Yesterday’s Heroes: Canadian heavyweight Larry Gains was a victim of colour

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The great Larry Gains was frozen out of the world title picture due to overt racism that was rife in the 1930s, writes Miles Templeton

BACK in 1935 the colour bar was firmly entrenched in British boxing and it was rigorously enforced, both by the Board and by certain fighters.

The British heavyweight champion (1931/32) Reggie Meen, for instance, when under contract to box the Canadian Larry Gains at Liverpool Stadium in 1929, withdrew from the bout stating that “I am drawing the colour line”. I doubt he fancied his chances against Larry, anyway. This unfortunate situation, then rife in sport and within British society in general, meant that Larry, despite having a great career in which he beat two world heavyweight champions, never got the chances that men like Jack Petersen, Jack Doyle and even Reggie Meen, were given.

As a consequence, someone came up with the idea of a world heavyweight championship that was open specifically to black fighters alone, and in 1935 Larry was matched with the American, Obie Walker, to fight for this title. Neither man was listed in the world top 10 according to The Ring, despite having decent records.  Instead, inferior white fighters such as Hank Hankinson, Buck Everett and Ford Smith found themselves in the rankings.

The match took place at Welford Road, the official home of the Leicester Tigers rugby football club. Larry was a great favourite in Leicester, where he based himself throughout the 1930s, and he had previously been successful in a contest at the stadium in 1931 against Phil Scott. This contest is currently available on YouTube, with sound, and it is a quite extraordinary piece of boxing heritage.   Obie Walker was not the best black fighter from the States in 1935, that mantle went, quite obviously, to the great Joe Louis, who was rapidly climbing his way to the top. Nevertheless, he was a decent fighter with victories over Tony Galento, George Godfrey and Otto Von Porat. He had arrived in the UK earlier that year and already held a victory of the Australian veteran George Cook, who had mauled and held his way through the bout, much to Obie’s frustration.

Only 12,000 turned up to watch the title fight, around half the number that had seen the Gains-Scott contest four years before, and this was no doubt due to the rain, which fell constantly throughout the day.

Larry Gains fights Obie Walker

Gains was on a good run of form, having won three quick victories since his loss, the year previously, against Jack Petersen in a British Empire title challenge. His problem was one of size, for he was considerably smaller than Walker, and he looked to tie up the American from the start, following Cook’s approach. This meant that the contest lacked thrills, and it quickly settled into a pedantic and uninteresting spectacle.  

By the second round the crowd started to mutter in discontent, and by the eighth they were openly requesting that the two fighters kiss each other rather than try to hurt each other. Some wag shouted out “What do you think you are here for” and this spurned Obie into action. He piled into Gains with a series of hooks but, despite hurting his man, he soon lapsed back into cautiousness.    When Gains’ arm was lifted at the end of the 15th, the crowd booed.  Whether these boos reflected their dissatisfaction with the verdict, or with the contest itself, is impossible to know today, but they were not happy. 

On the undercard a young Tommy Farr took a close decision over the Nottingham policeman, George Brennan, in a ten rounder. Four years later Tommy stopped the ageing Gains in front of 40,000 at Ninian Park, Cardiff.

Obie Walker stayed on in the UK for a little while longer beating Don McCorkindale, Norman Baines and Maurice Strickland in contests that all went the distance. His last fight, against future British heavyweight champion Jack London, took place at the Tigers ground in Leicester, but this time only 3,000 turned up to see him outpointed again. He then returned to America, and obscurity.

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