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When Paddy Brennan fought Len Johnson

Submitted by on March 1, 2012 – 10:43 amNo Comment

By Stuart Brennan

“PADDY Brennan fought Len Johnson under the arches at Urmston!”

Eighty-odd-year-old Matt Moran was animated and certain, leaning forward in his chair, and slapping one hand down on the coffee table in his cosy flat in Little Hulton.

Surely he was mistaken. My Uncle Paddy was a family legend, revered, respected and despaired of, in equal measure.

Surely, if he had fought Len Johnson, a true Mancunian hero, whether it was under the arches in Urmston, or at the Free Trade Hall, the story would have been added to the tales of Paddy’s riotous life, tales which my dad had told and re-told his three sons as we grew up.

Matt, one of the great northern showmen of the Thirties and beyond, could tell me no more than his one sentence.

Interview concluded, I raced home, burning with curiosity. He must have been mistaken.

I phoned my dad and asked him straight: “Did Uncle Paddy ever fight Len Johnson?”

He went quiet for a minute, then laughed nervously. “Yes, he did, and he took a beating …”

That was a surprise. Paddy had been a rough, tough, six ft heavyweight, a man who had seen life as one big fight.

He fought kids on the streets of Salford as a raggy-arsed Irish immigrant. He fought all-comers in the hobo camps over in the States after running away from home to seek his fortune as a 16-year-old.

He fought drunken sailors as a bouncer in one of the roughest San Francisco wharf side bars.

And he fought in the US Army, where he became divisional heavyweight champ.

On returning to these shores, he had entered a £100 competition to find the next big British heavyweight hope. Under the name Jack Dillon he blasted his way to the final, first round KOs all the way, his rough-house American style and fearsome punch power too much for upright British boxers.

He was due to meet a Manchester policeman named Alf Robinson in that final. A Salford bad lad against a Manchester copper on a bill in Wembley – dream time.

But Alf’s nervous handlers did their research, discovered Paddy had fought pro in the States for a time, and the organisers forced him to pull out with “flu”.

Too fond of women, horses and drink, Paddy did not have the dedication to box for a living, and reverted to fighting on the cobbles.

Surely even Len Johnson, possibly the greatest boxer ever produced by this country – but a middleweight – could not have withstood Paddy’s size and strength?

But he did. And the story is one of those tales that any family history researcher dreads discovering, one that brings shame and guilt by association.

Len Johnson had taken enough by the time he met Paddy, sometime in the early Thirties.

The son of a Sierra Leone seaman and an Irish Mancunian mother, his life was one heroic struggle against racism and injustice.

Barred from fighting for the British title in case he won, and so challenged the white supremacy of the British Empire, he had campaigned for the right to ply his trade.

He beat many of the best white fighters Britain had to offer, while others ducked him, using racial separatism as an excuse.

But Len’s brilliance in the ring, and gentle, friendly nature out of it, made him a hero to the people of east Manchester, where he settled.

In an age when the city’s small black community faced terrible persecution and often outright violence – his own mother was facially disfigured for having married a black man – he was a beacon of hope.

Len’s full story, of his battle against the colour bar, and later his fight for equality, alongside Paul Robeson and other civil rights luminaries, as well as his trade union and Communist Party activities, are too important and lengthy to be laid out here.

A new book “Never Counted Out” by Michael Herbert (Dropped Aicthes Press, £4.95) tells the full story. Buy it.

Sadly, my family’s brush with greatness was ugly and brutal.

Paddy, recently home from his American adventures, had heard a boxing booth was in town, and fancied some easy money for climbing into the ring with the fairground fighters.

Len, despairing of his battle with the suited racists of the National Sporting Club, had retired from boxing and concentrated on running his booth – including a young fighter named Matt Moran.

One day, he set up the booth under railway arches at Urmston, and challenged the gathering crowd.

Paddy and another uncle rolled up, and were invited to take their pick of the boxers lined up, in their gowns, in front of the ring.

Paddy, who had spent too long south of the Mason Dixon Line, had eyes on only one man.

He growled, in his menacing accent which meandered from Salford to Dublin to Deep South and back again: “I’ll fight you, nigger.”
Len politely declined, reminding the jeering crowd that he was retired, but Paddy wouldn’t let it go.

“You yeller as well as black, nigger …”

In the end Len relented, and briefly came out of retirement.

Stripped down, they got into the ring together, the slim, graceful black middleweight and the flat-nosed, muscled white heavy.

If Paddy had connected, the lights would have gone out for Len. But connecting was his problem.

Len was too nimble, too fast, and too seething with the years of hatred and ignorance he had endured to lose this contest.

He danced round the bullish Salford man, whipping punches which broke Paddy’s nose for the umpteenth time in his life, and left him a bloody mess.

Paddy had to concede defeat, a rarity inside the ring or out, and the inglorious story of his meeting with Len Johnson was consigned to the dustbin of family history.

It’s a story which brings me great pleasure, as Paddy got his desserts. But it brings pain as well, to know that my own flesh and blood had contributed to the hurt and intolerance to which such a fine man had been subjected.

It hurts my dad even more keenly. He also travelled the world, as a merchant seaman during the war but – smarter and more compassionate than Paddy – his journeys opened his eyes, to the stupidity of apartheid in South Africa, the horrors of poverty in Bombay and the idiocy of racism in Texas.

He became a socialist and a trades union activist, and passed on his beliefs to his sons.

But he retained his love and admiration for his big brother Paddy, who died in 1997, aged 85, if not for the beliefs he held.

One thing my dad told me when I was a kid has stuck with me. He made the point that I was an immigrant, but my good fortune meant that within a generation, my white skin colour meant I was absorbed into the mainstream, my surname the only clue to my origins.

Black men like Len Johnson, no matter how worthy of acceptance, have had to fight and fight again for basic rights. Like Len Johnson, inside the ring, and out.

- A talk about Len Johnson will be taking place at the Friends’ Meeting Housing, 6 Mount Street, Manchester, M2 5NS, on Saturday, March 3, from 10.30am, as part of the Manchester Histories Festival. For details visit: http://www.manchesterhistoriesfestival.org.uk/whatson/nevercountedout

- This article was first published in A Fine Lung issue two. To buy a copy or any other back issues visit ‘Buy issues of A Fine Lung’ in the menu bar at the top of the page.

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