- DOUGGIE JOHN
TOMMY SHIELS, WHATEVER HAPPENED?
Once upon a prospect great expectations were placed. The difference between British professional boxing in the mid 1980s and today's internet driven scene is comparable to a bucket of damp quarry chalk alongside a silver tray of neatly sliced Camembert. In the muck-and-bullets mid-eighties most gym kit boxes housed sweat-riddled horsehair sparring gloves. Back when old gym wall posters still featured names like Erskine and Crickmar. Our fast fading yesterdays - before 'twitter beef' and flying-table press conferences. Back then, press conference brawls were rarer than albino red squirrels. Boxers grafted long and hard to earn title contention, or they grafted long and hard to earn anonymity. Who remembers teak-tough South London middleweight Carlton Warren, or Telford's welterweight warhorse Cliff Gilpin?
By 1986 Frank Warren's promotional empire had elbowed its way into contention alongside Mickey Duff's long established 'cartel'. Frank owned a healthy stable of young fighters, and had forged strong links with the ITV Sports Network. In the August of '86, Thames News aired a prime-time feature announcing that Frank had joined forces with a conglomerate of wealthy businessmen to launch a groundbreaking management syndicate. The syndicate consisted of property magnates, restaurateurs, a high rolling Fleet Street journalist and a part-owner of the old Wembley Stadium, together they packed serious financial clout. The news clip showed members of the syndicate quaffing champagne in a celebratory manner, all broad smiles and raised glasses. Frank held centre stage throughout, looking rather pleased with himself in that shrewd manner of his. Alongside him stood the newest addition to the Warren stable, and the apple of the powerful syndicate's collective eye: six time national amateur champion, Tommy Shiels.
Born in County Tyrone Ireland and raised in the Cricklewood area of North West London, Tommy, aged 19, was tall, fair haired and handsome in that London Irish way. When asked by a reporter about how far he thought he'd go as a professional boxer, he answered succinctly, 'I can go all the way - to the top'. With his solid amateur pedigree, plus the syndicate's bottomless financial backing and expertise, there wasn't any reason to doubt him. Bang in the middle of the hard-knock 1980s, young Tommy Shiels found himself in a unique situation. His pathway from amateur boxing into the paid ranks had been literally paved with gold. He'd learned his craft at the Stowe Club in Paddington and, up until signing for Warren, had scraped a living as a painter and decorator. No more for him the noxious fumes of white spirits and trade gloss.
On Thursday 9 October 1986, Tommy, weighing in at light middleweight, made his professional debut in a six-rounder at Croydon's Fairfield Halls against Portuguese import Victor Carvalho. Carvalho lasted the distance but was soundly outpointed. Twenty days later at the Alexandra Pavilion, Muswell Hill, tough Welsh journeyman Paul Wetter felt the full force of Tommy's heavy hands. Tommy stopped Wetter in the second round. It was Wetter's 23rd bout - he never boxed again. On Wednesday 3 December, back in Muswell Hill, Tommy knocked out Coventry lad Mark Simpson in the first round - it was Simpson's 18th bout. On January 28 1987, Tommy faced Cardiff's crowd pleasing Gary Pemberton at the Fairfield Halls. This match-up bristled with a heightened element of risk, not only because Pemberton could bang but because ITV Sports planned to broadcast the fight. It was the perfect opportunity for Tommy to introduce himself to the wider British public. He grabbed it with both hands, and wrecked Pemberton in the first round. The following month he travelled up to Derbyshire and stopped tough Nottingham battler Del Bryan in two rounds. Bryan had previously beaten the heavily touted, much feared 'Islington Phantom', Daren Dyer, and went on to become a two-time British welterweight champion. Next stop, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. On Wednesday 22 April 1987, Tommy outpointed plucky debutant Lindon Scarlett over six rounds at the glorious Albert Hall. A month later, he walloped Johnny Nanton in the first round at the rather less glorious Tryst Sports Centre in Cumbernauld, Scotland. Bonny Scotland; now that's a heck of a long way to go just to chin someone. No doubt Tommy travelled up, and slept over in comfort. Frank Warren and his mega-rich business buddies must have been more than happy with their undefeated protege. Thus far, he'd crossed all the t's and blacked all the eyes. At that point in time, Tommy Shiels was the proverbial shooting star, blazing a destructive trail upwards through the British light middleweight rankings.
1987 proved a tumultuous year for me. While living with a wonderfully kind hearted girlfriend in Islington, I embarked on a doomed-to-fail affair with a wholly unsuitable young woman from West London. The unsuitable woman fell pregnant. The kind hearted girl quite rightly booted me out of her life, and into the street. The unsuitable young woman came from a strict South American christian family - her parents didn't like me. When I personally broke the news of their daughter's pregnancy to them, the mother collapsed and the father threatened to do me in. Nine months later my dear son was born. I named him Aaron, after the legendary Cincinnati Hawk. The following year the unsuitable woman bore me a beautiful daughter. So there's me, a father of two, unemployed and living in a cramped bed and breakfast hotel with a non-compatible partner. As you might expect, she and I ended up going separate ways. She, of course, took the children. I applied to the courts for parental access, and became a weekend father.
I recount the regretful tale in order to emphasise how in 1987 my priorities changed abruptly. Knowing the name, nickname and record of every professional boxing world champion, across all weight divisions, became the least of my concerns. Prior to becoming a dad, I'd been the complete boxing anorak, but while my domestic melodrama played out I lifted my finger from boxing's pulse. Not until the early 1990s did I pick up another copy of Boxing News. And when I looked inside it I found no mention of Tommy Shiels.
By that time I'd completely forgotten Tommy's surname - couldn't remember it for the life of me. I often wondered about him. Sometimes his surname reached the tip of my tongue, but that's as far as it ever got. Week after week I scoured Boxing News looking for anything that might jolt my memory. Pre-internet, the only hard-drive available was the one inside my skull - alas Tommy's surname seemed to have been deleted. Over the ensuing years the fact that I couldn't recall his surname became an increasing source of frustration for me. Boxers' names often escape us fight fans. Our excited recollections frequently suffer prolonged pauses while we struggle to remember the names of men whose exploits we'll never forget. In this case, Tommy's surname alluded me for almost a decade.
During the summer of 1997, I worked as a painter and decorator on a row of ridiculously expensive mansions overlooking Regents Park. I was one of fifty or so painters, spread throughout eight adjoined properties. Each mansion teemed noisily with countless busy tradesmen and loud-mouthed labourers. With up to six hundred people on site at any given time the place felt like an enclosed village. One morning I was sent up to the top floor in one of the vast mansions and given the job of priming newly fitted skirting boards. The only other bloke up there was a burly, dark haired carpenter, we hardly acknowledged each other for the first couple of days. Three days in the ice broke, and we talked while we grafted. It turned out the carpenter was a Paddington lad. As is often the case on London building sites our conversation quickly gravitated towards casual tales of violence. We swapped pub fight stories. He mentioned a mate of his named Tommy. He said they'd brawled side by side on the streets of Paddington and had always prevailed - even when outnumbered. Tommy, he said, went on to become a professional boxer. For a second or two I couldn't believe my ears. 'Hold up,' I said, 'you mean fair haired Tommy? Tall, light-middleweight, signed for Frank Warren?' 'Yeah that's him,' he replied. 'My old mate Tommy Shiels.' I cracked a stunned smile and exhaled a crude profanity. Indeed, that was a beautiful moment. I wasted no time in firing off the one question that had gnawed away at me for years. 'Whatever happened to him?'
He told me that, at some point during the very late 1980s Tommy flew out to Australia. While there he visited a nightclub, or a bar of some sort. One of the locals overheard Tommy's London accent, and took umbrage. An altercation ensued. Tommy knocked the bloke out and he never regained consciousness. Tommy was arrested and charged. In the time that passed between the incident and the subsequent court case Tommy 'saw the light' and converted to Christianity. In short, Tommy Shiels quit boxing and became a born-again Christian.
My chance meeting with Tommy's mate took place over twenty years ago. Before Facebook and iPhones, such a lot has changed since then. I don't toil on building sites anymore, my line of business nowadays is far more fulfilling. I'm a full-time boxing coach. As well as volunteer club coaching, I deliver an extensive weekly outreach program covering schools, colleges, universities and youth centres. I've also worked within the World Series Boxing franchise as a British Lionheart in the Community. The boxing world is a relatively tight-knit place, but I've yet to bump into a single soul who can positively confirm or refute the Paddington carpenter's story.
I'm certainly not suggesting Tommy's mate lied but you never know, he may have been regurgitating the end result of a trans-global Chinese whisper. Violent stories often succumb to exaggeration. The truth is I've spent most of my adult life wondering. As obsessions go I'd say it's proved a mild one, with nagging tendencies. Every now and then I Google Tommy's name. Boxrec shows me his career ended abruptly after just eleven fights. On 20 April 1988, Tommy TKO'd American Sammy Houston in seven rounds at the Alexandra Pavilion. Eleven fights, eleven wins, nine knockouts - that's all she wrote.
His name crops up on a couple of online sports forums. From the tit-bits and bobs that I've read, it's safe to say that Tommy did indeed travel to Australia in the late eighties, for surgery on damaged hands - the banger's curse. More confirmation of his journey to the 'land down under' can be found on the Thames News Youtube channel. Scroll down through their videos and you'll find the old clip featuring fresh-faced Tommy alongside Frank Warren and his wine quaffing management syndicate. It's the only video anywhere on the internet featuring Tommy. Underneath the video I found an interesting comment from somebody called Jac Mcarthy, it reads: 'If anyone knows how to get in touch with Tommy Shiels, I'd love to know. Jacquie in Australia is trying to find him, please help us.' The comment concluded with Jacquie's email address. I pinged off a couple of hopeful emails. That was over a year ago, I've yet to receive a reply. The comment has since been deleted.
Another comment posted and deleted, by someone named Glen, read: 'I'm an old friend of Tommy, he left Australia back in about early '91, back to London. I caught up with him in '96, he was driving the red buses London is famous for. He turned born again Christian, and I hear he's still about in Trafalgar Square on a Sunday is the place to find him. Kept in contact with him 'til 2001. Miss the big fella.'
Did I traipse to Trafalgar Square on a freezing cold February Sunday morning to scrutinise bus driver's faces? Of course I did. Did I spot anybody who remotely resembled Tommy Shiels, allowing for the passage of thirty-plus years? Of course I didn't, but I suppose it was worth a try.
Nowadays whenever I mention Tommy's name in boxing circles I expect quizzical facial expressions in return. Tommy who? The bemusement is understandable, Tommy Shiels fought as a professional just eleven times, and all a long time ago. In the gloriously harsh and unforgiving annals of British boxing history he's not even a nearly man. Despite an abundance of talent, plus unprecedented financial support, the proverbial shooting star fizzled out early and plummeted into obscurity.
During the winter of 2017, I attended an amateur club show in East London and spent fifteen minutes chatting with a well-known London fight figure, a fabulous character who will remain nameless in this blog. We sat in a busy communal changing area while he treated me to a succession of quality anecdotes and gritty one-liners. I waited for a suitable gap in the action and threw Tommy's name in. His demeanour changed, the joviality evaporated. He briefly reminisced Tommy's boxing ability, before attempting to change the subject. I mentioned Australia, and the rumour of a fatal punch-up, to which he very quickly replied, 'Well there you go - you said it, not me.' I suspect he knew more than he was prepared to tell. We were soon back to the anecdotes and one-liners.
Tommy Shiels, whatever happened? Mark it down as one of boxing's many little mysteries. Did broken metacarpals curtail his career? Did a tragic nightclub altercation and all-consuming remorse bring about a religious conversion? Is he still earning his corn as a London bus driver? It seems I'm destined to wonder. Here's wishing him well wherever he is, whatever he's doing now. I'll continue to drop his name into conversations as I work my way around boxing circles. And the next time I board a bus in London's West End I'll be sure to greet the driver, and linger just a little as I tap my oyster card.