TODAY, the flyweight class is one of boxing’s least glamorous divisions. According to BoxRec, there are currently just 13 active male flyweights in the UK, and inevitably their opponents are mostly sourced from overseas. In the 1920s and ‘30s, however, Britain could boast 500-plus active pro flyweights at any given time. It was a division packed with colour and talent, and being British flyweight champion carried huge kudos. Our best-remembered flyweights of the era are those all-time greats, Jimmy Wilde and Benny Lynch. But there were a host of other excellent 8st (112lb) fighters who, were they to box as flyweights in the modern multi-title-per-weight era, would very likely be world champions. One of them was a man from Birmingham called Bert Kirby.
Born in Aston on December 2, 1908, Kirby boxed for Saltley’s Metropolitan ABC in his early teens, following in the footsteps of his elder brother, leading pro featherweight Jack Kirby. Times were tough and Bert also entered pro fights on small local shows, taking on other youngsters at 6st 7lbs to 7st in so-called ‘midget’ matches. This earned him a short suspension from the Midland ABA, but afterwards he carried on as an amateur. It was at the insistence of the legendary Brummy bantam and featherweight, Owen Moran, that Kirby launched a proper pro career.
Moran, having spotted Bert’s potential, gave him the then-substantial sum of £3 along with a personal letter of commendation and put him on a train to London. He was met at the other end by Fred Dyer, a former top-line middleweight who ran a gym at the Strand. Having read Moran’s letter and given Kirby a trial, Dyer agreed to train and manage him. Fred gave the 18-year-old a gruelling baptism of fire. In his first year with Dyer, Kirby fought 33 times, with 28 wins, three losses and two draws. This marked him out as a red-hot prospect, but he would have to wait nearly another two years for a tilt at the British title.
In October 1929, Bert was matched with Manchester’s Jackie Brown, the best flyweight in the North, in a final eliminator for the British crown to be held on a Sunday afternoon in West Bromwich. But when the reigning champion Johnny Hill died unexpectedly, the BBBofC upgraded it to a fight for the vacant title. The short but sensational bout ended with Kirby counted out in the third in front of his home fans. Afterwards, the disgruntled crowd caused such a commotion that the BBBofC decided no future title fight would take place on a Sunday, a provision that lasted until 1971. In a return title fight held in London five months later, Kirby got his revenge by knocking out Brown in the very same third round and was thus crowned British champion.
There was talk of Bert getting a world title shot, but that all ended in Manchester in February 1931, when he lost his title on points in a thrilling third match with Brown. It was Brown who would go on to fight for and win the world crown. Kirby insisted he was not at his best for that third fight. In November 1930, he’d been knocked down by a lorry and spent several weeks in bed recovering from severe leg and back injuries. He’d had less than a round of actual boxing in the three months between the accident and the third Brown bout. Perhaps the outcome would have been different had he sought a postponement.
Bert boxed on for another seven years, but never recaptured the form that had brought him a British title. He did, however, win the Southern Area crown and retired with around 200 pro bouts to his name. After boxing, he became a bookmaker and owned a women’s hair salon. He died in 1975, aged 66.