Round 6: Catching the gloves

One thing I learn early is that the booths are not necessarily about boxing as a sport. They’re about boxing as a business. There is no room for bigheads. So, one night you might top the bill, next night you’re doing the journeyman bouts. You always give 100%, but you lose when you think you’ve won. And you win when you think you’ve lost. And the action and the controversy leave the crowd in a frenzy, ensuring a full house for future nights and return bouts. Showbiz is what the showmen understand, and maybe that’s how the ‘catching the gloves’ starts: as a you-and-me; a gee.

Vintage boxing gloves, from Perth Railway Amateur Boxing Association

Vintage boxing gloves, from Perth Railway Amateur Boxing Association

It’s not unknown for a professional boxer who isn’t a regular with the booth to be planted in the crowd. When the showman introduces his boxers and their respective titles, this guy starts muttering to nearby spectators how he doesn’t think the booth boxers look much like champions. At which point, invariably, the crowd start calling out that there’s some boy here who fancies his chances. The showman turns on the guy, who backs down until, with the crowd’s encouragement, he accepts the challenge and steps into the ring. Sometimes, of course, there are well-known boxers among the crowd who just ‘happen’ to be on holiday in the town when the booth arrives. Sometimes, there are just real hard amateur fighters, like Ralph and Peter Townsley, who follow the gaffs. Lads like these can dish it out and take it too. But as Dobbsy says, if you can handle these boys, the mugs will give you no problems.‘The mugs’, as we call them, tend to be either very huge or very hungry. Not surprisingly,they often opt to fight the wee guy at the end of the line. That’s me and I make it my policy to try and take them out early. Easier said than done, of course, for a natural counter-puncher. But you’re forced to take the fight to the other man for two reasons.

Firstly, I know from bitter experience that one wild swinging punch can change the course of a contest. One Saturday, I find out what this job is really all about.

Due to a call-off, I’m pitted against a giant of a man. He’s throwing huge haymakers and lands a few, before I deck him. He gets up slowly at the count of six. He’s on his knees and his eyes are level with mine. To tell you the truth, he’s got me scared till I knock him down for the second time and he doesn’t get up.

That’s the truth of it. Regardless of height or weight – or anything else – the show must go on. And the booth’s working men always seem to get the worst of it.

One time in Kirkwall I face a big guy who models his body on Tarzan. I feel like running home to mother, but it’s too late. Thankfully, he may look like Johnny Weissmuller, but he boxes like John L Sullivan: stiff and muscle-bound with his fists well out in front. He’s just inviting the left hook, which I duly despatch. In reply, he throws a roundhouse, all the way from his backside towards my head, which I parry easily. I step in to finish the job, but he brings up his knee, and lays me out with a searing pain below the belt. I’m doubled up in agony, but he’s not disqualified. Crazy as it seems, I’m given a 10-minute break before the bout, like the show, must go on. Afterwards, the doctor orders a month’s rest. The booth gives me a week off and then it’s back to the boxing.

What’s the second reason why it’s crucial to put away the challengers? What else? Money. The Woods may like to see the cash come rolling in, but they don’t like paying out to the ‘glove-catchers’.

At Rathven, Dobbsy is tasked with demolishing Big Jock (aka The Highland Carnera*) inside six rounds – or cost the firm a fiver. But Jock has a three-stone advantage, and Dobbsy hits him with everything, even puts him down twice in the last round, but fails to nail him. The Highland Carnera* ends the bout on his feet. With the partisan local crowd going crazy, Charlie Woods reluctantly hands over a £5 note. Which would be a good end to the story, except Big Jock is a sucker for a game of cards and Charlie Woods skins the entire fiver back off him that night at the booth’s gambling school.

Old style boxing boots, from Perth Railway Amateur Boxing Club
Old style boxing boots, from Perth Railway Amateur Boxing Club

Nonetheless, some ‘glove catchers’ do pick up the prize. One such is Isaac, the Iron Man of the Orkneys. What he doesn’t know about boxing can fill a book. But, as many can testify, nobody can soak up punishment like this man – or be so pleasant about it. First off, on accepting a challenge, he apologises to you for his lack of knowledge of thefistic art. Then he disconcerts you by saying you can hit him as hard as you like, and he won’t mind. Then, after the bout, when you’ve just about killed yourself trying to knock him out, he thanks you for going easy on him! I eventually come to like boxing big bad fighters. It’s just the big good fighters that worry me. Too often, though, in these desperate times, we’re simply faced with poor starving souls who have to get the price of a meal somewhere. Up against the well-fed, well-conditioned men of the booths, they usually end up adding a sore face to their empty stomachs.

But, there is something more amiss for me. Is it just homesickness? Do I realise that very few promising boxers really travel with the shows? (They just use the booths as a practical, economical way to achieve peak fitness and to spar against a range of styles.) Or is it just that the severity of my new profession finally begins to dawn on me?

*Reference to Primo Carnera, Italian heavyweight, World Champion in 1933-34. Nicknamed ‘The Ambling Alp’, he had recently boxed exhibition bouts in Scotland. Famously knocked out by Joe Louis in 1935.

Round 7: The cauliflower industry