In the 1970s, working-class English hard men settled their disputes in the boxing ring with gloves or on the cobblestones with their bare fists.
Two such geezers with major beef and no manners were Lenny McLean and Roy Shaw. They weren't legit boxers per se. They were two of London's hardest nightclub bouncers. With multiple convictions between them, they were too dodgy to get a boxing license and fought in bare-knuckle bouts, and unaffiliated (unlicensed) matches, not heavily regulated like the ones staged by the British Board of Boxing Control.
Mouth is what started their epic three-bout feud. Roy Shaw had fought in a number of bare-knuckle fights with gypsies and became known as the "unofficial heavyweight champ" and "the hardest man in Britain." Lennie McLean got wind of it and took umbrage. He had made a name for himself as the number 1 street fighter in England, "the King of the Cobbles". In his head, he was the "Guv'nor," and the hardest man in Britain, not Roy "Pretty Boy" Shaw.
Shaw was no mug. He was an East End hellraiser with a dodgy comb over and a tendency to stick the boot in. Case in point, his savage beating of Donnie "The Bull" Adams in 1975. Despite clocking Adams with the very first punch of the match, Shaw pulled him up to knock him out (again) and stomp on his head. Later on that same year, Shaw met Paddy "Mad Dog" Mullins in another unlicensed bout. Overwhelmed by Shaw's brutal, close-quarter punching power, Mullins attempted an early version of an MMA takedown to humorous effect.
Shaw's nemesis would come in the form of Lenny McLean. Despite toxic levels of personal animosity between the two thugs, their life stories were almost identical. Both men were London hooligans who had learned to fight on the pavement arena. Both of them were 'Borstal boys', juvenile offenders, who had served custodial sentences and missed the opportunity to box proper in the ring as amateurs or professionals. Yet fighting was their stock in trade – and recreational pastime – and both men odd jobbed as nightclub bouncers, debt collectors and mob enforcers.
It could have been so different for Roy Shaw. He could have been a contender but being a "blagger" (armed robber) and jail time had gotten in the way of carving out a career in the ring. Shaw had fought and won 10 bouts as a pro – under an assumed name when he was on the lam from the law. When exposed as a crook on the run, the British Board of Boxing Control failed to renew Shaw's license, and banned him from performing in any of their contests thereafter.
Hailing from the blood-darkened streets of Hoxton in East London, Lenny McLean had been a street fighting man for most of his life. In and out of trouble since youth, he'd missed the boat to box as an amateur and professional and drifted into the milieu of bare-knuckle boxing after a chance encounter with gypsy fight promoter Kenny Mac. What was his motivation for fighting on the cobbles? Social Darwinism (survival of the fittest), and the cult of personality (his reputation).
"You've got to fight to get anywhere," McLean once said in an interview on British TV. "If you don't fight, you're just one of the crowd and one of the crowd don't get nuffink."
'Nuff said. But headbutting, biting, gouging and kicking a man when he's down? Mclean may have been the best street fighter in England, the so-called "King of the Cobbles," but could he box proper in the ring? Street fighting and glove fighting are too completely different things, after all.
Yet it was in this smoked filled world of "unaffiliated boxing" that the two thugs would meet and play sportsmen. Not once or twice but thrice, the best of three epic bouts. Who would emerge with the title of Guv'nor?
Forty-one year old Shaw, the smaller of this gruesome twosome, was supposed to be the better boxer. He'd beaten 28-year-old McLean in their first outing by TKO in May 1977. McLean, a bad sport, cried foul arguing that his gloves had been tampered with. He wanted payback. Shaw, not the type to duck a challenge, or a mouthy loser, was more than happy to oblige the Hulk of Hoxton.
The second bout in April 1978 was held once again at "Cinatra's Nightclub" (with a 'C' not an 'S') a classless and gaudy venue in Croydon, South London with a 2000-seat capacity. The nightspot was sold out and packed to the rafters with gilt-edged hoods and wideboy punters. They had flocked to the bout via word of mouth down the pub, and articles in the UK tabloid press, and bet big on Shaw mugging McLean just like the first time.
Buzzing on ego, testosterone and ginseng, the white-robed figure of Shaw glided past the topless ring card girls, waving his taped up fists in the air. In the red corner, grunting like Guy the Gorilla on loan from London Zoo was Lenny McLean. He flexed his guns and gurned at the punters and slobs in attendance at ringside. The human dildo was pumped up and ready to unload on Roy "Pretty Boy" Shaw.
In this straightener, there was no love lost. Or trust. Because of concerns over glove tampering, and McLean's complaints of being duped in the first encounter, both men were not laced up until they were in the ring.
The opening few seconds of the contest seemed sporting enough. Both men traded shots in Round One with Shaw aggressively probing the defence of McLean with body shots and left hooks to the jaw. Wary but cagey, McLean boxed behind his left jab and caught Shaw with a three shot flurry that sent him back onto the ropes. Smelling blood, McLean swarmed on Shaw and let loose with a tantrum of fists.
There was no bobbing, weaving or countering. Shaw was trapped in the corner and on the end of a savage and unerring onslaught of punches. Fast, accurate and mortar-like, McLean's boxing was more like milling – a form of all-out fist fighting popular in the British Army. Unable to defend himself against McLean's barrage of one-twos, Shaw flopped about like a mad cow and sunk to the canvas. McLean, oblivious to the Marquis of Queensberry rules, or the looming figure of the referee in black tie, punched Shaw as he was on the ground with a right-handed haymaker worthy of a pub brawl at the Blind Beggar.
At this point of the Round One demolition job on Roy "Pretty Boy" Shaw, a man who had entered the ring some 50 seconds earlier as the odds-on favorite to win, the referee stepped in. McLean, the bully beef fighter, was not quite done with his course. He shoved the ref back and stomped on Shaw's head with his heel before being controlled and restrained by four heavies from his corner.
Amazingly, the contest was allowed to go on. If this was any other fight, McLean would have been DQ'd and possibly banned for life. Not this night. Not this fight. Not this mug's game. It was box on time and Shaw was still game for the ruck. So was McLean: he thumped Shaw with a four-punch combo that snapped his head and sent him through the ropes and onto the first row. The arse over elbows finale cost Shaw a bit more than his rep. He'd placed a £10,000 side bet that he wouldn't get dumped or knocked out of the ring.
Headbutts. Hitting guys when they're down and stepping on their head, bouncer style. There are few sporting niceties in an "unaffiliated" boxing match. This is dirty boxing at its best and you see fighters doing all sorts of brutal tricks. And pity the poor ref in these old time fights. He's reduced to being a pusillanimous figure, unable to stop the flow of backhands, rabbit punches, headbutts and Don King head stomps. Unsportsmanlike conduct and riotous proceedings aside, the score was one apiece and the good folks of London town wanted a best of three. So did McLean and Shaw.
The venue for the third and final straightener was the Rainbow Theatre in North London. A big, 3000-seat arena more used to staging rock concerts than unaffiliated boxing matches between two ageing hoods.
First time it was McLean with the excuses. This time round, in September 1978, it was Shaw. He blamed his second defeat on ginseng, saying that he has accidentally ingested too much of the stuff and went into the contest out of sorts. Never again. This time the veteran thug in the blue corner was going to show McLean who was mustard, and who was not.
Making his ring entrance to 'Daddy Cool' by Darts was Lenny McLean, the minted champ of the outlaw ring. Shaw was a mean old dog but McLean, the bigger and younger man in the red corner, was not going to relinquish the title of Guv'nor so easily.
The bell clanged and Shaw came storming came out of the trenches with left hooks galore. Sensing the power, McLean, the taller of the two men, held onto Shaw's head, pulling him down into uppercuts and right hands. Not one to play the mug, Shaw took the opportunity to open up to the midsection of McLean with rib busting shots. Rather than have a recce in the first round and give the punters their money's worth, Mclean broke off from holding (and hitting) to unload a meaty series of one-two shots that shook Shaw's head and sent him stumbling like a drunk at closing time.
McLean overwhelmed Shaw, one-two, one-two, one-two, ad infinitum. Unable to parry or counter, Shaw collapsed under the rain of knuckle sandwiches and rabbit punches. The boy from Stepney was the loser, once again, 2-1 to Lenny McLean of Hoxton.
The bell went ding-a-ling-ding. The bout was over. McLean was declared the winner and he shouted out into the crowd of cockney punters, "I'm the Guv'nor!" The noisy nightclub doorman from Hell was still the "unofficial heavyweight champion of Great Britain," still "the Guv'nor." There was no arguing with that.
With an improbable record of "4000 street fights" and "20,000 barroom brawls," was Lenny Mclean the hardest street fighting man in Britain? Even his own cousin, and sometime promoter, Frank Warren wrote him off as a big-mouthed monkey brawler.
"He was a terrible bully, Lenny. One of the biggest bullies you will ever meet, always intimidating people. I had a couple of scrapes with him myself. He used to say he'd had 3,000 fights, which was crap. He had 15 fights and lost five."
Yes, McLean may have been the "King of the Cobbles" but the nightclub doorman was an unlicensed boxer with a so-so record. He lost twice for the title of Guv'nor to Cliff Fields in 1978 and 1979 by TKO (rumour has it that McLean went around London buying up every available copy of the fights to destroy). And the man from nightmare alley lost twice by KO in the 1980s to Johnny Waldron.
As for the street fighting bit, was he King of the Cobbles or King of the Cobblers? Though boasting that he could beat anybody in a fight, McLean had been KO'd by the likes of George 'Pappy' Langley, and lost face when he ducked a straightener from Bartley Gorman, "the King of the Gypsies" and a pro encounter with Dave "Bomber" Pearce, the British heavyweight champ.
Nonetheless, McLean went on to have dramatic tear-ups with some memorably named figures. One such encounter was his 1986 bout with Mad Gypsy Bradshaw. Bradshaw made the mistake of nutting McLean as they touched gloves. For that sleight, McLean went to town on Bradshaw and decked him. That wasn't the end of it. Like Shaw in his fight with Don Adams in 1975, McLean picked Bradshaw up and whupped him with a series of pub style blows before using him as a doormat. And there was much headbutting on display in his encounter with Man Mountain York. In fact, McLean is so liberal with the nut that he makes Evander Holyfield look like a choirboy.
Shaw and McLean never met in the squared circle again. McLean retired from unlicensed boxing in 1986 and made a new rep as "King of the Bouncers," scaring a generation of club goers during his stint as a doorman at the Camden Palace and Hippodrome nightclubs in London.
In the 1990s he found fame as an actor and stole the show in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels before succumbing to lung cancer and dying in 1998. Shaw fought periodically until bowing out of the unlicensed game aged 45 in 1981. His record was nine wins, eight knockouts and two losses via Lenny McLean. He died in 2012, but, like his arch-rival, he is much reminisced about.
In the old days, barehanded or gloved up, working-class Englishmen settled their differences with their fists. These days it's done with guns and knives. Tut tut, where's the sport in that?