By David Payne
When popular British heavyweight Dave Allen ambles to the ring on Saturday as the unofficial headline act in a show far removed from his Doncaster home, he will, as all of us do in some shape or form, seek to step in to the spotlight and beyond the shadow cast by his forefathers and the whisper of self-doubt amplified by their deeds.
Across the ring will stand the Liverpudlian giant, David Price. A man who denies the presence of such demons, with fighting pedigree the Yorkshireman can not yet requite and tangible advantages of height, reach and experience too. The O2 Arena in London plays host to this battle of could, would and should. A venue repurposed from inauspicious and self-conscious beginnings as the Millennium Dome and therefore an apt stage for the pair to find out a little more about each other, themselves and the realism of their respective ambitions.
It is a heavyweight contest with much to endear it to the boxing fraternity, the thousands promoters Matchroom Sports will urge to make the pilgrimage to the gate and the wider public too. Fighters like Allen and Price, flawed, with the bruises of life’s slings and arrows evident but not ruinous, with opportunity or obscurity waiting for the victor and the vanquished, often provide more entertainment and are more relatable heroes than those garrulous fellows of untainted preserve. We can admire Floyd, but we love Arturo.
In traditional boxing vernacular, this is a crossroads fight. A victorious Allen, the younger man by nine years, would be launched toward a stratosphere his persona and fluctuating dedication were presumed to keep beyond his grasp. The self-effacing ‘Doncaster DeLaHoya’, one of a host of light-hearted promotional monikers he’s adopted, appeared no more than a loveable rogue. Girth, mirth and an iron chin. Despite both his father and great-grandfather being prize fighters before him, Allen was a curiosity, destined to be merely a fleeting sideshow in the traveling boxing fairground.
Victory for Price, could, belatedly, provide the one opportunity his chequered form and innocent misfortune in the great tombola of life have so far denied him. The absence of that chance is a source of enduring frustration to the veteran, whom, it was presumed, would leverage his knockout power and the bronze medal he won at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 into a world title shot long before the 36th birthday he celebrates days before this fight. Even in the grand old opera of heavyweight boxing, in which defeat rarely means the end, a loss now would likely represent the curtain call for any lofty pretensions either man can legitimately retain.
For the Doncastrian, a term I’d never heard until I had long since departed the town, the fight also stirs ghosts from a distant, sepia toned past when another of the town’s greatest sons ventured South in search of glory. Although Allen follows in the footsteps of Bruce Woodcock, a boxer of considerable talent in the post war era, and popular enough to draw crowds of 50,000 to London venues in his pomp, it is in the less frequently told story of James William ‘Iron’ Hague that the echoes are loudest. English Champion from 1909-1911, and the first fighter, along with Bombadier Billy Wells, to contest the then newly minted Lonsdale belt, it is Hague, his career and personality, as far as historical sources can relay the latter, that the most compelling similarities with Allen are to be found.
It is remarkable enough that a concentration of distinguished heavyweights could emerge from a solitary scrap of obscure, unremarkable land, far, far away from the bright lights of the city, less all three could prove popular and noteworthy in London and around the world.
Readers not enlightened to the vagaries of life in the coal fields of South Yorkshire to which Allen and Hague were born, a sky line dissected by the spirographs of towering pit heads that winched miners from the coal face, or the bleak and long lasting economic darkness of their absence, should not imagine a ‘two holidays a year’ or ‘gym membership’ type existence. Doncaster no more has suburbs, by the conventions we associate with the term, than Kensington and Chelsea has ghettos.
In truth, all that remains of these proud communities, shattered by Thatcher’s economic policies in the 1980s, are generations of people discarded by those who wrought the vengeful havoc on their way of life. Some succumbed, in the way those in neglected areas do, but some persisted, working hard to evolve and to tailor their working lives to the often ill-fitting clothes of a post-industrial landscape.
Hope was, for a time, almost extinguished. The defiance of the people was dimmed too, but did, remarkably, flicker on. Theirs was the type of defiance that held firm on picket lines; from the Denaby Muck Bag strike of 1902 that saw policeman, armed with cutlasses, evict families from their colliery owned homes at the end of a 7 month dispute, to the bitterness of the national strike in 1984 – a seminal year in which families faced economic ruin and the hungry faces of their children but refused to wilt, despite the despair of impending defeat. It is a stubbornness that has been pressed over centuries, condensed, hardened by the collective memory of those people and their deeds on which the garlands of the town’s folk lore is hung. Just as the rich ribbon of ‘black diamonds’ that now sleeps beneath South Yorkshire, stretching north to the Pennines and East to the North Sea, was forged under the pressure of millions of years of geology.
The term Black Diamonds was invoked to convey the value of coal in the hungriest surge of industrialisation, recognising the riches beneath the muck, and was also the name of a 1932 film made by Amateur director Charles Hanmer. A working Miner himself, Hanmer began his depiction of a coal miner’s life with the story of the 1912 Cadeby Disaster. A tragedy that claimed the lives of 75 men Iron Hague grew up alongside, and reminds the modern reader that the perils of life underground were not the creation of fireside poets or wizened old colliers, but the reality of extracting this once precious commodity.
My own nostalgia, that can, I concede, wander toward romanticism, insists this quality, this stoicism, is omnipresent and dusts the character of the people it touches. Hanging in the air, dancing on the thermals of the season in the way specs of black soot did before settling on proudly laundered sheets or the window sills of my child hood. It is a quality made tangible, not merely imposed by this rosy tint of my own perspective, in the substance and actions of those boxing heroes; Hague and Woodcock. In the here and now, with the mine shafts long since filled, evidence is growing that the 27-year-old Allen, in his victories and setbacks at the boxing coal-face and in his personal struggle for contentment, self-worth and dedication, possesses this very particular type of fortitude too.
His heavyweight ancestor James William ‘Iron’ Hague was born in Mexborough in 1885, the industrial dawn to the dusk of Doncaster in the 1990s, the descendent of four generations of colliers. It was the late Victorian age, a time of wealth for the few, the industrial revolution and the tumult of an unprecedented growth in the British population over the preceding half a century. The country celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee just two years later in 1887, a milestone recognised in Hague’s hometown by the building of the Volunteer Drill Hall. Long since vanished, the venue hosted Hague’s professional debut in 1905 and would contain boisterous crowds later that same year to witness Hague knocking out Dick Parkes in the 14th of 20 scheduled rounds to win the Yorkshire Pitman’s Heavyweight title.
In an era of mining in which courage and strength were necessary, in which coal was hewn from its underground resting place with pick axes and broad shoulders, it is easy to surmise the deep reverence such a prize could endear. Certainly, it was a title of sufficient distinction to catapult a still youthful Hague toward the English title soon afterward.
Allen was born in 1992 into the gloom of a world six years removed from the Denaby Main colliery closure. Denaby being the pit Hague worked at briefly, following fathers and grandfathers before him, before moving on with a visiting fairground to work the boxing booths. The restless teenager having bested their resident ‘champions’ with ease. A year on from Allen’s arrival, the son of Welterweight Dave Allen – a circuit fighter who fought his final fight on a Herol Graham undercard in the midst of the miner’s last stand in that red-hot summer of 84 – Doncaster and the wider Yorkshire coal field would be ravaged by the concluding round of national pit closures and the end of the industry as a significant employer. The social impact of which was beginning to unfold in the area Allen grew up in. His was a community locked in a grieving process, somewhere between denial and anger, with accelerating unemployment particularly among men.
Coal mining had been a patriarchal force for villages like Mexborough and Conisborough; shaping the nature of their people, determining the colour of the landscape, it’s holidays, and relative affluence. The solidarity of cause and livelihood evoked a sense of pride in the miner’s way of life but with it came a degree of dependence. Without the nurture and protection of the coal industry, without the certainty of ready employment; fear, poverty and disillusionment grew.
In conversation, Allen conceded that Conisborough is the only place he ever feels entirely comfortable, but didn’t rationalise his own durability and toughness as merely products of his roots when I posed my preferred theory to him; “Conisborough, where I live, is very hilly, its like Kilimanjaro just going to (the) shop. If I want to go to (the) shop its like climbing Mount Everest. That holds for one. But for me its not rough, I keep myself to myself. I’m not really a man to gew out and make trouble anyway. I moved away from this area growing up. I moved to Austerfield (half a dozen miles East and home to a wildlife centre local schools visit). So I was brought up in a posh area, but brought up in a council house. We were very poor, among loads of rich kids. So, I was a Conisborough kid growing up in Austerfield which at times weren’t fantastic. I probably wish I’d been brought up in a poor area to be fair.“
The move away didn’t last into adulthood, Allen soon moved back to Conisborough, a place he feels sufficiently at home to climb the ‘mountains’ he mentions in his slippers, and from where he commutes to his London training camp. “I’ve comeback, because I feel at home here. Because when it comes down to it, when I become heavyweight champion and make millions of pounds, I’m always gonna be a scumbag from Conisborough. Whatever happens. That’s truth of it. I still sit here now, and I’m doing alright now, but to look at me you wunt think I had a penny to my name, I look like a tramp but that’s what I am and I can’t change.”
Hague’s voyage toward the top of the heavyweight pyramid brought him a similar degree of prosperity too, relative to his local contemporaries. This financial reward distracted the young fighter and the speed of his ascent also persuaded the brawny Yorkshireman and the parties guiding him that winning was a formality. Boxing is hardest on those who take her good-will for granted. Strands of narrative that remain current in boxing’s perpetual cycle, predating both Woodcock and Hague and likely to outlive Allen’s own high definition era too.
Apart from a fleeting residency in the seaside town of Scarborough, training camps conducted in the sea air of East Yorkshire and those months travelling with the fairground, Hague, like Allen a century later, remained loyal to his hometown and it’s people to him. His short-lived wealth, in a place dubbed ‘The Worst Village in England’ by the religious publication The Christian Budget in 1899, was evident in his growing weight and lack of activity, at least by the metrics of the day.
Back in 1906, aged 20, his departure for the fight with Parkes, just his third professional bout, drew hordes of flat-capped men in collarless shirts, stout boots and threadbare jackets to wish him well. Thousands greeted his victorious return. While his train journey south to fight the fearsome Sam Langford at the National Sporting Club (NSC) in 1909, pictured, drew the village to a virtual stand still. In a period of hard men not given to reverence, and often struggling themselves in a hand to mouth existence, Hague was a hero to a whole village. One of their own, but with dynamite in his big right hand.
Remarkable that the then 23 year old ‘Iron’ Hague could venture to London to fight at the NSC, the home of championship boxing in Great Britain at the time. First to win the English Heavyweight title and then for his historic fight with Sam Langford, the most feared heavyweight either side of the Atlantic. Langford was fresh from a contested loss with Jack Johnson in 1906 and with just a solitary defeat, avenged, in 30 bouts whilst pursuant of a rematch with the champion. Johnson was busy revelling in his own largesse and had little interest in facing the Canadian again despite promising too in the aftermath of his 15 round victory in Paris.
For a man with Johnson’s expansive lifestyle, fights with other black fighters were far less rewarding, and typically more dangerous, than those with white contenders. An uncomfortable truth that spawned the search for a “Great White Hope”. Hague had no issue facing Langford. “I have seen this Nigger. I believe he is very strong. But if I hit him, he’ll go down like the rest.” * Wiser counsel may not have run toward the match. Langford was a formidable man, despite his relatively diminutive status and is, a century on, considered one of the finest fighters never to hold a world-title, with some historians venturing the opinion he was, irrespective of his lack of titles, the greatest of them all. As Timekeeper Mr E Zerega would comment in the aftermath of the fight Langford, Hague was a little too ‘green’ for the challenge just as many would observe when Dave Allen gamely tackled world class Cuban Luis Ortiz when ill-equipped to do so.
Arthur ‘Peggy’ Bettinson, founder of the NSC, announced from centre ring, as both fighters waited for the opening bell, that the fight was for the world championship on the basis Jack Johnson had reneged on his promise to fight Langford again. It added gravitas to the contest and the coincidence, in retrospect, that Doncaster’s Hague, like his successor Bruce Woodcock in 1950, was suddenly fighting for a world-title recognised only in Britain is a marvel in and of itself. The revelation buoyed the gathered crowded which included the retired former champion Bob Fitzsimmons among its number and a significant contingent from Yorkshire too. The Sporting Life report of the following day noted their attendance; “Each of the professions were strongly represented while as for the Services, they supplied more than a fair quota to the brilliant throng. Yorkshire must not be forgotten. Hague had plenty of supporters, they could not be mistaken by reason of their ruddy complexions and their accent.”
Less public was an offer Hague received in the weeks before the Langford fight from parties wishing to match him with Johnson for a career high purse of £5,000**. Unable to break contract with Langford, the missed opportunity troubled the Doncaster man, despite an admittance he would likely have lost, well beyond his eventual retirement in 1915. Alas, neither Woodcock or Hague would be able to make the final step. Hague’s trusty right floored Langford in the third, although accounts vary as to whether the Canadian did in fact fall, but for a moment the impossible dream looked within his grasp. Reality soon wrestled back control. Hague was himself, in the words of two ringside accounts, ‘lifted clean off his feet’ and “dropped like a stricken Ox”*** in the fourth. Rising at the count of five, some reports would claim, but nevertheless, unable to continue.
Hague would fight on following the loss but something of him was left in the London ring that May evening. Something intangible, for he tried new trainers and trained more diligently at various points, but, as results would confirm, Hague never could recapture that youthful momentum. The people of Mexborough still gathered, undeterred by unseasonal rain, to welcome their hero home following his loss to Langford. The legends of Woodcock and Hague live on in the fables of their careers passed on from generation to generation in their hometown. Allen, like most sons of Doncaster, is aware of their accomplishments and the reverence in which they were held;
“Its massive for boxing round here. Mi Grandad talks about Bruce Woodcock all the time, mi great-grandad was a professional boxer, so was mi Dad, I hear about Bruce Woodcock, even Iron Hague, mi Grandad talks about em all the time. Donny is a good area for fighting anyway. We’ve had a lot Amateur and professionals at top level and that’s just Conisbrough, Mexborough and Balby alone. They’ve had Professional and Amateur champions at major levels. Its a working class area. You’ve got to be tough….I think. I was told those two were the biggest sports stars in the area. People used to come out and applaud them walking down the street. I don’t envisage that happening to me at any point in my career. But if I could become British Heavyweight Champion like them I’d be very happy and I’d feel like, if people in ‘undred years time could mention me and their name, in amongst them, I’d be very happy.”
There is something of Hague in Allen’s story, in his youth, the surprising heights he’s reached and in his battle to remain focussed on a profession to which he appears born but one which is immune to the sentimentality of the notion. Boxing offers respect only to those who devote themselves completely. Happily, Allen appears to be taking heed of the lessons of history and learning from his own mistakes too- not least failing to prepare for fighters as dangerous as Dillian Whyte and less formidable opponents like Lenroy Thomas and Nick Webb. With the spectre of David Price now looming large before him, he has the chance to invert the pattern of Hague’s career and progress further than even the heights of this weekend. With preparation now professional and with ready-made excuses for defeats removed, there is scope for the pressure he feels to grow. Allen insists he feels no such change:
“Not at all, because I always think, especially now, my preparation is as good as it could be, I will always give a 100% when the bell goes. If I’m not good enough, I can take that, I can shake David Price’s hand and say ‘you are the better man, well done Dave all the best with what’s coming up’. I can go home, and I say I tried my best, I’m not good enough, and I can live with that. If I’d continued doing what I was doing, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself in 20 years time and I’d never know. At least I will know. I’m gonna get beat in my career, that’s boxing, we’re not all Floyd Mayweather or Joe Calzaghe. I’ve lost before, I’ve lost four times and I will lose again at some point in my career because I will continue to fight whoever is put in front of me and the people that put in front of me are very good fighters. But I don’t feel pressure, I don’t.“
Hague never did get a world title shot. There remains hope for Allen, however whimsical some may presume it to be, but the fight with Browne and this weekend’s clash with Price, like Hague’s with Langford, is a higher stage than most fighters will ever perform on. Like of all of us, Hague and Allen are a product of nature and nurture, of their time and circumstances. Perhaps their equivalence and shared success provides some substance to my poetic ideal; that the need to fight merely to survive, to prevail against the system, as the people of Doncaster always have, really does harden the spirit.
Certainly, their shared love of fighting is irrefutable, the perverse satisfaction of testing their mettle in the toughest of all trades creates a bond that transcends a hundred years of social and economic struggle that stands between them and goes beyond the geographical coincidence of their birth. If coincidence, really is all it is.
“I get no greater joy in life than beating somebody up. I know it sounds ridiculous but I get no greater joy than landing a great shot, especially to the body. Gives me such a thrill, I know its a very odd thing to say but I never get a bigger thrill than seeing somebody go over and be unable to continue. Now I’m fit, I’m doing it all the time. When I hit Lucas Browne with that body shot you can’t match that feeling with woman or anything. No money or woman could give that same feeling and that’s why I continue to train like this. Dropping people with beautiful shots is the greatest drug.”
‘Iron’ Hague’s final bell came in 1951 at the age of 65 his body ravaged by mustard gas inhaled during the first World War, fighting on the Somme and the Battle for Passchendaele, and with his later life spent as a publican in his hometown. His passing came just a year after Bruce Woodcock’s brutal defeat to American Lee Savold in a fight the British Boxing Board recognised as a world title fight. Now almost 70 years on Doncaster has, in Dave Allen, produced another fighting son the wider boxing world may soon have to take more seriously.
Even if the man himself, no longer the moon-faced man-child of his early twenties, continues to wrestle with the twin imperatives of being true to himself and his roots and becoming the fighter he believes himself capable to be.
“You live and you learn, when I was taking them fights I was 24, had 10 Amateur fights, 7 professional fights and I wasn’t living the life. I was a fool to myself and its only the last six months that I’ve really grown up as a man. I’m still immature, anyone who follows my social media will tell you that. But I’ve started to mature a little bit now, physically as well as mentally. I was 24/25 I was still a boy, physically, I was still a boy yer know, but now I firmly believe, I firmly believe, I’m one of the best heavyweights on the planet. People will laugh at that, scoff at that, but on the twentieth of July people will start to see why I think that.”
My thanks to Dave Allen for his time one Sunday night last month, Boxing Social’s Rob Tebbutt for helping me establish contact with him, to the lovely Gavan Casey for his editorial pointers on this article (but don’t blame him if you don’t like it), the brilliant Clay Moyle for his astonishing book on Sam Langford, (I hope this repays in small way his willingness to send me a review copy almost a decade ago) and the fantastic Giles H Brearley for sending me the final print copy of his biography of Hague – The Iron Man. Also, to William Payne (1921-1984), Collier, for kindling my love of boxing as a child, teaching me lessons that still guide me now and his son, my Dad, also William Payne (1951-), Retired Collier, for encouraging me, for distilling the meaning of the Doncaster experience, its people, the importance of their story and what life is really all about, for the past 45, soon to be 46, years.
* Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion by Clay Moyle. Published in 2006
** The “Iron” Man by Giles H Brearley published 2011.
*** Fight report from Boxing World, 3 March 1910