How unheralded boxer helped down a legend

Published: 21 Jul 2011 09:260 comments

IT WAS one of the greatest boxing upsets of all time and turned the victor into an overnight sensation.

Eddie Phillips, pictured around the time of the Turpin-Robinson bout

But Randolph Turpin's shock victory over the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson 60 years ago this month might never have happened had it not been for the tireless efforts of a little-known boxer who got the Englishman ready for the biggest fight of his career.

Eddie Phillips, now 81 and a Tranent resident for 26 years, is the sole survivor from one of the most glorious nights in British boxing history, at London's Earls Court Arena on July 10, 1951.

In the build-up to the contest, Phillips played an integral part in getting the unheralded Turpin prepared not only to go toe-to-toe with American superstar Robinson - the man widely considered the greatest boxer of all time - but to get the better of the Hall of Fame legend to claim his world middleweight title.

The two Brits had met when both were boxing in a booth in Nuneaton the previous year, when Phillips signed with Turpin's manager George Middleton.

The big-punching Turpin had been causing havoc in sparring sessions, even repeatedly knocking out heavyweights, so Middleton decided to see how he would get on against Phillips, believing his counter-punching style would match up well against Turpin's aggression.

Phillips got on so well against Turpin, who repeatedly failed to knock him out, that Middleton signed him up as the Leamington fighter's chief sparring partner ahead of the much-hyped Robinson clash, which was part of the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations.

The press both in Britain and the US expected the fight to be a mismatch, given Robinson's sky-high reputation and the thrashing he had handed out to Jake 'Raging Bull' LaMotta, one of the finest boxers of his era, in the 'St Valentine's Day Massacre' earlier that year.

But Phillips, who had tried to adopt Robinson's trademark style in the sparring sessions leading up to the fight, was far more confident in his friend's ability.

When Turpin finally knocked down his sparring partner in one of their last sessions on the eve of the fight, Phillips was so delighted he declared that he "must have a chance against Robinson now!"

And so it proved. Using what he had learned from his sparring sessions with Phillips, Turpin went on to dominate Robinson in a way no one had predicted throughout the 15-round bout. Turpin was way out in front on points by the time the final round came along and, despite Robinson going for a knockout, he held on for a famous win and a world title.

Turpin was quick to pay tribute to Phillips' vital role in victory.

"I could box a bit and, more importantly, while Turpin was brutal to his sparring partners, I used to frustrate him by shrugging off some of his hardest shots," revealed Mr Phillips. "He told me after the win that he had benefited from me adopting Robinson's style and trying to mimic Sugar's moves."

It wouldn't last for Turpin, who was knocked out just months later in a rematch with Robinson in New York. His career never hit the same heights again.

As for Phillips, his boxing career and fame never reached the same level as his illustrious sparring partner, or another sparring partner from his youth at the Edinburgh Sea Cadets club, Sean Connery.Nevertheless, he won a number of lower level amateur titles with Capital boxing club Sparta before packing in boxing.

Phillips, who moved to Tranent 26 years ago from Marchmont, worked in security at the end of his boxing career, then spent later years working as a lollipop man in Ormiston until his retirement.

Well respected in the community, Phillips was invited to the opening of Tranent's Bronx Boxing Gym last year.

Wife Eileen told the Courier that the "highlight" of her husband's life had been when he met childhood idol Joe Louis, the legendary heavyweight boxer, when he and Turpin were boxing in America.

"People always remark that my husband is such a gentle man," said Eileen. "But he wasn't in the ring!"

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