On This Day: Master boxer Johnny Caldwell passed in 2009

Daniel Herbert pays tribute to the tough and talented Belfast Olympian and world pro champion


JOHNNY CALDWELL, who died at the age of 71 after a long battle with throat cancer, was one of best little men ever produced in Ireland or Britain.

In the green vest the Belfastman won a flyweight bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics while as a pro he held the British title at flyweight, then world, British and Commonwealth belts at bantam.

If his world crown was recognised only in Europe, half a claim in those days was probably worth more than the one-quarter titles on offer today.

Caldwell saw his career, both amateur and pro, closely linked with that of fellow Belfastman Freddie Gilroy, two years his senior.

They eventually met as pros in 1962, when both were arguably past their best. Southpaw Gilroy retained the British and Commonwealth 8st 6lbs crowns with a ninth-round cut eye stoppage but never boxed again.

Caldwell went on to win those two belts before finally quitting in 1965 with a 29-5-1 (14) record. And he had the satisfaction of winning the world title (EBU version) with a victory over Frenchman Alphonse Halimi, who had beaten Gilroy for the vacant crown.

As a pro, hard-hitting Johnny was often described as a “cold-eyed killer”. The story put out was that he turned savage as a lad when he saw a bully maltreating a puppy in the school playground.

But in the lead-up to Johnny’s world coronation Reg Gutteridge called the Belfastman “a master boxer, capable of executing every punch.”

Reg added, “I doubt if Britain has produced a classier boxer since flyweight Jackie Paterson [world champion 1943-48] was in his heyday. But Caldwell is more brilliantly orthodox.”

From the Falls Road, Johnny started boxing at the age of 10. He was also an outside right at football and a good table tennis player.

Yet it was in the ring that he made his mark. A member of the Immaculata club, he was still only 17 when he won all his bouts on a three-match tour of Germany.

In the 1955-56 season he become the first to win Ulster and Ireland titles at both junior and senior level. All were at flyweight.

In May 1956 he won for Ireland in both Chicago and Montreal against Golden Gloves squads. Some 11,132 were at Chicago Stadium to see him beat Pete Melendez as the Irish drew 5-5.

He almost didn’t make it to the Olympics that year. He had won the Irish title before the North America trip, but with the Melbourne Games not happening until November, the Irish held trials in September.

Dubliner Christy Rafter beat Caldwell to avenge an April loss – but the selectors picked Caldwell and he delivered a bronze medal.

Eye damage suffered in his quarter-finals victory over Australia’s Warner Batchelor led a doctor to rule Johnny out of the semis. So Johnny went to another medic, who gave him injections to cure the damage.

The injuries responded slightly, but still proved a handicap and Mircea Dobrescu outpointed Caldwell. Terry Spinks beat the Romanian in the final.

Johnny stayed amateur one more year and in 1957 retained his Irish title. But at the
Prague European Championships he lost first time out to West Germany’s Manfred Homberg, the eventual gold medallist.

This paper said Johnny was robbed and Gutteridge reported in the London Evening Standard, “He almost laughed off the verdict while John Charles and the Welsh soccer side showed their disgust by leaving the hall.”

So after a reported 240 amateur bouts and just six losses, Caldwell turned pro with Scottish bookmaker Sammy Docherty. He was based in Glasgow, saying conditions were better there than in Belfast.

A March 1959 Boxing News feature said his manager was Jack McCusker, who had trained and seconded him as an amateur. But by the time of the Halimi challenge BN gave Docherty as his manager with Joe Aitchison his trainer.
(By the time of the Jofre fight, Danny Holland trained him).

Caldwell moved quickly and in only his fifth paid bout, in September 1958, he was matched with beat reigning Commonwealth 8st king Denis Adams clearly on points.

His progress was such that there was talk of challenging British 8st champ Frankie Jones of Scotland. That was more realistic than the non-title fight with world champ Pascual Perez that Docherty turned down after his charge had boxed only nine fights.

The Jones fight duly arrived in October 1960, back in Belfast at a packed King’s Hall, with many fans having come from a Northern Ireland v England football international.

Strongly favoured, Caldwell dominated before putting Jones down for the count with two rights to the chin in round three.

Jones announced his retirement and BN called Caldwell “the strongest, the most fiery and most competent British flyweight champion for many years.”

But instead of defending, he got a crack at Halimi for the world title up at bantam (as recognised by the European Boxing Union – the National Boxing Association, representing the United States, recognised Brazil’s Eder Jofre, after Mexican Jose Becerra had retired as undisputed world champ).

By then (May 1961), Caldwell’s best weight was only 8st 4lbs, or 2lbs inside the bantam limit. But there could be no doubt about the intensity of his preparations.

Gutteridge paid a visit to his Glasgow base and provided an atmospheric report: “Down the Dalmarnock road, where trams rattle, there is a wooden hut, roof festooned with barbed-wire, at the end of a cobble-stoned alley, cold and eerie by gaslight, squeezed between a draper’s bazaar and a foot clinic.”

Caldwell sparred stablemates Derry Treanor and Jimmy Carson, plus Glaswegians Billy Rafferty (a British bantam title challenger) and future world 8st king Walter McGowan, who supplied speed and craft.

Promoter Jack Solomons had handed Caldwell a great opportunity with the 15- rounder at Wembley Empire Pool: Halimi had beaten Gilroy seven months earlier, but the verdict was contentious and Freddie had been weakened by weight problems. And the Frenchman was nearly 29, old for a bantam, while Johnny had just turned 23.

As it turned out, the Belfast plumber rose to the occasion as he outboxed Halimi and knocked him down in the last to seal a clear points win. He was the first British world bantam champ since Teddy Baldock in 1927.

George Whiting wrote of Caldwell and Halimi that “their 15 rounds restored our faith in boxing – as distinct from some of the riotous rubbish that passes for boxing these days. Also they should not be short of customers if they meet again.”

Yet the return five months later at the same venue was a dismal, mauling battle with the only saving virtue being that Caldwell retained on points.

The Daily Telegraph’s Donald Saunders called Caldwell “only a shadow of the determined, intelligent little Irishman who outboxed and outpunched Halimi to win the title”. And he advised Johnny to forget about a unification match with Jofre.

But it went ahead in January 1962, in Sao Paulo, with Caldwell travelling to Brazil three weeks beforehand to acclimatise. Jofre was unbeaten in 43 fights (three draws, 30 wins early) and described as a bantam with the punch of a lightweight. So it proved before 20,000 at the Ibirapuera Stadium, with a left to the body dropping the gutsy Belfastman in the fifth before Docherty climbed on to the ring apron in the 10th to say he had seen enough. Referee Willie Pep, the former great world 9st champion, accepted the retirement.

Jofre was well ahead on all cards, including 88-82 for Peter Wilson of The Daily Mirror.

Johnny had initially come in a pound overweight and after running for 20 minutes, got on the scales again. Result: still 1/2lb over.

So he ran again and skipped, finally making the weight over an hour after first getting on the scales. Yet he had been 6oz INSIDE at a test weigh-in. Strange.

Contracts called for a rematch and Solomons announced one for April 1962. But it never happened and after going into the Jofre fight at 25-0, Caldwell would go 4-4-1 for the remainder of his career.

The Gilroy match finally happened in October 1962 and lived up to expectations. Caldwell was dropped in the first by a left but bounced up and went toe-to-toe before cuts forced his retirement after the ninth.

“I thought I would have won [without the injuries],” said Caldwell. “The sting had gone out of Gilroy’s punches when it was halted.”

Johnny did pick up the British and Commonwealth 8st 6lbs belts in March 1964 with a seventh-round stoppage of George Bowes, but a year later Alan Rudkin took them (rsf 10, officially on an eye injury but Caldwell was in distress).

There was just one more fight, in October 1965, when Southern Area champion Monty Laud (a southpaw) clearly outscored Caldwell over 10 rounds on a dinner show in Brighton.

BN said, “The former champion showed most of his old technique, but lacked speed and sparkle.”

He never fought again but remained a popular figure in his hometown, with Ireland not having another world champ until Barry McGuigan two decades later. That stat alone tells you what Johnny Caldwell achieved.

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