“I picked up chess through the process of elimination, saying I can’t move here or there. That made me understand the legitimate moves, and then once you learn the moves, you start putting them together. That’s how I learned how to play chess.”
Terry Marsh’s strategy on the chessboard at the age of eight was closely mirrored in the square ring at St George’s club in Stepney. But where did the pugilistic passion evolve from? Junior chess champion Marsh recalled. “My dad being a big boxing fan was close friends with a guy called Freddie McCarthy who was Sammy’s older brother. Even before the boxing gloves and the chess set, I was aware of Sammy McCarthy [the former British flyweight champion].
“I can’t really answer with one hundred percent certainty of whether I had a chess set before I had a pair of boxing gloves, but, at that particular time, I never used them at the same time!”
In his late teens, a new career decision steered Marsh into a vigorous slipstream of discipline, which had notable payback for his amateur silverware cabinet. “I was approaching twenty years old and I was working and commuting up to London and just got fed up standing on the train after paying through the nose for a ticket and not getting a seat. One day, I was on the train looking over someone’s shoulder and I saw an advert in someone’s paper about the Royal Marines, so I thought I’d give it a try. So, me and my cousin both sent off for it and I saw it through, whereas he never did.”
While serving in Cyprus and during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Marsh won three senior ABA titles representing the Royal Navy Boxing Team. His first accolade was in 1978 at lightweight, beating Edmund Gajny, then in 1980 he moved up to welterweight and defeated Edward Byrne. He picked up his last ABA title against future world champion, Chris Pyatt, in 1981. “By that time I was the one who had all the experience, whereas Chris was just coming through. Chris was where I was when I lost against George Gilbody a few years earlier, not fully established as an amateur. I had the experience and he had the youth as such. Saying it was an unfair contest would be wrong, but it was me outsmarting him with my experience. I could tell he was going to be a good fighter though and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Better off fighting him this year than next year!’”
Marsh went on to pick up gold at the multination tournament in Manila later that year. “That was my swansong. I’d been overlooked for the [1980 Moscow] Olympics, because I’d won the ABA title in the same year. Two years earlier I’d won the ABA title in the year of the Commonwealth Games and never got picked for that one either. So when the opportunity came to fight in the Philippines, I thought, ‘I’ll have it as a holiday.’ I didn’t actually prepare for it at all. I went over there to have a good time.
“First fight was against a guy who was difficult to lose against, with all respect to him, and the second guy was a Korean who knocked his previous opponent out. I thought, ‘Lose the fight,’ as I couldn’t be bothered, but he couldn’t get anywhere near me, so the next thing you know, I find myself in the semifinal and then went on to win the gold medal. It actually turned out to be quite satisfying because it was the first time the Americans and Russians competed post-1980, so in one sense there were more countries competing than at the Olympics.”
On October 12, 1981, the Stepney born strategist turned professional. In his seventh fight, he drew against Lloyd Christie, brother of Errol. The result would be the only blemish on an otherwise perfect record. “Two weeks beforehand I was sparring up at the gym with none other than Chris Pyatt and I got a little nick [cut], which I’m sure Chris had pleasure in giving me! So, when I had the fight with Lloyd, I was conscious of that. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not taking anything away from Lloyd, as he was a good fighter, but I was fighting very negative that night because I was conscious of the eye. I realized that I nearly lost that fight because of that negativity and that subsequently changed the way I boxed from there onwards, especially when I had bad cuts.”
In his thirteenth fight, on April 26, 1983, Marsh beat Vernon Vanriel to become the Southern Area light-welterweight champion. “I wasn’t really thinking about the belt as such. It was just a payday. That fight was just to pay for me to get through the next month or two.”
After four years of serving in the armed forces, Marsh hung up the rifle, swapping it for a fire hose. “The reason I left the Marines is because I wanted to become an officer. I wanted to get qualifications. In the process of leaving, I turned professional to help finance my education. I wasn’t having a lot of success with the boxing financially, so the plans for continuing my education became a bit more difficult, so I applied to be a fireman as a sort of a backstop—which is quite a topical word at the moment! [referring to Brexit].
“I’d just won the Southern Area title at the time and had a bad hand from the fight and thought that was the end of my boxing. But when you win the Southern Area title, announcing retirement isn’t a big thing so I went on and did my training for the fire brigade, which took about six months. By the time I joined the fire service it came around that I’d gone up in the ratings during that period of time and had the opportunity to fight a final eliminator [for the British title]. I took the opportunity against Tony Sinnott, won that, which then got me through to fight the reigning British light-welterweight champion Clinton McKenzie [April 19, 1984], which was a great fight. Let’s be honest though, Clinton’s never been in a bad fight! [Marsh would earn a comfortable points victory].”
The fighting fireman went on to win his next five fights, including an eighth-round stoppage over Peter Eubank (brother of Chris), who had just beaten Joe Frazier Jr. Then, on October 24, 1985, he fought Italian Alessandro Scapecchi for the European light-welterweight title at the Stade II, Fontvieille. “Monaco was nice. It was my first experience I guess of studio boxing, with the television there. I had a bad injury from a previous fight and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to go for the world title vacated by Patrizio Oliva, who was really the guy I was chasing all the time. Oliva was the gold medalist at the 1980 Olympics when I got overlooked and was also the best boxer of the tournament. I was thinking, ‘If I could box him and beat him, I’d beaten the best of the best,’ but he was always one step ahead of me when I was chasing him for his title.
“So there I was against Scapecchi. I had this bad hand and had to have pain killer injections, because every time I’d throw the jab it would hurt me more than the opponent. However, the guy that administered it said it would last for about ten minutes. Even though it was put in the very last minute, by the time we’d put my gloves on, walked to the ring, listened to the French, Monaco, Italian and English national anthems, all the pain-killing effects had worn off!
I was at a big disadvantage with the hand and then I got a very bad cut eye and I thought, ‘That’s it. End of the fight,’ but then I remembered about the Lloyd Christie fight and how negative I was because of the cut in that one. That’s when I decided to go for it, be aggressive and win the fight, which was not my style as I was used to fighting off the back foot on the retreat. I managed to pull it out of the bag, but to be fair, the guy got an injury himself. I didn’t have any sympathy for him though because I’d had a busted hand from the beginning of the fight. I snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.”
Marsh stopped Scapecchi in the sixth, which became a recurring theme for him after the Clinton McKenzie fight. In his first sixteen fights, he’d only won two via stoppage, but in his remaining eleven contests only three went the distance. Marsh explained why. “I don’t think my boxing style was appreciated and I needed to be a little bit more aggressive. When it came to selling tickets, I was terrible. I sold a carful for my first fight, a minibus full for the second fight and a coachload for the next one. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but here’s an example. I went to fight Chris Sanigar down in his backyard in Bristol and my brother turned to me and said, ‘You’re the only fighter I know that’s going to have all his supporters in the changing room with him!’ I was never a ticket-seller, but then after the McKenzie fight things changed. I became more aggressive, stepped up the pace and wanted to be entertaining, basically trying to be the opposite of what I was, which was usually to play it safe and stay behind the left hand and fight on the retreat and take as little punishment as possible.”
Five fights later, including two defenses of his European crown, on March 4, 1987, Marsh took on the reigning IBF world light-welterweight champion, the American from Toledo, Ohio, Joe Manley. “I’d been told I was going to have a world title fight for every two or three months after I’d fought Clinton McKenzie. The next fight was always going to be a world title fight, so from that sense when I was told, I took it with a pinch of salt.
“In terms of the fight, there wasn’t a strategy as such. I’d looked at the opponent and lost a little bit of respect for him. He had two arms, two legs just like me, whereas normally if I didn’t know the opponent I’d form an image in my mind that was something like a cross between Superman and Captain America, because nobody can live up to the expectations of what you have in your imagination.
“On the evening, there were traces of winter in the air and it was quite cold. For the ring entrance, he’s walked in with no dressing gown or towel and I was well wrapped up. I thought, ‘The first two rounds are going to be mine!’ When the bell went, I put him under pressure and knew I’d have the edge. The strategy for the first two rounds continued all the way to the tenth [with Marsh winning by TKO in the same round].”
Four months later, on July 1, 1987, the former Royal Marine had his last fight, the first defense of his IBF title, as a professional boxer against Japan’s Akio Kameda at the Royal Albert Hall. “I had a bad cut. Again, going back to the Lloyd Christie fight, I realized there was no point in being negative and just had to go for it. In the back of my mind I was also thinking that if it went beyond a certain number of rounds, from an accidental clash, it would go to the scorecards. For whatever reason, six rounds was the figure in my head and I knew that there was no way they were going to stop the flow of the cut. I fought a six-round fight instead of a fifteen-round fight.” Marsh would stop Kameda in the seventh.
Marsh dispelled rumors that he wanted to fight Stateside after the Kameda fight. “No. The intention was to retire. After I fought Manley, I’d said that I have maybe one more fight to show it wasn’t a fluke, then I’d retire.”
True to his word, Marsh retired. He also announced he had epilepsy, although he maintains the retirement was always the intention regardless. He ended his career as an unbeaten world champion with a record of 26-0-1, having fought over two hundred times, both as an amateur and professional.
On November 30, 1989, Marsh hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, as a primary suspect for the shooting of Frank Warren at a boxing show in Barking, Essex. He was charged with the attempted murder of the promoter and served ten months in prison on remand, before being acquitted. “I try to take the best out of things and it’s turned out to be an important part of my life. The older I get, the less significant that time has become. At one stage that time behind bars was a thirtieth of my life, now it’s a sixtieth. At that particular time, it was a good place to be, but not for my children and family, which is where I got angry and resentful. Nonetheless, I had to accept the situation I was in and use it to my advantage. In that sense, it was a good experience and a time of enlightenment, in terms of asking questions and looking for answers.
“I’m not one of those who says prison works. I was innocent until proven guilty, so I couldn’t quite get my head around the very fact I was in prison anyway. That makes you question the judiciary and political systems, the rights of man, civil liberties and the role of government. I had loads of questions and had the time to look for answers.”
Did being a former elite boxer help or hinder Marsh inside? “I felt more intimidated joining the local comprehensive school and being in the playground at the age of twelve or thirteen than I did in the prison environment. There was no challenging at all from the inmates in any way, shape, or form. That came from the screws [prison officers] who used to throw their weight around.”
Marsh reinforced the point with a slippery tale. “I was sharing a cell with a guy who had an injury. It was a Sunday and I’d gone to get lunch and said I’d get his for him. The screw who was the equivalent of a sergeant I guess, said, ‘Okay,’ so I’ve gone there and I’m down as a vegetarian but got him a meat meal. The screw present, who was a nasty piece of work anyway, said, ‘I’ve caught you now. You’re not a vegetarian.’ I said, ‘It’s for my mate.’ He said, ‘Tell him to come and get it then.’ I said, ‘You tell him,’ then stormed out.
“Now, the screws wanted me to move me from my cell because they saw me as a troublemaker and I wasn’t going to budge. As a result, I went back to my cell, barricaded it, stripped naked and covered myself in baby oil so they wouldn’t be able to do anything with me. You also have to understand there were ten of them and as a prisoner you can’t use violence. Or should I say, it’s not wise for you to use violence. But they can and do.”
Fast-forward to June 13, 2015, and Marsh made a comeback to the ring at the age of 57, but this time combining his two fortes, boxing and chess, as he took on the reigning World Chess Boxing Association middleweight champion, Dymer Agasaryan from Armenia. Marsh explained how the opportunity arose. “I went to see it once and thought, ‘I’ll give this a try.’ I shouldn’t have done it at the age I was, but there was a fascination of ‘Does a good chess player beat a good boxer?’, or vice versa, or is it better to be a little bit of one or the other. You can get in with a good chess player who can get in the ring, run and avoid getting hit and win it by chess. What happens is, you get a good chess player like that and they get fatigued and start making mistakes in the game because they’ve been under pressure in the boxing. One minute you’re in the comfort zone and the next minute you’re right out of it. There’s a lot of strategy involved.
“I had to get into serious training, but different. It was more mind than endurance and high intensity in the ring. Dymer was regarded as a better chess player than myself, but obviously I was going to be the better boxer as long as I could keep him at a distance. The way you win is by checkmate in the chess or stoppage in the boxing, but if you don’t get the stoppage, you can lose on the timing of the chess.
“Dymer was twenty-three and a powerful, muscular guy. With that in mind I thought, I’ll have to have a tear up with him, which was not good as it was not my style, he was younger than me and powerful. My idea though was to get him fatigued so he’d make mistakes on the chessboard. That was my strategy. We had a tear up in the final round and I came away with a few cracked ribs and hurt badly, but I managed to get the result.”
Having lived a colorful life, Marsh reflected on his time in the square ring. “When I was world champion, there were WBC, WBA and IBF titles. I was only champion of a third of the world. I could argue and say the other two-thirds are ocean, so what’s the problem! At the time, though, I walked away with no regrets and am glad of what I achieved and the way I did it. The Southern Area title, the British, European and IBF world title.
“Any regrets? Not to any great extent. I wanted to get out of boxing as quick as possible and I thought the quickest route would be to win the title and quit. I’d seen other fighters go on and that’s not always the right strategy. You see fighters working their way up and then working their way down, going to European and British level. I was undefeated. I could have had a few more fights, but we all get beaten in the end. It’s a nice record to have.”
The Ghost of Johnny Tapia, by Paul Zanon