THE UK has had a very strong tradition of producing great flyweights. Before World War I, we had a virtual monopoly of world champions, and with Jimmy Wilde, the famous Welshman, we had an all-time great. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Benny Lynch, Jackie Brown, Peter Kane, Jackie Paterson and Rinty Monaghan continued to ensure British domination at world level. After the war, some great small men started to be produced throughout Asia and South America, but we still held our own, with champions of the calibre of Walter McGowan, Terry Allen and Dai Dower.
By the 1960s this had all changed. There were fewer professionals around in those days and with living standards at an all-time high, maybe we just weren’t producing so many small men anymore. In 1962, there were eight active flyweights in Britain. Within a year that number had dwindled to two. One of them, McGowan, was a future world champion, and the other, Alex O’Neill, was a decent journeyman. By 1965, John McCluskey and Tony Barlow joined the list and they were both very capable. McCluskey went on to become British champion in 1967. Throughout his reign, which lasted until 1977, there were only 10 active British flyweights in total. It took McCluskey seven years to win the Lonsdale Belt outright, such was the paucity of viable challengers. When he retired in late 1977, the division looked dead. In the preview for his 1974 title contest against Tony Davies, BN stated: “It looks a fair bet that this will be the last British championship at the weight and, with no other likely challengers in sight, the Board of Control may decide that the time has come to abolish the division.”
There were plenty of good amateurs around at the weight but, with little money to be made from the division, most of them elected to see out their boxing careers wearing the vest. Then, in late 1977, along came Charlie Magri, and he changed everything. Magri was a four-time ABA champion and a hard puncher. He breathed new life into the division and became very popular. He won the British title in only his third professional contest and went on to become the European and world (WBC) champion. By 1978, the number of active flyweights had increased to 10. Within a few more years some exciting prospects started to make their mark, including Keith Wallace, Kelvin Smart, Dave McAuley and Duke McKenzie. As we entered the 1990s, there were some really classy operators at the weight, with Joe Kelly, Pat Clinton and Robbie Regan the standouts.
McKenzie and McAuley really set the division alight. McAuley had two extremely attritional contests with Fidel Bassa, in 1987 and 1988, for the WBA title, and at the same time, Duke had become the European champion and then, in 1988, the IBF champion. He was the 16th British flyweight to win a world crown. The stage was set for a showdown between him and McAuley. Not since Rinty Monaghan had beaten Terry Allen in 1949 had two UK boxers fought for a world flyweight title. After an absorbing 12 rounds, McAuley relieved McKenzie of his title. McAuley defended his title six times, with four of these defences taking place in Belfast, his hometown. By the time of his last defence, in 1992, he was within one successful defence of equalling the record set by Ted Kid Lewis and Jimmy Wilde for the most successful defences by any British world champion. Unfortunately, he lost his title to Rodolfo Blanco and promptly retired, having achieved so much. Thank goodness there was no attempt to scrap the British flyweight title, as BN predicted might happen, as so much has been achieved by our little men since. Today, it is encouraging to see 11 men active at the weight, and with lads like Charlie Edwards, Andrew Selby, Jay Harris and Kyle Yousaf, the future looks secure.