IT is sad to hear of the recent COVID-19-related deaths of people associated with the boxing world, both in the UK and abroad. Among the ex-boxers that I know have died is Dennis Flynn of Edmonton. Dennis beat Alan Salter, Noel McIvor and Tony Cunningham, drew with Billy Waith and lost to Jimmy Revie and Johnny Cheshire during a decent career at lightweight during the early 1970s. The last great pandemic to hit the UK happened just over a century ago, when it coincided with the end of the Great War. This pandemic affected young people much more than it did the elderly, and it killed many who had been wounded in the war and who had been invalided home. My grandfather’s brother was one of them. One of the best-known boxers to die from Spanish flu, as the pandemic became known, was “The Fighting Scot”, Johnny Mathieson of Elgin. Johnny had been a top-flight welterweight in the years leading up to the First World War. He served in the war with distinction and had been severely wounded. No doubt weakened by his injuries, Johnny died in February 1919, in his mid-30s, of pneumonia.   

I have traced 83 contests for Johnny in a career that started in 1910 and ended only four years later. As an indication of just how good he was, 31 of these bouts were scheduled 20-rounders. Mathieson beat the great Harry Lewis, a one-time claimant to the world welterweight title, at Birmingham in 1912, and he also crossed gloves with Bandsman Rice, Bob Scanlon and British champion Pat O’Keefe, whom he also beat. He is best remembered for five fights that he had against the Dixie Kid, that great American boxer who spent so much time in Europe, and Johnny didn’t lose a single one of them, beating the Kid three times. 

The Dixie Kid was an interesting character. His actual name was Aaron Brown and he was a leading contender for the world welterweight title in the States before he came to Europe in 1911. He beat the great Georges Carpentier, among others, before becoming something of a journeyman, happy to take good money fighting just about anybody, anywhere and losing many contests that I’m sure he could have won. His name and reputation were enough to draw the crowds.

The two first met at Birmingham in 1912 when Johnny surprised everyone in the audience by winning fair and square in a hard contest over 20 rounds. Their next fight was drawn and then Johnny repeated his victory, again over 20 rounds, in 1913. They were then matched to box at the Boulevard Rink in Leicester, and during an interesting struggle, the referee inexplicably disqualified the Kid for a misdemeanour that he failed to explain, and that no one in attendance could understand. Their final bout, in Newcastle, was declared a No Contest. By this time, the two men knew each other inside out and they were simply going through the motions in a dreadful contest when they were thrown out.

Johnny did not win too many after this. He had taken part in a large number of exacting bouts within a short space of time and I think that he had burned himself out. This was a common feature among top-level boxers at the time, and it was a case of striking while the iron was hot and earning as much as possible while you had a name. In his final contest, just a month before the war commenced, he was stopped by fellow Scot, Dan McGoldrick, at Aberdeen, and the rest of his short life was lived out quite tragically.