Caldwell and Gilroy - The Best of Boxing Enemies

Boxing historian Barry Flynn tells the epic story of Belfast battlers John Caldwell and Freddie Gilroy in new book

Belfast is an unforgiving place. Built on the Bog Meadows, for centuries it has fought against geographical adversity to survive. Its people are survivors too. It is a friendly city, though, blessed with humour and kindness. It is also a city renowned, sadly, for fighting.

All too often, the peace of the city has been shattered by unskilled and unregulated violence. However, when fighting is regulated in the form of boxing, Belfast can produce men of class and skill who are a match for anyone in the world.

My book, The Best of Enemies: John Caldwell and Freddie Gilroy, is a tale of boxing in Belfast, of two men whose undoubted flair and ability put the city at the top of the sporting world. That period of greatness was sadly for too short space of time, but while the glory lasted both Caldwell and Gilroy shone ever so brightly at the very pinnacle of an unforgiving sport.

They brought international greatness to Ireland and Belfast as both amateur and professional boxers. They were two exceptional exponents of the noble art who boxed their way to greatness the hard way. For all the glory, this, however, is a tale laced also with tears, anguish and despair. The root cause of the unhappy side of their careers lay purely at the door of money.

For every pound they earned as professionals, there were managers, trainers, seconds, hangers-on and greedy promoters all waiting payment. Especially greedy promoters. What the two boxers were left with after deductions was a pale reflection of the solitude, sweat and tears they put into their sport. That is sadly the all too familiar the story of professional boxing.

Caldwell and Gilroy were truly world class. In an era of real legends, they were right up there with the very best. Between 1959 and 1962, both were listed consistently in the top ten of the world rankings. Boxing today is littered, perhaps, with questionable world champions and world championships – these two men were the proverbial real deal in international terms.

In October 1960, Gilroy was unlucky to lose to Alphonse Halimi for the European version of the world bantamweight title. After that defeat, Gilroy had been promised a rematch. Promoter Jack Solomons and Caldwell’s manager Sam Docherty, however, sensing a succession of lucrative paydays, choose to match Caldwell – then a flyweight – with Halimi.

Despite the protests of the Gilroy camp, Caldwell took the crown with ease in his first outing as a bantamweight. In the week prior to Caldwell’s triumph, Gilroy tasted disaster when he had travelled to Brussels and lost a European title fight to Pierre Cosseymns. As Caldwell stood on top of the world, Gilroy’s career lay in tatters. Hindsight tells us that perhaps it could have been the other way round.

In January 1962, Caldwell journeyed to Brazil meet the legend that was Eder Jofre for the right to be named the undisputed world bantamweight champion. He was well beaten on the night and his chance of immortality was gone forever. Looking back, it could be argued that by 1962 Caldwell and Gilroy had peaked as boxers and there was nothing left for them for them to do, except to fight each other.

That inevitable battle was a truly brutal affair; like two attack dogs sprung from their leashes, they gave each other nine rounds of hate at Belfast’s King’s Hall on Saturday, October 20, 1962. Gilroy won when Caldwell was forced to retire with a cut eye. That is merely a fact in the history books. That raw, spiteful nine rounds of savagery satisfied the innate and animalistic hunger of the 14,000 in attendance.

It most certainly satisfied – in financial terms – the joint-promoters of the bout, Jack Solomons and Belfast’s George Cornell. The blood-fest of the King’s Hall was an affront to boxing and should never have happened. In rivalry, Caldwell and Gilroy’s friendship was finished and finished utterly.

The prospect of a lucrative rematch proved too much for Gilroy. His weight problems became insurmountable. However, in reality, he was sick and tired of boxing. With a hefty fine issued at the behest of promoter Solomons, Gilroy left boxing in November 1963 a very bitter man.

Caldwell’s career limped on until 1965 when, with a damaged nose and suspect eyes, he bid goodbye to the sport. The two Belfast men had been chewed up and spat out by the sport they had loved. They had been salmon swimming in a sea infested by hungry sharks.

Retirement was not good for Caldwell and Gilroy. Both men had their demons to contend with and adjusting to normality was difficult. Gilroy invested his earnings into the Tivoli Bar in Donaghadee, but in 1972, the pub was to become yet another statistic in Northern Ireland’s sectarian hate-fest. He moved to Australia, but four years later arrived back in Ireland looking for work.

For Caldwell, life was harder. Working to make ends meet, he and his family emigrated to Canada. As he recalled, 'For six weeks, I wandered the streets looking for a job. Then I got the offer of one – clearing up sewage. That was the last straw. For the first time in my life, I felt unwanted; like a leper in a strange land. I just packed up and flew home.'

As the two men hit middle age, more problems in the shape of the bottle and relationship difficulties haunted them. The roars of Wembley Arena and the King’s Hall were now just ghostly memories as sad reality struck home. It was sad to watch.

My book is a tribute to both Caldwell and Gilroy. It is a timely reminder of the good times and the struggles both men endured to carve an indelible name for themselves in the history of Irish boxing. It is a salutary lesson too on the unforgiving world of professional boxing. Caldwell and Gilroy were easy prey in the dog-eat-dog world of paid fighting.

For all the agony and courage they displayed throughout their careers, they were left with just pain. Others made fortunes from the blood and tears they shed on the road to the very top. Where all the money they generated ended up? Well, that’s another story altogether.

The Best of Enemies is out now, published by Liberties Press.