By Alex Daley
If ever there was a fighter truly gifted with a natural ability to box, his name was Nipper Pat Daly. The Nipper's story is utterly unique in the annals of boxing history. He is one of the sport's long-forgotten marvels and also, perhaps, one of its great tragedies.
His professional career began at the age of nine; by 16 he had beaten some of the best fly, bantam and featherweights in Europe, including several champions; yet before he had reached 18 he was finished.
Trained and managed by 'Professor' Andrew Newton (one of Britain's leading boxing figures of the day), at age 10 Pat was making his name around London's small fight halls, conceding weight, height and reach to older lads, yet boxing as if such disparities meant nothing.
It soon became clear that 'Nipper', as Pat's trainer dubbed him, would require tougher opposition if his boxing skills were to be truly tested and extended. And so he was matched with Johnny Summers of Leeds, the north of England's very own boxing prodigy. He comfortably beat Summers and when the latter's father demanded two rematches within the next 24 hours, Pat was successful both times.
For the next three years he attended school in the daytime, while training and amassing a long string of victories in the evenings and at weekends. By 14 it was clear that his future lay not in the classroom but in the ring, and he left school to box fulltime.
Nipper Pat breezed his way through the cream of Britain's flyweights and by 1928, after defeating continental champions Giovanni Sili and Ludwig Minow, he was considered a top contender for the eight-stone British title, held by Johnny Hill of Leith, Scotland.
But one man in particular stood in the way of his title ambitions: the division's number-one contender, Bert Kirby of Birmingham. Kirby had fought his way to the top of the flyweight tree and most critics believed he would soon be British champion (which he did become in March 1930).
A match with Kirby was made and immediately sparked a press outcry. Most newspaper critics considered it insane to pit a boy of 15 against a man of Kirby's experience, however talented the youngster. But, seemingly unfazed by the negative press, Pat boxed rings round the tough Birmingham fighter to finish a clear points winner after 12 three-minute rounds.
Despite confounding the critics and beating the number-one contender, Pat did not get his title shot. He was offered an overweight match with Johnny Hill, but declined as he felt that he had earned a championship fight. Not long afterwards, any hopes of winning the title at 15 were dashed when the newly instituted BBB of C introduced a rule restricting the age of championship competitors.
Pat fought 33 contests in 1929, losing only three. It was a year that would see him rise to the peak of his career and at the same time practically end it. At the start of the year he was struggling to make flyweight, so stepped up to bantam.
Victories over Belgian (and future European) bantamweight champion Petit Biquet and leading contender (and future British champ) Dick Corbett served to further his reputation as Britain's most outstanding boxing talent. He fought his way through the country's best bantams with the same ease he had the flyweights.
He had not long celebrated his sixteenth birthday when he was matched with the recently dethroned British bantamweight champion, Kid Pattenden, who, having just lost his title in a closely-contested match to Teddy Baldock, was keen to prove his worth for a return title fight. Few gave Pat a chance against the powerful Bethnal Green man, who had KO'd leading contenders five to ten years older than the Marylebone youngster.
The bout that followed, however, was described by those who witnessed it as one of the finest ever seen on British soil. To quote the press of the day, Pat provided, 'a feast of boxing in every round. It was a one-sided fight, yet a wonderfully spectacular one. Although he [Pattenden] fought as only he can, he was up against a master, and it was evident that he also realised this position.' When the fight ended the Bethnal Green man was in the centre of the ring heartily congratulating his opponent on a display of boxing worthy of the greatest.
By mid-1929, news of Nipper Pat Daly's extraordinary talent had spread to America. A letter arrived at Newton's gym one morning in early October with an incredible proposition enclosed. It was an offer to fight Battling Battalino for the world featherweight title in America. Due to his age, Pat would not be permitted to box more than six rounds in the USA, but Battalino's management had found a State willing to sanction and stage a six-round world title fight. Pat was ecstatic. 'When do we pack?' he asked his manager. But joy turned to dismay when he was abruptly told he would not be going. The Professor would not permit him to go to the States and no amount of pleading on Pat's part would change his mentor's mind.
Although denied his world-title shot, Pat did get a fight with the reigning British featherweight champion, Johnny Cuthbert. Although, owing to Pat's age, the British title was not at stake, if successful over Cuthbert he was promised a match with the legendary Fidel LaBarba, to be arranged by the Europe-based American promoter Jeff Dickson.
The stage was set for a battle of David and Goliath proportions. Could the 'wonder boy' boxer topple one of Britain's finest ever featherweight champions? Once again certain sections of the press condemned the matching of a 16-year-old with a seasoned champion of 25. But at the same time, Pat, who had already caused so many upsets, was given more than a fair chance of winning.
What the boxing public did not know was that Nipper, still a growing teenager, was having ever increasing difficulty in making even the featherweight limit. For some time, through strict diet and an arduous training regime, he had been fighting at what was probably a couple of stone beneath his natural weight.
He would years later recall making the 9 stone 1 lb limit for the Cuthbert fight as, 'one of the hardest jobs of my life. I wore five sweaters and a sheepskin jacket to get the weight off. I would take off a couple of pounds, go home to lunch, drink half a cup of tea and a piece of dry toast and then come back to the gym several ounces worse off than when I started!'
On the morning of the fight he was still overweight. A couple of hours' hard training failed to shift the excess, but a trip to the local Turkish baths finally got him down to 9 stone 1 lb. 'I was inside the weight but what a wreck I was! Weak and as white as a sheet I went home to rest before going to Holborn to do battle with one of the greatest champions Great Britain has produced.'
Despite his weakened condition, Pat was determined not to let his big opportunity pass. For seven rounds he outboxed the champion and by the eighth had built himself a comfortable points lead. But the eighth would prove to be one of the most disastrous and costly rounds of his career. Realising that the fight was slipping away from him, Cuthbert came out in ferocious style. A momentary lapse in the Nipper's normally rock-solid defence saw a lightning right hand from Cuthbert land flush on his jaw. As he went down, perhaps more telling than the blow itself, Pat's head hit the canvas hard. He tried to rise at nine, but collapsed and was counted out.
Straight after the fight Pat had a visit from Jimmy Wilde. 'He's a great fighter, but you're overworking him,' he told Newton. 'Handle him right and he'll be world champion.' He was told by Pat's mentor in no uncertain terms to 'mind his own business'. One newspaper wrote: 'Daly should be given a long rest, and allowed to grow in a normal way. If this is not done he will be finished before he is twenty.'
Within a fortnight, however, he was back in the ring to beat Jack Millard of Willesden at Paddington Baths. Pat continued to win fights, but something seemed to be missing from the brilliance he had displayed up until the Cuthbert match. He looked like fighting his way back among the champions when he was matched with an up-and-coming fighter called Seaman Tommy Watson, who would later become British featherweight champion and go the distance with Kid Chocolate for the world title in America.
Pat had looked impressive while preparing for the fight. Sparring with Al Foreman, who was training for his lightweight title fight with Fred Webster, he had more than held his own. It was enough to convince him that he was back close to his best and a win over Watson would certainly set his career back on track. But once again he had weight trouble and, come the morning of the fight, was required to sweat and starve to make the 9 stone 6 lb required weight.
Pat came out for the first round in impressive style, but in the second left himself open to a powerful Watson right hand. Down he went for the count of nine and rose to his feet, but only to be knocked down twice more and then rescued by the bell. For the next few rounds the Seaman gave him trouble, but in round six Pat staged a miraculous comeback, and by the end of the 12th had probably edged himself ahead on points.
Catching him off balance in the 13th, however, Watson landed a lightning left hook to Pat's jaw. He was floored and rose at nine, but only to be put down again - this time for a count of six. His senses scattered and fighting purely on instinct, Nipper was floored twice more and would say of the last knockdown:'I have some dim recollection of trying to get up but when I did nothing hit me. The fight had been stopped. Friends told me afterwards of the tears at ringside.'
He was ill for weeks, unable to walk properly and left with concussion. As soon as he could Pat returned to the gym, but only to be told by Newton that he had another fight arranged, with a tough Welshman named Nobby Baker. 'I was leading on points narrowly up to the thirteenth round when Baker caught me with a wild swing, which previously I would have avoided, and I went down. I got up and was put down for two more counts and referee Jack Hart stopped the fight.' Although he hadn't realised it, Pat was still concussed from the Watson fight.
Not long afterwards, he split from Professor Newton for good. He had a series of fights under Fred Austin's promotions, winning them all bar a draw. But the magic was gone. None of these men were in the class of Corbett, Pattenden, Cuthbert or Watson. Realising he would now never win a world title, Nipper Pat Daly, the boy wonder, retired from the fight game at 17. Had he fought as a grown man it would probably have been at middleweight or light-heavy. Had he only been handled with care, it is quite possible that the '30s world fight scene would have boasted another great champion.
Nipper: new boxing book released in 2011
For more information on Nipper Pat Daly
A biography of Nipper Pat Daly, exploring his ring career and life (both in and out of boxing), is due to be published in early 2011.
With rare photos, detailed fight analysis, and extracts from Nipper Pat's personal (previously unpublished) memoirs, the book resurrects the extraordinary times of an extraordinary boxer, and offers a great insight into the boxing world of the 1920s and '30s.
Professor Andrew Newton's Niece - Annie Newton (Pioneer for womens boxing).
Nipper Pat Daley with trainer Professor Andrew Newton
He would years later recall making the 9 stone 1 lb limit for the Cuthbert fight as, 'one of the hardest jobs of my life. I wore five sweaters and a sheepskin jacket to get the weight off.
Catching him off balance in the 13th, however, Watson landed a lightning left hook to Pat's jaw. He was floored and rose at nine, but only to be put down again - this time for a count of six.
Nipper Pat Daly at a LEBA function in the 1970s
Nipper Pat Daly of Marylebone (left), unknown ex-boxer (centre) and Arthur Norton of Marylebone (right) at a 1970s LEBA function