THE current cessation of all boxing within the UK is unprecedented. Never before in the 130-year history of the gloved game in this country has boxing been suspended in this way. On the only two other occasions when outside circumstances affected the sport, world war was involved. These two great conflicts of the 20th century impacted significantly on the game, and although the number of events and the number of combatants greatly diminished, the sport did continue. Apart from on a few occasions in the 1970s when boxing closed down throughout the high summer, there has never been a complete month when no boxing has taken place. It looks like the present situation could continue for a good while longer than that, and so this situation is extraordinary.
In August 1914, when the First World War commenced, the country had very little notification of the events that led to it. One minute we were at peace, and from nowhere it seemed, we were suddenly at war. The very day after war broke out there was a big show at the Theatre Royal in Belfast and this set the trend for the rest of the month. Boxing continued regardless and it wasn’t until 1915 that there was a noticeable decrease in the amount of boxing that was going on. With so many young men in the trenches there was an obvious shortage of boxers.
In 1939 things were a little different. War was declared on September 3 and all boxing was halted immediately. Two British title bouts – the match between Eric Boon and Dave Crowley which was to have taken place at Harringay, and a contest between Nel Tarleton and Johnny Cusick, scheduled for Liverpool Stadium, were cancelled. Thirteen days passed before professional boxing returned, at The Viaduct Hotel, Crumlin in South Wales. As had been the case in the First World War, professional football and cricket, dependent as they were upon a fixture list, were cancelled for the duration. Boxing, with its less formal structure, continued for as long as individual promoters were willing to take the financial risk of staging shows.
The great industrial cities of the Midlands and the North, including Liverpool, Newcastle and Nottingham, continued to stage important shows for the length of the war, and Belfast positively thrived, running more shows than any other city. In London, regular boxing continued to take place with the Devonshire Club in Hackney and the Stadium Club in Holborn both providing regular entertainment. Both of these venues were bombed out during the Blitz, as was that great bastion of the sport since 1910, the Blackfriars Ring. Earls Court continued to put on the really important shows throughout late 1939 and 1940, but this soon stopped. A new venue, the Queensberry Club in Soho, opened in 1942 and that was where the best boxing in London could be seen. Although the sport was far quieter than it had been before the war, and would be afterwards, it prospered remarkably well throughout the six years that the war lasted. The first important contest to take place during the war was the vacant British flyweight title bout at Carntyne Stadium, Glasgow on September 30 1939, between Jackie Paterson – soon to become Scotland’s second world champion at the weight – and Paddy Ryan of Manchester. Under normal circumstances a crowd of around 20,000 could have been expected, but a quota of 8,000 had been set by the City Council and only 4,000 actually turned up. The fight was a good one, with the exceptional Scotsman always on top and finally knocking Ryan out in the 13th round after a really fast-moving and interesting contest. Let’s hope that when things finally do get back to normal, that the first important bout to take place will be as good.