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Lenny McLean: Why ‘The Guv’nor’ Was The Toughest Man in Britain

A lot of us think that we’re tough. And by that I mean tough in a classic sense. Guys that have a hard upbringing, face almost unbelievable odds throughout their lives, always fighting back. Sometimes losing, sometimes winning, but always fighting. Maybe a lot of us have been in a brawl or two. Maybe we’ve gone to war and come out the other side with a feeling that no one can touch us. A feeling that we’re invincible. The fact is, very few of us are actually street tough like Lenny McLean. The things that one has to experience in order to gain a wide reputation of being tough are vast, almost unattainable these days. In passing conversation it’s rare that a man is described as tough anymore.

Strong, yes. Badass, yes. But rarely tough. 

Has that generation passed us by? Probably not, but tough guys are becoming more rare by the minute. At Skillset, we celebrate these men that have faced insurmountable challenges and become modern legends. Men like Lenny Mclean.

Lauded by many as the “Toughest Man in Britain,” Lenny McClean, without question, was as hard as nails. The 2016 documentary entitled “The Guv’nor: The Incredible True Story of Lenny McLean,” profiles McLean as both warrior and guardian. He’s vicious and forgiving, funny, calculating, and capable of extraordinary, immediate violence. The juxtaposition of these disparate traits combined to build a formidable human being. However, one common thread permeates the film: violence. It is that violence that creates an unflinching profile of a complex man. 

Lenny McClean was raised in the East End of London in the years following World War II. It was a gritty, bleak landscape of factories, poverty and a strong sense of community. Neighbors assisted neighbors in the absence of wealth. After the death of McLean’s father when Lenny was only 4, a viciously abusive stepfather Jim Irwin turned on the young boy and his four siblings. 

“He broke my legs when I was five and broke my jaw when I was six. When I was seven, he broke all my ribs. He bashed me right about until I was 12,” McClean explained.

Sometimes the abuse was mental, and sometimes it involved belts, but it always involved fists. The end result of the abuse was a welling hate that grew inside the young lad. At one point, McClean’s uncle Jimmy Spinks, the local tough guy and enforcer for the neighborhood bookies, had had enough. Jimmy decided to pay a visit to Irwin. After receiving a vicious beating at the hands of Spinks for the pain he was inflicting on his family, Irwin disappeared for several years. 

Spinks immediately became the father figure to Lenny during the 50s and 60s. This was a time when men fought men with fists to settle disputes. McClean’s propensity for fighting was evident early on. He took on local bullies, beating them senseless at the age of nine.

Under the wing of Spinks, McLean was exposed even more fully to the darker sides of London’s underworld. 

By the time he was 15 McClean was in and out of the judicial system; this forged him into the physically imposing man for which he would become infamous. At his peak, McLean was 6’2” and 280 lbs. of rock solid muscle. 

Married at nineteen, McClean had his world rocked when his mother died suddenly two years later. As a descent into drinking muddled rational thought, the fire within Lenny grew hotter and the violence more prevalent. He became known for frequenting pubs and causing havoc with anyone that passed into his field of view.  

Jamie McClean recounts a story in “The Guv’nor” where Lenny, hammered after a day at the pub, fought a man named Jimmy Briggs over a dispute with a girl.

After breaking both of his hands on Brigg’s face, McClean used his teeth to bite through Brigg’s windpipe, effectively killing him on the street.

Briggs would survive after surgery, and McClean narrowly avoided prison. 

McClean did not drink after that incident, but his work in the pubs was far from over. Translating his reputation into a money making venture as a bouncer, McClean effectively ran security at many of the East End pubs. Naturally, he quickly became friends with the East End underworld element, acting as an enforcer in several circles. That work always comes with a price, and McClean found himself on the wrong end of a shotgun one evening while manning the door of a pub. While shot in the leg, he chased down the motorcycle-riding assailants nearly catching them. He then hailed a cab to the hospital where he walked himself into the emergency room. 

At 26, McClean entered the world of bare knuckle fighting.

While most of us immediately think of the Guy Ritchie film “Snatch,” where Brad Pitt as the Pikey flourishes as a calculating, bare-knuckle boxing champion, McClean lived it. 

Unlicensed boxing matches became a favorite pastime in 1970s London, and by the time he finished his tour, McClean had somewhere north of 2,000 fights (some say 4,000) under his belt, both in and out of the ring. Let that sink in for a minute. Two. Thousand. Fights. Not your modern rules, padded gloves and ring-girls type fights. Street fights. The kind that leave you scarred internally and externally.

McClean was a champion and now he was making money doing what he loved: hitting other people. 

Roy Shaw, the self-anointed “Guv’nor” of London was a pro fighter that spent his adult years in prison. Upon his release, he became an underworld enforcer and unlicensed boxing powerhouse. His reputation for being a psychopath apparently had no ill effect on his career. In fact, most likely enhanced it. That made Shaw a perfect target in the eyes of the fearless McLean, and it was only a matter of time before the 28-year-old would battle Shaw. 

Losing his first fight to Shaw due to an obvious lack of conditioning, McLean quickly arranged a rematch. Training in a makeshift neighborhood “camp” that would make Rocky Balboa’s early days look posh, McLean made sure that in late 1978 the two would meet again in front of several thousand East Enders. 

On that night, McLean systematically destroyed his opponent, punching him so hard in the second round he knocked him out of the ring, disqualifying Shaw.

A third match was scheduled to bring these two powerhouses together yet again. 

Under the tutelage of Freddy Hill, McLean developed an understanding of how to truly box, slip, counterpunch, and dismantle a foe, rather than just use brute force to win. The footage that Jamie McLean assembled from these training days gives an amazing insight into the focus that his father had to train seriously and become a legend. 

By the night of the fight, there were 30,000 people in attendance, a huge crowd, even by today’s standards. This was not just a fight for the fans, this was a personal feud — two men that hated each other, meeting at the peak of their fitness to see who would be the better warrior.

Lenny McLean’s skill as a boxer was now evident and the controlled thunder that he unleashed on Shaw was glorious.

The years of abuse by his stepfather, the countless bar brawls, the drinking, the redemption, the training, all culminated in a fury from McLean that Shaw was powerless to stop. As a nearly unconscious Shaw was helped to his feet, Mclean could be heard shouting from the ring, “I’m the Guv’nor!”

The nickname stuck for the rest of his life. 

During the 1980s McLean’s career as an unlicensed professional boxer flourished. Being able to provide for his family gave McLean a rare opportunity to show his more tender side, and we get glimpses into the quiet times. As his boxing career wound down, McLean again returned to bouncing at pubs, this time with an even more notorious reputation.

He would often say, “Treat kindness with kindness, but treat violence with violence.”

Simple and effective. Despite his storied past, he was constantly being put to the test at the clubs, often against assailants with knives. Time and again he would prevail. 

Bouncing, however, is not the means to a typical retirement and McLean’s particular talents led him to moonlight as a debt collector for organized crime families like the Kray Twins. 

While managing the door at the Hippodrome Casino in London’s West End in the early 90’s, McLean laid fists to an exceptionally unruly patron. He escorted him outside with a broken jaw.

The next morning, he was informed that the customer had died and within a few days, McLean was arrested for murder.

Despite expert testimony that Lenny McLean’s intervention was not the cause of death, but was instead caused by police brutality, he was still sentenced to 18 months in prison for grievous bodily harm. The effects of the incident changed the fearsome man.  

Leaving the world of nightclub bouncing behind him, a segue into writing in the 1990s helped McLean tell his story to a much wider audience. However, finding a publisher proved to be tougher than any fight in the previous 30 years.

Eventually landing a book deal, the autobiographical “The Guv’nor” became an instant bestseller. 

This new-found fame launched an acting career for the bare-knuckle pugilist, which nearly always typecast him in the role of enforcer and street tough, an identity he relished. 

This is where I remember first seeing McLean, in the role of Barry the Baptist in Guy Ritchie’s 1998 film “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” a comically dark, twisted tale of East London’s underground. As “Lock, Stock” was slated to rise to the top of the box office, Lenny McLean’s book shot to the top of the bestseller’s list. The one time bouncer, now celebrity, was at the top of his game. 

Cancer finally defeated Leonard John Frederick McLean in 1998 at the age of 49, only weeks before the release of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.” 

“The Guv’nor” is an astonishing film that looks into what creates evil and violence in a human being trying desperately to be a father to his children. It is an exploration of what drives us to the darker parts of our nature.

How a life without regret can be lived and exploited to one’s own benefit.

It also reveals other issues in the man’s character that cause the viewer to empathize, sympathize, and come to some level of understanding about the struggles of a man coping with his hidden vulnerabilities while portraying a larger-than-life warrior. 

Jamie McClean’s reflections on his own upbringing, his struggles with violence and his time in prison for fighting, round out the film leaving the viewer with questions about father/son relationships. Are we are able to control the monster within each of us. It takes a tough man to tackle these questions, and the younger McLean certainly lives up to the name he bears. 

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