Bri­tish box­ing lost one of its finest ban­tam ti­tle-hold­ers in the tragic Beth­nal Green tube dis­as­ter of 1943

Boxing News - - Yesterday’s Heroes - Alex Da­ley @thealex­da­ley His­to­rian & au­thor

ASTRIKING new me­mo­rial has been un­veiled at Beth­nal Green tube sta­tion in Lon­don’s East End. It con­sists of an in­verted full-size replica of the sta­tion’s stair­case made from teak. Carved into the wood is a list of sur­names and 173 small holes to al­low light through. Each hole sig­ni­fies a life lost in the worst civil­ian dis­as­ter of World War II. The event took place in 1943, when 173 men, women and chil­dren were crushed to death on the sta­tion’s stairs. Among them was the ex-bri­tish ban­tamweight cham­pion Dick Cor­bett.

Re­cently, Box­ing News in­cluded Cor­bett in its 100 Great­est Bri­tish Box­ers pub­li­ca­tion, but he is not well known among mod­ern fans. So who was this cham­pion the box­ing world lost that day?

Cor­bett was born Richard Coleman in Beth­nal Green on Septem­ber 28, 1908. As an am­a­teur he boxed for Beth­nal Green’s fa­mous Rep­ton club, but turned pro in 1926, aged 17. His elder brother, Bri­tish feath­er­weight ti­tlist Harry Cor­bett, used the Cor­bett pseu­do­nym as a nod to the fa­mous world heavy­weight champ “Gen­tle­man” Jim Cor­bett, so Dick fol­lowed suit.

Cor­bett had at least 66 bouts in his first three years as a pro, win­ning the ma­jor­ity. Then in the sum­mer of 1929, he se­cured a string of fights in Aus­tralia. Th­ese, he re­called, were what re­ally made his name. There Dick out­pointed two Amer­i­cans, Pinky Sil­ver­berg and the highly rated John­nie Green, along with three top Aus­tralians. Even more im­pres­sively, Cor­bett drew with fu­ture world feath­er­weight champ (and Hall of Fame in­ductee) Petey Sar­ron.

Back in Bri­tain, the wins kept on com­ing. Dick beat former world fly­weight champ Emile Plad­ner, ex-bri­tish ban­tam ti­tle-holder Kid Pat­ten­den, fu­ture Euro­pean king Pe­tit Bi­quet and the bril­liant New­cas­tle fighter, Benny Sharkey. He also cap­tured the va­cant Em­pire ban­tam crown with a points win over Wil­lie Smith of South Africa.

But the fight Cor­bett longed for was a ti­tle show­down with Bri­tish ban­tamweight ruler (and fel­low East En­der) Teddy Bal­dock of Po­plar. By Septem­ber 1931, Bal­dock had re­lin­quished his crown be­cause of weight is­sues. But he and Dick met in a feath­er­weight bout that drew over 30,000 to Clap­ton’s grey­hound track. By then Teddy was past his best and Cor­bett had lit­tle trou­ble out­point­ing him.

Two months later, Dick met Man­ches­ter’s Johnny King for the va­cant Bri­tish ban­tamweight ti­tle at Belle Vue, Man­ches­ter. Cor­bett boxed bril­liantly to claim the belt with a 15-round de­ci­sion, but lost it along with his Em­pire strap in a re­turn with King 10 months later. In a third bat­tle, in Fe­bru­ary ’34, Dick took back his ti­tles. He de­fended against King again that Au­gust (a draw), win­ning a Lons­dale Belt out­right, be­fore va­cat­ing and mov­ing up to feather.

In 1936, Cor­bett beat the world-class Dave Crow­ley of Clerken­well for the South­ern Area feath­er­weight crown, but never chal­lenged for na­tional 126lb hon­ours.

Fast-for­ward to March 3, 1943 and Dick was still box­ing pro­fes­sion­ally. Hear­ing an air-raid siren that evening, he’d gone to Beth­nal Green tube air-raid shel­ter to look for his wife and chil­dren. He ar­rived to find hun­dreds of peo­ple fil­ing in through the sta­tion en­trance. To this day, the de­tails of ex­actly what hap­pened that night are un­clear, but it seems the noise of new anti-air­craft rock­ets be­ing tested nearby sparked panic. Peo­ple stam­peded through the sta­tion en­trance, caus­ing a land­slide of bod­ies to tum­ble down the stairs, form­ing a tan­gled mass. Near the bot­tom of the steps, they found Dick Cor­bett’s body. Like many oth­ers, he had died of as­phyx­i­a­tion. He was just 34.

Writer-his­to­rian Gilbert Odd called Dick “one of the great­est ban­tam ti­tle­hold­ers we ever had... a su­perla­tive ex­po­nent of the No­ble Art.” In 186 recorded pro bouts (132-37-17), Cor­bett was never knocked out.

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