Tommy Farr (1913-86) stands alongside Jack Petersen as one of the two greatest heavyweights produced by Wales, and as one of the best ever to come from Britain.
Despite an amazingly long, colourful and accomplished career, the ‘Tonypandy Terror’ will always be remembered for one night – his 1937 challenge for Joe Louis’ world heavyweight crown.
Farr’s early life would have been familiar to many of the great names of Welsh boxing at the time as he fought his way out of biting poverty and he would later say: “After the mines, what is fighting? Fighting is child’s play.”
These early struggles meant that the Tonypandy man always carried something of a chip on his shoulder, especially towards his slightly older compatriot Petersen who had enjoyed a comparatively comfortable upbringing and had quickly worked his way into the big-money fights.
Farr’s early professional record was decidedly mixed, but by the time he grew into a man he had banked a formidable amount of life and ring experience that left him prepared for any challenge.
He lost a 1935 shot at the vacant British light-heavyweight title, but two fights later that year against ageing great Frank Moody can be regarded as the end of his apprenticeship.
Their first encounter was a draw, but, in the December 1935 rematch at Cardiff’s Greyfriars Hall, Farr stopped the Pontypridd legend in four rounds.
It was also in 1935 that Moody had come under the guidance of trainer Ted Broadribb, and the pair repeatedly called out Petersen in the press.
“Tommy thought he could beat Petersen and that he was running scared from fighting him,” said boxing referee and historian Wynford Jones. “Tommy became convinced the press were biased because Petersen came from Cardiff.”
The truth was, though, that Petersen was regularly operating at a higher level than Farr and on a much bigger stage, and a fight against the Tonypandy man at this stage of his career would not have produced the kind of purse that the Cardiff man was used to.
The Petersen fight would never happen, but Farr found another way to the top.
High-profile 1936 wins over Tommy Loughran and Bob Olin raised the Welshman’s profile, but 1937 would be his big breakthrough year.
Farr made light of his underdog tag to claim the British and Empire title from Petersen’s conqueror Ben Foord in March of that year. That created problems for the promoters who had brought former world heavyweight champion Max Baer to London for a series of fights.
They had hoped to match him against Petersen, but eye trouble had forced the Cardiff man to retire from boxing. Foord was next in line until Farr beat him, but that bout had been poor and Germany’s Walter Neusel was suggested as Baer’s opponents.
The promoters felt that they couldn’t match two foreigners in a London ring, though, and that left Farr as the only option.
The mercurial Baer took his opponent lightly, but Farr’s movement, speed, aggression and cultured left hand upset the odds to give him a deserved and stunning scalp.
Next up was Petersen’s nemesis, Neusel. Farr destroyed the ‘Blond Tiger’ in three rounds at the Harringay Arena, humiliating the Nazi ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop who was watching from ringside.
The Welshman was now in the middle of one of the most turbulent political and sporting mixes in ring history.
Louis was thought to be the heir apparent, but another former champion – Germany’s Max Schmeling – upset the plans with a 12th-round stoppage of the ‘Brown Bomber’ in 1936.
Schmeling awaited a title shot, but his close links to the Nazi party and the fact that there was more money to be made from Braddock v Louis saw him shunted aside.
As Louis stopped Braddock and claimed his crown in June 1937, a furious Schmeling – with the backing of Hitler and the Nazis – planned a showdown with Farr that was being billed as the “real world championship”.
But promoter Mike Jacobs stepped in with a big-money offer to Farr, guaranteeing the Welshman a dream date with Louis on 30 August, 1937. It was Louis’s first defence and he would have expected an easy ride, having stopped seven of his last eight opponents.
The hugely experienced 23-year-old Welshman was not going to be intimidated, though.
The difficulties that Farr gave Louis were remembered by the latter’s legendary trainer Jack Blackburn in Ronald K Fried’s book “Corner Men“. Louis hurt his hand in the third round, and took on board the following advice from Blackburn:
“‘Jes’ keep firin’ the left and fake with the right. He’ll still be lookin’ for the right at the end of 15’… [Blackburn remembers] When we discovered the Welshman was a better fighter than we had looked for, that he wasn’t easy to get positioned for a right hand, and Joe hurt his own right hand on top of that, I said to Joe, ‘You’ve got to do the job with a straight left and beat him to the punch’. That was a beautiful job Joe went out and did.”
Before 32,000 people in New York’s Yankee Stadium the Welshman took Louis the distance – he was one of only three men to achieve that feat. The myth grew in Wales that Farr had won the fight, but the man himself said:
“Every time I hear the name Joe Louis, my nose starts to bleed.”
Farr’s raised profile led him into further fights in the US against Braddock and Baer and – although he lost both – the Welshman went the distance each time to confirm his standing on the world stage.
Those bouts were at Madison Square Garden, and his popularity with the Garden crowd was cemented by a thrilling 15-round war with fast-rising contender Lou Nova.
Farr dropped another points decision, as he did in his fifth and final US fight, against Red ‘KO Burns’ Burnham at the Garden in January 1939.
Of his last four US fights, Farr would only ever acknowledge that the Baer defeat was the correct verdict, and the Braddock decision – in the ‘Cinderella Man’s’ final fight – is thought to have been a particular stinker.
Tonypandy’s finest returned home to a hero’s welcome and would fight and win four more times in Europe, including victories over Burman and Larry Gains.
He retired a wealthy man in 1940, but bankruptcy led him to return to the ring 10 years later.
Farr reclaimed the Welsh heavyweight title in 1951, before finally retiring at the age of 39 after a seventh-round loss to Don Cockell in a 1953 final eliminator for the British title. He died on St David’s Day (1 March), 1986, at the age of 71.
- Gareth Jones, “The Boxers of Wales: Volume Three, Rhondda (St David’s Press, Cardiff, 2012)
- Graeme Kent, “A Welshman in the Bronx: Tommy Farr vs Joe Louis” (Llandysul, 2009)
- Bob Lonkhurst, “Man of Courage: The Life and Career of Tommy Farr” (The Book Guild, Lewes, Sussex, 1997)