Boxer Randolph Turpin—nicknamed ‘Leamington Licker’—was born to an English mother and black father in the 1920s in Leamington, UK. After his father died when he was just one year old, Turpin and his other four athletic siblings were raised by their mother.
All three of the brothers, Randolph, Dick, and Jackie grew to be boxers, in part because of the skills they honed growing up. Standing up for themselves against racist behaviour from other kids and community members meant confrontation was something the Turpins knew all too well. They also inherited the athleticism that had been passed down to them from their grandfather, who had been a well-known bare-knuckle fighter in his day.
Randolph became a pro boxer in 1946 during his service in the Royal Navy, after moving up through the local boxing clubs in Warwick and Leamington. He was one of Britain’s first mixed race boxers and came to the height of his career on the 10th of July, 1951 when he beat the legendary ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson in a fight, claiming the world middleweight title in the process.
Turpin’s early boxing career
After showing great promise as an amateur boxer, Randolph Turpin became the first black boxer to win a senior ABA Championship. Launching his professional boxing career in 1946, Turpin held fourteen straight victories before earning a draw and two defeats, which lead him to take a short break. He embarked on a weight training regimen to gain more power in his shots.
After his return, he became the British middleweight champion in 1950, equalling the status of his older brother Dick who had been the first ever black British champion in 1948. Randolph won the European title after knocking out Luc van Dam. This win nominated him as the opponent to fight against ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson during Robinson’s European tour.
Robinson: The greatest of all time
Turpin’s career would come to be defined by his fight with the great ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson. Born to the name Walker Smith Jr. in 1921 in Georgia, ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson and his family moved to New York to escape racial prejudice in the South.
After joining a gym in Harlem, Robinson was introduced to boxing and quickly excelled. He got his nickname from his late coach, George Gainford, who described Robinson’s style to be ‘sweet as sugar.’ After winning the 1940 New York Golden Globes championship he turned pro.
A multi-weight champion, many remember him as the greatest boxer of all time. In 1997, The Ring Magazine named him ‘Pound for pound, the best boxer of all time.’ Subsequently, in 1999, he was named the greatest welterweight and middleweight boxer of the 20th century by the Associated Press. A megastar to his successors, the legendary Muhammed Ali referred to Robinson as ‘the king, the master, and my idol.’ At the end of his career, Robinson amassed 109 knockouts and finished with a record of 175-19-6.
A match to remember
When Robinson arrived in the UK in July 1951 to fight Turpin, he had just completed an undefeated run across Europe, defeating boxers in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Because of Robinson’s record and talent, the general consensus expected him to continue his winning streak and defeat Turpin in their match.
At the time, Robinson had only one loss, against Jake LaMotta, out of 132 fights, and he subsequently defeated LaMotta five times. The match attracted 18,000 spectators to the venue in Earls Court in London.
Due to his strength and unusual boxing form comprised of a notably awkward physical style combined with speed and power, Turpin held his own across the fifteen rounds in a close affair. Turpin was anounced the winner by one point and took Ray’s title with the victory.
Turpin’s win transformed him into an instant celebrity overnight: he became the first British citizen to hold a world middleweight title since 1891 when it belonged to Bob Fitzsimmons. The civic reception in Leamington Spa to celebrate his title drew 10,000 spectators. Turpin’s victories is lauded as one of the greatest British boxing performances of all time.
A Quick Fall from Graces
A 90-day rematch clause in the contract meant Turpin had to face Robinson for a second match in September, and he travelled to New York City to do so. Robinson ultimately beat him in a close rematch and claimed the title once again. Sadly, Turpin never quite reached those heights again in his career. Before retiring, he moved up to compete in light heavyweight and then eventually forged a professional wrestling career from 1960.
The Guardian recapped American essayist AJ Liebling’s The Sweet Science which describe Turpin versus Robinson and the former’s punches:
“Always at some curious angle…One punch for the body looked like a man releasing a bowling ball; another a right-hand for the head, was like a granny boxing a boy’s ears. He might be one of the hardest hitters in history. Turpin was so strong that his unconventional blows shook Robinson when they landed, although Robinson knew that, according to the book, they shouldn’t.”
Beyond his athletic reputation, Turpin suffered from a number of problems in his personal life. He was involved in several incidents of domestic violence and gained a reputation for mistreating the women in his life, displaying aggression and anger.
He struggled with depression and was suspected of having attempted suicide as a result of ingesting a type of heat rub called liniment, but police eventually declared it an accident, for suicide at the time in the 1940s was an offense for which one could be jailed.
Furthermore, his health suffered under speculation that head injuries he endured from boxing lead him to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is an antecedent to dementia. He also struggled with money management and declared bankruptcy, failing to pay a large tax bill. Befriending the criminal in London, he opened up a nightclub with the duo, which eventually failed.
A tragic death to overshadow his life
Turpin was found dead in 1966 at age 38 in his home. He died of gunshot wounds, and his baby daughter who had also been shot was found in the apartment. Eventually she made a full recovery, but it is thought that Turpin committed suicide after shooting his daughter.
His family denies this narrative, claiming it would be too out of character, and that the suicide note that was found in the scene could have been left by anyone since it was typed. Because of his financial troubles, his family posed that he had become involved with criminals and that they eventually shot him in his home.
The boxer’s legacy
The athletic achievement of Turpin defeating Robinson is largely overshadowed by his quick demise and falling career. Posthumously, he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001, and in 2020 sky sports featured him in their hidden figures series from Black History Month showing stories of Black sporting pioneers people likely haven’t heard of.
Turpin’s boxing titles include:
- British Middleweight Champion in 1950
- World Middleweight Champion 1951
- European Middleweight Champion` in 1951, 1953, and 1954
- Commonwealth Middleweight Champion in 1952
- British Light Heavyweight Champion in 1952, 1955, 1956, and 1957
- Commonwealth Light Heavyweight Champion in 1952 and 1955
He has flown under the radar of popular history in many cases, but his achievements must be remembered despite the tragic path his life took. Turpin’s athletic abilities helped him to escape poverty, and his talent and perseverance on that difficult path makes his achievement in defeating Sugar Ray Robinson even more admirable.
Although history may squeeze out the names of many champions, leading legacies to be forgotten and stripping individual achievements of the credit they are due, Turpin is representative of countless individuals who in one moment, shook the world with their talents and forged a remarkable path of success by utilising their passion and expertise.
To Learn More About Randolph Turpin Head to:
Sky Sports: https://www.skysports.com/boxing/news/12040/12100585/randolph-turpins-name-is-still-renowned-in-british-boxing-history-for-a-sensational-world-title-win-over-the-legendary-sugar-ray-robinson
To Learn More About Forgotten Black British History Head to:
The National Archives: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/black-history/