In his latest diary entry, Steve Bunce tells the story of Frankie Lucas, the lost fighter who didn’t want to be found
THIS is a giant story about one man and his struggle for recognition. It is all true.
Frankie Lucas was a good fighter and then he vanished. There were sightings, there were rumours and there were a few lies.
There was the Christmas appearance in Croydon. Lucas, rambling, taking his shirt off and shadow-boxing for the shoppers in the cold. They threw him coins and laughed and poor Frankie kept throwing punches. It was either 1989 or 1990. Frankie Lucas was lost by then, make no mistake. I started to search for him a few years later.
At about the same time, a fight figure told me he had seen Lucas near Baker Street station. His Afro was grey, his hands mutilated and when he spoke, he made no sense. Lucas blamed the demons for his injuries. Lucas had tried to kill the demons by destroying his fists and hitting walls. There was a disturbing picture emerging. The damaged hands were mentioned by everybody I spoke to. I intensified my search.
The men and women in his life had their own fears about Frankie. They mostly told me that he was dead. I had a feeling they were wrong or that they were not telling me the truth. I had an idea why: They wanted to protect him.
I had to start at the beginning to find out why.
Lucas was nine when he arrived in Croydon to join his mother. She had left the Caribbean Island of St Vincent for a better life in south London. Little Frankie joined her but he never really fit in. I was told that as a child, he was isolated, lonely and vicious. In many ways he was the same as a fighting man. And then Lucas found boxing and it saved him. He was involved with the Sir Philip Game club in Croydon not long after arriving. “He took a lot of handling but he was always polite. It was ‘Sir’ with Frankie, never ‘Ray’,” said Ray Chapman, the coach at the club. The club was a hard place; it had a reputation for being hard.
Lucas just had a reputation. He was difficult to deal with, that’s a fact and not a criticism. Men that were on London and England squads with him tell stories about it. He had fist fights with other boxers. But he could fight. He was also troubled and that would be recognised now. Then, he was simply a pain. That might sound harsh, sorry. In 1972, Lucas beat Alan Minter in the London ABA championships; Lucas then won the ABAs at middleweight. Minter did fight Lucas in a crazy rematch at a night club in Croydon not long before the Munich Olympics. Minter had been selected to box at the Games – at light-middleweight – and still took the rematch; Minter won. That tells you a lot about Alan Minter. Lucas was snubbed; the ABA light-heavyweight champion, Billy Knight, boiled down to middleweight. It made no sense; it was a disgrace He was just 18 and it was not the first and it would not be the last snub of his life. Minter won a bronze and became a national idol and Lucas was left in tears watching, “Frankie, just started to cry. He left the room. He could not bear to look at the TV for one more second,” said Al Hamilton, a friend.
Lucas could have turned professional then. The men in the business knew about him. However, he stayed amateur. In 1973, he won the ABA middleweight title again. The Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1974, would fall before the next ABA championships. Surely, Frankie would get the final selection.
Frankie Lucas was 20 when the England selectors picked Carl Speare; Lucas had beaten Speare in the ABA final. I promise, I’m not inventing this.
The story should have ended there with Lucas turning professional and far away in New Zealand, the English boxers winning golds. But they are a resourceful mob in south London and the sense of injustice was grand. They had a plan at the gym, a cunning and bold and crazy plan.
Ken Rimington, a committee member at Sir Philip Game and a policeman, created the St Vincent and the Grenadines Amateur Boxing Federation. It was late, but somehow the organisers at the Commonwealth Games accepted the entry. Money was raised and Chapman, the new national coach of St Vincent, and Lucas, flew to Christchurch. The Scottish national team helped Frankie with his training and few bits of kit. There was a story that Frankie snubbed Princess Anne. Not strictly true, but not an invention. Frankie Lucas was now the outcast on the inside. He was the only member of the St. Vincent team and carried the flag at the opening ceremony.
And it happened, you knew it would, Lucas won twice and, in the semi-final, met Speare, who by the way was a top boxer and had no say in the selection process. Des Lynam on commentary can barely control himself; Des would lose it in the final, trust me.
Frankie Lucas beat England’s Carl Speare in the middleweight semi-final. Bosh, that’s it. The story could have ended there.
In the final, the Cuban-trained and lethal Zambian, Julius Luipa was waiting. Luipa had dominated, he was ruthless, knocking out cold two of his three victims. It was considered a cheat having the professional Cubans in your corner; Luipa was untouchable. Poor Frankie was wearing second-hand kit.
In the first, Lucas was cut and what a cut it was. Both were hurt. “Frankie had to take him out or he was going to get stopped with the cut,” said Chapman.
Luipa was smiling. The Cubans were smiling. Sweet Des was howling. My parent’s front room was hopping. We loved an outsider on my estate. Come on, Frankie. Come on, son.
Bang. Lucas knocked out Luipa in round two to win the gold medal. The Cubans were banging the canvas, Lynam was losing his mind, Lucas was just looking on as Luipa tried to get up. I hugged my dad. Mayhem. There is a picture of Lucas hovering in the ring, his Afro illuminated by the lights and his eyes on the floored Luipa. That was a look of pure and raw defiance, a look packed with 10 years of hurt and shame and hate. Luipa and the Cubans had no chance against the Croydon boy.
He did turn pro. George Francis cared for him – that is the right choice of words. He fought for the British title. He was damaged and then he vanished. A few years later I went on my mission to find the hero.
I have no idea if Frankie Lucas is dead. When I found him over 25 years ago, he never wanted to be found. I left him in the secret isolation he wanted. He deserved that and he also deserves to never be forgotten.