Cooney and Black

In Bulgaria, Ken Buchanan paused at the ringside to show me the marks of molars imprinted on his neck. His vampire-like opponent had been too close for comfort.

Boxing generic

Frank Gilfeather

JOSH TAYLOR and Charlie Flynn, occupants of boxing rings once graced by Dick McTaggart and, in their amateur days, other supremely talented pugilists like Walter McGowan and Ken Buchanan, will not have heard of many of the exceptional men who wore the blue vest of Scotland.

Much has rightly been made of the achievements of Taylor and Flynn in winning gold at Glasgow 2014, but the archives tell stories of an era when Scotland’s leading fight-for-fun boxers were rarely off the back pages of our national newspapers.

Today, as our best amateur sportsmen and women follow their Lotto-funded dreams, Flynn, a likeable and engaging individual who grabbed the attention of a nation when winning the Commonwealth lightweight title in Glasgow, complains that he had to do it the hard way.

Working at a normal job – in his case with Royal Mail – and fitting-in a training regime in the evenings is his penalty for not being one of Britain’s elite squad of vested fighters, full-timers whose lives are unencumbered by something as mundane as employment.

I have news for young Flynn; working for a living and competing at international level is not a new phenomenon.

I write with more than a little knowledge of Scottish amateur boxing in the 1960s when our administrators, with a BBC TV contract to fulfil and Harry Carpenter to keep in a job, would ensure that the cream of the country’s crop of battlers were suitably deployed.

Cue matches against Russia, Romania, Czechoslovakia – as it was then known – and a raft of other countries from behind the Iron Curtain, were all represented by full-time amateurs, usually army officers or Masters of Sport. All were supported by their respective governments.

So, teenage fighters inhabiting teenage bodies against opponents who, because there was no professional sport in Communist countries, remained in their chosen discipline as older and more mature athletes.

I recall entering the ring, set-up in a packed football stadium in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, to face their No. 2 lightweight, a man called Vasil Yankov.

The year was 1964. Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, Top of the Pops was born, a certain Cassius Clay was heavyweight champion of the world and we were only three months from the opening of the Forth Road Bridge.

As Ken Buchanan passed me after having beaten the Bulgarian featherweight, he paused to show me the marks of a bottom set of molars imprinted on his neck. It became clear that his vampire-like foe had been too close for comfort in the clinches, the bites inflicted on the blind side of the referee.

It might not have been the ideal preparation for my bout, but I did enough in the searing summer heat of Plovdiv to notch-up a points victory in our overall 8-2 defeat.

This was a time when amateur boxing shows would be staged somewhere in the country every week. The big events would be in venues like Paisley Ice Rink, the Kelvin Hall or the St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow, and in smaller halls in places from Montrose to Motherwell, Brechin to Ballingry.

From the late 1950s when the BBC recognised that the transmission of live amateur boxing on both sides of the border drew large audiences, there were many young men who became household names.

Baby-faced Fifer Jimmy Gibson, labelled “Golden Boy” by Harry Carpenter because of his crisp, entertaining technique; Dick McTaggart, who won every title available to him in a 634-contest career capped by an Olympic gold in Melbourne in 1956; and John “Cowboy” McCormack, a light-middleweight bronze medallist at those Games.

Southpaw McCormack was as charismatic as he was clever in the ring. His penchant for the good life, however, eventually proved to be his downfall. He turned professional and won the British middleweight championship, albeit through disqualification when the holder, Terry Downes, hit him with a low blow to end the contest.

The bow-legged battler with bombs in both fists was immensely talented, though he was never known to be the hardest of trainers. Indeed, one story had it that, puffing and blowing heavily against an opponent from a foreign land and unlikely to see out the required duration of the contest, he tossed an idea in the direction of the referee, Jake Kilrain, a fellow Glaswegian.

The furtive conversation, staged in phases as “Cowboy” clutched his rival and gasped for air, promoted a potential ending to proceedings which amounted to Kilrain turning a blind eye to a “Glasgow kiss“.

In a disjointed discussion, Kilrain protested: “Are ye aff yer heid? Ah, cannae allow that; I’ll be struck aff.”

And then, “Aye, okay … but don’t make it obvious.”

The deed was done and within a few moments Kilrain stopped the fight because of a cut eye, and raised McCormack’s hand in victory.

Sadly, John McCormack, a captivating character who thrilled thousands of fight fans, suffered from Alzheimer’s in later years and died on May 23, 2014, aged 79.

He may have achieved success in the pro ranks, but he was in the vanguard of amateurs who swapped punches in return for “prizes” like electric blankets, table lamps and canteens of cutlery and, through the black and white pictures of the BBC, found fame as one of Scotland’s finest.



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