Before David Haye and Tony Bellew, there was David ‘Bomber’ Pearce. A British cruiserweight in a heavyweight world. They say timing and power is everything in boxing, Pearce had the power, it was the timing that let him down.
A relentless competitor, with supreme ability in his fists, he only knew one way to fight - attack, attack and attack. His opponents were battered into submission. The man that became known as Newport’s Rocky single-handedly lifted the spirit of a desolate corner of the British Isles, at a time when they needed it most.
The fact he was so humble just boosted his popularity. Pearce made the people smile. His own people. Because despite being number one in the WBC world cruiserweight ranking, and the British heavyweight champion in 1983, he rarely hit the headlines, which were dominated instead by the likes of London-based heavyweight Frank Bruno. As a result, the chances are you’ve never heard of the Newport Rocky, despite his success and supreme talent. Truth be told, it was a case of wrong time, right place, for Pearce.
That place was his beloved Newport, South Wales. Born in 1959, he was one of nine siblings, six of whom would go on to become champion fighters. There was plenty of God-given talent but it was the drive and determination of father Wally that would set the Pearce boys apart.
From a very young age he would line them up in the backyard of their tiny terrace house and make them pound around in heavy boots, lift bricks to improve their forearm strength, and use tea towels wrapped around their wrists as makeshift gloves. Boxing wasn’t in their blood. It was in their DNA.
It soon became clear that David was the star turn. Winning his first professional fight at 19, he showed the desire and commitment to succeed. He even chose a day job that would help build up his strength, from dusk till dawn he shovelled coal into the furnace at the local steelworks. That’s how hellbent he was on giving himself the edge.
He was adored in his hometown, and would be seen chatting amiably to the locals as he went about his training, most famously racing up Newport’s sky high Transporter Bridge. No challenge was too big for Pearce, or so it seemed.
After avenging an earlier defeat to beat Swansea’s Neville Meade to win the British title in 1983, he proudly proclaimed: "I did it for Newport.”
Next up was a shot at the European crown. Pearce flew to France to face Morocco-born Lucien Rodriguez. “Pearce did what two heavyweight world champions couldn’t do,” said Rodriguez after a humdinger of a bout, a reference to the fact ‘Bomber’ knocked him down, not once but twice, something the great Larry Holmes and Michael Dokes failed to do. Controversy surrounded the two counts, with one seeming to last 13 seconds and the other 17. Timing was not on David Pearce’s side.
Losing on a points decision, Pearce still left the ring a hero, garnering heaps of admiration from the crowd who bellowed his name, so enthralled they were by his challenge. If only they knew the half of it; the Welshman had fought with a bone fracture in each hand. And he was forced to sleep rough in the airport the night before the fight, after his small team forgot to book his accommodation.
If that was bad luck, worse was to follow. At 5’11 and 200lbs Pearce was a natural cruiserweight, he beat Dennis Andries and Michael "Jack" Johnson to top the WBC world cruiserweight rankings. That’s where his best chance of world domination lay.
But he was denied a shot at the world title because, at the time, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) did not sanction the cruiserweight division in the UK. Damn timing again.
However, the BBBofC was not done yet. At the age of 24, and still the British heavyweight title holder, Pearce was hit with a hammer blow. A compulsory brain scan revealed irregularities, and a year after his greatest triumph, he was banned from boxing by the BBBofC.
He fought the decision, of course he did, fighting was what he did best. He spent whatever money he’d earned on getting second opinions. At one stage it was claimed that Pearce’s head was the most examined in boxing history. But it was all for nothing. Despite discovering his congenital abnormality had been there from birth, and arguing this meant he was at no greater risk than any other boxer, it was over. Newport’s Rocky was forced to retire on medical grounds.
To rub salt into his wounds, one year later the BBBofC voted to recognise the cruiserweight division in the UK. Bad timing, yet again. So cruel.
“He never gave up and that’s what killed him in the end,” his nephew Luke Pearce tells The Sportsman. David Pearce died of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome in 2000 at the age of just 41. Even crueller still.
“He was a throwback fighter,” says Luke, speaking with immense pride throughout our entire chat. “Andy Gerrard, another former heavyweight once said you could outwork David, and outbox him in sparring but you could never outfight him.
“He was smaller. We’ve had small heavyweights since but it was different back then. David never fought journeyman, he had to go on the road and beat people constantly, they were straight knockouts. He fought Larry McDonald, a huge American who stood at 6 foot 6 and was around the 18 stone mark. David knocked him out in London.”
Later in life, he sparred with Lennox Lewis and other heavyweights and while he was hugely respected in the boxing world, he’ll be remembered by all as an even better man. He was feared but adored in equal measure. “He was happy go-lucky, smiley and had a great personality” says Luke. “People couldn’t get over how nice he was. He was everyone’s friend; it was just in the ring where he was an animal!”
Luke was determined to tell the world his uncle’s story and make sure he would be remembered in the boxing annals of history, and get the recognition he didn’t fully receive when he was alive. He set out on a bold journey to have a statue erected in his uncle’s honour.
After many talks, pushbacks and much fundraising - including the auctioning of original artwork by one Charles Bronson, Britain’s most notorious prisoner, who described Pearce as a “true hard fighting man” (and he should know) - finally on June 9, 2018, hundreds gathered in Newport city centre for the unveiling of the stunning sculpture.
A professional boxing coach and Commissioned Officer in the Royal Air Force, Luke insists it was Pearce who inspired him to never give up. “When he passed away, I took the mantle on to not give up. I didn’t want this to just be another boxing statue, I wanted it to be a statue which means something to people – whether you’re involved in football, rugby, or even doing a degree. I want people to stand there and think, even if you’re up against it, you can achieve in life.”
The bronze monument to Newport’s Rocky stands proudly on the banks of the River Usk. In its rightful place, the town he loved so well. And now it’s time he gained the recognition he so richly deserves. Right time, right place, at last, for the great David ‘Bomber’ Pearce.
The David ‘Bomber’ Pearce Legacy charity has raised £104,000 in four years for the South Wales area as well as helping a school in Africa and Bemuda - https://welshrocky.com