A few years ago, I caught up with London’s former undefeated IBF light-welterweight titlist Terry Marsh (26-0-1, 10 stoppages) to talk politics, standing up to London Tube security staff and what happens when the lights dim on your boxing career. In the latest edition of From The Vault, Britishboxers unearths Marsh’s unique philosophies on boxing, prison and after dinner speaking.
Marsh’s life can accurately be described as tumultuous. He went from schoolboy chess tournaments through to boxing—via the Royal Marines and the fire service—and he then became famous during the 1980s as the IBF light-welterweight champion of the world. Throw into that mix a career as a bookie, a bit-part TV career, early days spent on a building site and learning to speak Italian ‘out of sheer boredom’ whilst on remand for the attempted murder of promoter Frank Warren in 1989—a charge Marsh was acquitted of in 1990.
“In many ways it (the autobiography) was a platform for my story. It was a good chance to get my version of events out there, but saying that I did take it as far as it could go. As I mention in the book it is all about proof, not truth, so it is not the whole truth but everything (that is) in there I approve of right now.”
After clearing his name the former boxer turned his hand to writing and published a book about his unbelievable life. Undefeated as a boxer, Marsh took that tag as the title of his autobiography, although Marsh, ever the perfectionist, had a few grumbles about the book when we last spoke.
“Well I’ve not been doing anything on the boxing front,” he said. “I was working and promoting the book, but I have taken the book as far as it can go. I had an uphill struggle with the book. I was the publisher, the author—you name it. The one thing I wasn’t was the proof reader, which is probably something that you are aware of.”
The book itself is a fascinating read, driven by the author’s ability to tell a story. A first-time writer, Marsh’s eagerness to get his story out led to a few grammatical errors slipping in, something the former boxer rues.
“There weren’t actual problems with the proof reading, it just wasn’t done sufficiently,” he admitted. “Having said that I have had mixed reviews about it [the book] and some of them focused on the proof reading. There were grammatical errors, basically, but I am more of a fighter than a writer, so I hope people can forgive me for that.
“On the other hand it goes to show that it was written by me, as opposed to ghost-written—99.9% of all other sports books are written by someone other than the author. The mistakes show that it was 100% written by me.
“In many ways it was a platform for my story. It was a good chance to get my version of events out there, but, saying that, I did take it as far as it could go. As I mention in the book it is all about proof, not truth, so it is not the whole truth but everything (that is) in there I approve of right now.”
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Marsh’s court dalliances are legendary, although one slipped under the boxing radar in 2007 when a run in with some hired ‘rail security’ goons in a tube station led to Marsh being assaulted and thrown to the ground. Marsh rode with the blows, clinched his way through the assault, and then hammered his assailants using legal means, winning an out of court settlement.
He took up the story: “Basically it was a couple of railway employees, or thugs, abusing their position. For me, a person in authority abusing their position is like a red rag to a bull. I played a passive role throughout the so-called assault, aware that should I actually react I would be locked up and they would probably throw away the key. I was passive at the time, and had my day later on.
“I went to the police, unfortunately they lost all the evidence, much to my disappointment, so I had to take out a private prosecution against the railway company, who subsequently capitulated and, more importantly, apologised for the thugs they were employing at the time. The security contractors lost the contract as a result. I don’t think those sort of people should be dealing with the public anyway. Now we have a less belligerent railway security service, as opposed to a few years back.”
Marsh’s drive against people in authority could perhaps explain his decision to dabble in politics in 2010’s general election—overcome them from within, and all that. Marsh tried to stand as a Lib Dem councillor in Basildon, only to see his political ambitions derailed by personal and political rows.
On the personal side of things, Marsh was charged with fraud and deception over receivership of a student grant, he was also accused of the illegal removal and theft of a wheel clamp (more on that later).
“The thing is that I had political ambitions, but they say a week is a long time in politics, and for me that was my whole political career. I put my head above the parapet and they shot at me.”
Marsh had assumed that he was entitled to a student grant when taking his MA in Contemporary Political History; his defence was that he had made a harmless mistake, and the jury agreed with this assessment. It turned out to be a storm in a teacup; the jury returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict after 12 minutes of deliberation. Marsh jokingly asked them why they had taken so long, only to be told that the time had been spent ‘electing a foreman’.
The political row came about because of Marsh’s proactive idea of political party membership. The former fighter was still officially a member of the Labour Party when he put himself forward for election as a Lib Dem. In his mind his Labour association had ended when he had decided that Labour no longer represented his views and needs, the actual bureaucracy of leaving the party had not entered into his mind.
Marsh’s original intention had been to stand as a Labour candidate in Basildon. After his plan was foiled by Labour’s local election policies, Marsh publicly left the party, declaring that they had, ‘Gone soft’—although some claimed that had he had left the party in protest of their ‘all-female constituency’ policy in his native borough.
A counter claim later arose suggesting that Marsh had been the victim of political smears; his loan application coming to light was a ‘breach of confidentiality’ on the part of a local councillor. Whatever the truth, the reality is that Terry had elected to represent the Lib Dems instead only to stand down due to the fraud claims.
“The thing is that I had political ambitions, but they say a week is a long time in politics, and for me that was my whole political career,” joked Marsh. “I put my head above the parapet and they shot at me.”
He added: “I was accused of fraud and deception. I found that a little bit irritating, to be accused of fraud and deception, as it actually qualifies me for a career in politics or the House of Lords at the least.”
With his Labour Party membership issue hanging over him like a bad smell, Marsh was left baffled by Labour’s desire to retain his partisanship. “I was a member of the Party,” he reiterated. “I left them for various reasons, some personal, some political, or arguably a mixture of the two.
“I then dealt, and offered to stand, with the Lib Dems [the Liberal Democrat Party] over a matter in my local constituency. I had left the Labour Party in my mind. Funnily enough the Labour Party don’t like people leaving them, they said I was still a party member and that they would expel me from the Labour Party—well, I had already left.
“They [Labour] still insisted on giving me a letter explaining all this to me. It is a badge of honour in many ways. I still cannot find it. I have moved and for the life of me I don’t know where it is. That is a shame. I would like to frame it.”
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In the end, Labour’s shifting, and shifty, political make-up no longer suited the beliefs of Marsh, who is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. “My initial membership of the Labour Party was due to location and circumstances,” he claimed. “I am a liberal, in the truest sense of the word. That is where I stand. There ain’t a need for many liberals in party politics, but saying that you’ve got liberal viewpoints in all three parties.”
One port of call on his chequered CV was the post-boxing after dinner speaking circuit; Marsh tried it immediately after his retirement, and then returned to it in 2009. I managed to catch one of engagements. Starting off with some anecdotal stories, Marsh then moved on to the subject of boxing, astonishing some crowd members with a cynical view of the sport that had brought him such success.
One member of the crowd had been especially riled by Marsh’s views. Eventually, though, Marsh won them all round, carefully explaining to them the apparent contradiction of a fighter who felt no lasting love towards the sport that had defined him.
“People thought that I would eventually get beaten, but because I looked so frail people probably looked at me and thought they could blow me over. The truth was that the frailness made me elusive and they couldn’t (knock me over). Suddenly they would be a few rounds down in a four round fight, and I would nick the decision.”
It had been surprising stuff, more out there than your usual after dinner fare. For Marsh it is something that he did every so often, a means of conveying to people the realities of the sport. If the audience is with him, great, if he loses them, well it is one of the risks you have to take to walk your own line.
“I really don’t know how they (the speaking engagements) went down with the audiences,” he said. “When I first did these things I had just retired, and they were not great. Put it this way, if I had heard it I wouldn’t want to hear it again. I suppose I moved on, got older, and I talk in a different sort of a way.
“I don’t try to make people laugh, or perform for people. I am not a comedian, I am a former sportsman and should relate those experiences that relate to the sport. I don’t always know how to play it. Every audience is different in many ways, sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong, even though you are saying essentially the same thing (for each one). So I don’t know if it is a reflection on me or a reflection on the audience, and I don’t mean that in a horrible way.
“I talk about my boxing career. About the skinny, anaemic, frail-looking 11-year-old who could not punch, was always getting in with bigger guys, and would always look like he was fighting his own dad in most of these fights up to a certain age. People thought that I would eventually get beaten, but because I looked so frail people probably looked at me and thought they could blow me over. The truth was that the frailness made me elusive and they couldn’t (knock me over). Suddenly they would be a few rounds down in a four round fight, and I would nick the decision.”
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Marsh had hoped that turning pro would bring out the man strength needed to force stoppages. The punch power never came, and he had to rely on fitness, reflexes and the ability to counter punch. “I thought I would get a bit older, get a bit stronger, and hit a bit harder,” he laughed.
“I got older, got strong, but I still couldn’t punch. I realized that you can’t get far in boxing without a punch, and that was quite frustrating, so I thought: ‘One fight at a time’—I was hoping to find my level. The irony is that not being a puncher was probably a blessing in some respects. I worked on my skills and my fitness, every time I had a fight I was resigned to going the distance. A boxer who can’t punch is a good source of humor, for me, as it is like having a footballer who can’t kick—it is absurd. So to come out undefeated, and to do it by winning British, European and the world titles, is pretty decent. I did all right as an amateur as well. Winning British and International honours. Not bad for someone who can’t punch.”
Marsh’s self-deprecating attitude towards his own punching power is in-itself a defensive mechanism, setting up the argument that, as a non-puncher, his ascent to the world title was even more impressive.
He said: “I make the point that I had about 200 fights, man and boy, and I never knocked anyone clean out in those fights. I put one or two down, but it was always more of a slip, or from them having had enough of the punches.
“The one time I came close to scoring a knockout was when I fought for the world title [versus Joe ‘Louis’ Manley for the IBF light-welterweight title in 1987], and then I had to hit the guy clean [with a short left hook]. He was on his way down and falling like a tree, so I hit him twice [Writer’s note: it was actually once, a right hand] on the way down as well, despite all that he still beat the count. So it shows that I just could not punch.”
Marsh’s win over Manley took place in a circus tent in Basildon, Marsh feels that this was the pinnacle of his career, the finishing line. “There was the world title win”, he said, “but then there was what I would class as the defence—the lap of honour. I must admit that, for me, the world title win was the winning post. I never imagined getting that far. I thought I had done well.
“I didn’t want to stay in boxing for long, either. It may sound bizarre but I thought that the quickest way to get out of boxing was to win the title and then retire. If I had been defeated along the way I may not have retired because although the record was important to me in some senses it was a bit of a burden as well.
“If I had have been beaten once, I probably would have carried on boxing past the time that I did because I would have had nothing to preserve. I was well aware that getting out undefeated is something that not a lot of fighters manage, so I knew that it would be worth so much more than one or two subsequent defences.”
A defense against Akaio Kameda in 1987 saw Marsh box his way through a veil of blood, caused by a cut over his right eye, before eventually catching up with his challenger in the seventh round. At the time Marsh was not completely sure that he would walk away from the sport, a failed BBBoC medical forced his hand after he was diagnosed with epilepsy.
A subsequent appeal in 1989 saw the Board uphold their earlier decision. The former fireman tried to get a license through the New Jersey boxing commission, hoping for a belated US bow; in the end, however, the die was cast and he was done with boxing.
“You have won that acclaim. You have got that recognition. What you say is considered important. You get into all the nice places and you get invites to the nice dos and events. So in that sense you can see how people hanker for boxing. If you have got nothing else to go to you do yourself a lot of damage by carrying on.”
Marsh now had to find out for sure if he could really walk away from boxing. “I think it is a problem for all sportsmen, really,” he confessed. “It is not all about walking away from the sport. It is about finding something else to do. If you can find an alternative you can move on. The toughest fight for all sportsmen is when they stop doing their sport.
“You have got years ahead of you, invariably with no skills or no qualifications. Most of them (boxers) end up with no bank balance, either. It is very difficult to do. In many ways I always had stuff that I wanted to do beyond boxing. I was always looking to get out of boxing, almost as soon as I got into it. I don’t know if that is a normal thing for fighters, but it is why I was able to extricate myself from the sport.”
A common sight is the former footballing great tumbling down the leagues towards the end of his playing career, or the aging boxing legend becoming road kill for some up-and-comer; the result is always the same, a sad spectacle. Marsh, though, understands why the urge to compete persists.
“You have the limelight, the attention, and to be fair to someone like [Evander] Holyfield the attention you get at that sort of level is hard to turn down—it is a nice feeling,” he explained.
“You have won that acclaim. You have got that recognition. What you say is considered important. You get into all the nice places and you get invites to the nice dos and events. So in that sense you can see how people hanker for boxing. If you have got nothing else to go to you do yourself a lot of damage by carrying on.
“I don’t know if this is pertinent but I can tell you a little story. Prior to winning the world title I had been European Champion and everything else. Now, I don’t send Christmas cards—I don’t agree with it—and it is a nice thing, because the people who send me Christmas cards are sending them because they want to, not because they have to. But, nonetheless, when I was in the limelight the amount of cards I used to get was incredible, and they came from all sorts of people and corporate bodies. It was amazing.
“Lo and behold, I come away from it all and the Christmas cards stop. It is really an indication of how things change. I’ve done nothing different, but one year you are running out of display room for them then the next year they are gone.
“I can see why people talk about your Holyfield’s and Mike Tyson’s coming back, because they want that acclaim again. Financially you often need to come back as well. Even if you get good paydays as a fighter you have a hell of a lot of years ahead of you in your future, and you have got to make that money work down the line.
“You realise that, in the long term, there probably isn’t enough money for you to live on and you have to work. Then you are stuck, because you can only go and do what you have done before, and that is boxing, but you are older now.”
Running out of Christmas cards was the least of Marsh’s post-boxing worries. Frank Warren attended a boxing show one night in November 1989, a masked assailant shot the promoter down, before allegedly dancing a Rocky jig and fleeing the scene. A few months later, Marsh was charged with attempted murder and held on remand.
In the next part Marsh recalls his prison experiences and struggles with authority.
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