Round 8: Seconds out

Cuts to the eye are my most common injury. But daft as it may sound, I don’t feel my opponents set out deliberately to hurt me. The occasional, accidental clash of heads may be unavoidable, but the respect and sportsmanship among fighters is incredible:two guys spend the best part of an hour battering one another, then spend ten minutes disentangling themselves from an embrace that, under other circumstances, could get you arrested.

I have great sympathy with fighters forced to retire due to eye trouble (usually caused by dirty gloves or unwashed towels infecting cuts). And so I turn out for a charity bout at the Adelphi for a blinded boxer. I’m matched with Scottish Featherweight Champion Jim McInally. But I have to admit I don’t treat the opportunity as seriously as I should.

Maybe it’s a hangover from all the booth boxing: a contest, no matter how important,is viewed as just another fight and decisions lose their importance. And rather than win at all costs, your aim is to take as little punishment as possible. In any case, the Champion gets the nod on points, and I can’t say I feel cheated. But alot of fight fans think I’ve done enough to win and, once more, the percentage men are after me. As before I explain that, as I’m taking all the blows, I feel it’s only fair that I take all the money. This is my sole conviction: to determine my own fate – as far as boxing is concerned, and as far as I can.And so begins a run of bouts that will see my name touted in the press as a genuine prospect.

Victories over Dom Rea, Jim Laird, Billy Masters and a host of other tough boys bring me to Perth and a match with one of Scotland’s most fancied fighters: Jim Cowie, ex-Featherweight Champion of Scotland.Maybe it’s a step out of my class. But I reckon he’s going and I’m coming. Or to put it another way, he has the experience to spot a young hot-head in a hurry and starts to needle me. When he questions my parentage, I lose the head and, with my defences nowhere, lose the match. He puts me down with a short right, and I never fully recover.

Revenge will be sweet, I tell myself and sign up for a re-match. So much for managing myself. The contract is in the post when I realise that I am already committed tofight in another town on the same night. I’m double-booked!

The answer is a friend with a fast car – a big Overland, like they use in gangster movies. I meet Jim Cowie in Perth and,when he starts his antics, I keep my punches short and tear him apart. Then it’s into the car to Kirkcaldy, getting changed on the way, before slogging my way to a painful draw with Bobby Wade which flatters me.

I also draw with Harry McQuade, Champion of Scotland… which flatters me too. But I put my name forward for the Scottish Championship anyway. You begin to believe you can do anything. I’ve fought Freddie Tennant many, many times in the booths: right ding-dongs with results swinging one way, then the next; just the way the showmen like it. By now, I have a slight weight advantage over Freddie. But he has more experience. He’s fought all over Britain. He’s one of the few men to master the legendary Benny Lynch. And he’s fought in Paris – narrowly losing to European Champion Praxille Gyde. Not bad for a wee Dundee boy, far from home, and all alone.

And so the Dundee master gives me a complete tanking. But it must look closer from the safety of the ringside seats because a re-match is hurriedly arranged. This time, he knocks me down in the last, but I get up to win on points. A third and final decider is required.

Any time I’ve fought Freddie in the past, the two wee men always put on a show and, afterwards, I’ve felt completely drained. Now, it’s the third bout and I fall to pieces in the ninth. Strength and instinct pull me through without serious injury, but I’m just not at the races.I’m shattered. And I still haven’t heard back from the Board of Control about the Championship eliminators.

I need a rest, falling back on my savings for a visit to my home town. I’m ‘cook of the rook’. Everybody indulges me, and I indulge in cream cakes, my favourite food. Soon, I’m piling on the pounds everywhere, except my bank balance. So, it’s back to the training. I hire a small place as a training camp in the village for myself and a few other fighters where we pound the bag or spar in a makeshift ring. I’ve always hated wearing a head guard and, one day, I take it off after the first round of sparring. Almost immediately in round two, a head clash cuts my eye wide open.

By the time the eye heals, I’m low on funds. I need bouts. I put in a hard-fought draw with an Irish fighter, Jackie Campbell, who like other Irish fighters I’ve met, is made of stern stuff. In the return, I win on points, but I’m still strapped for cash, and head for the booths. An easy win over ‘a mug’ is marred by the father and mother of a keeker he’s clever enough to give me. Next night I face Frank Ferrier at Premierland in Glasgow, and it’s a draw. My excuse is that I can’t see out of the shiner. At least, that’s my story.

Despite the set-backs, I’m feeling in good form. I’m set to fight Dickie Richardson of Dunfermline – a man in the peak of physical fitness who combines the ability to soak up your best blows with the ability to dish out a non-stop battery of hurtful punches of his own. But I’m confident. He punches fast and hard, but not that hard. Meanwhile, my eye problems are over and I’m in great condition.

One other reason for my confidence is my home-town support. Everyone tells me I’m going to win, and half the village puts its shirt on me.It’s a ten-rounder, with the advantage ebbing and flowing over the first few blistering rounds. But by the eighth, to my mind, I’m well ahead on points. So, never one to do things the easy way, I decide to take a rest. Perhaps Dickie’s glove glancing off the top of my head with a swinging right makes the canvas look more comfortable… I find myself resting on the floor near the time-keeper’s table.

I’m in full possession of my faculties while I listen to the time-keeper tolling out. But as I get up on the time-keeper’s count of nine, the referee is already counting ten, and I’m out. It’s the first real blot on my record, and I have a lot to live down locally. Not least with those who lost money on me.

Nonetheless, I’m soon back to my winning ways, with wins over Andy Robins (uncle of the Andy Robins who famously raised and wrestled Hercules the Bear), Irishman Paddy Malone, Dan McGoldrick (hotly tipped as the future champ) and a notable stoppage of an English opponent fighting under the ‘nom-de-plume’ of Steve Slater.

Still with no word of the Championship eliminators, I receive an offer I can’t refuse: £1 a round over ten rounds at the Adelphi in Glasgow. There’s a catch. The match is with none other than the fistic wizard Gilbert Johnstone: over six feet and only nine stone, he’s currently taking the professional featherweight scene apart. I feel it will be as awkward for a big man to fight a wee man, as for a wee man to fight a big man. Besides I’ve had plenty practice on the big guys through the booths. And soit proves. I’m still on my feet at the finish, and have survived some hairy moments, like when he bounces me off the bottom rope for half a minute in the second round. But I recover and go on to pick up the biggest prize of my career so far. I have £10, two black eyes and an unrecognisable face.

Gilbert Johnstone soon goes on to fight a top-ranking American import, narrowly losing on points, which makes me feel that the gap from the bottom – where I am – to the top isn’t as big as people think.

As expected, I receive offers from ‘managers’ who can set me up with similar fights.But, as I have no wish to be the richest man in the graveyard, I give them my usual reply. Word must be getting round by now, because I get no more approaches. Strangely enough, I’m starting to find it hard to get fights in the halls too. I flatter myself that the fighters in the Championship eliminators are beginning to think I’m too dangerous. Maybe more like the promoters think I’m too much trouble.

Unlike my broken nose, payment is becoming a sore point with me. I agree to box on ashow run by a great pal of mine. Of course, no contract is needed: our word is our bond.The event seems to go off well, except the money needs to be forwarded to me. And I’m still waiting, all these years later.

Yet one Championship hopeful – Teddy O’Neil of Dumbarton – agrees to take me on. A 10-round bout is arranged at the Adelphi in Glasgow. The purse is £6 plus travelling expenses, and I’m looking forward to proving that I can be a contender. It’s a decisive points victory for yours truly and the performance seems to please the crowd and the national press. And I’m delighted.

Finally, I must be in the running. One thing spoils the night for me. The promoter hands me £6. I ask about my expenses. That’s it, he says.

We look each other in the eye. I’m only nineteen, but I’ve been punched too often to take kindly to a slap in the face. I demand what I’m due and he coughs up grudgingly. I never work in any licensed boxing hall again. Teddy O’Neil goes on to win the Championship, but it’s back to the booths for me.

Round 9: After the bell

Johnny Kelly coaching his brother Pat, after the war.

Johnny Kelly coaching his brother Pat, after the war.