Lost bouts of a Rhondda legend; BOOK OF THE WEEK

Man Of Courage - The Life and Career of Tommy Farr by Bob Lonkhurst (The Book Guild Ltd, pounds 18.50)
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The Independent Online
In the early hours of 31 August 1937 lights went on all over the land and people from every walk of life huddled around wireless sets, their thoughts with a tough ex-collier from Tonypandy in South Wales, who was challenging Joe Louis for the world heavyweight championship.

Nobody pretends seriously that Tommy Farr did enough to get the decision after 15 hard rounds at the Polo Grounds in New York, but an indomitable spirit and the dogged application of a style Louis found difficult to fathom established him in the annals of British boxing.

For a long time truculent, resentful and suspicious, embittered by the debilitating hardships of an upbringing in the Rhondda Valley where he worked underground when barely into his teens, and the chicanery he came across in boxing, Farr mellowed to become an incurable romantic.

Bob Lonkhurst's fascination with a fighter he considers to be the best- ever British heavyweight began with the comeback forced on Farr, by then 37, in 1951 by serious financial difficulties. "Everything about Tommy, not just his boxing, captured my imagination," he said. An insurance investigator and former detective sergeant who is on the British Boxing Board's panel of inspectors, Lonkhurst is to be commended for an effort into which he put five years of painstaking research.

Considering the importance now attached to unbeaten records it is interesting that Farr lost 43 and drew 22 of 197 recorded professional contests and, lacking power, gained only 27 wins inside the distance. The effects of impoverishment show in the fact that Farr was still taking contests at under 9st only seven years before he defeated Ben Foord at Harringay in London to become the British and Empire heavyweight champion.

At one time, booth owners thought him too frail for the rigours of fairground fighting that would help to shape his crouching style. Looking back on his experiences in the booths, Farr, said: "An unholy grind it was to be sure. A cracking, crunching, smashing thing. But it does teach all that is demanded of a pugilist - the will to win no matter what the opposition or the odds."

When a terrible depression began to settle on the Welsh valleys an 18- year-old Farr walked to London seeking work. He slept on the Thames embankment and laboured on a river barge. The breakthrough came in March 1937 when Farr outpointed Foord in what was thought to be his 94th official contest - Lonkhurst discovered 60 more. Returning to Harringay the next month Farr got a 12-round decision over Max Bear and in June knocked out Walter Neusel of Germany in three rounds. Ten weeks later he was in with Louis.

Relayed through the national transmitter at Droitwich, commentary of the fight was heard by more than two million listeners. Thousands in London asked to be awoken by telephone at 2.30am. Bonfires blazed on the hills around Farr's home. "The hardest man I ever fought," Louis would say of him. "Tommy gave me my toughest fight. He wouldn't be beaten."

Ken Jones