I was never much of a craftsman; never much cop when it came to the fancy stuff, the footwork, the combinations.
It’s funny, that: ‘cause in the yard I was a craftsman. I was known for it. No-one at Royden’s could match me there. Joe Salt, the foreman, took me aside one day – he said ‘Sam,’ he said, ‘you’re a fuckin’ artist, is what you are.’ There was a row of rivets in the aftward keel, you could see your face in each one and I couldn’t’ve lined them up better if I’d worked it out with a fuckin’ slide-rule – he wasn’t wrong, old Joe: I was an artist.
Not in the ring, though. What I had was, I had a big right hand. I never got cut. And if I went down, I got back up again.
Doesn’t sound like much? Well, I had enough for a shot; I had enough for a shot at Dempsey.
Dempsey worked a shipyard too, you know. During the war. It’s a good place for a heavyweight to work: builds your shoulders, your arms. Toughens your hands. The saltwater off the sea tans your skin like leather.
He was the greatest, Dempsey. Best of them all. You can talk about Gene Tunney. You can talk about the coloured lad, Jack Johnson. Nowadays they’re talking about this Joe Louis. None of them got close to Jack Dempsey. No-one ever will.
He was the greatest, and I fuckin’ beat him.
Col Mackay, my manager – he set it up. Col’d spent a few years in the States, before the war; he was a merchant navy man, was Col. He’d got friendly with Dempsey’s manager. Dempsey wasn’t Dempsey back then, though. This was before the Jess Willard fight, before Billy Miske and Georges Carpentier – before he was champ. I don’t know if Col even knew who Dempsey was, back then.
He found out soon enough, anyway.
In ‘twenty-three, just after I’d broken Frank Goddard’s jaw to take the British title, Col got word that Dempsey was looking for an easy match-up. This was just after Dempsey’d fought Luis Firpo. Firpo had knocked him through the ropes and on to the press men’s table. People said he’d landed on Damon Runyon’s typewriter and that night Dempsey’s wife had found the words ‘Firpo wins!’ typed across his arse. But of course Firpo didn’t win: Dempsey got back up, like he always did, and knocked the greasy bastard’s teeth down his throat.
After that, all Dempsey wanted was an easy payday. Col sent a wire to Doc Kearns, Dempsey’s manager. I was Dempsey’s easy payday.
I’ll never forget those weeks, just before I sailed. The feller who was promoting the fight said he wouldn’t stump up for my ticket to New York. All that money they’ve got, in America, and he wouldn’t stump up. So Col – well, I’ll never forget what Col went through in those few weeks.
He must’ve talked every shipbuilder in the yard into chipping in – every riveter, every welder, every carpenter, even Joe Salt, even Charlie Royden, the bloody boss’s son. He told them I was going to America to give Jack Dempsey a fuckin’ black eye. He said I was going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world.
God, you should’ve seen them. They knew I could do it, too. Some of them, them who’d been at Royden’s a while, had seen me taking all comers at the Old Clock on bank holidays, when I was just a kid. The rest had seen me fight at the Birkenhead Drill Hall or the International Club. A few of them had even followed me down to London to see me knock seven shades of shite out of Frank Goddard.
Wasn’t just Royden lads, either. Fellers from every shipyard on the Mersey threw coppers into Col’s hat. And it wasn’t just lads: sisters, mothers, the girls from the office typing pool. I was a good looking lad, remember. That didn’t hurt.
Point is, they believed in me. They believed I could beat Dempsey. They believed it just as much as I believed it. And they were right, too. We were right.
Col and me sailed out of Liverpool two weeks before Christmas. Col was sick all the way across. Not me. All I could think about was Dempsey.
The fight was Christmas Eve. I tell you, I’d never trained so hard, never hurt so much. I remember my first day at Royden’s, when I was fourteen, and they were building the Ethiopia and had me lugging steel plate for nine fuckin’ hours; the next day I could hardly move my arms and I swear I’d never known pain like it – but this was worse.
It paid off. You think I look good now, you should’ve seen me then. I could see it in the press boys’ eyes, in the way the New York girls looked at me in the street, the way the local kids I sparred with daren’t hardly lay a glove on me. I could see what they were all thinking: when this is over, Jack Dempsey’s going to know he’s been in a scrap.
It was at Madison Square Gardens. I remember camera flash-bulbs exploding all around me as Dempsey came in. I couldn’t believe the noise. I was used to noise, but that was the noise of ships, iron, machinery – I wouldn’t’ve believed you could make a noise like that with just people.
We’d decided beforehand, me and Col, what they were going to call me. ‘The Royden Dreadnought’. Sam Collins, the Royden Dreadnought, how about that? It put me in mind of all the lads at Royden’s just when I was climbing into the ring – just when I needed to remember all they’d done for me, how they’d believed in me, just when I needed it most. To give me strength.
I remember how he looked at me. We touched gloves, there in the middle, and I said: mind your arse on them typewriters, Jack. It wasn’t very clever but I couldn’t think of anything better. And he just looked at me. He was a decent-looking lad, Dempsey, for a heavyweight – but those eyes. He had eyes like a shark.
Christ, it was some fuckin’ party we had back in Liverpool, I’ll tell you that. Beer, whisky, you name it. Everyone cheering, singing my name. Joe Salt shook my hand – credit to Royden’s, he called me. He said I expect you’ll be moving to America, now, will you Sam, and I said no, Joe, I’m a Royden’s man, through and through. I can defend my title on my days off, just like I always have. It won’t change me, this, I said.
There were tears in his fuckin’ eyes.
At the end of the night me and my dad walked home arm in arm singing the old Irish songs all the way up Stanley Road. Then we sat in the kitchen and my dad broke open the whiskey. We had a toast: to Sam Collins, the Royden Dreadnought, Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Then he asked me, so how’d it go?
I told him. I told him Dempsey’d come out strong, hunkered down low, just like we’d seen in the films, cutting off the ring, and Jesus he hit hard: left, left, right. I’d never been hit like that. I felt like one of those mad fellers that goes over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
My old man chuckled. So what did you do?, he said.
I told him, I gave him back plenty.
Did he knock you down?, my dad asked.
In the fourth, he did. Came in over my jab with a roundhouse right, flush on the button, had me on my arse but I was up like a flash. Came right back at him, jab, jab, hook, banged him a good one on the jaw, then to the body, bam, bam, bam…
He’s a tough one, my dad said, sipping his whiskey.
Aye, I nodded.
My dad seemed sad, somehow. It was funny. Like we’d come home from a wake. I drank some more whiskey and watched him take a pinch of baccy and a paper from his pouch.
While he was rolling one I told him how I’d really got on top of Dempsey in the eighth, landed two big shots, one to the chin, one to the kidneys, how I would’ve had him if the fuckin’ bell hadn’t gone. And again, in the twelfth, I’d brought out the big right, wham on the top of Dempsey’s head…
Skull made of teak, that feller, my dad said.
And I told him: I knocked him down, Dad. A low right, pivoting off my left foot, everything behind it, and it got the champ full in the chest – and down he went, Dad. Dempsey, on his back. Me, on my feet. Christ, Dad – you should’ve heard the noise.
He nodded, and tongued the edge of his cigarette paper, and said: how’d the judges have it?
‘I fuckin’ had him, dad. Dempsey, Jack Dempsey – I was all over him. Apart from once or twice he barely touched me. Look at me: do I look like I’ve been beaten up? I don’t even look like I’ve been in a fight, Dad. Dempsey’s got a cut over his eye and he’s swelled up like a balloon and if that right didn’t unship a rib or two then I’m a fuckin’ Chinaman. I slaughtered him, dad. I won.’
His match flared. He pulled on his cigarette, and nodded, and looked at me, and said: ‘But the judges didn’t see it that way, am I right?’
‘I was robbed, Dad,’ was all I could say.
I couldn’t stay in the kitchen after that, not with him and his sad old eyes looking at me like that. I couldn’t stay in the house. And how could I stay in Liverpool, how could I go back to Royden’s? None of the lads had a wireless or anything but it was only a matter of time. I could just imagine them, down the Scala picture-house on Friday night, waiting for the newsreel feature: Collins beats Dempsey! Champ KO’d! Royden Dreadnought Heavyweight Champion of World!
I could just see their faces when they found out the truth. Dempsey by a decision. Unanimous. Even that big right, the fuckin’ referee ruled that Dempsey slipped.
I skipped town that night. Rode the canals to Leeds, found a job on the Calder navigation. It’s still ships, sort of.
You still see Dempsey on the newsreels, sometimes – glad-handing celebrities at his restaurant. I want to ask him – in fact, sometimes I do ask him, I shout it out, from the back row there in the dark of the picture-house: how are your fuckin’ ribs, Jack?
People tell me to shut up but I don’t care. The main thing is, Dempsey knew he’d got lucky that night. He knew, deep down, that he’d got beat – he knew I’d won. He knew who the real champ was. Oh of course he did. Dempsey knew.