“They’ll laugh at you, son. Wait until you’re a little older.” It’s 1920s London. A nine-year-old boy is imploring his father to let him attend the local gym for boxing try-outs.
Just one year later - at the tender age of 10 - that eager young kid would be fighting professionally. By 14 he would be sparring with the reigning world middleweight champion, fronting posters across London and punching 15 rounds as the greatest attraction Whitechapel had to offer. Aged 16, he would participate in an incredible 33 professional fights in just 11 months, against much older, and often heavier, opponents. For those who saw him, Nipper Pat Daly should be considered among the greatest British boxers of the 20th century. “If ever there should have been a champion, it ought to have been Nipper,” wrote the pre-war artist and bohemian Nina Hamnett.
But eight short years after tugging on his father’s sleeves to let him lace up, Pat’s boxing career would be all but over.
Born in Wales in February 1913, Nipper Pat Daly’s early childhood was a globetrotting one. It was in Canada where the obsession with boxing began, with the altar-boy Pat screaming on the sidelines of bunkhouse brawls after morning service. Upon his family moving to London, he was tutored in the sport by ‘Professor’ Andrew Newton, a former lightweight champion, at his Marylebone gym. The Professor would pressurise Pat to excel in this cruel environment that continuously teetered on the breadline, to the point of human limitation.
Pat’s grandson, Alex Daley, paints a vivid picture of this Twenties London life with its eclectic cast, fieriness and freedom, which was hard-fought, in his excellent biography of Nipper Pat’s life and career, Born to Box. It was a world where ‘schooling was unlikely to elevate you financially but a successful career in the prize ring just might.’ It’s why there were around six times as many professional British boxers fighting at any one time as there is today.
Pat’s prowess and stunning stamina was amazing even those outside the fighting world. A team of doctors wrote to Newton asking him for the privilege of medically examining ‘his prize pupil’. It was also gaining him attention overseas, once word has reached across the Atlantic. By September 1929, still aged 16, Pat was ranked 10th for his weight in the world by The Ring magazine, and received praise from the manager of Jersey Joe Walcott and world champion Joe Gans.“When I started work I created something of a sensation,” Pat later wrote in his memoirs, “It seemed that most of the young men in the crowd wanted to take me on, as I was 15 years old, skinny, and did not look like a fighter.” He became viewed in certain circles as the future of British boxing.
But as the distinguished boxing writer O. F. Snelling observed, ‘He went up like a rocket, burst into sparks well before he had reached his peak, and sank into darkness.”. By the late Twenties Pat was beating Britain’s best bantamweights with relative ease, but was constantly pressured to keep off weight, causing considerable strain. In training he would be instructed to suck oranges piece by piece or chew steak and spit out the residue, in order to not digest extra calories. Furthermore, weigh-ins, unlike today, were held on the day of the fight, heavily increasing the risk of exhaustion.
A fight with all-action Douglas Parker, a pugilist with considerable punch who would later KO the reigning British featherweight champion Johnny Cuthbert, would inflict Pat with his first knockout in over 80 professional fights. Though he could make weight, Pat had been left tired and weak. He was caught almost immediately after the opening bell. He would get knocked down twice more, the third time not getting up off the canvas. Pat didn’t even know he had lost the fight when he woke up in the dressing room and prepared to enter the ring once again.
Five days later he was fighting once more, in Liverpool, in a 15-rounder. Two days after that he was holding a boxing exhibition. The path was unrelenting, and the tasks were getting tougher. A gruelling battle with military man Seaman Tommy Watson - who would go on to fight Kid Chocolate at Madison Square Garden - saw him not only soak up plenty of punishment but attempt to give as good as he got. Pat was on the ropes from the first but prevailed until the 11th, when Watson’s power proved too much on the young man and the fight was stopped.
“The way that Daly took punishment only to recover and fight back like a tiger stamps him as one of the gamest battlers of the day,” declared Boxing magazine, despite the disappointment of the loss.
Pat was being burned out by the Professor, and was likely feeling the effects of concussion when being thrust into battle after battle. When unfancied substitute fighter Nobby Baker produced a stunning upset, the turn of form was palpable.
“I was feeling the effects of my fights with these hard-punching young men,” Pat would admit.
His last pro fight, aged 17, was a bout with another substitute, who he would ride to a comfortable fourth-round win by breaking his nose, but it would be a lacklustre-ending to a truly startling wunderkind of boxing. After his career had ended, Pat didn’t spurn the sport. Though he would not engage in actual fights (though pub patrons knew to not get on the wrong side of him), he would visit different gyms, seek out new sparring partners and further refine his craft.
It is the poetic irony that what makes his story stand out so is also the reason for the story’s conclusion.
Sports scribe Gerald Walter would write, “The story of Nipper Pat Daly is perhaps the greatest tragedy the sport of boxing has to offer. This phenomenally clever little fighter would have been a world champion, almost without a doubt, had he been handled in a proper manner.”
Too much, too soon, too young, too fast. If only Nipper Pat Daly had listened to his father’s advice, and waited until he was a little older...
Born To Box: The Extraordinary Story of Nipper Pat Daly, by Alex Daley, is available now through Pitch Publishing, RRP £19.99.