Chelsea Theatre is a community theatre at the unfashionable end of King’s Road but not so off the beaten track to stop boxing’s elite from turning up to see Rose Hollingsworth’s Going or Gold, a play about South London boxer Frankie Lucas, a champion who somehow disappeared from the public eye, writes Michael Holland.
It was easy to recognise the famous former champions in the crowd, dapper gents still walking as they did around those rings when they won titles, and just as easy to spot those who had spent many hours coming second in the ring by their noses: bold and bulbous beauties, held proudly up high.
While a dedicated team researched this story they discovered that many in the boxing fraternity thought that Lucas was dead. In fact, he had suffered mental health problems and had been in and out of hospital. They actually found Frankie Lucas alive and recovering from cancer and willing to talk. They also spoke to Frankie’s first trainer Ken Rimington, now 94, to his wife and son, and interviewed champion boxers who had learnt their craft alongside him with legendary trainer George Francis. It slowly emerged that the forgotten man was actually a boxing legend.
Going For Gold starts with the young kid, fresh from the Caribbean and keen to learn how to box.
Ken Rimmington lets him join his Sir Philip Game Boxing Club gym in Croydon and takes him all the way to wining the ABAs – twice – but Frankie is overlooked for the 1972 Olympics, the selectors choosing instead someone Lucas had defeated.
After more exciting wins he is again not selected for England, this time for the Commonwealth Games, so decides to go and box for the country of his birth, St Vincent. On the way to winning gold, he beats the English choice.
With his Commonwealth Gold, Rimmington feels he has taken his young boxer as far as he can and passes him on to George Francis, renowned for developing champions, so Lucas moves to North London to train there, neglecting his girlfriend Gene, and their son Michael, in order to achieve his dreams.
Francis had a lot of black boxers and together they fought against racism and restrictive practices that held them back.
These were times when racism was not the illegal hate crime it is today but something that was seen as a normal, everyday thing that black people had to tolerate. In the boxing world black boxers were not seen as fighters who could sell tickets so the big promoters and managers promoted their white fighters above their black – and often better – boxers. Frankie Lucas could feel he was being held back even though other black fighters in his gym were becoming national and world champions: John Conteh and the Mackenzie Brothers punched through that race barrier.
Francis would persevere in trying to get Frankie a shot at the title but Mickey Duff, one of the major matchmakers of the time, didn’t want George to have another black champion: ‘You can’t have all the titles,’ he told him as he put white fighters through.
Around this time, Frankie was showing signs of mental illness, but still boxed, although in other countries to keep the money coming in. A bad cut put him out of action for a while and a comeback was not successful. And then, one day, the world of boxing had moved on and left Frankie Lucas behind.
The final part of Going For Gold sees Frankie in retirement, smoking weed and rambling about being robbed of a glittering career and forgotten by friends. More worryingly, he was refusing to unclench his knockout hand, telling people that his left hand ‘holds the Devil’. His dreams all whitewashed away by greed and racism. He does, though, make peace with Michael, who he felt he had forsaken for fame.
Frankie Lucas sadly died just weeks away from the opening of the play that resurrected those Golden Years and reinstated him as a boxing legend.
In the audience were his first trainer, his wife and his son, all watching their lives portrayed on the stage; reliving more sad times than good, perhaps, but all giving their blessing. And there were the boxing champions paying their respects to someone they truly admired.
There were champions on the stage too, working hard to tell this poignant tale under the excellent direction of Betsy Robertson who created real excitement in the ring and who used real fight footage and music wisely to accompany Frankie’s story.
This is a short – Sold Out – run, but Going For Gold will be back, so watch out for it.