1950s featherweight rivals Bonnici and Skinkiss tells us about boxing in a different era
“The Championship of Malta” may seem an unlikely tagline for a fight staged on a patch of wasteland in London’s East End between a Mancunian and a Cockney. Nevertheless, that was the description a Boxing News writer used in 1953 when looking back on a bout held the previous year at Mile End Arena between featherweight prospects Stan Skinkiss and Sammy Bonnici. Although the championship talk was hyperbole, both did have links to Malta, which was then a British colony.
Skinkiss had been born in Bury in 1931 and two years later moved to Malta where his father, a British soldier, had been posted. The family lived there for a decade, leaving the war-torn country in 1943. They then spent four years in South Africa, but returned to Britain and settled in Manchester in 1947. Skinkiss joined the Lily Lane Boxing Club soon after. He won Youth titles three years running, and in 1950 won the Northern Counties featherweight crown. After losing in the 1950 ABA semis to that year’s champion Peter Brander, Stan decided to switch codes.
Skinkiss [pictured above] turned over in March 1951, under Jack Bates, and had 20 fights in his first year as a pro, winning 15, losing three and drawing two against solid opposition. He really shot to prominence in his second London contest when he KO’d Sidcup’s Charlie Tucker in three at West Ham Baths before a live TV audience in February 1952. “The following morning his name was on every fight fan’s lips,” remembered BN’s Ron Olver. However, at around this time Stan lost to top contenders Teddy Peckham, Johnny Butterworth and Freddie King. It says much for the competitiveness of the era – and the focus on learning rather than preserving unbeaten records – that he was still deemed a decent prospect.
Bonnici, on the other hand, had been born in Malta’s capital, Valletta, in 1930 and came to Britain as a child, the family settling in Stepney, east London. His first taste of boxing was during national service, and he reached the final of the 1950 Army championship. He turned pro with Jim Pettengell in July 1951 and had 16 bouts in his first year, starting with mixed success but finding his form in early 1952 with wins over good men like Jackie Turpin, Johnny Molloy and Freddie Hicks.
Boxing News devoted almost a full page to the Bonnici vs Skinkiss eight-rounder held on July 22, 1952, our reporter writing colourfully: “On a night that was hot and sultry enough for Spain, the shirt-sleeved tieless crowd sweated it out and oohed and aahed and cheered as fervently as Spaniards ever lauded the skill and science of a champion bullfighter.”
Bonnici was the matador and Skinkiss the bull. From the start, the Londoner put on a boxing masterclass as the Manchester man relentlessly bored in, knowing from the halfway stage that he needed a knockout. In the final round he had Sammy in trouble, but the clever Stepney lad stayed on his feet to receive the verdict.
Bonnici cemented his superiority by beating Skinkiss again four months later. After that Stan’s career hit a downward trajectory. Sammy, though, continued to impress, beating top-notchers such as Teddy Peckham, Allan Tanner, Boswell St Louis, South African champ Alby Tissong and British title challengers Dai Davies and Bobby Boland. But Bonnici must have felt like he was treading water. Although a British citizen, he could not box for a British title because he’d been born overseas. Sammy spent the last two years of his career in Australia. He liked the place so much, he stayed there and married an Australian.
“Being a southpaw and a counterpuncher,” reflected Ron Olver, “Sammy wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea at the box office. But his record shows that he beat some of the best. One wonders what might have happened had the rules permitted him to fight for a British title.”