Britain’s Hardest Men Ever: Don’t Mess With These Fellas

Britain has produced some tough men over the years. Here’s our guide to five of the hardest men ever to come from these shores…

Paul Sykes: The Yorkshire Streetfighter

Born in Wakefield West Yorkshire in 1946, Paul Sykes was often referred to as the hardest man in Britain throughout much of the seventies and eighties. A heavyweight boxer, Paul Sykes was also an alcoholic, violent criminal and one of the most difficult prisoners ever to go through the British penal system.

A skilled and big hitting boxer, Paul Sykes fought professionally 10 times during the late seventies, culminating in a British title shot against John L Gardner, which he lost by TKO in the sixth round. It was on the street though that Sykes was at his best, and there weren’t many men with the guts to go toe-to-toe with him. A regular abuser of alcohol, one of his favourite habits was to walk into a pub and spit in someone’s pint and then steal it from them.

Classed as one of the UK’s most difficult prisoners, he spent over 20 years in prison, his offences ranging from petty robberies to violence against members of the public, prison and police officers. He was also well known to various police forces across the UK, including Leeds, Blackpool, Hull and Rotherham, as well as being known and respected by many ‘faces’ in London.

A complicated and unpredictable character, whilst in prison he wrote a much sought after memoir, Sweet Agony, and also earned a Bachelors degree from the Open University in Physical Sciences.

As tough and uncompromising as they come, Paul Sykes died in March 2007.

Bartley Gorman: The King of the Gypsies

Irish Traveller, Barley Gorman, was recognised as the UK’s undefeated bare-knuckle fighter, and was referred to as the King of the Gypsies. Reigning supreme between 1972 and 1992, he fought all comers and never ducked a challenge, even challenging the infamous London hard-men, Lenny Mclean and Roy Shaw, to fights, which, sadly, never materialised.

At 6 ft 1 and 15 stone, Bartley Gorman was a skilled boxer and big hitter with his ‘bull hammer’ right hand knocking many of his opponents clean out. In the murky and dangerous world of gypsy bareknuckle boxing, fights can take place anywhere, and Bartley fought down secluded lanes, bars, clubs, campsites, down a mineshaft, as well as at the famous Appleby Horse Fair.

Bartley Gorman died in 2002, aged 57. Friend to Gorman, and film director, Shane Meadows, even made a short documentary about him. It remains one of Meadow’s dreams to make a full length feature film about the eventful life of Barley Gorman – the King of the Gypsies.

Lenny Mclean: The Guvnor

Lenny Mclean was a man of many talents. As well as being a recognised hard man and unlicensed boxer, he was a criminal, author, weightlifter, actor, bodyguard, and businessman.

Born in the East End of London in 1949, he was recognised as one of the UK’s hardest men throughout the seventies and eighties. Stating that he was involved in 4,000 contests, he was well-known mainly in London, but his notoriety was widespread. Both respected and feared in the London underworld, Lenny Mclean was associated with a variety of well-known underworld figures, such as the Krays, Dave Courtney, and Ronnie Biggs, often in his role as bouncer at some of London’s most notorious nightclubs.

Making his name as an unlicensed boxer, Mclean’s fighting style was one of pure aggression. What he lacked in skill he made up for in sheer violence, and was a feared opponent. His most famous fights were with Roy Shaw, a former boxer and Broadmoor patient. Fighting each other three times, McClean lost just once to the smaller man.

Becoming an actor in later life, Lenny Mclean had roles in The Bill, Eastenders and most famously, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Lenny Mclean died in 1998, aged just 49.

Desmond ‘Dessie’ Noonan

UK Police

Manchester’s Noonan family are the most notorious crime family in the city, and Dessie was the most notorious of the lot. Suspected by Greater Manchester Police to be responsible for at least 25 unsolved murders in the city, he once boasted that he and his associates had ‘more guns than the police’.

Born in Manchester in 1959, by the late eighties, he controlled nearly all of the doors in Manchester. At well over 6 foot and powerfully built, Noonan was a menacing presence and his reputation as a viscous and tough street fighter meant that he was feared across the UK. As well as nightclub security, Noonan was involved in armed robberies, gun running and other criminal activities. His size and reputation meant that he was often asked to be an enforcer and debt collector.

As well as his criminal activities, Noonan was a stout anti-fascist, socialist and Irish republican. It is well known that Noonan ‘asked’ the BNP to leave Manchester and their attempts at starting up a branch quickly stopped.

Noonan was murdered in 2005, just days before the broadcast of a documentary about his family by the journalist, Donal MacIntyre. Drug dealer, Derek McDuffus, was charged with his murder and is serving life imprisonment. Click here to read the article from the Guardian.

Roy Shaw

Best remembered as a hard man and unlicensed boxer, Roy Shaw was also a criminal, author, real estate investor, and mental patient.

Born in Stepney in London, he was an acquaintance of the Krays from an early age. More of a ‘blagger’ than a gangster, Shaw was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment following his involvement in one the UK’s largest armoured truck robberies. One of the prison system’s most difficult ever inmates, he maintained that the ‘system could never beat him’. Because of his capacity for violence and his refusal to cooperate, he was sent to Broadmoor where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy to control his bad temper.

Released from prison aged 42, Roy Shaw started unlicensed boxing. He fought many times and beat a lot of top men, but it is his trilogy of fights with Lenny Mclean that he will be best remembered for. Shaw lost twice to McClean, but he was by far the older and smaller man, giving away several inches and stones.

Going legit in later life, he was an astute businessman who died a millionaire in 2012.