Richard “Shrimpy” Clarke’s name is synonymous with boxing in Jamaica.
A natural flyweight, he was active as a professional boxer between 1981 and 1996, retiring with a record of 27-6 — seven of those wins coming by way of knockout.
Early on Shrimpy developed a repertoire full of the gloves-down-chin-out taunts, off-hand wind-ups, and Ali shuffles that his hero Sugar Ray Leonard was famous for. As an amateur he frequently suffered lost points for the flamboyant displays, but as a professional the style garnered him the notorious honorific, “The Sugar Ray of JA.” More than a simple showman, however, hand speed and intricate footwork formed the substance behind the flash, and I suspect that even if he didn’t look like Ray Leonard’s 112-pound twin, the name still would’ve stuck.
Beginning in 1986 with his fourth-round knockout of the Australian Wayne Mulholland to capture the Commonwealth flyweight title (after which he was famously hoisted up in the air by then–WBC heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick), Shrimpy won a series of title bouts throughout the late eighties culminating in a hard-earned WBC number one contender status by the end of the decade. His shot at the world flyweight championship came on September 7, 1990, against Thailand native Sot Chitalada at the National Arena in Kingston. The Jamaican government went to great lengths for the opportunity to play host, and, in the months leading up to the fight, Shrimpy’s camp even brought in veteran trainer Larry Kent (who had worked with a long list of champions, including Sugar Ray Robinson — the original “Sugar” and, to many, the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in history) to work alongside his longtime coach Fitzroy Guisseppi. The hype surrounding the fight was tremendous, and though Shrimpy lost — he was counted out after a savage uppercut from Chitalada sent him to the canvas 44 seconds into the 11th round — he never ceased being the people’s champ.
We met Shrimpy at the Jamaica Boxing Board-operated Stanley Couch Gym on Victoria Avenue in downtown Kingston, where he is the resident coach at what is now Kingston’s only remaining public boxing gym. We were officially there to talk to Sakima Mullings and Devon “Concrete” Moncrieffe, two popular boxers at the forefront of the current resurgence of the sport in Jamaica, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sneak a quick conversation with this living legend.
Sevens Clash: When did you first know you were a fighter?
Shrimpy: Well, I started boxing from [when] I was 11 years old. There was a gym close by to where I live, up by [National] Heroes Park — Guinness Gym. All of us that live over in that area used to go over to the park to play ball and all those things. So I would go over to the gym. I started to see some little youth like myself training — and in the ring boxing, too. So that kind of draw me to it, because I used to love engaging in a lot of fights. I always believe that I could beat the guys that I saw. And I always used to tell them that I’m going to come to the gym and beat them up, and they would always bet me to come. I eventually went and beat them out the gym.
SC: In the ring?
S: Yes! I had a couple fights before I reach 12. I had my first fight about a month after I start. I was just eager to go inside the ring.
SC: Who was the trainer at Guinness at that time?
S: An old, old gentleman by the name of Mr. Frank “Spider” Foster and another one by the name of Jimmy Taylor and also Mr. Emilio Sanchez. And Emilio Sanchez was the national coach for Jamaica, for all the boxing teams at that time that used to leave Jamaica and go to the Olympics and all those things. He was also the coach for Mike McCallum. I was on that team with McCallum, so I’ve been to all of those tournaments. The only tournament I haven’t been to is the Olympics — and not being selected for the  Olympics changed my mind. I think at that time the country never had the funds to send us all, and so they just trim down the team. I quit amateur boxing at that time. But I had close to 200 fights as an amateur, and I became a professional fighter like two years after. My career start from there.
SC: Were they calling you Shrimpy back then?
S: They used to call me Shrimps when I came to the gym. Then, when I became a professional fighter and start to come on TV, the people started saying Shrimpy, and you would hear people shouting, “Lick ‘im Shrimpy! Lick ‘im!” You know? And it just stuck. Even overseas.
SC: You were also known as The Sugar Ray of JA…
S: Well, Sugar Ray Leonard was one of the main fighters that I used to love watching, and anything I see him do in the ring I would do that in my boxing. It was an announcer by the name of Bagga Brown that used to introduce me in the ring as The Sugar Ray of JA.
SC: What would you say is the most memorable fight from your professional career?
S: I fought for the world championship against Sot Chitalada from Thailand. I was fighting for the WBC flyweight championship. I was winning the fight all the way, and he knocked me out in the 11th round. He just turned it around that round. The fight was here in Jamaica at the Arena, and I was getting too comfortable and too carried away with the crowd. You know, you only have two more rounds left, and you say, “Chu, he can’t beat me.” You know? You was beating him in every area so you get kinda relaxed, but he’s a very experienced fighter. He knocked me down; I never beat the count. I got up at nine but the referee stop the fight. But that was one of my most memorable fights because of the training that I did. It wasn’t the training that I’d normally do, so everything went haywire from the training. I was in Miami for six to seven weeks, and during that time it was running, like, 110 degrees — it was hot, too hot. It was draining every strength out of me, and I don’t think I recovered when I came back to Jamaica. The fight was like the week after, so I never fully recovered. But I still wanted to do it for Jamaica — that’s why I went through with the fight.
SC: I was just a kid at the time, but I still remember the hype around that fight. It was huge — the whole island was behind you. It’s been a long time since boxing in Jamaica has been at that level, but it seems like there’s a buzz around the sport again…
S: It’s a resurgence. Contender [a Jamaican reality TV show about boxing, similar to the HBO series of the same name] brought back interest. When Contender just finish everybody come to the gym, everybody want to fight on it. “When the next Contender?” You have not been seeing this kind of action and this kind of vibe with the people for boxing for a long while. It kind of get stagnant since we, all of us, drop out, the thing kind of fall back. With these guys now, the onus is on them now to lift up the game. If they can bring in overseas boxers and win against them, that’s the way they’re gonna prove themselves. Not with each other, with overseas boxers.
SC: So that’s where you see it heading?
S: It has to be. You can’t escape that if you want to build a following. Because each boxer has to build his own cheering group, their own fan base. That is one of the main things that can bring back the support to what it was. People like a special fighter. Mullings is one fighter that people talk about now, and people talk about Rikardo Smith and Moncrieffe and Nicholas Walters, who is going for the championship. [Ed. Note: In December 2012 Walters defeated Colombian fighter Daulis Prescott in Jamaica to win the WBA featherweight title. He is the first Jamaican boxer ever to win a world title on home soil.] They can become main draws. It looks good and it can only get better. I see a bright future.