Book review: Undefeated - Terry Marsh

Sporting autobiographies are two a penny. Henry Cooper has written three at the last count. George Best has written more than he has had livers – and that is saying something!

Submitted by Steven. on November 18, 2005

It is perhaps because there are so many, that the good one’s actually stand out. “Undefeated” stands alone, not merely for its honesty, but the range of experiences it shares with the reader.

Still Undefeated
Undefeated – My Story by Terry Marsh (Self-published, £20) order from

From his birth in east London in 1958, until 1991 (when the books narrative ends) Terry Marsh fitted in more than many people manage in a lifetime. A career in the Royal Marine Commandos, life as a fireman, an amateur and then professional boxer, media celebrity, a remand prisoner and defendant at the Old Bailey, all are relayed to the reader in an easy-going, self deprecating manner. At times it actually sounds easy!

Marsh touches on his working class upbringing in Stepney, where his parents cared for his disabled older brother in difficult surroundings. Like many Londoners of their era they took the opportunity to move to better surroundings in Essex, but this is no clichéd tale of East End boy made good, indeed he is at pains to point out that despite living in Stepney for 48 years his dad appears to be the only person there never to have met the Kray Twins!

Joining the Royal Marines whilst still a teenager, Marsh gives an interesting insight into the selection, training and life of a Royal Marine. It is unlikely to be one used for promotional purposes by the Marines recruitment officers. A picture easily emerges of officers who are indifferent or even callous to those in their charge, whilst Marines try, collectively, to get through a recruitment process that is designed to separate them into competing, atomised individuals. Whilst the Marines would no doubt claim the end justifies the means, a slightly unpleasant picture emerges, which is amplified by the pages describing Marsh’s service in Northern Ireland, in the republican stronghold of South Armagh. Supposedly fighting the IRA, Marines instead sit about bored, or carry out tedious searches designed to do little more than harass and provoke Catholic residents. They don’t put this in the adverts.

Despite all this, Marsh set his heart on joining the Special Boat Service, before coming out of the military intending to improve his education. Instead he switched from amateur to professional boxing, embarking on a career that would give him British, Europe and World honours. Unusually he did much of this whilst maintaining a day job – that of a fireman. It says much about the poor pay that firemen receive that this job is described as merely paying the bills, whilst the money to actually “live” came from boxing.

As a boxer, Marsh was skilful rather than explosive in the ring. His autobiography rather understates his abilities, and whilst some personalities emerge from what was a very good era for British boxing (Nigel Benn, or promoters the Maloney brothers) they are sketches rather than detailed portraits. Having become World Light Welterweight Champion by beating the American Joe Manley, a new life opened – that of the media celebrity. What happened next is not unique in boxing - a dispute with a smooth talking, somewhat slippery manager, followed by financial difficulties and a feeling of a loss of control. Here some humour still emerges – in his first title defence Marsh was aghast when “God Save the Queen” was played, and deliberately jogged on the spot rather than standing stiff as a statue. Despite a nasty cut, he did what he set out to do – to make one successful defence as World Champion.

Going Down?
By now Terry Marsh’s legal dispute with his manager, Frank Warren was getting ever more complicated, heading towards the libel courts, and attempts at becoming a fight promoter himself had got off to a slow start. Family and health problems (his wife Jacqui is portrayed as a sort of Footballers Wives character throughout the book) clearly did not help his situation.

When Warren was shot and seriously injured in Stratford in 1989, Marsh was not originally a suspect, although Warren had recently brought libel proceedings against him. His subsequent arrest, and time spent in prison on remand are described in detail.

One of the ways you can always tell the police have little or no case against a defendant is when a central plank of the prosecution is the testimony of a fellow prisoner. Time after time cases have centred not on evidence collected by the police before or shortly after arrest, but instead on evidence dubiously obtained from within the prison system. Sometimes we are expected to believe a defendant who never agreed to say a single word to the police whilst being questioned, gets straight to prison, finds the biggest scumbag in the whole jail and immediately starts bragging to him about what he has supposedly done. Such was the case with Terry Marsh.

Life, outside of the police mindset, is simply not like that.

Fighting back
Remanded in custody charged with attempted murder, Marsh spent time in three London prisons, spending time on the block on each. The banality and sheer stupidity of prison life, and in particular prison officers, has rarely been detailed with such gusto. Viewing prisoners who meekly do as they are told as collaborators, Marsh quickly became a marked man as far as the authorities were concerned. This resistance inspired other prisoners – in one of the most exciting narratives Marsh stands his ground with a group of screws in Wormwood Scrubs. His offence? Refusing to tuck his shirt in. Surrounded by more and more officers, Marsh was resigned to a beating until a fellow prisoner urged him to stand his ground – the screws were losing their nerve. He walked through their lines untouched, to pats on the back from his fellow inmates.

This was a testing time for those running Britain’s prisons – the Strangeways riot and poor industrial relations between the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Service stretched the authorities in a way they had rarely been tested before. Of these “disputes”, Marsh is scathing “Double their money and they will be willing to have six to a cell. It was the first industrial dispute where I have had no sympathy for the union”. Interestingly he is far from scathing when describing the IRA prisoners he met in HMP Brixton, with whom he played many hours of scrabble. His life had turned full circle.

Fighting Dirty
That the police were willing to fight dirty to convict Marsh is clear from several unexplained events, be it curious letters sent to Marsh whilst he was in jail, to people approaching members of his family whilst he was in custody, asking if they could obtain access to firearms. Marsh’s wife was “looked after” by female police officers whose brief even extended to do her shopping for her.

The vultures of the tabloid media also circled, desperate for the big story – about Terry Marsh if he was convicted, from Terry Marsh if he was found not guilty. One female journalist even hinted she wanted a relationship with Marsh on his release, to try and secure his story.

Marsh does not overly dwell on his dramatic acquittal at the Old Bailey, and shows little triumph that his eventual libel action against Frank Warren went ahead, resulting in what could be best described as a narrow points victory. Instead, the impression is left of a man who appreciated the simple things in life all the more for nearly losing them.

The more things change…
“Undefeated” ends, rather abruptly, in 1991. As such it is a snapshot of a life, and a world that has changed. Or has it?
Instead of being unpopular in Northern Ireland, the Royal Marines are unpopular in Afghanistan and Iraq. The prison service has strengthened its control over prisons, some of which are now privatised, but the problems of hard drugs and overcrowding inside are worse than ever. Solidarity amongst prisoners is however, sadly, well below the levels that it was in the early 1990s.

Boxing is continuously referred to as being a sport down in the dumps, yet it continues to provide an excellent living for a few, and a harsher life for many. People said much the same 14 years ago. And this year an unbeaten World Light Welterweight champion has been involved in an increasingly bitter dispute with his manager. For Terry Marsh, substitute Ricky Hatton. For Frank Warren, substitute….. Frank Warren!

As a book, it is possible to find faults with “Undefeated”. Boxing fans may have preferred more detail about some of the fight characters Marsh undoubtedly met, whilst those expecting tales of celebrity drug taking and partying will be disappointed – when Marsh succeeded in getting a date with Miss Isle of Man, he was horrified to turn up and find she had brought her boyfriend with her! Although the issues Terry Marsh faced with epilepsy are mentioned, the reader is not informed if these problems persist today.

Given the book trades increasing dominance by a few big publishers, and a decreasing number of book stores, self-published titles like this, which have not kissed the hand of the safe, corporate chains are to be applauded. That however is not the reason to buy “Undefeated” – buy it because you will laugh hard, you will wonder, and most of all you will learn something – about sport, about politics and about life.