Classic Irish Boxing: Freddie Gilroy – A Belfast Boxing Legend
November 20th, 2005 – by Barry Flynn
Freddie Gilroy is a living legend in the world of Irish boxing and holds a record which is second to none. Not only is one of only three men from these shores to hold a Lonsdale Belt, but he was in his day a triple British, European and Commonwealth champion, and in 1956 became the second Irishman ever to claim an Olympic boxing medal.
Born in Belfast’s Short Strand area in 1936, Gilroy’s family soon crossed the Lagan and settled in Northwick Drive in the Ardoyne district. In the austerity of post-war Belfast, Gilroy at the age of eleven found his way to the St John Bosco boxing club in Corporation Street and there began his glittering career.
“My first title came as a schoolboy when I won the club championships at the three stone twelve pounds weight,” recalled Gilroy.
“I then progressed on to the Down and Connor championships, which I won on four occasions, and then claimed the Ulster and Irish juvenile and senior titles, after that I graduated to the Irish team as a flyweight.”
The highlight of Gilroy’s amateur career came at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when he claimed a bronze medal at Bantamweight. However, as he explained, his trip to the Olympics was in doubt due to a dispute which arose on a misunderstanding concerning his weight.
“I was in New York airport and decided to weigh myself on a set of scales,” he said. “The scales showed that I was two stones overweight and word got back to the Olympic board that there was no point in picking me, but I always had difficulty with my weight and shedding two stones would not have been a problem.
“I was the number one choice at that stage so my manager Jimmy McAree created a fuss until the board admitted that there had been a mistake and at the last minute they chose me to represent Ireland in the bantamweight division.” he added.
The Olympic Games, which took place in Melbourne in November 1956, came amid the controversy of the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union. The communist v capitalist ideological battle was in essence played out at those games and particularly in the boxing ring.
Gilroy had no interest in the political sphere but he hit the headlines when he knocked out in his opening bout the Russian favourite for the bantamweight gold medal.
“I remember there was a lot of tension in the air over the Hungary invasion and my fight with the Russian was being seen as a clash of east and west,” he said. “He was the hot favourite but I caught him with a sweet left hook and he went down and was not getting up.
“The crowd were going absolutely wild as this was one in the eye for the Russians but later in the competition I lost to a bad decision in the semi final to an East German and that was that,” he added.
After the Olympics, Gilroy decided to join the paid ranks for Belfast at the time was a hotbed of professional boxing, thriving on a diet of two shows a week, eleven months a year.”I began fighting at bills in the Ulster Hall and I attracted a good following with the place being packed to the rafters each time I fought,” he said
“I recall I got five pounds for my first bout and seven for the second but in those days that was nothing considering the money that the promoters were making.
“Then I was due to fight at the King’s Hall in the under card of one of Billy Kelly’s title fights. I was reluctant to fight as the money offered was peanuts, but I was approached by the Scot Sammy Docherty who offered me £250 to fight so I jumped at that.”
Gilroy went from strength to strength and in 1959 claimed the British bantamweight title at the King’s Hall and the Empire and European titles duly followed.
The next stage in his progress was a world title eliminator in London against Frenchman Alphonse Halimi in October 1960. For the winner a chance to fight world champion Eder Jofre was promised and Gilroy is still sure that the referee made a monumental mistake that evening.
“I had out boxed Halimi in the fight and I was sure that I had won,” he said. “The two of us were in my corner shaking hands when the referee came over to raise the winner’s arm and I’m sure in the confusion that he lifted Halimi’s by mistake but by that stage it was too late to change the decision. It was my first defeat and it really bugged me,” he added.
While Gilroy was setting the pace in the bantamweight stakes, another Olympic medal winner from west Belfast was becoming prominent in the professional bantamweight division.
John Caldwell of the Immaculata club in Devonshire Street had been a British and European champion also and a collision course was set for the Irish boxing clash of the decade. Caldwell had won the Olympic bronze in the flyweight division in 1956 and his progress in the paid ranks made a clash with Gilroy inevitable.
In October, 1962, while the rest of the world watched nervously the developing Cuban Missile Crisis, Belfast was engrossed in the clash of the two local boxing superpowers. The meeting of John Caldwell and Freddie Gilroy captured the imagination of the country as they met for Gilroy’s British and Empire bantamweight titles in the King’s Hall on Saturday, 20th October.
The prize at stake – in theory – was a crack at the Brazilian World champion Eder Jofre and a record crowd of 15,000 from all classes and creeds were packed in that evening to witness a fierce and bloodthirsty encounter.
Gilroy won the fight when the favourite Caldwell was forced to retire with a cut eye at the end of the ninth round but Gilroy was believed to have been well ahead and he is adamant that the fight was a waste of time.
“I didn’t want the fight as I felt it was a stupid fight, a needless fight and it should never have taken place,” he said. “It was billed as a grudge fight between north and west Belfast but John and I were good friends that had travelled the world together so all the hype was way over the top.
“The media really built up the clash as at that time there was nothing else for them to do and I remember the King’s Hall was heaving that night and to be truthful I would have loved to have been in the crowd that night to have savoured the moment.
“I took time out of work and trained solidly for six weeks to lose four stones prior to the fight and I was never as fit as I entered the ring. I knew John inside out and did my homework well as I had every round clear in my head and I boxed to a plan and it worked out well,” he added.
The media that Monday was full of praise for Gilroy’s performance claiming that his powerful body shots had been the downfall of Caldwell. However, an article published in the ‘Irish News’ that Monday claimed that promoter Jack Solomons was to seek a rematch between the fighters and this led eventually to Gilroy’s retirement from the fight game.
Solomons was not surprisingly keen to get a rematch and outlined his reasons why. “The return would be the crowd puller of all time and I am aiming to put it on,” said Solomons. “Gilroy is a great champion and will prove to be a great world champion, but there must be a return, I don’t remember seeing a better fight and Caldwell must get another chance,” he added.
Gilroy was unimpressed by the rematch prospect and felt he had been short-changed. “I was under the impression that the crack against Jofre for the world title was in the bag, but Solomons wanted a rematch,” said Gilroy.
“I had already said that I thought the fight originally was a stupid idea and it was a pointless exercise. Solomons offered me £3,000 but I knew that the bout was a real money spinner so I said I wanted £10,000 to make it worth my while but they refused to meet me.
“Then the British Boxing Board of Control ordered me to defend the title against Caldwell and I told my manager Jimmy McAree that I would have to think about it,” he added.
So confident was Solomons that Gilroy would fight Caldwell again that he organised a press conference in Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel to announce the rematch. However, the most vital person on the bill never turned up at the hotel as Freddie Gilroy had decided he’d had enough.
“My manager Jimmy McAree was trying to coax me into the fight and I had already won one Lonsdale belt and was on my way to claiming a second, but I just walked away on a point of principle.Eventually it was Caldwell who claimed the vacant title and Gilroy retired from the game at the top of his trade.
Gilroy went back to work in his native Belfast and in the early 1970s bought a bar in Donaghadee. However, the venture soon became a victim of the Troubles and Gilroy emigrated for four years to Australia soon after.
On his return to Ireland he moved into his current north Belfast home and is still at sixty-nine a picture of fitness and health. His living room bears testament to his career with his Olympic medal prominent in his display of silverware. However, the much treasured Lonsdale belt was lost many years ago and he points out with regret that one was recently sold at auction for £58,000.
Today he keeps fit by working out three times a week in a gym in the centre of Belfast and forty three years after Belfast’s fight of the century he explained that he is still fondly remembered by the public.
“I would go into the town a couple of times a week and everywhere I go people are saying hello to me,” he said. “So last month I said to my wife Bernadette that I would keep a count on the number of people who greeted me during the day. It worked out that seventy-eight people had greeted me by name and I wouldn’t have known who a quarter of them were,” he added.
So it seems that time has not diminished in the eyes of the Belfast boxing fraternity the achievements of Ardoyne’s Freddie Gilroy. He remains today a symbol of a distant era, of packed, smoke filled halls where only the shrewdest and fiercest survived and long may he enjoy his retirement.