belt.
In a time when titles were not so liberally available, Mills had to enter the ring over 70 times before he got his hands on both the British and Commonwealth titles. In 1942, with the war in full-flight, he knocked the aging but legendary Len Harvey (122-14-10) out and into retirement in just two rounds. He then, despite a natural fighting weight of 170 lbs, stepped up to heavyweight, culminating in a shot at the vacant Commonwealth and British titles. Despite conceding over 40 lbs to Jack London (95-40-5), he took him the full 15 rounds before losing the decision.
In 1946 he was awarded a shot at the world title held by New Jersey’s hard-punching Gus Lesnevich (61-14-5). At the time Mills was not considered to be a viable contender and expectations were accordingly low, however Freddie fought bravely, climbing off the canvas three times, and causing the American plenty of trouble on the way to a 10th round stoppage reverse.
Following this punishing contest, full of open chested windmill punching, that made the Gatti vs Ward fights look like a playground scuffle; Mills just three weeks later took another unsuccessful shot at the British heavyweight title. This time being strong-armed by the bigger and stronger Bruce Woodcock (35-4) over 12 competitive rounds.
In the modern era when domestic, commonwealth and European titles are regarded as little more than ancillary development steps on the way to the diaspora of readily available world titles, it is easy to forget just how highly prized these accolades once were. Quality fighters often lacked the opening or connections to position for a world title, so these domestic and regional belts were routinely owned and pursued with a determination that is often missing today.
Two years later Freddie Mills got his chance of a rematch with Lesnevich at the White City stadium. There he permanently established his legacy via a fifteen round points victory, which made him a world champion. Again, he stepped up to heavyweight, conceding 20 lbs to his old foe Bruce Woodcock, on the way to receiving a predictable four knockdown 14 round battering. The following year he relinquished his world light heavyweight title on his first defence to Cleveland’s Joey Maxim (82-29-4) via a ferocious 10th round knockout.
Respected and monetarily enriched from his career he should have enjoyed a long and happy retirement. However, our knowledge of his demise tells us that this was regrettably not the case. On 24th July 1965 he was found dead in his car outside his club in Goslett Yard; where the bright lights of Soho met the old book stores of the Charring Cross Road. His former world title adversary Gus Lesnivich had passed the previous year from a heart attack suffered at his doctor’s surgery, just six day after his 49th birthday.
The seasons so often change abruptly from spring to hard-bitten winter for all but the lucky that involve themselves in this hardest of games.
Throughout his ring career Mills existed in a vicious circle whereby his greatest assets; his heart and courage were ultimately the source of his undoing. The relentless punishment that he walked through in the ring led to him suffering from near constant and debilitating headaches that altered his mood and led to hidden bouts of depression. This combined with the crippling financial problems emanating from his unprofitable business and money owed to criminals, could well have been sufficient for him to take his own life.
The truth is that no-one will ever truly know for certain. What is clear is that not a scintilla of firm evidence has ever been supplied to properly link Mills to the Hammersmith murders. The claim is pressed only by sensation chasing journalists eager to believe the unchallenged “friend of a friend” testimonies of ex-villains. The narrative spun and knotted to present the darkest and thus most profitable view possible.
The only truth that remains is that the Bournemouth man won every title available to him at light heavyweight. He never took a backward step all the way to the championship of the world. It is about time we made the effort to remember Mills the fighter: the living, breathing embodiment of the uninhibited warrior. An unstoppable moving windmill of an image that should always take precedence over these baser articles of shock and smear.