WHEN Jim Watt defeated Howard Davis at Ibrox Park, Glasgow, for the WBC lightweight title on June 7 1980, he was continuing a long tradition of great Scottish champions boxing in the country’s many large football stadia. The promoters had hoped for a crowd of 20,000 that night but far fewer than that turned up to pay at the turnstiles as persistent rain did its best to ruin the occasion.
Twenty years beforehand, almost exactly to the day, Chic Calderwood beat that great Tongan, Johnny Halafihi, for the Commonwealth light-heavyweight title at Firhill Park, the home of Partick Thistle FC. This was the 12th time that the venue had hosted important boxing events.
In 1931, 11,000 people turned up to see Jim Maharg defeat Jim Campbell for the Scottish flyweight title. Again, the expected attendance had been around 30,000 – so it seems that the promoters consistently over-estimated the enthusiasm for large-scale open-air boxing tournaments within the city. There are many other similar instances. The other 10 promotions staged at Firhill Park all occurred during the 1950s, and eight of these featured that wonderful little bantamweight, Peter Keenan. They reckon that Peter, despite his size, would have been most people’s pick to have on your side in a street fight, he was indeed as hard as nails. He had three British title battles at the venue, and he also won, lost and then regained the European title there.
Cathkin Park, the home of the long-defunct professional side, Third Lanark FC, was another football ground that regularly hosted boxing. The ground, situated in Crosshill, staged nine Scottish Cup finals during the latter part of the 19th century, and its first boxing tournament in 1934 when Benny Lynch was another to beat Jim Campbell for the Scottish flyweight title. There were 16,000 in attendance, and they saw another masterclass as Benny completely outclassed his man over the full 15.
Six further events took place at the venue during the 1930s and two more in the 1950s. Peter Keenan beat Jake Tuli for the Empire bantamweight title in 1955 and then, in 1958, Charlie Hill defeated Chic Brogan for the British featherweight title on a bill topped by, yet again, Peter Keenan, who outpointed the American, Billy Peacock. This time more than 25,000 turned up to see a great night of sport. The ground is still there, albeit very dilapidated.
Shawfield Park was another oft-used venue. This ground was home to Clyde FC and was used 15 times for boxing between 1930 and 1941. It will be best remembered for Benny Lynch beating Peter Kane there in 1937 in an epic contest for the world flyweight title. Lynch was 24 at the time, and Kane only 19, but they put up a battle for the ages in front of over 40,000. Lynch had previously defended his British and world flyweight title at the same venue against Pat Palmer of Battersea the year before. This contest was the first time that a world title bout was staged north of the border and 31,565 paid to see it.
Lynch also boxed at Celtic Park in 1937, surprising losing out on points to Jimmy Warnock of Belfast, and this venue was also used in 1949 when Billy Thompson beat the local idol Harry Hughes of Wishaw, to retain his British lightweight title. Once again, a young Peter Keenan also featured on this bill.
The largest of all football grounds in Scotland was, of course, Hampden Park. I can remember listening to the radio coverage when Celtic played against Leeds United in the European Cup semi-final in 1970. It is hard to believe now but 136,000 were in attendance. Seven boxing tournaments were held there between 1941 and 1949 and the great favourite was Jackie Paterson, who won and defended his world flyweight title there. Some 40,000 saw him beat Peter Kane in 1943, and 50,000 watched his victory over Joe Curran three years later.
Great contests, great champions and great venues.