Tommy Martin was born in Reading in 1916. In 1917, the family moved to Deptford. At 14 he ran away from home and joined a fairground, working in a Boxing Booth. In the late 1920s / early 30s there was always a token black boxer in a troupe, which helped draw crowds along with the slogan “have a go at the n…..”
Tommy got lots of practice and developed a fast punching style. Hebecame a professional boxer in November 1933 and soon became known as the British Brown Bomber. By Christmas, he had fought and won four bouts. His first full season as a boxer was 1936 when he fought 25 bouts, losing only three.
Despite Tommy Martin’s success as a boxer, he was having increasing difficulty finding fights. Already championship material, he sailed to the colonies in search of suitable opponents. Boxing Magazine already ranked him as the 4th Best Cruiser Weight (between middle and lightweight) in the world.In 1937, after having put on weight, he fought and won his first heavyweight bout. Boxing Magazine reported,
Martin did exceedingly well to give two stones in weight and a boxing lesson to Jim Wilde.
Although he had many victories under his belt, Martin was unable to fight for the British Heavyweight Championship. He was barred from fighting for Britain by a colour bar, introduced in 1909 and not repealed until 1947. Only Britain and South Africa didn’t allow black fighters to contest Empire titles. Even American segregation didn’t prevent US boxers fighting for their country. As if to prove a point, in 1939, Tommy won every one of his fights.
Then the war and the colour bar stopped his career in its tracks.While he campaigned against the colour bar, Boxing magazine and the local mayor championed his cause. The MP for Deptford raised the case in Parliament. Unable to fight for Britain in the ring, Martin joined the RAF and later, when he was invalided out to the Merchant Navy. After that, he moved to the US, joining the Marines before setting up his own gym in Hollywood.
It was not until 1947 that the colour bar was finally abolished from British boxing. It was too late to benefit Tommy Martin and a shameful chapter that has been hidden from sports history. Without thestruggles of fighters like Martin, today’s black boxing stars like Lennox Lewis and British Olympic boxers, Audley Harrison and David Haye, would have been unable to fight for their country.