First published August 29th 2008
Tommy Farr said that and who am I to argue? Tomorrow will mark the 71st anniversary of his courageous but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to dethrone the newly crowned heavyweight champion Joe Louis. The humble ‘Tonypandy Terror’ is long remembered for giving the legendary ‘Brown Bomber’ an arduous first defence of his heavyweight title and for the unflinching resolve he demonstrated in doing so.
His effort was as herculean as it was unexpected to ringside observers. Those hunched around the family wireless back in Britain, were moved to believe he’d done enough to topple the great champion.
Of course he hadn’t, with referee Arthur Donavon scoring 13 of the 15 rounds to Louis. Farr was magnanimous, stating in later years ”At the end I thought I might have got it. If they had made it a draw, I would have been happy.”
His words speak of a different age. No quibbles about preparation, despite the fact a cut sustained in sparring opened early in the fight or slurs on the impartiality of the officials – despite the apparently lopsided scoring of the referee. This was an era before hoopla, when winning and losing was part of every fighter’s life, and a possibility in every contest.
Joe Louis v Tommy Farr – The Opening Rounds
The fact Louis took just 8 weeks between winning the title and defending it is illumination enough of the hunger and dedication these hard men had. I cannot recall the last time a modern day champion had two fights inside two months, perhaps it isn’t a bad thing but the frequency of combat certainly kept the ratings buzzing along and helped fighters hone their craft. It made losing an inevitability even for seemingly peerless contemporaries like Sugar Ray Robinson and the sport, in some ways, was healthier for it. The exasperating protection of unbeaten records in the modern age suffocates the sport’s founding premise. Fighting made fair.
Farr’s heart-warming effort in defeat propelled him into the consciousness of boxing fans around the world and afforded him a series of high-profile fights. As an attraction in America following his creditable display versus Louis, he met James J Braddock, aka The Cinderella Man, four months later and was edged out by the tightest of margins over 10 rounds. Six weeks beyond that and another former heavyweight champion Max Baer avenged a previous defeat to Farr, knocking the spirited Welshman to the canvas twice on route to a wide points decision.
Joe Louis v Tommy Farr – The Middle Rounds
Subsequent defeats to contender Lou Nova and Red Burman ended his American adventure and he returned to British shores, avenging the Burman defeat, beating a faded Larry Gains and adding two more low-key knockout victories to his resume before seemingly retiring in 1940, aged just 26 and a wealthy man.
Precious few heavyweights could claim to have squeezed in as much by the age of 26 and in a modern era in which 36 year old pugs are still referred to as ‘prospects’, it is difficult to digest the idea of a fighter retiring at just 26.
But closer study of Farr’s record shows he began to fight as a boy, aged just 12 and the miles were longer and harder in the twenties and thirties than they are now. His legitimate fighting career followed a number of years fighting in the ‘booths’, often several times a day against all-comers. Young Farr eked out a living and developed his craft and resilience. Finally, he sought his fortune away from the coal-mining valleys of South Wales in 1933, heading for the ‘bright lights’ of London. The storyteller in Farr encouraged the interested to believe he made this pilgrimage on foot but would later reveal he arrived via train in Slough, where he stayed at the Dolphin Hotel amid “a large Welsh contingent”. It didn’t prove to be the fairy tale he hoped, returning, following a solitary but humiliating defeat to Eddie Steele – a fight in which a punch left him chocking on his gum-shield – to box in the more familiar but less illustrious surroundings of Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil.
Joe Louis v Tommy Farr – The Championship Rounds
Ten years on from his first retirement and with financial problems he returned aged 36, a parable which echoes backwards and forward in boxing’s history. He remained fresh enough to win more than he lost but eventually accepted a final retirement in 1953 following a stoppage defeat to emerging heavyweight Don Cockell in a British title eliminator.
In later life Farr followed a path more worn than the one he claimed to have trodden from the valleys of South Wales to London, becoming a publican in Brighton at the Royal Standard. Perhaps it is the symbolism of ringing a bell to call time and the love of an audience that draws pugilists to the life of a landlord. However he arrived there, Farr proved a popular and sociable personality on the South Coast until his death, aged 73.
His name will forever be connected to that of Joe Louis, and in certain instances Joe would state the Tonypandy Terror was the hardest man he ever fought. Being from a different time in history and a product of an area from which people held different expectations, Farr would doubtless reject the application of any ‘if onlys’ to his career and to the beacon his relentless challenge to Louis had been within it. He would, after all, have been happy “if they’d made it a draw”.
In the years after the Louis bout he would regularly remind those willing to believe he was an unfortunate loser, that post fight his face resembled “a dug up road” and“every time I hear Joe Louis’ name, my nose starts to bleed.”
For those too young to remember the Tommy Farr fight, which is likely most of us, or for those who would like to appreciate how most people enjoyed boxing in the pre-television days, click here to listen to an excerpt of the original 1937 BBC Radio broadcast.