Obituary: Tom Imrie, boxing champion

Scottish boxer Tom Imrie with his European Championship medal in June 1969. Picture: Alan Ledgerwood
Scottish boxer Tom Imrie with his European Championship medal in June 1969. Picture: Alan Ledgerwood
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BORN: 17 June, 1947, in Edinburgh. Died: 16 May, 2015, in Dunfermline, aged 67

Tom Imrie, who has died at the age of 67, was one of Scotland’s best known boxers, a multiple Scottish and British champion particularly noted for his devastating punching power. The pinnacle of his amateur career came in the Commonwealth Games in 1970 when he won the gold medal at light middleweight in Edinburgh, his home town. Amid wild scenes at Murrayfield Ice Rink, he was carried aloft from the ring by his ecstatic supporters.

He had to overcome a formidable opponent in the final, Julius Luipa of Zambia, an Olympian in 1968 and All-African finalist the same year who would go on to win silver again at the next Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974.

It was a close-run victory by majority decision but on one view Tom should never have been in the ring at all that evening.

Stomach ulcer problems had bedevilled his career, and the days preceding the final had been particularly bad for him.

Afterwards he said: “Some people have criticised me for my showing at Murrayfield Ice Rink when I won gold and I knew I was sub-par; I had been suffering terribly from stomach ulcers but I decided to say nothing beforehand and do my best; I was determined to win gold but it was tough, tough.”

In earlier rounds he had demonstrated his punching power by stopping Uganda’s Olympic quarter finalist, David Jackson and then Northern Ireland’s Patrick Doherty. That punching power had first come to wider public attention in 1966 in the final of the ABA (British) Championships.

His opponent, Englishman Mark Rowe, described by one commentator of the time as being “rock hard”, was well ahead on points going into the final round.

With time running out and Tom apparently staring defeat in the face, he somehow unleashed a hammer blow of a left hook which completely 
flattened Rowe, an image forever etched in the minds of all Scottish boxing fans who witnessed it.

This secured him the first of his two ABA titles, the other being in 1969. This was the second time Tom had beaten Rowe, the first being in 1963 when he defeated him to win the ABA Junior title.

However, the sequence was to come to an end later in 1966 in the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, when Rowe edged out Tom in the final with Tom picking up silver.

Tom was born in Tennant Street, Leith, one of four brothers and a sister. He attended St David’s primary school in West Pilton followed by St Anthony’s secondary school in the Lochend district.

By the time the family had moved to the Granton area, boxing began to play a big part in Tom’s early life. There, after Sunday Mass in the local church, St Margaret’s and Mary’s, coach Angus Macdonald encouraged the interest of Tom and brother Mike in the “noble art” in the church hall.

From there it was a natural progression to the now defunct Buccleuch Boxing Club in Granton Square, where the brothers’ boxing careers were properly forged. Mike, who himself won Scottish titles and represented Scotland at Commonwealth Games and European Championships, recalled: “The Buccleuch was a great wee club.

“Although the facilities were primitive by today’s standards there was always a great spirit about the place. It was there that Tom’s fighting instincts began to shine.

“He only really knew one way to fight and that was going forward, determined to finish off opponents with a trademark punch.

“He had the heart of a lion and never knew when he was beaten. Sparring, which is supposed to be less than full throttle, was alien to him and the club coach Jock Stevenson used to despair of Tom as his entreaties ‘to go easy’ on sparring partners fell on deaf ears!”

Such foundations led to a highly successful amateur career which also included four Scottish titles and a highly creditable bronze medal at the European Championships in Bucharest in 1969, when he lost to the eventual winner, Trebugov of the USSR.Given that Iron Curtain boxers then were really professionals in all but name, that was a considerable achievement.

Outside the ring, Tom worked at Leith Docks and then for Scottish Brewers on its delivery lorries alongside another noted Scottish boxer, heavyweight Willie Gilfillan.

At weekends, Tom and Mike were door stewards at the Plaza Ballroom in Morningside where Tom first met his wife to be, May Stark, who was a singer there.

After his Commonwealth Games success, Tom decided to turn professional with London manager Sam Burns.

He and May moved south to live in Bracknell to further his career while she continued singing. His first pro fight was in early 1971 and his last was five years later. Although he had a decent record, winning ten of his 14 bouts, eight by knock-out, he never completely fulfilled his potential as a pro. Joining a London manager who already had big box office names like the Finnegan brothers in his stable was perhaps a mistake.

Also, potential opponents were wary of Tom’s punching power, and as a consequence it was difficult to find bouts. Allied to those factors were his continuing ulcer problems and a back injury, leading him to retire aged 28.

Nevertheless, his was a hugely successful career particularly in the amateur ranks which saw him fight all over the world in a Scottish vest.

For his achievements, he was inducted into the Scottish Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008, which made him immensely proud.

After retiring from the ring, he continued to live down south for some years, working as a scaffolder before returning to Edinburgh and then moving to Dalgety Bay.

Tom Imrie is survived by his wife May, son Darren, daughter Marcelle and brothers Mike and Andy and sister Isobel.

JACK DAVIDSON