Round 3: Prize fighting

I also catch the attention of Pat McGreechin, famous in boxing circles as the manager of British Champion, Tommy Milligan. In a village where everyone turns out to see two cats fight, you can imagine the stir created by the arrival of some fellow with a fat cigar and a flash car. He offers me a bout of six three-minute rounds at Edinburgh’s Eldorado stadium. The pay is £3. It’s more than a week’s wages for a night’s work and I reckon it’s my big break. Bottom of the bill maybe, but from there the only way is up. I’m matched with a Glasgow boy, Teddy McGurn, who gives me a very hard time before yours truly comes out top on points.

On this showing, however, I’m offered another bout where I get the fright of my life. The reason I’m fighting is to earn money. But, in the days of deep Depression, so is everyone else. And, due to harsh means-testing, many boxers are fighting under assumed names. Young Snowball is my opponent – a name, I assume, chosen ironically by a coloured boy. On the night, I glance up to see a coloured boy walk in, so big he has to stoop to get in the door. I shoot off to complain about the weight disparity. “That’s Manuel Abrew,” laughs the promoter. “He’s not fighting you – he’s just beaten Britain’s best heavyweight.” My fears are allayed, but I must still be shaken. Because Young Snowball (aka Tod White from Falkirk) knocks me down in the first round and I have a hard time recovering for a points win. But I learn an important lesson: never let anything get to you before a fight. Next I travel to Coatbridge for a rough 10-round contest where I get the nod against Jim Collins. The only good thing about that night is the money and – after a freezing round trip bus ride – the warmth of my welcome home: the blow-by-blow account round the cosy fire helps me forget the bruises.

By now, I’m determined to quit the pits. I’m getting a bit of a reputation, as well as interesting offers from ‘managers’. The deal is this: they will get me lots of fights in return for 25% of any purse up to £100; over £100 they take 50%. I reply that, if they’re offering to take 50% of the punches too, it’s a deal. There are no takers, so I’m on my own, which is how I like it. I’m out of the pits. I’m eighteen. I’ve got money in my pockets and all the world in front of me. And it’s all up to me. There’s plenty of fistic work: Glasgow has three licensed boxing venues. Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee have venues. In fact, there are shows each week during the winter in most big cities. And so I become a full-time professional, bantamweight boxer.

My first bout as a professional is with the as yet unbeaten Boy Hughes, a real prospect with a lovely left hand. But I master him with the drill Willie Laing taught me: let him lead to me, knock his lead over my left shoulder with my right, then punch him up ‘the tripes’. Soon, he’s gasping for breath and I prove too strong for him. A few more wins and I’m matched again with Mickey Malone. He’s still punching fast,but he lands a few that night and I’m lucky to finish on my feet. But the performance is a crowd pleaser, and I’m asked for a return match. Against my instincts, I agree.

Maybe my very first win against him was beginner’s luck. This time, he stops me early with a cut eye. I realise I’m on the bottom rung of a very slippery ladder, and maybe not ready for this class of fighter. Time to recover and re-think. I need three weeks off for the eye to heal, and am lucky to have very understanding parents who give me all the help and encouragement I need. When the eye improves, I get stuck into the training, determined to go for gold, in every sense of the word.

Round 4: The booths