Alf Greenfield 1880-1887
Alf Greenfield stands out as the oldest recorded boxer on record involved in the Fighting for Our Heritage project. Alf’s story is, to put it simply, an analogy of the sport of Boxing. A story of great successes which carry with them the weight of every blow struck against him in the ring and in life. The once Heavyweight champion of England and trans-Atlantic contender died in what ‘The Sporting Life – July 11th 1895’ describes as ‘poor’ and living in a ‘lunatic-asylum’.
At a time where most men stood delicately under 5ft 8in Greenfield stood at 5ft 8 11st 8lb. Alf is known to have won the English Championship Belt against Jim Stewart in 1880. Alf is also known to have broken his arm during this fight!
At the time Boxing saw its champions unified under one prize, similar to how professional football sees its champions existing solely within the Premier League today. Alf in this respect was an undisputed English champion. The best of the best. Fighting in bouts which were designed to see only the winner left standing Alf went on in 1881 to defend his belt against Joe Collins. In a fight which saw the Prince of Wales in the crowd, along with his entourage of titled Lord’s and cheering Captains, a draw was declared after 105 minutes for the sake of their health. Two friends of the fighters stepped in and agreed a truce for them after 28 rounds, another small break in Alf’s right arm and watching a fight which was so determined to see an outcome that the Prince and his Lord’s refused to have their names recorded in the press as being in attendance.
Unfortunately in 1883 whilst waiting for his arm to heal 4 men took it upon themselves to steal his actual boxing belt from one of the many Public Houses that he owned and ran in Birmingham. 4 men are claimed to have organised and orchestrated the robbery although they were never proven guilty. There is however the recorded statement of a witness involved in the case.
Taking advantage of his wife’s partiality for occasional inebriation the witness named Mrs Jemima James overheard one culprit named John Kennedy saying to the other three “….. Alf is away and she, Mrs Greenfield, will be boozed. The thinnest can go through.” Slender in both stature and mind it is perhaps likely that the 4 slithered down Livery Street into The Swan With Two Necks where it was on display and stole the belt, which was never recovered, just before Alf left for his 1884 tour of America.
It is of course somewhat ironic that Alf lost his belt to thieves yet defended it professionally. From 1881-1883 Alf defended his belt successfully against Joe Collins, Bill Sheriff, Charlie Mitchell Mick Gilligan and Jack Burke only to lose it in a robbery. His fight against Burke in 1883 (that took place in Manchester under the organisation of a man known in the bare knuckle community as Jem Mace) was his last in the UK before he set off to America seeking the money and stature his fellow Brits who had gone out before him such as Charlie Mitchell and his soon to be long time friend John L. Sullivan. The tour is recorded as being ‘unsuccessful’ a ‘failure’ and ‘a financial disappointment’. It saw Alf part ways with his trainer Nobby Smith and consisted of disputed outcomes along with a few turbulent dealings.
Alf spent a chaotic and disjointed year in America fighting in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago against Sullivan, Foyer and Burke winning non and leaving questions in his wake. ‘Vastly overrated’ was what the American’s saw against a ‘fat’ Sullivan. The NYPD may also have commented on Alf after both him and Sullivan were arrested and later found not guilty by a jury for ‘Prize Fighting’ at Madison Square Garden.
Alf’s derailment in fortune was altogether professional, financial and tragically mental. After returning without, ridiculed and winless he found himself having to perform in ‘exhibition matches’ up to 1894 and selling off his estate of Pubs and Property in the Birmingham area. His wife and children came close to death on the 12th of January 1891 after being caught up in a fire at his pub The Three Tunns, Smithfield. It was at 3am that morning Alf found himself dragging his wife and children from the blaze rescuing them from certain death.
Alf was in a serious accident in 1984 involving a horse drawn carriage which hospitalized him, leaving him in care for the rest of his life. Broken arms and bruises do not leave people like alf in hospital for life however. It was as a result of this hospital residency that the symptoms of his brain injury must surely have been fully recognised.
Alf went on what to develop what can at best is now described as Dementia Puglisitica, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or being ‘Punch Drunk’. CTE manifested itself in another Heavy Weight Boxer named Muhammad Ali, however Ali was fortunate enough to have been born some 100 years after Alf. In the 19th Century Alf’s mental deterioration was not ‘treated’ with compassion or even recognised but consigned him to die, in poor health and penniless, as a ‘lunatic’ in an ‘Asylum’.
He was 42 when he died at Winson Green Mental Hospital in 1895. His enduring friendship with Jack Sullivan aside upon his return from America Alf was presented with a replica belt on September 25th 1885 to replace his stolen one.