David Pearce: Immortal warrior
David Pearce died at the tragically young age of 41, but the former British and Welsh heavyweight champion remains a legend in his Newport hometown. Now a statue has been unveiled to inspire future generations...
The late Welsh heavyweight David Pearce was widely regarded as a British champion who never fulfilled his potential.
Now his family has ensured his name will be remembered by future generations in Pearce’s hometown of Newport.
Pearce’s nephew, Luke, commissioned a bronze statue of his uncle in 2014 and it was unveiled in the city centre in June.
“Newport City Council has been fully behind the initiative,” Luke told Boxing Monthly. “They realised it wasn’t just about David Pearce and the Pearce family, it’s about inspiring youngsters to achieve something.
“If two or three youngsters are able to make something of their lives or steer on the right track as a result, then we’ve achieved something massive.”
Luke, a decorated military officer who won services titles, said Pearce was an inspiration in his own life.
Pearce was born into a family steeped in boxing. His father, Wally, boxed in the army and in boxing booths, and six of the seven Pearce brothers boxed professionally.
Standing just over six feet and weighing around 196lbs, Pearce turned professional in 1978, shortly after his 19th birthday. His style was to go forward and look to land heavy blows. He won his first bout in 38 seconds. Within 11 months Pearce had compiled a 9-0 (6 KOs) record.
Pearce was referred to as a “real-life Rocky”, Luke said. “If you go to the Newport Transporter Bridge, there’s a painting of him and a written statement there to say he used to run up and down those stairs, but I don’t think he based his training on the Rocky movies.
“David used to run with weights on his ankles around the docks and the transporter steps. He also used to run at Belle Vue Park, in Newport which was very hilly.”
Pearce challenged Neville Meade for the Welsh heavyweight title in only his 10th fight but lost in two rounds.
Bouncing back with gusto, Pearce racked up three victories, before coming up against a man many had warned would be a step too far — future world light-heavyweight champion Dennis Andries.
“David was supposed to be fighting Stewart Lithgow, who then pulled out,” Luke said. “Around the same time, Andries found himself without an opponent, eight weeks into his training camp. So they decided to fight, but on the condition that David would come down in weight.
“David had to lose a lot of weight in a week to meet the [190lbs] limit,” Luke said. “Andries told him: ‘I’ve knocked your brother [Raymond] out and now I’m going to knock you out.’
“David was always nice and charming and said with a smile on his face: ‘OK. We’ll see. No problem.’”
Pearce won in the seventh round, one of only three fighters to stop the tough Andries.
Not long after, Pearce got the opportunity to spar with former British champion Joe Bugner at the Thomas A Becket gym in London. “They had a good session and David caught him in the ribs good and proper,” Pearce’s brother, Nigel, related.
Bugner said: ‘You’ve got a lot of balls!’ [referring to the body blow] but David more than held his own as Bugner tried his own onslaught. The fact is, David and Bugner were supposed to fight, but after that day it never materialised.”
Pearce became British heavyweight champion at 23, stopping his old nemesis Neville Meade in the ninth round. To this day he remains Newport, Gwent and Monmouthshire’s only British heavyweight champion.
Six months after becoming British champion, Pearce challenged Moroccan-born Frenchman Lucien Rodriguez for his European title on 30 March 1984. It was an interesting experience, as told by Luke, with the Pearce team spending a night sleeping on benches at the airport terminal in London before flying to France.
Pearce knocked down Rodriguez twice in the eighth round before losing the 12-round decision. The general consensus is that Pearce was clearly beaten but British reporters suggested Rodriguez had been given the benefit of at least one long count. (According to the website Welsh Warriors, the referee gave Rodriguez a “very, very slow” count on the first knockdown and an “extended” count when the Frenchman went down the second time in the eighth).
“Giving away height and reach, eight pounds in weight and a world in experience, David constantly marched forward,” Welsh boxing historian Gareth Jones wrote in his book 'The Boxers of Wales, Vol 5; Newport, the Gwent Valleys and Monmouthshire.': “The ring was the largest permissible and Lucien used it well, making his foe miss badly, while bringing blood from the Welshman’s nose,” Jones wrote.
An apparent slow count brought “angry protests” from Pearce’s then manager Burt McCarthy. “Lucien kept on the move until the safety of the bell,” Jones added. “David’s chance was gone.”
Despite the loss, Pearce’s stock rose. He was recognised by the WBA as a contender for their cruiserweight title. Ossie Ocasio had become the first WBA cruiser champion in 1982 and had defended the title twice. “I don’t want to disrespect Ocasio, as he was a great fighter, but David knocked him out in sparring,” Luke said. “David also sparred some other great fighters around the time such as Trevor Berbick and Lennox Lewis. Mind you, Lewis was a bit of a handful.
“We all knew that David was built for this division and would have had great success, but he was still a big threat to any heavyweight. At one point it was looking likely he was going to fight Frank Bruno. They’d fought on the same cards on a few occasions.”
Rarely tipping the scales at more than 200lbs, the (then) 190lbs cruiserweight division might have been perfect for Pearce. Unfortunately, his career was dealt a cruel blow when he failed a British Boxing Board brain scan. “That pretty much ended his career at the age of 24,” Luke said.
Pearce was granted a boxing licence in the US and it seemed that he might not only get the opportunity to resurrect his career but do so against big names. However, projected fights against former champion Leon Spinks and future champion Buster Douglas fell through.
There was talk of bouts on unlicensed shows before Pearce finally returned to the ring nearly seven years after the Rodriguez fight. On 10 December 1990 he met the much bigger Percell Davis, in Dearborn, Michigan, for what turned out to be a sorry affair, with Pearce stopped in the eighth round.
“He came back for the money,” Luke said. “He only had four days to train before he fought Davis.” Also, Pearce was outweighed by 55lbs. “It was ridiculous,” Luke said. “The fight should have never happened.”
Pearce never fought again. Shortly after his retirement he developed epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. Despite this, Pearce coached junior and seniors at Alway Amateur Boxing Club in Newport until his untimely death on 20 May 2000. He was only 41. Around 2,000 people attended his funeral at Stow Hill Cemetery in Newport.
“It’s crazy how David’s story was so unlucky, but so great.” Luke said. “He was Welsh and British heavyweight champion and should have won the European title. Another time, another place and he would have been in with a good chance of being cruiserweight champion of the world.
“But what he’s achieved in Newport stands head and shoulders above any belts. He died in 2000, but his spirit lives on in the area. I hope David will continue to inspire many others for decades to come.”