Freddie Mills was one of the first sportsmen to be a celebrity, writes Toby Porter.
When he won the World Light-Heavyweight boxing championship in 1948, he was the first Briton to hold a title in 45 years.
He said of the sport: “The thrill of swapping punches, the publicity, the arclights, the spotlights, the fanfares, the slaps on the back, it’s a wonderful thing.
“It chases you halfway around the world, you meet a thousand and one people. “It’s a funny game. You shake hands with someone you have never met, punch the living daylights out of each other, then shake hands and are friends for the rest of your lives.”
Freddie was born in Bournemouth. As a boy he loved art but his family did not have money to send him to college.
He looked up to his brother Charlie, who was a boxer, and that was the next best thing.
Within months, he was touring the West Country in a boxing booth with owner Sam McKeown – who would lend him the circus rifle which eventually killed him.
The 16-year-old turned in 1937. Very quickly Freddie was winning five out of six bouts, and then the war started.
He was given regular leave and used it all to take fights, as he climbed the rankings.
Being a professional sportsman was good for morale.
Freddie and Chrissie met in 1941, and set up a home in Denmark Hill.
Chrissie had been married to Don McCorkindale – but it was an amicable split.
For their honeymoon, the couple went to see Don in South Africa.
Freddie’s first British title fight came in 1942 against title holder Len Harvey. The bout was scheduled to last 15 rounds – but he knocked him clean out of the ring.
Freddie was never “a stand back and defend” sort of boxer. He was a fighter.
Within days of coming back from the war, he had a world title fight against Gus Leznevich of the USA, who had been champion for five years.
Freddie was knocked down in the second round four times. But he fought back and probably won the third round.
His courage earned him a rematch three years later, in the White City Stadium.
But for years afterwards, he got headaches continuously. He admitted to friends that he thought he had mild brain damage from that world title fight – though he never told the authorities.
One of the men who helped organise that fight was Benny Huntman.
By now, Freddie was so famous he fought an exhibition match at Buckingham Palace – Prince Philip is thought to have been involved in organising it.
Freddie retired after losing the world title in 1950 – but was soon a host on the BBC’s flagship pop programme Six-Five Special with Pete Murray.
He was the subject of This is Your Life in 1961 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the foyer of Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre. He appeared in 12 films from 1958-65, including Carry On Constable and Carry On Regardless.
The ex-boxer opened a Chinese restaurant in Charing Cross Road, then a club, Freddie Mills Nite Spot.
The Kray twins used to visit.
Freddie was the man to be seen with. He was part of the entertainment industry. But the TV work dried up.
Don junior, Don McCorkindale’s son, said: “It rubbed him up the wrong way that he had to wait by the phone for his agent to call.” Murray said: “When you are at the top, you never have to buy lunch.
On the slide, you have to buy your own. “Some people can’t take it.”
Freddie was found dead from a single gunshot wound in Goslett Yard, Soho, on July 24, 1965 – a small cul-de-sac now towered over by the massive Tottenham Court Road Crossrail development.
The revelation about who may have killed the boxer came from Roger Huntman, who claims in a BBC documentary first broadcast on Wednesday that his father Benny had enabled the mafia, in the person of kingpin Meyer Lansky, to take over casinos in the West End.
In Murder in Soho: Who Killed Freddie Mills? Huntman claims that Freddie had threatened to go to the press about Benny’s links to the mafia if he did not lend the ex-boxer £2,500 to save his nightclub.
Huntman said: “I am 75 now. I didn’t want what happened to Freddie to happen to me.
This can happen if you tell out of court, out of school. I had to make sure the people involved were all dead. “Even the police from those days are dead.
The only information is from me. “I never had a call from the police. They couldn’t care less. They would not have wanted a big investigation.
“Let’s get the story out and help the family. I am not in denial anymore about my father. At least I have been able to help the family with the truth.
“My father was a boxing manager and promoter. He had a good name in the fight game. But what they didn’t know was what was going on with the mafia and my father.
“They used to take the cream off the takings. The mafia had moved in, aided by my father. All of a sudden, Freddie Mills turned up.
“I first met Freddie at my father’s house. He was coming round two or three times a month. They had known each other since the Lesnevich fight.
“Freddie came and said: “I need two-and-a-half grand, Benny, or I’m going under. “Freddie said ‘I know who these guys are, you are associating with. If you don’t give me the money, I am going to Fleet Street’.
“He put himself bang in it. He could have destroyed a multi-million pound deal. He wasn’t going to be allowed to get away with that.
“My father told me to give him the money on the 25th. He was over the moon. It was as if all his troubles had melted away.
“That night I was at the Big L club. At 4am, an Italian American came in. This guy whispered in my dad’s ear ‘Freddie’s gone’. I found out later it was Meyer Lansky. He had a smile on his face.
“If I had thought for a millisecond I could change events, I would have done. If I had known how serious it was between Freddie and my father, if I could have changed events, I would have done.”
Benny Huntman had a heart attack only a few months after the funeral and died.
Huntman offered to meet his family as part of the programme.
“The police didn’t want to know,” he told Freddie’s step-son Don McCorkindale in a face-to-face meeting. “They did nothing.”
Huntman met Mills’ stepson Don McCorkindale on camera.
McCorkindale said: “The family have never believed he killed himself – he was definitely murdered.
“[Huntman] is proposing that it is possible his family killed my father. “I find it difficult to swallow. Knowing the influence the mafia has, it could very possibly be true.”
Don recalled the moment he found Freddie dead.
“I went up to his lovely Citroen DS19 and I could see him sitting in the seat behind the passenger seat,” said Don. “I opened the door and hit him on the knee and said ‘Come on Fred. Time to get up. Then I saw there was congealed blood coming out of his eye. “It was as if the scene had been stage-managed.”
His wife Chrissie recalled: “I couldn’t get to him – there was something in the way.
I turned round and I screamed ‘It’s a gun – get the police. Get an ambulance.’”
Another former gangster interviewed for the programme was Eddie Richardson, who said: “If someone took a liberty, they got their comeuppance. “Freddie was a hero of mine. I think he committed suicide.
He had had enough, for whatever reason.”
His daughter Amanda Mills Burke said: “He suffered injuries but he knew he was born to box. “I remember the night before because we had begged to stay up to watch the Morecambe and Wise show as The Beatles were going to appear.
Freddie said let them stay up. He was singing and dancing with us and twisting, laughing and giggling, just being a daddy.
“He came in to say goodnight and said ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ “I remember saying ‘Don’t go tonight. Please stay.’ I am not saying I had a premonition but it is funny I should have said it that night.
“Not one person thought he would take his own life. He loved life. He was not a quitter. You do not get to be world champion and quit.
“For me there was no mystery. It is just a matter of who was responsible. “To come up with the verdict was wrong. I don’t know if the truth will ever come out. But I know the truth because it is staring you in the face. Freddie Mills was murdered.
“The stories affected my mother very deeply.”
Prof David Wingate was the resident medical officer at Middlesex Hospital between 1965 and 1968 and examined the body when Freddie was brought in.
He said: “His eye was open when he was shot. At the moment you squeeze the trigger, you would shut your eye. I think he was looking down the barrel of the gun.”
Crime writer Wensley Clarkson said: “Criminals ruled an entire area of London. Police taking bribes left, right and centre. His death was surrounded with rumour.
He was as famous as David Beckham. That made him naive. It made him vulnerable. He possibly didn’t pay protection money.
“Soho at that time was a village of vice and crime. “If you did not pay protection money, you could be in a lot of trouble. Some of the police were on the criminals’ pay roll.
“The investigation was sloppy from the outset. It is possible he had not paid protection money for a long time and an example was made of him.
“The Richardsons would not have cared about his reputation.
“The Krays were involved in club land. Boxing segwayed into criminality in many ways. Freddie possibly didn’t understand what he was dealing with.
“It was inevitable the Americans would get involved. They were a level above the criminals in the West End at the time. They had much more money to bribe their way into whatever premises they wanted.”
Dick Kirby, a former member of the Flying Squad and crime writer, said: “People did come forward and say I know who killed Freddie Mills.
“These matters can’t be sat on. They have to be properly investigated. “There was a lot of talk of the Krays being involved.
“Nipper Reid would have liked to look at it, but there was no evidence whatsoever either were involved.”
Freddie’s daughter Suzie Mills said: “I would rather have had him for 13 years than any other father.
My mother was angry about the verdict. She always felt it was murder.
“It’s unfortunate the final day takes up all of the story. One day of his life.”