FOR ANYONE interested in the British boxing scene back in the 1920s and 1930s they could do no better than read two books, both of which are exceptional in their portrayal of not only the domestic scene at that time, but provide some context on how the sport was viewed in society in general. There is much in them to surprise the modern reader.
The first book, Born to Box, is written by a long-time contributor to this column, Alex Daley, and it tells the remarkable story of his grandfather, Nipper Pat Daly. The second, The Rochdale Thunderbolt, is equally good on the story of Jock McAvoy. Written by ex-manager and promoter, Jack Doughty, this book tells the story of boxing in and around Rochdale from the mid-1920s and contains some wonderful action photos of the young lads, mainly from the Lancashire mill towns, who fought in the open air at Royton Stadium, just a few miles from Rochdale.
Jock McAvoy is one of Britain’s most formidable fighters. He held the British middleweight title between 1933 and 1934 before winning the light-heavyweight title in 1937. He was a terrific puncher and a wild man in the ring. On the way up, from 1927 onwards, McAvoy wore down most of his domestic opponents, and there were some real hard men amongst them, by simply walking through them prior to delivering the pay-off punch. A very high percentage of his victories were achieved by clean knockout, and he soon became a top line star at Belle Vue, Manchester, where, alongside stable mates Jackie Brown and Johnny King, he formed one-third of the triumvirate of Manchester boxers that made the city the provincial capital of the sport during the mid-1930s.
Jock had a reputation for performing at his best when in front of his home fans and it was thought that he didn’t travel particularly well. In January 1935, for instance, he went to Paris to fight Marcel Thil for the European Middleweight Title and he was beaten on points after the full 15. He then had three contests at Belle Vue against a Spaniard, an Aussie and a Frenchman, and he licked all three. When he left for America, in the autumn of that year, not a lot was expected from him. He was matched with Al McCoy, a tough light-heavyweight who had won 21 on the trot, many inside the distance. BN was correct in stating that whilst they did not know much about the American, “We may feel pretty sure that McCoy must be a useful performer as it does not usually happen that a British champion is given anything easy for his American debut.” The following week’s headline was, therefore, most welcome, “How McAvoy mastered McCoy. British middleweight champion makes a great hit at Madison Square Garden.”
The American fans took to Jock immediately. The pre-fight underdog, his two-handed punching delighted the onlookers and he twice dumped McCoy onto the seat of his pants for short counts. The decision in his favour was a unanimous one and the promoters wasted no time in matching him with Eddie Babe Risko three weeks later. This time Jock really took the place by storm as he sensationally hammered his rival in less than three minutes.
Britain had produced a long line of champions who had failed to make it in the States, with many of them performing extremely poorly, and so Jock’s feats delighted not only the Americans, but also the legions of fight fans over here who knew that the best of our lads were a match for anyone.
Jock missed out in his world title challenge with John Henry Lewis the following year, again at Madison Square Garden, but his story is a good one and Doughty’s book tells it beautifully.