Round 4: The booths

Pre-war Scotland is fighting mad. In the winter, there are licensed boxing halls, and in the summer, there are the travelling boxing booths.It may be hard to believe but you can see some of the best boxers in the world in the booths. British Champion Jake Kilrain, Scottish Champion Freddie Tennant, even the legendary World Champion Benny Lynch, all box in the booths. It’s good money, and it’s good practice to spar against so many different styles. The booths generally travel with a fair, visiting towns on market days. For instance, Kirkcaldy Links boasts the longest fair in the world. Stretching three miles along the promenade, it features three boxing booths, all charging sixpence admission and all playing to full houses. Over a few days as a professional boxer, you could box up to 48 rounds against some of the toughest professional fighters around and earn up to £20 – a small fortune. As a member of the public, if you’re brave enough or desperate enough, you can box a few rounds with one of the booth’s professional fighters and earn a fiver just by staying on your feet.

My first experience of the booths as a freelance professional gets off to a bad start. I’m ushered into the dressing room, of all places, under the ring. A paraffin lamp hangs from a cross beam and I’m crawling on my hands and knees. It’s just like being back at the coal face. My opponent Ginger Lawson – a handy featherweight from Newcastle –is already there. As we change, a previous contestant is carried in K.O.d. On coming round, he starts looking for his pick and shovel, thinking he’s down the mines too. My fight works out a bit better. A points victory, and I’m asked to fight a 10-rounder the next night against one of the booth’s own working professionals, Paul Jones, which goes even better. I stop him early with a cut eye. Jim Paterson, the booth owner, is less delighted with the loss of his boy. I retrieve the situation by offering to stand in on a pay-per-fight basis. I earn a further £20, but have no need to go looking for sleeping pills at bedtime.

It’s summer, and there’s a boxing ‘drought’ in the big halls, when a man in a big car causes some excitement in our village. He’s looking for me, and he’s not a ‘manager’.He’s Charlie Woods, booth proprietor, offering me regular work as a booth professional. The pay and free lodgings are not bad, but right now two things overcome any doubts:

a) I don’t want to go back down the mines;
b) I want to gain more experience in the boxing game.

And so I catch up with the Woods Brothers’ Boxing Booth, currently pitched at Alloa, where Charlie greets me like a long lost Woods Brother.

Smuji/Seconds Out

Like many things in life, the free lodgings are not all they’re cracked up to be. In answer to my enquiry, Charlie shows me to the back of an old car. “Here you are,” he says before explaining that he is in the process of building a two-bed trailer. My scepticism is short-lived, for Charlie is indeed a qualified coach builder. Before the night is over a two-wheeled trailer is ready for tenancy with some furniture and two folding beds. As I have heard tales of over-crowding, this seems too good to be true. And it is. I soon realise that this abode has to be shared with all the boxers who can’t get home on fight nights, and that can be plenty. Try sleeping six to a folding bed and, believe me, the wee one always gets the worst of it.

But my biggest surprise is in a shop window. A poster proclaims the arrival in town of Johnny Kelly, The Boxing Tornado! Ten rounds, no less, with a boy I’d boxed before and beaten. I can’t recall his name. Maybe because, early in the bout, he lands a dirty big swing on the chin of The Boxing Tornado and makes all the lights in the place go out. When the lamps come back on, I’m sitting in the corner with my corner man yelling in my ear that the bell for the next round has already gone. In the following rounds, I manage to steer clear of trouble, finally get the old left going, and stop him in the last.This is a painful business. So it’s just as well I’m skint, payday is a week away and the firm gives no subs – or I’d be catching the first bus home, for sure.

A busy week lies ahead of me: a ten-rounder, two six-rounders, and an exhibition match.There’s training too. But, with the prospect of boxing any of four working nights in the week, we develop fitness fast. And, with so much dependent on speed of foot, the young boxer’s mind soon turns to more leisurely pursuits. Like dancing. The boxing itself isn’t the only work. I discover the show people are no layabouts either. There’s hard graft pitching the booth, but match-making is a job in itself. It takes some skill, a lot of travelling, and even more diplomacy – while handing out its fair share of disappointments. These boys become very hard in a game which has no room for softies.

But, undoubtedly, the boss of the outfit is Mrs Woods. She has a hard, uncompromising manner in business, and a heart of gold in person. Every decision needs her approval, and opening time arrives hitch-free. She collects the money, in a satchel, and may even do a bit of ‘bouncing’ herself. If she thinks you’re the worse for drink, there’s no way in.That’s probably why there’s so little crowd trouble. The fans can be as vociferous in their support of their own particular hero as they like. They want their money’s worth in the good old fashioned red stuff, and the Woods ensure they get it. The noise fills the booth,but all the violence stays in the ring.

Round 5: Bobby Dodds