The Green Man: The pub/boxing gym that drew Tommy Farr, David Bowie and more

BLACKHEATH – a quaint, affluent, relatively leafy part of south-east London – has no obvious boxing ties. From a sporting perspective it’s best known as the start point of the London Marathon and for housing the world’s oldest open rugby club. But go back 60 to 90 years and the area had a thriving boxing gym, popular with some of the sport’s top figures.

The Green Man was a pub on Blackheath Hill with a boxing gym above it. It shot to prominence as a boxing establishment in 1937 when two world-famous fighters, Britain’s Tommy Farr and America’s Petey Sarron, chose to train there. British heavyweight titlist Farr was preparing for an April 15 showdown with Max Baer, which would ultimately propel him to a career-defining world heavyweight title clash with Joe Louis four months later. Reigning world featherweight champ Sarron was preparing for a bout on the same bill – his first in this country – against ex-British lightweight king Harry Mizler.

In early April, Boxing News columnist “The Watcher” visited the Green Man gym, then co-run by boxing manager Walter Day and hard-hitting welterweight Seaman Jim Lawlor, to see Farr and Sarron train. A banner above the door announcing “Tommy Farr and Petey Sarron train here daily” told him he was at the right place. However, he had got there too late to watch the fighters work out and found Farr changing after his session.

“Tommy greeted me cordially while I expressed regret at being too late. Jim Lawlor was on hand and made me very welcome, invited me to a cup of tea, and was very anxious to show me around. The dressing room was fitted with shower baths, rubbing table and everything. Large windows overlooked Blackheath itself and told one that here was the ideal place for a boxer to prepare himself for a contest, for with this great wide open space close at hand – and high up at that – there could be nothing to prevent one from acquiring the peak of physical fitness.

“Tommy finished his dressing and I was then taken into the gymnasium. In a spacious and well-lit room was erected a full-size and properly staged ring, whilst the usual facilities necessary for a workout were readily to hand. The place was big enough for staging a show, and Lawlor told me they had put on several amateur shows there.  

“The presence of Tommy Farr and Petey Sarron will no doubt bring them plenty of publicity and recommendation, for apart from the fact that the British champion was keenly enthusiastic about it, I afterwards learned from Jimmy Erwin, the world champion’s manager, that he had looked over all the training quarters in the south of England without finding a site that suited him better.”

In 1939, Jock McAvoy trained at the Green Man – his first time training in London – for his final bout with arch-rival Len Harvey, on a show that set a British fight attendance record of over 90,000. Seventeen years later, the Green Man’s gym was still running when Dick Richardson prepared there for his December 1956 clash with Cuba’s Nino Valdes.

In the 1960s, the pub became a popular music venue where Paul Simon, Manfred Mann, Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott all performed. In 1963, a 16-year-old David Bowie played there with his first professional band, the Konrads. At that fateful gig, Bowie, until then a saxophonist, stepped in as lead singer when the band’s frontman cut his foot on broken glass in the pub changing room. Thereafter, Bowie took over as lead singer. Sadly, for sentimental boxing or music fans, in 1970 the Green Man was demolished. Today, in its place, stands a nondescript block of flats.

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