Celtic, boxing and the world champion Benny Lynch

SINCE it’s the international break this weekend, here’s a fascinating article on Celtic, boxing and the world champion Benny Lynch by David Tracey….

Celtic, boxing and the world champion Benny Lynch

INSPIRED by recent conversation on speedway, I thought I’d send this over to The Celtic Star. I started it for book review thread in politics, it’s mainly about Benny Lynch, and social history of Glasgow but Celtic get a few mentions.

Benny – by John Burrowes

Probably now better known for his book Irish: The Remarkable Saga of a Nation and a City, in the early 80s Burrowes wrote this biography of Benny Lynch- the 5’5” boxing world champion from the Gorbals. For anyone interested in boxing it is a great, tragic tale and for those interested in the social history of Glasgow it is a fascinating read.

From the first pages where ‘the beacon of the South Side’, Dixon’s Blazes, is mentioned (my da recalls being able to see the fire and light from Baillieston in the 40s/50s) you are transported to the Gorbals of the pre WWII era. The early part of the book describes the mix of Irish and Jewish families in that part of Glasgow, young Benny’s upbringing, sweet shops, the Lithuanian and Poles who came looking for work, and some stats on arrivals from Ireland which I think are also in Irish.

Gangs – even more part of the fabric of Glasgow back then – are noted as is the reason for any conflict with external forces, religion. Glasgow clearly pre-empted Baltimore and other US cities by the existence of the ‘corner boys’ who would from time to time have local disputes to sort but who would come together to take on other gangs from different areas, the Gorbals gangs often coming to blows with the mainly protestant gangs of the east end across the Clyde.

Some characters such as Trouble Donnachie, Jimmy Gilmour and Sammy Wilson are mentioned as are activities liable to get you arrested (when I was wee I was always intrigued by my da telling me of the street bookies and how putting a bet on potentially could end up with you losing a lot more than your stake!) There is also the tale of de Valera hiding out after his candle wax escape from Lincoln jail.

My maternal grandfather and his brothers (miners and steelworkers in Lanarkshire) were great boxing fans and reading this book highlights the popularity of the sport in working class Scotland – regular booths in areas in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Falkirk and various travelling shows. A decent fighter could regularly make over £10 per week and since the average wage in the 20s was not much over £2 per week the appeal is clear.

The book details disease outbreaks in second decade of the 20th century though it was meningitis that caused the death of Benny’s older brother James, himself a promising boxer. Benny gave up boxing – but not fighting and was chibbed in one encounter with a gang. After a short time out of the ring he decided he was letting down the memory of his brother, though he was also aware of the potential rewards in the ring and he resolved to return to boxing, but only for money, not for the amateur’s love of the sport.

When 19/20 he fought Alex Farries (27) 3 times and beat him each time – in Eldorado Stadium Leith, Gourock and then at Parkhead Arena. The last venue was Alex’s home patch as he lived in the sought after Palace Street tenements, just behind Celtic Park where the top floor flats would be packed each game day as they afforded a great view into the ground. The third fight was a £10 winner takes all but Benny gave his brave opponent £4 as he had fought well. This wouldn’t be enough to prevent Alex having to move from the high rent of Palace Street to Fielden Street in Brigton and the £4 from Benny would be the last he’d make as a boxer as he returned to the hard graft of ‘normal’ life.

For a while my ma was brought up in Dundas street (Queen St station) and there was boxing offices there so I can imagine my granda when younger was well placed to snap up tickets for any boxing shows (though being a teetotaller he would not have frequented any of the bars which began calling to Benny Lynch in the following years).

Sillitoe the Sheffield chief of police who reorganized Glasgow’s approach to law and order, is noted as is the death of Razzle Dazzle (James Dazliel) when San Toy gang members came across the river and killed the Parlour Boys leader in a vicious dance hall confrontation.

Though I feel it has changed a wee bit recently, when I was young, boxers in Scotland seemed to be excused from the whole Celtic-Rangers/religious paradigm in which so much is placed. A snippet in the book indicates this may have been the case historically too – Benny is fighting his friend Paddy Docherty though in Brigton where Paddy had moved to. Benny duly wins but the mainly blue-nosed crowd erupt in anger at a South Sider coming over the river to beat a ‘local’. Docherty tells Benny later how Billy Fullerton (of Billy Boys infamy) was in the thick of it and told Docherty – ‘you know Paddy, you’re a great wee fella and the only Catholic I’ve ever spoken to’.

By the early 30s Benny and his trainer Sammy had decided to go for titles and Benny’s increasing punching power saw him stop the Shankill hard man Billy Warnock at the Parkhead Arena then knock out Boy McIntosh, trained by legendary George Aitchinson.

Benny, still just 20, could be drawn back into the world of being ‘claimed’ and when the Clinton brothers – not boxers but three street fighters- demanded such a meeting Benny told them ‘I’ll take on Willie (the oldest) but only in the ring’. Willie complied but with the proviso that it ‘was bare knuckle’. Willie did not come out of it well at all but Benny’s trainer took Lynch to task and demanded that be the last of any such challenges.

Benny’s rise to prominence came at the Kelvin Hall’s inaugural boxing show. Top of the bill was Johnny McMillan’s ultimately fruitless attempt at gaining the British featherweight title from Tom Watson, partly due to a pre-fight injury which even ‘intensive sessions with Celtic Football Club trainer Eddie McGarvey’ could not heal. Benny was to face Carlo Cavagnoli and the large Glasgow Italian community came out in force to support this lad from the homeland (this included the Glasgow fascisti, ready to cheer this example of Italian superiority).

Cavalogni lasted the distance but didn’t win a round.

Benny and his trainer bumped into Scottish champion Jim Campbell in Queen Street and joked about taking the title, ‘right, then – we’ll fight in two weeks’ was Campbell’s confident reply! The venue was the grandly named Olympic Sports Stadium though ‘few even knew it by that name – it was the Nelson Lea whippet track, flanking Celtic Park’. Benny won a great fight on points though the crowd didn’t seem to agree so a re-match at Benny’s insistence was quickly agreed. In just over two weeks after beating Campbell, Benny fought – and won – twice and was ready for the re-match which came a further month later.

The re-match was at Cathkin Park, home of Third Lanark (pitch and terracing are a minute from my sister’s and you can still tell it would have been a great venue for boxing) and this time the crowd were in no doubt – Campbell went the fifteen rounds again but this time was decisively beaten by Benny.

Next up to come to Glasgow to fight the flyweight from the Gorbals was the Frenchman Huguenin who was beaten over twelve rounds – on the same night, Johnny McGrory, a primary school classmate of Benny’s, won the Scottish featherweight title.

In 1935, just over a year since winning the Scottish title, Benny travelled to Manchester with around 500 fans (massive travelling support in those depressed times) and a supply of Gorbals tap water, to face Jackie Brown, world champion since 1932. The fight was stopped in the second round, Brown unable to cope with Benny’s speed and power – the fight lasted less than 5 minutes, Brown had been on the canvas eight times.

Fame and money drew many to the young boxer’s side (he was only 22 when he became champion of the world) and the whispering of those who wanted a piece had an effect, causing him to lose trust with Sammy and to part company with his friend and trainer. He went to Belfast to fight Billy Warnock’s brother Jimmy and for the first time was met with bigotry at the boxing as shouts of ‘get it ya t*** b*****’ greeted his arrival. Benny didn’t feel the same without Sammy in his corner and he duly lost to Warnock (though by now, his drinking in between fights had increased so taking it’s toll on his body).

Just before the Belfast fight Benny became a father when his wife (who had left him 7 months previously) gave birth to their first child. A few months later the couple got back together and moved to the plush surroundings of Burnside and Benny lavished on his wife the trappings of a world champion’s lifestyle.

By late 1936 Benny was firmly in the grip of alcoholism, it was affecting his lifestyle, general fitness and training. Around Hogmanay he returned home drunk – two weeks from a fight with Filipino Small Montana, Benny was almost two stones overweight. That he made the weight and beat the American based fighter was a minor miracle though it didn’t give him the wake up call he needed – rather, it made him lazy, thinking he could replicate the two week intensive regime for any fight.

Benny had an unimpressive win against Ortega then was due to fight Nipper Hampston, a good boxer but not one who should have given the world champion any trouble. The night before the fight however, Benny was found utterly drunk by his friends who had been hunting for him, knowing he had gone on bender – and with the Gorbals having 118 pubs there was no shortage of places for Benny to indulge himself (though at times he had to take to hiding under the beds of non-boxing, drinking friends when his boxing people came looking). Hampston hammered Benny, knocking him down many times before his second saved him from further punishment in the fifth.

Benny knew he had let himself down and quickly sorted a re-match – in this fight he took Hampston apart in the eighth and ninth rounds, lifting Nipper off his feet for the knockout blow.

In early June 1937, Benny again fought tricky Belfast southpaw Jimmy Warnock- again giving himself just two weeks to try and get fighting fit, though luckily for Benny – and despite Warnock’s previous victory – the BBBC had declared it a non title bout. Benny came in over the 8 stone 4 limit and took his fine though Warnock at first claimed the £1000 prize and refused to fight. He was persuaded though and at Celtic Park, in front of 20,000 boxing fans, he again beatt Benny (despite Benny flooring him in round 1) getting the decision after 15 rounds.

Warnock was beaten in four rounds by Englishman Peter Kane in an eliminator for the world title and perhaps this result made Benny train like he did in the old days. At Shawfield, before 40,000 fans, Benny successfully defended his title against the brave Kane who couldn’t make it past the ninth, it was Kane’s first defeat. Kane drew with Lynch in the return in Liverpool, though he would become world champion, defeating Jackie Jurich after Lynch had to forfeight the title after beating Jurich while overweight (fight at St Mirren’s ground, 14,000).

Kane lived till the early 1990s, Benny would die within ten years of their first fight.

The fall from boxing grace was swift and within a couple of years Benny was being jeered for being a ‘bum’ and a ‘has been’ and his money was being drained away by hangers on and con men.

After being treated in Chiselhurst’s rehabilition centre his friend Johhny McGrory realised it hadn’t helped and persuaded Benny to go to Mount Melleray monastery in Waterford, and one time hideout of Liam Lynch and other Republicans during the Anglo Irish war and the civil war.

Benny left the monks in Ireland to return to drinking, he and Anne separated and he went back to his mother’s home. In August 1946 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia, days after his 33rd birthday, and died.

Benny remains a legend, his human failings that he shared with many from similar backgrounds merely raising his incredible achievements and his shining talent to a status few have reached.

David Tracey

About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

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