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Screenshot from the BBC Wales documentary Mavericks: Sports Lost Heroes: Bomber: Newport's Rocky

Documentary pays tribute to David Pearce – Newport’s Rocky

David Pearce came from a renewed South Wales boxing family. His dad boxed, and six of the seven Pearce siblings became professionals – but everyone could see David had a special talent. 

Bomber: Newport’s Rocky, the concluding part of the BBC Wales documentary series Mavericks: Sport’s Lost Heroes, did a good job of explaining Pearce’s humble origins on the tough streets of Pill in Newport.

Following his 1978 pro debut, which he won by a knockout in a matter of seconds, his dedication, determination and bravery soon had him marked out as a rising star of the UK boxing scene.

In September 1983, ‘The Bomber’ blitzed reigning British heavyweight champion Neville Meade in a blockbuster title fight which ended with Pearce’s fellow Welshman out for the count, held up only by the ropes.

Newport’s favourite son looked set on the path to stardom and world title challenges when he was given some devastating news.

While preparing to fight for the European title, a routine brain scan revealed an abnormality which was to ultimately end his career in the ring.

In the meantime, Pearce kept training and flew to France in 1984 to meet Lucien Rodriguez. He fought bravely but lost, having suffered a hand injury in the build-up and slept rough the night before the bout because no-one had booked him a hotel.

David Pearce’s statue on the banks of the River Usk

He then received confirmation that the British Boxing Board of Control were removing his licence – a decision he fought, getting ‘second’ opinions from no less than 14 consultants – but it was one he could not overturn.

As one member of his family said in the documentary: “He couldn’t let go, [boxing] was his life.”

Deprived of his livelihood, and having spent all his money on battling the board’s ban, Pearce fell into depression, and then began exhibiting the signs of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s presaged by that scan. He died in May 2000, aged 41, at his home in Newport. 

The Welsh boxer had 22 professional fights, winning 17 of those, with 13 knockouts, losing four and drawing one. More than 2,000 people came to say their last goodbyes on the day of his funeral.

His nephew Luke wanted to keep pay tribute to his uncle’s life and launched a campaign to pay for a bronze statue of ‘Newport’s Rocky’. It ended up raising £61,000, and the sculpture now stands by the river in the city. 

With vivid and touching testimonials from his family and friends, this emotional 30-minute programme reflects the emotion and passion that still surrounds Pearce’s name, and the impact he had in his community – an impact that keeps his memory alive.

Bomber: Newport’s Rocky is a true – and truly – inspirational story

If you like me, hadn’t heard of David Pearce, then watch Bomber: Newport’s Rocky – it’s a documentary about a kid from South Wales whose dream of being a top boxer ultimately ended in tragedy.

Pearce was a steelworker from the tough Newport neighbourhood of Pill when he set out to become world champion. A teak-tough amateur before turning pro, he challenged and beat fellow Welshman Neville Mead for the British heavyweight title at the age of 24.

In his moment of triumph, little did big-hearted ‘Bomber’ know that this would be as far as his plans to take on the world would progress. A brain scan subsequently revealed a congenital abnormality, and his boxing career was effectively over within the year. By the age of 41, he was dead.

It is left to his family to bring this beloved son of South Wales to life through their memories and stories, combined with some – at times – grainy footage from the 1970s and 80s of Pearce in the gym, out on training runs, being an polite interviewee, and as a hard-hitting warrior in the ring.

“David ‘Bomber’ Pearce fought for Newport and when he couldn’t fight no more Newport fought for him.”

Nathan Blake, narrator

This 30-minute documentary takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as it draws you into Pearce’s sad story. You feel happy for him as he KOs Mead with a devastating punch to claim the British crown, and you cannot help but feel angry and disappointed for the Welshman as his ambitions are cruelly dashed by the British Boxing Board of Control.

The board are not necessarily the villains of the piece, though, because it turns out they were right to take Pearce’s licence away. He was allowed to unsuccessfully challenge for the European heavyweight title before he was told to stop boxing, but his subsequent decent into mental illness – likely sparked by his brain condition – led to his untimely demise.

Where there were gaps in his story that could not be filled by vintage footage, the producers boxed clever by adding animated sequences to keep the story moving along, including one featuring Britain’s ‘most dangerous prisoner’ Charles Bronson.

The convicted armed robber and notoriously violent inmate became involved in Pearce’s tale when the people of Newport began raising money to erect a statue of their fallen hero in the city. Bronson got in touch from jail keen to donate some of his artwork to be auctioned for the campaign, describing Pearce as a “proper geezer”.

The efforts to honour Pearce with a bronze of him holding the British heavyweight belt aloft were successful, and give the documentary an uplifting conclusion as the statue is unveiled next to the River Usk.

As Cardiff-born narrator Nathan Blake says in the closing moments: “David ‘Bomber’ Pearce fought for Newport, and when he couldn’t fight no more Newport fought for him.”

It provides a poignant ending to Pearce’s story, and raises the possibility that this permanent reminder of his exploits may one day inspire another kid from Pill to step into the ring and seek to emulate this local idol.

Feature image of David ‘Bomber’ Pearce courtesy of Darren Wyn Rees via Wikimedia Commons Creative Attribution-Share-Alike International CC BY 4.0