In This Cell: Charles Bronson

By Ted Spoon on April 24, 2014
In This Cell: Charles Bronson
Reggie Kray, one half of the famous twins for organized crime, encouraged Charlie to fight.

In 1993, having taken a librarian hostage, his demands were thus: a helicopter, an inflatable doll, and a cup of tea…

“My journey has been 40 years of hopelessness. A fight I could never win. A self-inflicted painful trip through hell.”—Charles Bronson

It’s twenty-three hours in and one hour out. During that one he is escorted by four guards to the yard where he’s allowed to feel the breeze and lift weights. Helping his eyes with the light are tinted, circular glasses. No other inmate is in sight; this geezer doesn’t always play nicely. When time’s up the cuffs are on again and he’s marched back into a 12-foot by 6-foot cell. That 210-pound physique fills most of it. Aside from two visitors per month the only thing that breaks the silence is to receive food and to be marched outside, same time tomorrow. Drawing, responding to hundreds of letters, and smashing out push-ups has proven the best therapy for 40 years imprisonment, much of which has passed in solitary. Life, if not hopeless, is punishing. 

I can’t pretend to relate, but I do know that it serves to mould a certain type of person, one made of something similar to the bars that hold them. I also know that, outside of his ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’ tag, Charles Bronson has a very rich (very bloody) boxing history. 

Curious to know a few details behind the reputation, I mailed the man himself. At sixty-one, and with no idea about his state of mind, expectations were low on a reply. Three months later and a letter came through my door that wasn’t a message from Jesus or an outstanding phone bill. The writing style was to the point. Brief sentences. Is this some foreigner? Then the writing style stood out, just as I was making out the answer to my question, “What is your best punch?”

“Right Hook
(Full weight behind it)
I call it The Bone Cruncher”

Trim for his weight, and owner of fists like cinder blocks, it probably stings a bit. 

The man who is accustomed to “steaming into a dozen guards” describes his styles as “unpredictable…explosive.” Rocky Marciano is the historical reference. Though no hero comes to mind (“I respect all fighters”), Charlie affectionately recalls his dad, “Smoking” Joe Peterson. Apparently, Joe was a Royal Navy champion who sparred with the great Randy Turpin. Fighting is indeed part of Charlie’s heritage.

One time Michael Peterson landed in a boxing gym as a youth. Basic fundamentals were taught amidst that ongoing soundtrack of rope cuffing the floor and rustling chains. In a few years it would be replaced with the indecent hollering of London’s East End as Charlie tried his hand at bare-knuckle boxing. Already known to have a wild side, Charlie’s opponent further lessened his respect for rules; his first blow was a kick to the bollocks. 

A sketchy life continued, leading to 1974 where Charlie decided on armed robbery. £26 was a measly sum for seven years behind bars. This sentence would be extended for violence, including an awful, drug-induced stay at Broadmoor Special Hospital. After being transferred across prisons like a pinball, thirty-five-year-old Charlie was given a shot at freedom in the winter of 1987. Much of these sixty-nine days would be dedicated to scrapping. 

Already a fitness fanatic of many years, Charlie essentially lived like a fighter; morning runs, eating well and sparring at the gym. There was no smoking or drug abuse (which he hates). He’d probably get on with Bernard Hopkins, though would almost certainly make Bernard’s flag-shredding antics look girly if allowed into the professional ranks.

Reggie Kray, one half of the famous twins for organized crime, encouraged Charlie to fight. Local promoter Paul Edmonds was soon part of the picture and changed Michael Peterson to Charles Bronson. Jack Palance was preferred. Bare-knuckle and gloved fights were on the way. Charlie has lost count of the street fights, but he claims to have had about 12 with bare fists and six with the gloves. A little footage is available of one of these gloved fights and clearly depicts his “steaming in” style. A looping right drops the opponent.

Many of these fights were over quickly. In a ten- to twelve-rounder you would have to teach him pace, getting him to open up at the right times in between blocking and slipping. Manny Steward would be a safe bet to get the most out of someone like Bronson; a trainer who didn’t interfere too much with your natural quirks and fine-tuned them. The finished product would probably be easier to hit than the Rock, but with a jagged rhythm. Difficult to read.

As we all know, strength of mind is what kept Rocky undefeated, and that is where Charlie may be in a league of his own. No ordinary man will survive 40 years of chewing over his bad decisions, losing friends, plus the mental and physical torture of a heavy-handed incarceration. He’s cried before, when his wife filed for divorce, when reunited with his parents, he’s human, though a mean streak has survived at an age when retired boxers claim “I was a different person back then.” 

“One man in a ring for me is like a day out to the seaside.”

During his late ‘80s release, Charlie was chomping at the bit to get The Guv’nor into the unlicensed ring. Lenny Mclean, renowned hard-man of England, was contacted for a dust up with Britain’s undisputed wild man, but it was a no go. At around 6’3” and a rock solid 260 lbs., Mclean would have presented a serious obstacle for Bronson, though his reputation almost certainly exceeds his ability, having lost fights he denied.

Charlie’s toughest ever fight was not with a man but an 11-stone Rottweiler. Money was the prime motivation in challenging Mclean, and taking on this powerful animal for the entertainment of a blood-thirsty assembly would make him £10,000 better off. With his bare hands he killed the huge dog. He wasn’t proud of it.

A second robbery, which produced a ring for girlfriend Alison, had Charlie apprehended during a morning jog on January 7, 1988. His second and latest shot at freedom came in November ’92. Roughly two months passed in a world where VHS tapes were the bees’ knees and florescent clothing was acceptable. Intent to rob dealt him another eight years. Bizarre and violent instances have stretched that sentence out of sight.

After a number of episodes that made for great reading, Charlie was approached by a slender actor and had a good laugh. When he returned with added bulk, Charlie was eager to see the flick.

Tom Hardy went on to provide a stellar performance as the infamous prisoner in the 2008 film, Bronson. In 2011 Charlie finally got to see the film about his life, of which he approved, though he didn’t agree with the portrayed distance between himself and his father.

In 2013 a petition containing 10,000 signatures was sent to 10 Downing Street, asking for Bronson’s release. I’m not sure if they’ll ever truly consider it, and who knows if Charlie would behave himself, but the irrefutable truth is that both murders and sex offenders walk the street having done ‘their time.’

Some perceive a narcissistic thug while the many who call for his release may not be so chummy were they to irritate him in the flesh. It’s difficult to say, but that’s part of the charm. In this era of Z-list celebrities informing us of their trivial lives, Bronson ticks the most essential of all boxes. He is interesting. 

His workout manual Solitary Fitness is a great, no nonsense guide to get in shape. It’s one of ten books and he is also an accomplished artist. Themes of torment and bedlam are penciled in a gritty, often gruesome manner. And if all you see are the juvenile scribbles of a madman then you must at least appreciate the fact these works are rooted in pain, worlds apart from the snobs who mince around galleries and feign depth. 

He is also very funny.

In 1993, having taken a librarian hostage, his demands were thus: a helicopter, an inflatable doll, and a cup of tea. Three years on and he did the same to two Iraqi inmates for not apologizing after bumping into him at the canteen. Assaulted with a tray in his cell, they didn’t know what to expect, and they were right not to. Charlie then ordered them to tickle his feet and call him “General.”

A question I didn’t ask but he answered anyway.

“The best punch I ever threw was back in 1971. I chinned a cow, it buckled, and fell. I did it for a bet. We was coming out of a country pub. Cow in a field. And Bang. History made again. We eat them…so why not chin them!?”

If Charlie is again blessed with that opportunity to escape his cage and start anew, he wants to pick up where he left off with the fight game (indeed a game to him), and pack somewhere to the rafters. He hasn’t forgotten the name Richy “Crazy Horse” Horsley, another one of those tough guys from yesteryear who claims he would do Charlie in one round.

“I’ll pay his taxi to hospital. Bloody idiot.”

Most figure Charlie will see out the rest of his days where he has spent most of them. That won’t stop him from connecting with the public, making headlines, though if this is how it must be then you have to question prison as a corrective facility. On the flipside, if Charlie is indeed an untameable force, then there is something beautiful in that; a tiger who always goes for the ring-master’s throat. 

It’s not an act to follow but there’s a strength to admire, and we all draw from different places. There have been times in my own journey when it would have been more appropriate, perhaps with a cockney accent, to have blurted “Shat it you cant!” instead of letting personal gripes fester. I very well may, to reshape an Oscar Wilde line, write about the poetry I dare not live. It’s not a crime, but it’s a defect that will vanish every time I think Charles Bronson.     

Charlie’s real motivation for freedom may run deeper than to obtain something he has sacrificed in the past. 

“(If) only to show the penal system never crushed me.”

My hunch is that it never will.

Deep within a coffin of brick and steel, one inmate breathes hope into his lungs. He exhales and hits the deck. 

Push-ups are being smashed out as I write.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. NYIrish 08:03pm, 04/29/2014

    He’s right where he needs to be.

  2. Eric 03:21pm, 04/25/2014

    Never been to prison, but I think a great deal of what we hear about prison anal rape could be exaggerated a tad, but it does exist. One thing that the world’s most beloved terrorist, Nelson Mandela, actually got right, was saying that you could judge a nation by its prisons. For the people who run these institutions, and the prison guards who are “supposed” to be caretakers for the inmates, to allow, or even encourage this sort of behavior to take place, speaks volumes about how sick our society has become. Not everyone in prison is a child molestor, rapist, or murderer, so turning a blind eye to prison rape, or making jokes about it, is pretty sick. A good portion of the prison guards are probably slugs that are too lazy or incompetent to hold down a real job, or some sick freak on a power trip. Sounds like a lot of politicians have the same hangups.

  3. The Tache 12:23pm, 04/25/2014

    I think Irish’s comments are more a indictment of the American penal system than an indication of any one man’s spirit or toughness. Strange really, you would’ve thought the country with the highest prison population rate would be the best at it. But I guess that would intefere with the profits of the private companies that run them. Join the Nazis or get raped, what a choice!!

  4. Eric 08:33am, 04/25/2014

    This guy certainly isn’t a choir boy, but he’s no Charles Manson either. This guy was definitely born centuries too late, and would’ve fit much better in a primitive society. Sounds like he has difficulty taking orders and abuse from prison guards (many of whom are bigger scumbags than the prisoners they are supposed to be guarding) and other inmates. While armed robbery isn’t a victimless crime, it isn’t murder or rape either. Maybe all them fellows that Charlie threw a beating to had it coming. Charlie and another self proclaimed tough guy, Chuck Zito, are about the same age and size, why not match the two Chucks in a MMA bout. James Scott used to box out of prison, so why not Charlie?

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:24am, 04/25/2014

    Any white American prisoner unless “affiliated” and in a prison with a very strong Aryan Brotherhood presence (usually away from the larger population centers) is at the mercy of the “prison gangs of color”....no matter how hardcore they may be. If they fight back, they will be jumped by however many it takes to get the job done…..and yes the “winners” will have access to Miss “Browneye”.

  6. Eric 08:11am, 04/25/2014

    A 154lb rottweiler. Damn, that thing must have been fed PEDs while training for Charlie.

  7. Nick D 08:00am, 04/25/2014

    Irish Frankie- you obviously know nothing about Bronson. His will is unbreakable and he does not yield to anyone.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:46am, 04/25/2014

    Alec Baldwin, who hates Gays just a teeny bit too much…..kinda makes you wonder…. was quoted as saying that the best actors are in fact mimics….I say that Tom Hardy and Gary Oldham prove his point.

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:38am, 04/25/2014

    The inmates (beasts) who actually run the major prisons in America would have him wearing mascara and eye makeup in short order….if he was in the general population…..his only refuge would be Administrative Segregation where he could continue his act unmolested.

  10. Nick D 02:45am, 04/25/2014

    Great article., although I would have preferred a picture of the REAL Bronson instead of Tom Hardy. Hopefully Charlie does not take offence to you mentioning him crying, haha.

  11. Matt McGrain 12:08am, 04/25/2014

    “One man in a ring for me is like a day out to the seaside.”  What a line.  This was a nice surprise, Spoony.

  12. Clarence George 07:04pm, 04/24/2014

    Is Bronson serving a whole-life tariff, never to be released?  I know that’s true of others, such as Ian Brady, Patrick Mackay, and Raymond Morris (who died last month).

  13. Eric 06:21pm, 04/24/2014

    I read Charlie’s book, “Solitary Fitness” a few months ago. The guy really loves his press-ups aka push-ups, and he’s performed 118 push-ups in 60 seconds, done 1,727 pushups in one hour, and also performed 1,790 situps in an hour. Remember reading about Ron Lyle being able to perform 1,000 push-ups in an hour, and thinking that was an awesome display of muscular strength/endurance, but this guy puts that to shame. Mr. Bronson also has a chapter devoted to helping the reader develop a punch strong enough to knockout a cow, and claims to have punched a hole through bullet proof glass, by using his “Cow Punch.” Don’t know about that one or the chapter devoted to making one’s “member” bigger, Charlie might be yanking the reader’s chain with those two chapters. Another British street fighter was Roy Shaw, who if I’m not mistaken had a go at it with one-time title contender Ron Stander in a boxing bout.

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