The Kray Twins and Boxing: Remembering a Lifelong Passion for Violence
From the boxing booths of East London, the Kray Twins rose to become Britain’s most notorious criminals of the 1960s. Here, we take a deep dive into their lifelong passion for the sweet science.
Image by Flickr user David Holt (Zongo)
"I used to lie in bed at night imagining the great Jack Dempsey... and I hoped that I, too, would be a champ, as I drifted off to sleep."––Reggie Kray, writing in his autobiography, Born Fighter
Few names in British history are more closely linked with crime than the Krays. Identical twins Ronnie and Reggie rose from the rubble of post-war East London to become notorious and wealthy criminals. As heads of a vicious gang known as The Firm they ruled the East End and beyond during the sixties, blurring the lines between villains and national celebrities in a way not previously experienced in Britain. On the one hand they were handsome, well dressed young men about town at a time when the country was enjoying its post-war boom; on the other they ran a merciless crime syndicate that exerted its power through intimidation and extreme violence.
But before their notoriety, the twins were enthusiastic young boxers, cutting their teeth in the carnival booths of the East End and eventually fighting as professionals. In fact, even after becoming Britain's most notorious criminals Ronnie and Reggie retained a keen fascination with the sweet science, meeting the biggest names in boxing and collecting some significant memorabilia along the way.
Given their beginnings, the Krays' love of the sport should come as no great surprise. Ronnie and Reggie were born into the East End of the 1930s, a time and place when boxing was part and parcel of local culture. There were clubs where they could train, venues at which to fight, and plenty of willing opponents who'd go toe-to-toe with them in the ring. In the words of one veteran trainer: "There are two things for a working-class [East End] kid to do: steal or box."
Never great advocates of compromise, the Krays did both.
The twins were raised in a two-up-two-down Victorian town house at 178 Vallance Road, a street that runs for half a mile between Bethnal Green Road to the north and Whitechapel Road to the south. At the time it was an area of extreme poverty, a condition that has often provided fertile ground for hungry young fighters looking to box their way into the big time. The area was full of tough fighting men in the Krays' youth, be they the upstanding kind who fought at the legendary York Hall venue, or the less coordinated sort who brawled in the pubs of East London: at the Marquis of Cornwallis, the Carpenters Arms, and indeed the Blind Beggar.
Though certainly a fan of the sport, their father Charlie Kray could be classed as the latter variety of fighter. An enthusiastic drinker, lackadaisical criminal and itinerant door-to-door salesman, Charlie was a sporadic figure in the twins' early lives, ducking in and out of 178 Vallance Road as he sought to avoid conscription to the army during World War II. The perpetual police pursuit of their father instilled a deep hatred of authority in the young twins.
"I could punch hard with either hand, so much so that I broke eleven jaws that I know of it." Reggie Kray
More present was their mother, the irrepressible Violet Kray, who staunchly supported Ronnie and Reggie no matter what kind of trouble they found themselves in. Every bit the doting East End matriarch, Violet kept an album of press cuttings that included the twins' triumphs in the boxing ring – as well as stories of the gang wars in which her darling boys eventually became embroiled.
As well as the twins, the Krays had a son seven years Ronnie and Reggie's senior, named Charlie after his father, while a sister had died in infancy in 1929.
Both of their grandfathers knew their way around the sport. On their father's side, 'Mad' Jimmy Kray was described as "the sort of old-style bar fighter it was wisest to avoid." Their maternal grandfather, Jimmy 'Cannonball' Lee, was an altogether more nuanced character. Unlike the Kray side of the family, Lee was a teetotaller who swore away from alcohol after it drove his own father to an early grave at an epileptics colony in Epsom.
Described by Kray biographer John Pearson as a "skinny, gnarled old boy" who resembled "an ancient toothless crocodile", Grandfather Lee had once been a famed East End boxer. It is said that his "irresistible left hook" earned him his fighting name, 'the Eastern Southpaw', and Lee would enthral the wide-eyed young twins with tales of fighting bareknuckle in Victoria Park. Lee also told them about the great Ted "Kid" Lewis, who had grown up in poverty just around the corner and gone on to become a world champion in three weight classes.
The twins' beloved Aunt Rose, a significant presence in their early lives, is also said to have inherited Grandfather Lee's left hook. Rose was known as one of the East End's most formidable female fighters of the day, and claimed that she was the equal of any man (or two women) brave enough to face her in the ring.
But it was their elder brother Charlie who finally ensured the twins became hooked on competitive boxing. Their father had been more present in his early life – Charlie Jr. was 13 at the outbreak of war – and would take his young son to boxing matches. He trained locally and Grandfather Lee set up a punchbag in one of the back bedrooms at Vallance Road. When Charlie later joined the navy, he represented the service against the army and the air force and was by all accounts a handy welterweight.
So, at the age of 10, the twins were encouraged to take up boxing by Charlie. He later said that he had hoped it would instil discipline in them rather than give them a taste for violence, though Charlie was not above criminal activity himself and later served two extensive jail terms. Their father also hoped that boxing would be the making of the twins, or at the very least keep them out of mischief.
For a time, it did. Spurred on by their intense and often violent sibling rivalry, Ronnie and Reggie became strict boxing disciples. The sport became their lives.
At first they attended the Robert Browning Youth Club in South London. Though he'd been an infrequent presence in the twins' lives, it was their father who escorted them south of the river to learn their craft. As Reggie later recalled: "He used to take us on the Number 8 bus from Bethnal Green to Camberwell three times a week to train at the club."
They would later join the Repton Boys Club, which was established in 1884 and still trains young fighters today, making it the oldest of its kind in Britain. Housed in an old Victorian bath house, with ornately carved entrances for men and women, the Repton is no more than a minute's walk from the old family home on Vallance Road. The Kray boys, eager to get to work on the punchbags, could have covered the distance in less than 30 seconds. A poster advertising a fight between the twins still hangs on the wall at the Repton, though far better fighters have passed through its doors: the likes of John H. Stracey, Audley Harrison and Darren Barker all cut their teeth there.
The twins were developing into keen and capable fighters. Many years later, Reggie recalled that their first mention in print came at the age of 12, after he and Ronnie fought each other and earned a write-up in the Hackney Gazette.
The sight of these two dark, brooding identical twins fighting with incredible ferocity must have been arresting. It was nothing new, however: they had fought one another at fairground boxing booths in their youth, a scene recreated in the 1990 film The Krays – albeit with the rather older Kemp brothers playing the twins.
By their mid teens Ronnie and Reggie were earning more local press attention for their exploits in the ring. Though they were identical twins Reggie fought at lightweight, whereas the slightly taller and stockier Ronnie was a welterweight like their elder brother. The consensus, both at the time and retrospectively, is that Reggie was the more capable of the pair. Both were fearless and treated violence as a passion to indulge, but Reg seemed more able to harness his innate power and use it in the ring. Ronnie was less in control of the violence that he could unleash. In a sense, these same traits can be seen throughout their criminal lives.
While some contemporary accounts have dismissed the twins as nothing fighters, they did achieve a degree of success that marks them out as worthy of at least some attention. In 1948 Reggie was the schoolboy champion of Hackney, won the London Schoolboy Boxing Championships, and was a finalist at the Great Britain Schoolboys Championship. The following year he added the South Eastern Divisional Youth Club title and was London ATC champion.
Ron was also picking up awards at this stage: he too was a Schoolboy Champion of Hackney and a winner at the London Junior and London ATC events. John Pearson quotes one veteran trainer as saying: "Ronnie was a fighter, the hardest, toughest boy I've ever seen. To stop Ron you'd have had to kill him. Reg was different. Before he even started, it was as if he had all the experience of an old boxer in his fists. Once in a lifetime you find a boy with everything it takes to be a champion. Young Reggie was one of them."
But, with a potential career in the sport seeming at least possible for Reggie, their path began to veer towards crime. The twins had always been part of street gangs – not especially unusual in the old East End, nor necessarily the precursor to armed robbery and murder. But they were not hangers on: if anything, Ronnie and Reggie were taking things further than their peers. Aged 16, they were charged with grievous bodily harm after attacking a rival gang outside a dance hall in Hackney; they were acquitted due to lack of evidence and some supportive words from the local vicar, but the die had long since been cast.
The following year, Ronnie assaulted a policeman outside a cafe on the Bethnal Green Road. When another arrived to arrest him, Reggie assaulted this officer, almost as if they had to share in both the violence and the punishment. This time the twins received probation.
Nevertheless, they were able to continue boxing, and the second half of 1951 was especially busy. Both twins fought at The Arena in Mile End on 31 July 1951, still a few months short of turning 18. Reggie out-pointed Bobby Manito, while Ronnie scored a TKO win over Bernie Long. In August Reg fought at the same venue, this time without Ron, and won by TKO against Johnny Starr. Both brothers were on the card at Wembley Town Hall on 11 September, and once more they walked away as winners: Reggie beat George Goodsall by TKO, while Ronnie repeated his result from Mile End by overcoming Long.
On 22 October Reg fought alone, this time beating Bill Sliney on points at the National Sporting Club in Piccadilly. A week later he fought Sliney again and took the bout on points, this time in Shepherd's Bush, while Ron beat Goodsall by knockout at the same venue.
Reg won again on November 19, beating Bobby Woods at National Sporting Club, Mayfair, but Ron's streak was over: he lost by disqualification to Doug Sherlock. Then, in December, the twins were selected to fight at the Albert Hall, with brother Charlie also on the bill. Reggie won decisively on points, but Ron was disqualified for unsportsmanlike behaviour. Reg was now being invited to turn professional, while Ron was not.
But Reg's chances of going pro were soon scuppered by yet another brush with the law. A few weeks after the Albert Hall bout, the twins were involved in a vicious brawl outside a nightclub. With professionals prohibited from fighting outside the ring, Reg's licence was withdrawn; his sporting career was effectively over.
Their brother Charlie later recalled: "As boxers, the twins were quite different from each other. Reggie was the cool, cautious one, with all the skills of a potential champion and importantly, he always listened to advice. Ronnie was a good boxer too, and very brave. But he would never listen to advice. He was a very determined boy with a mind of his own. If he made up his mind to do something, he'd do it, no matter what, and unlike Reggie he would never hold back. He would go on and on until he dropped."
Tony Burns, who grew up with the Krays and now coaches the Repton's latest prospects, remembers them as "nice fellas". Speaking to our colleagues at FIGHTLAND in 2015, Burns said: "They were very good. No, not very good – but good. You wouldn't put anyone in the ring with them. Not if you've got kids on the way up, you know what I mean. You'd be more careful... Reggie was a bit more talented than Ronnie. Ronnie was a crank really."
The late fighter and promoter Mickey Duff was less complimentary: "Useless boxers they were," he told the Independent in 1999. "Especially Ronnie. I used to look for the biggest cripples in the world for him to fight."
As a veteran of the fight game, Duff's opinions should be treated seriously; however, given that he later received four dead rats in the post from the twins after failing to invite them to a Sugar Ray Robinson bout that he had organised, perhaps his judgement was clouded. Duff believed that the rats were merely a precursor to the real retribution, but the twins were imprisoned before they could exact their full revenge.
It has been suggested that the Krays could have made a career in boxing had they not been called up for national service in 1952. Though it would be nice to believe that the redemptive power of sport could have prevented their life of crime, the claim is dubious. Reggie possessed some ability and could perhaps have pushed on as a journeyman pro, but Ronnie did not have the discipline or self-control to commit to such a life. That he later found himself in Belmarsh Prison, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and certified as criminally insane, speaks to this. And while Reg was a useful fighter, he was too wedded to his twin to have struck out alone. If Ronnie didn't box – if instead he was bound to a life of crime – then so was Reggie. His devotion to his brother far exceeded any commitment he could have applied to the sport of boxing. When they were separated in prison years later Reggie became depressed, smashed the glass of his wristwatch and slashed at his wrists with it.
The Krays were now set on a life of crime. Nevertheless, their association with the sweet science was far from over. Indeed, it would remain with both men throughout their lives, from the glitz of the West End to the cells of Parkhurst and Broadmoor.
After a farcical dalliance with national service and a subsequent stint in prison, they embarked on a new path. In the years that followed the Krays built a crime empire initially based around a protection racket, but which spread to robbery, illegal bookmaking, and other crimes. They acquired businesses in the West End and became celebrated members of clubland. Always immaculately presented, they mingled with the stars and were photographed by David Bailey. Their rise from the streets of Bethnal Green, and indeed from their time as boxers, was little short of meteoric.
The twins were keen to use their newfound fame to their personal benefit, and this included taking every opportunity to meet their boxing idols. Among them was Joe Louis, who first won the heavyweight title in 1937, when the Krays were infants, and retained it until 1950, by which time they were well into their own short boxing careers. Using their connections in the U.S., Ronnie and Reggie invited Louis to London to fight a few exhibition matches. The former champion was struggling financially at the time and they believed they could make him some money, while also enjoying the company of a boxing legend. Louis toured the country fighting exhibitions and giving demonstrations, and was even kind enough to check the twins' luggage for them when they suspected the police might have planted firearms.
They also met Sonny Liston, who held the heavyweight title between September 1962 and March 1964, when he was deposed by a young Muhammad Ali. Having fought Ali twice Liston was plainly a brave man, but he got the fright of his life when a very drunk Ronnie Kray drove him home from the Cambridge Rooms, a favourite haunt of the twins in New Malden. After clambering from the car in one piece, Liston is said to have kissed the pavement in joy at having survived the ride.
Rocky Marciano met the Twins while visiting London in 1965 with the actor George Raft. They were shown the Repton by the Krays, who were gifted a pair of Marciano's gloves as a thank you. These sold as part of an auction of Reggie's possessions in 2015, fetching £580.
On a trip to Wales, where they donated a considerable sum in the aftermath of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, the twins met Jimmy Wilde. Nicknamed "The Tylorstown Terror", Wilde was world champion at flyweight from 1916 to 1923 and is often cited as the greatest of all time in his weight division. The twins were taken to see him at a hospital in Cardiff, where the diminutive and elderly Wilde – who stood at 5"2 and was in his seventies – impressed Reggie with the strength of his handshake. Reg later called Wilde "the greatest fighter Wales ever produced."
And they got to know the great three-weight champion "Kid" Lewis, a totemic figure in East London who Grandfather Lee had first told them about. They even used his as a decoy in a plot to spring Frank 'The Mad Axeman' Mitchell from Dartmoor prison.
"We had mastered both boxing and street fighting. In boxing, obviously there are rules and regulations. In street fighting, there are no rules." Reggie Kray
We can assume that there were plenty more meetings beside these. Boxing was an integral part of the Krays' world; Reggie once got off an assault charge by claiming that the blood on his jacket could plausibly have ended up there while he watched a sparring session. While on the run after escaping from prison in 1958, Ronnie would spar with his minder in the Surrey countryside (and when the newspapers reported the escape, they used Ronnie's old boxing photograph). The twins promoted boxing shows and made financial donations to the Repton. There must have been a genuine fondness for the old haunt, but like any gangsters worth their salt the Krays were keen to show the community that they were on their side; that way, when the police asked questions, the locals would remember where their loyalties lay.
The Krays eventually came to see themselves as above the law. This might explain why Ronnie felt comfortable enough to shoot another man dead at the Blind Beggar pub while several witnesses watched. His latent schizophrenia and a morbid fascination with Al Capone undoubtedly contributed, too. Whatever the reasons, it would eventually be their undoing.
In 1967 they bought the Carpenters Arms, a pub just a hundred yards from the house on Vallance Road, and hung their old boxing gloves behind the bar. When they stepped outside and looked east, they would have seen the Repton and their old home; they were kings of all they surveyed.
But they would not be around to see it for much longer. It was from the kitchen at the Carpenters that Reggie is said to have taken the carving knife that he used to brutally murder Jack 'The Hat' McVitie at a house in Stoke Newington. Two years later, the Krays were in prison. Neither man was ever freed.
Still, their old love for boxing never died and we can assume that they continued to follow the sport closely (Reggie was once recorded doing a very bad impression of Frank Bruno, who did not turn pro until 13 years into the twins' imprisonment).
Perhaps strangest of all, the twins struck up a rapport with Mike Tyson, writing letters of support to the heavyweight after he was imprisoned for rape.
"Reggie Kray knew what I was going through," Tyson later said. "He came from the people, and even though he was a killer the people still loved him and his brothers. The Kray family funerals proved that. The people of East London came out on the streets to show their respect."
Tyson made these comments in January 2000, ahead of his fight against Julius Francis in Manchester. By this time Ronnie had been dead for almost five years, having suffered a fatal heart attack in 1995 at the age of 61. Reggie lived until 2000, when stomach cancer reunited him with his twin. In his later years Reg had taken up painting – though he was not especially good at it – and boxing scenes were common.
In some respects, the Kray Twins were an extreme manifestation of the time and place they grew up in. This included their life-long passion for boxing on one hand, and their rebellious mistrust of authority on the other. But while they never took boxing to an extreme – enjoying it first as a hobby and later as entertainment – their rebelliousness did spiral out of control and led them to become ruthless killers. Today they remain a powerful symbol of violence and sixties excess, and stories of their crimes and their complicated private lives continue to provide a very British kind of morbid fascination.
Boxing was the only sport they could have fallen in love with. In their lives on the outside, the Krays seemed always to be fighting. They fought in the streets as children, in the ring as adolescents, and finally took their battle to the city of London as adults. Reggie's autobiography, titled Born Fighter, reflects that his life, like Ronnie's, was spent locked in combat. Boxing, so often a sport that steers young men away from violence, seems only to have given the Kray Twins a taste for it.