The Sorrow and the Pity: Benny Lynch
Benny’s two final bouts were pathetic. Both times he failed to make weight and the last was lost in a fog of deluded whiskey…
Sport is a pastime enjoyed by men and women to release the frustrations built up from their working lives, an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature. It can be played in a team setting or conducted individually. There are many sports, but no sport compares to boxing. It is often described as brutal and barbaric, a pastime committed to the past if its detractors had their way. But those of us who love the fight game point to its deep and rich history. What other modern-day sport can lay claim to carvings from the Sumerian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite empires depicting men fist-fighting? Mankind has always craved warriors. The Romans made heroes of them.
Boxing first had rules in 1743 with the advent of the London Prize Ring Rules and was updated by John Graham Chambers in 1865, which became widely known as the Queensberry Rules. There is no sport like boxing, period. Yes, it has its dark side, the mob-controlled years of the 20th century attest to that, but what sport can raise its heroic figures from the depths of human suffering like this wonderful discipline? It’s fair to say there is no other professional sport that has provided an outlet for men to advance themselves from their impoverished backgrounds to stardom and incredible wealth. The poverty that the vast majority of boxing’s participants seek to escape is the driving force for their success in the ring. There can be no greater incentive for a young boy growing up in a ghetto, shantytown, barrio or inner-city slum to advance themselves from the destitution of their environs. They can earn a coin way beyond their imagination and far in excess of what circumstance had allotted them. Hungry, desperate and angry youths make for potential world-beaters. It is this very humble background that propels them onto valorous feats. Having to fight each and every day, be it for food or against fellow street urchins, prepares these slips of boys for the future battles that define them.
It’s rare to find a boxing great born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Those boys wouldn’t know the feeling of not knowing when the next meal was coming from. Education and enlightenment create different heroes to worship. The boys from the wrong side of the tracks have a different outlook. They see their heroes in the ring earning huge purses and participating in something they’ve been engaging in since they were old enough to walk their streets. Money and fame are ample compensation for monotonous roadwork, skipping and medicine balls! The only blight for many of these duelling superstars is the extreme difficulty in knowing when to quit and how to be wise with their hard-earned finances. The boxer Benny Lynch is one such individual, and his is a story of abject poverty, triumph and premature death.
Like other fine champions, Benjamin John Lynch was born impoverished, on April 2, 1913 in an area of Glasgow known as the Gorbals. It was built to house the hordes of immigrants, mainly Irish but also Eastern Europeans, working in the industrial areas of Glasgow. The Gorbals was chronically overcrowded, with many families living in just the one room with a kitchen off to the side. Some of these families had up to ten children. The room would be part of a tenement block where several families would coexist on one crowded block. Benny’s block was home to fourteen families. His family life, like the lives of many in the area, was dysfunctional. His father John took heavily to the drink and Benny’s mum, Lizzie, succumbed to the attentions of another man. When she left to set up home with another fellow, Benny and his brother were packed off to live with an uncle and aunt and their seven children in another one room, one kitchen dwelling. Benny loved his time with his new family. His auntie was a dab hand in the kitchen and the home, if it could be called a home, was always filled with joy and laughter despite the privations.
The mindlessness of religious bigotry was inherent in Glasgow society at this time, so with the influx of Irish Catholics to the area, confrontation with the Protestant locals was inevitable. Street gangs would prowl the streets looking for victims to brutalize. The fact they may have practised a different faith was as good a reason as any to vent their frustrations in physical combat. A boy had to be fast on his feet if he didn’t want to come home covered in bruises and welts. It was around the time Benny was eleven that a boxing club, St. Johns, was set up in his area to keep the boys off the streets and free the local constabulary up from chasing the young scallywags. Benny’s older brother James proved to be a real natural at boxing with some of the old champions forecasting big things for him.
St. Johns would provide Benny with an outlet to show the locals his tenacity in the ring. His many scraps with Tony Kilcoyne, even though they were mere slips of lads, had crowds transfixed and they were christened “the mighty midgets” for their derring-do and ferocity. That led to the boys fighting in Tom Berry’s booth before the main bouts and even getting paid for it! His brother spent many an hour instructing wee Benny on the fundamentals but tragedy and misfortune were to strike. James Lynch suffered a head injury whilst at work, contracted meningitis and passed away swiftly. First Benny’s father befriended the bottle over his family; then his mother preferred the company of someone other than her husband and boys; and then, most painfully of all, his best mate, confidante and role model was taken from him in heartbreaking circumstances. James’ passing took the enjoyment of boxing away from Benny so he gave it in in favor of scrapping in the streets. One altercation too many led to a court fine and the memory of his brother’s teachings and the anger he would have felt at Benny’s behavior reinvigorated his lust for the ring. When Benny set his mind to something he was all in, no half measures for the wee man. He would resume his boxing and make his brother proud.
Benny’s great fortune was finding a manager who was like a brother, father and mother rolled into one. Sammy Wilson was not your typical avaricious manager who manipulated and fleeced his charge. He was a successful street bookmaker and held in high esteem by the men of the area. Being a former boxer of some standing himself, he understood what it took to make a mark in the sport. Sammy knew that nothing could build stamina like running, not your flat-track running but hill running to build up the legs so that when the fifteenth bell rings you can jump up off the stool still full of energy. Sammy also had Benny sparring after lunch, up to twenty rounds a day to improve his upper body and thicken his neck in order to better absorb punches to the jaw. But Sammy was a man of action too. He would join Benny on the tortuous runs and get in the ring to spar. Sammy, like James before him, imparted to Benny the subtleties of the fight game. It was better to hit than be hit. Variations of body movement were vital in making opponents ineffective. Bobs, weaves and feints were the order of the day.
Benny made his professional debut in 1931 as a flyweight with a stoppage of Young Bryce. Bouts during that era came with regularity. It was not uncommon for these hardy fellows to engage in a fight a week, but the purses were ordinary at best. Oftentimes after Benny had paid his second he wouldn’t even be earning an average weekly wage. However, he was gaining vital knowledge about the sweet science. Benny was not a devastating puncher so his cognition of the sport was soaked up in the vast majority of his fights going the distance. He suffered eight reverses in his first fourteen months as a professional, but each loss was another step in his and Sammy’s path to world title eminence. To top it off and incredible as it may seem, Sammy took not one single penny from Benny’s purses in these novice years. He would only take his percentage when Benny hit the big time. Not only had Sammy invested time and money into Benny, he’d invested his heart. To aid in Benny’s continued development it was agreed for him to join up with Len Johnson’s boxing booth that toured the country. This was one of the preeminent booths in the United Kingdom. Johnson was a former British Empire middleweight champion and he ran a tight ship and only employed boxers of note. Reasonable money could be earned and not all the fights would be on the level. Often a fix would be in to gee up the onlookers. The money was good and more importantly the repetition of training was invaluable. The added tasks such as setting up the tents, carrying heavy canvas and hammering away at pegs was all good seasoning for Benny’s physique.
Sammy progressed the level of fighter Benny was facing. His sternest test to date was a points victory over former Scottish flyweight champ, Jim Maharg. Then in June of 1934 Benny wrested the Scottish flyweight title from Jim Campbell over fifteen hard rounds; he repeated the decision six weeks later with a more dominating performance. Defeats of the French and Spanish champions followed.
Despite compiling a fabulous resume, there were a couple of distractions creeping into Benny’s strict discipline. An on-off courtship of Anne McGuckian resulted in the pair running off to Gretna to wed, though they were living apart several months later. A far more formidable complication came in the form of an insidious evil, alcohol. Despite coming in intermittent binges, its execrable seeds had been sown. It’s possible the disease had been inherited from his father. Maybe the way of life in the Gorbals needs shoulder some of the blame. Either way, Benny’s ascension to manhood and to some extent Sammy’s dwindling hold over him saw Lynch take both more and less control of his life path. Yet another damaging intrusion was the hangers-on that infiltrated his circle. The backslappers basking in the young star’s luminance were joined by the self-serving who wanted a piece of the action the young pugilist could secure.
Sammy’s hold was still strong enough to get a match with the flyweight champion of the world, Manchester’s Jackie Brown in a non-title fight. Although Lynch wanted to finish Brown off, Sammy insisted he take things easy, as he wouldn’t be given the opportunity for a future tilt at the strap. The politics and machinations of match-ups in boxing were as common in the pre-war years are they are today! A twelve-round draw saw Benny afforded an eliminator bout for the world crown versus Tommy Pardoe. A career high purse of three hundred pounds saw Benny survive an early knockdown to administer a prolonged beating till his hand was raised in a late technical stoppage. Finally, a tilt at the flyweight world championship belt had presented itself.
The hordes of Scots who made their way south to Manchester is reminiscent of many sporting encounters over the years where a Scottish team or individual is pitted against the Auld Enemy. There is no better feeling for those north of the border to get a result against the English. Jackie Brown had been the champion of the world for three years, but on September 9th, 1935 he was blown away by the maelstrom Benny discharged upon him. The champion tasted the canvas eight times in less than six minutes of frenetic action. When the dust settled, Benny Lynch had scaled his utopia to claim the world flyweight championship. Upon his return to Glasgow on the train, the city was brought to a standstill. Acclaimed as the country’s first world champion, though that honor belongs to Johnny Hill, Benny brought the oft-maligned Gorbals area to the world’s consciousness.
Three points victories in December of that year followed his upset of Brown, but these were non-title defenses. Maybe it was the increasing alcohol intake, the newfound “friends” trying to feather their own nests at Benny’s expense, or perhaps Benny thought he knew better, but his relationship with Sammy Wilson degenerated. The hangers-on got into Benny’s head and convinced him that his purse for a fight in Belfast was derisory despite the fact it was the biggest ever paid in the province. A furious argument sealed the split. The only man who had Benny’s interests ahead of his own was disposed of. Benny lost the fight in Belfast on points but his loss could be attributed to facing a southpaw, which was and still is the bane of the orthodox fighter. Sammy might have found a solution to the problem Benny faced in the partisan environs of Kings Hall, but his sagacity was no longer required.
Whereas before Benny would be fighting up to thirty times a year, now he was a name and would be lucky to get through half a dozen bouts. When the fights were coming thick and fast, Benny would be in training every day of the year. Now he would only train for a fight. Torpor had set in. Making weight used to be a breeze, the fasting and privations to the body suffered by so many were alien to this son of Scotland. Now he had to imbibe laxatives and wear countless layers of clothing to boil down. He made a successful defense of his title with a stoppage of Pat Palmer in the eighth round in September 1936, which appeared to paper over the troubles he was facing in and out of the ring. However, his new companion Crawfords Whiskey was making more demands of him. His fortitude and constitution were such that despite the constant caress the demon elixir afforded him, he was able to continue his success in the squared circle.
The torture Benny was creating for himself outside the ring finally manifested itself in March 1937 when he took on the challenge of Len Hampston. He’d been discovered on the eve of the fight in such a state of intoxication his handlers tried to coerce the Hampston camp to fix the fight so the follow-up bout could have more meaning. Naturally the offer was refused and Benny suffered five rounds of torture, continuously being felled by body punches, which was a sure-fire indicator of his lax approach to preparation. The rematch sated some of the indignation Benny felt at the previous humiliation, but worse was to follow.
It could be argued one of Benny’s finest moments came in his defeat of Englishman Peter Kane in their first bout in October 1937. Kane, the future flyweight champion, had bested Benny’s southpaw nemesis Jimmy Warnock to secure his opportunity and what transpired was thirteen rounds of the finest action Britain had ever witnessed in the weight class. 40,000 came to see the clash and the locals of Glasgow were left in awe of their hero. It was to be the last time Benny would truly regale his countrymen with his sublime talent. A subsequent draw with Kane was followed by a fight with America’s contender for the title, Jackie Jurich. Benny lost his title on the scales, and despite stopping the outclassed American in the twelfth, the slippery slope was calling. The inland-revenue was asking questions and Benny, despite his accumulation of wealth, was down on his uppers. If Sammy Wilson was still in favor it’s certain his situation wouldn’t be so parlous, yet who can tell a world champion what to do? Benny’s two final bouts were pathetic. Both times he failed to make weight and the last was lost in a fog of deluded whiskey and resulted in the first knockout of his career. The finest boxer Scotland sired had thrown his last punch. He was just twenty-six years of age.
Benny sought refuge from the ravages of his alcoholic stupor with the monks of Mount Melleray in the Republic of Ireland. The kindly monks did their best and managed to alleviate the suffering and hallucinations his pickled body deceived him with. His rehabilitation complete, Benny left the kindly friars to return to his country of birth, but reverted back to his old ways. There was always a stranger offering him a drink but unbeknownst to them, they were killing him with their kindness. A pathetic shadow of his former self, pneumonia set in and took away what was left of his damaged vitality. He left this world on August 7, 1946. The cause of death was malnutrition. Benny Lynch was thirty-three.
Benny’s is a tale of beating the cards that life dealt him. His charisma, dedication and supreme gifts saw him reach the zenith of his sport. His human weakness was a nadir that cost him his life and left the world a poorer place. Benny Lynch was one of the flyweight greats, winning eighty-eight, losing fourteen and drawing seventeen times. With Sammy Wilson by his side till the end of his career it could be argued this artisan would have annexed the bantamweight world title too. What is not in doubt is that he was simply the greatest little man Scotland has ever produced and the relatively small country has a rich history of such warriors. Benny, hero of the Gorbals, champion of the world.