ASCENDING boxing’s weight classes – except through natural growth – is rarely a recipe for success, as revealed by the old maxim, ‘a good big ‘un always beats a good little ‘un.’ Back in October 1937, a 21-year-old fighter from Deptford named Tommy Martin set out to disprove the general rule.
Less than two years earlier, Tommy had been a welterweight. But now he was matched at heavyweight against Swansea’s Jim Wilde, who weighed a whopping 15st 5lbs. Martin was two stone lighter according to press reports, but his actual weight may have been lighter still. “For the best part of my career I was never much more than a middleweight,” he later claimed. “I used to wear a belt around my waist fitted with lead weights in order to appear heavier.”
Even more surprising is that Tommy found success as a heavyweight, earning the nickname “Britain’s Brown Bomber”, a nod, of course, to the great Joe Louis. Jim Wilde was soundly outboxed over 10 rounds at Empress Hall to give Martin the first of many heavyweight victories. Tommy would prove himself one of the best in the country at light-heavy and heavyweight, but sadly as a mixed-race man he could not box for a British title due to the BBBofC’s ludicrous ‘colour bar’, which required title contestants to be born in Britain to two white parents.
Born in Reading in January 1916 to a white English mother and Jamaican father, Tommy moved with his family to Deptford, South London, in 1917. At age 14, he ran away from home and got a job as a water boy with Billy Stewart’s boxing booth, eventually becoming a booth fighter himself. This and later experience on Billy Wood’s booth gave Martin a thorough knowledge of boxing.
He had his first official pro bout in 1933, aged 17, and quickly compiled a fine résumé of wins, with only an occasional defeat. His scalps at welter and middleweight included quality men such as Harry Mason, Jack Lewis, Paul Schaeffer, Bill Hardy and Moe Moss. Through 1938 and 1939, Tommy’s fighting weight oscillated between light-heavy and heavyweight as he amassed a 15-fight winning streak with victories over the likes Frank Hough, Jack Hyams, Tino Rolando, Al Robinson and future British heavyweight champ Jack London (to whom he conceded over three stone).
In early 1940, Tommy set off for America for a campaign organised by manager Harry Levene. He made his debut in Los Angeles that April against the highly rated Bob Nestell, who’d stopped Lee Ramage and King Levinsky. Martin twisted a knee in the bout and lost on points, but he KO’d Nestell in a return a month later. Another notable win from Tommy’s short spell in the US was over Pat Valentino, who later challenged Ezzard Charles for the world heavyweight crown. Martin’s most impressive victory, however, was over Buddy Knox (then 102-11-8), who’d beaten former world light-heavy king Bob Olin. Tommy outpointed Knox in September 1940 but was outscored in a return.
Martin’s career seemed to fizzle out after his US tour. He had just three more bouts and lost them all: a points defeat in a return with Jack London, a stoppage by Freddie Mills and a first-round KO at the hands of previous victim Al Robinson. Tommy’s focus then turned to war service. He served with the RAF and then the Merchant Navy, but was injured by a torpedo blast and hospitalised in Montreal. He lost and then, after two operations, regained his sight before joining the US Marines. After leaving the services, Tommy moved to Hollywood and set up a gym, but later he qualified as a physiotherapist and opened a practice in New York. After marrying, he settled in the Virgin Islands, where he worked as a prison governor until his retirement. He died in 1987.