Tom Imrie tale shows difficulties of pro switch

Edinburgh fighter Tom Imrie's medal collection included a European Championship bronze in 1969.  Picture: Alan Ledgerwood
Edinburgh fighter Tom Imrie's medal collection included a European Championship bronze in 1969. Picture: Alan Ledgerwood
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Charlie Flynn, the Newarthill boxer who memorably won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, makes his professional debut there tomorrow well aware that a successful amateur career is no guarantee of success in the paid ranks. The part-time mail worker’s colourful off-the-wall quotes endeared him to the public, with such wonderful lines as he was “buzzing like a jar of wasps”, after winning gold.

Such appealing bon mots combined with his all-action ring style amounted to a deposit on future box-office 
appeal in the professional game. But zany quotes should not fool anyone into thinking that Flynn’s feet are other than well and truly planted on the ground, as befits a tyro pro boxer. 
Reflecting on the difference between pro and amateur boxing, Flynn said the pro game was “a bit of a maze” and “a bit like jumping into a lawnmower”. The “Mailman” is under no illusion as to the challenges ahead but, with a top-class team around him in trainer Peter 
Harrison, manager Aex Morrison and promoter Eddie Hearn, is confident he can again “deliver”.

Audley Harrison is a recent example of a top amateur failing to make a real success as a pro. Going further back, Edinburgh’s Tom Imrie did not fully realise his potential as a pro despite a glittering amateur career, even more impressive than Flynn’s.

In the 1960s, Imrie won a clutch 
of Scottish titles, two ABA titles, a European bronze, a Commonweath Games silver in Jamaica and, in the Edinburgh Games in 1970, gold.

Turning pro the next year with manager Sam Burns in London, Imrie enjoyed a decent career, winning ten of his 14 fights, eight by a knockout, without winning any titles. Illustrative of his fighting style, three of his four defeats came by knockout.

Mike Imrie, Tom’s younger brother and an accomplished boxer himself with Scottish titles and European and Commonwealth Games appearances to his name, recalls: “Tom only knew one way to fight and that was going forward. He would happily ship a few so he could land his hammer blow – he was a devastating puncher. People used to say I was the more stylish boxer, but I didn’t have Tom’s KO punch.”

That punching power was never more tellingly employed than in the ABA final in Wembley Arena in 1966, when 19-year-old Tom fought Mark Rowe, future British and Commonwealth pro champion. By the start of the third round, Rowe was well ahead on points. With time running out and the title virtually in the Englishman’s grasp, Tom clawed victory from the jaws of defeat, unleashing a lethal left hook that poleaxed Rowe – an image etched forever in the minds of all 
Scottish boxing fans fortunate enough to witness it.

A further ABA title followed while, in 1969, Tom won bronze at the Europeans in Bucharest, losing to eventual winner Trebugov of Soviet Russia. This was an outstanding achievement given that then boxers from the Eastern bloc countries were really professionals.

The following year featured Tom’s crowning glory when he defeated Zambia’s Julius Luipa at Murrayfield Ice Rink to win Commonwealth gold. Mike remembers: “In fact, Tom should never have been in the ring at at all that night.He had been really unwell with stomach trouble for days because of an ulcer he’d had for years. But that was typical of him, he was determined to win gold – nothing would stop him. He was 
carried shoulder high out the ring – it was a great night.

“Although I didn’t reach the finals myself, I’ve great memories of the 
1970 Games. The athletes’ village at the Pollock Halls was tremendous. You saw Kip Keino going training over Arthur’s Seat, I played David Hemery at table tennis, warning him beforehand with a mock clenched fist that ‘this was an international’ and I remember being approached before our team photo by a well-spoken lady and being asked to ‘keep an eye on’ her 14-year-old son in his debut Games… David Wilkie the swimmer!”

It all began for the battling Imrie brothers at their local church in Granton before they joined the now defunct Buccleuch Boxing Club there. Even at a young age, Tom’s characteristics were well to the fore. Jock Stevenson, one of the trainers, used to implore Tom to take it “easy” during sparring but to no avail as sparring partner after partner bit the dust. Mike joked: “Old Jock would have been as well shouting at him in Swahili or Serbo-Croat for all the difference it made – Tom just couldn’t curb his instincts. He really was a tiger in the ring. There was a great spirit about the club then, lots of youngsters training. Malcolm Mackenzie, who once almost knocked out the great Dick McTaggart, was a regular, as were George Smith, who refereed the first Clay-Cooper fight and John Douglas, the international rugby player. All we had was a ring, some punchbags, speedballs and cold showers – it wouldn’t be 
allowed nowadays!”

Amateur boxing then in Scotland was particularly vibrant. These were the days of Scotland having international contests against Russia, South Africa, West and East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Spain, Poland and, of course, England, many of which were televised. Championships were often held in the Music Hall in George Street, which Mike recalls “was a great venue”. He added: “The atmosphere was fantastic under the big crystal chandeliers with fans packed in tightly close to the ring. Preliminaries and finals were fought on the same night and Tom and I sometimes had four fights each in an evening.”

Given his attributes – a big punch and a big heart – it may seem that Tom was ideally suited to pro boxing. Yet Mike points out: “That’s so, but I think he made a mistake going to an English- based manager. Burns’ stable of boxers were all London-based and I think if Tom had signed up to a Scottish-based manager he’d have done better. You see at that time Burns had on his books the Finnegan brothers, Chris and Kevin. Both were European pro champions and, of course, Chris had won Olympic gold. They were big box-office names and carried more pulling power than Tom. As a result, Tom struggled to get the fights he needed and deserved to really make his mark and ended up calling it a day in 1976 aged 29. His career wasn’t helped either by that stomach ulcer and later on he had a troublesome back injury. But I’m in no doubt if he’d been properly looked after, he could have achieved more than he did.”

That said, it was a career to be proud of and, in 2008, he was inducted into the Scottish Boxing Hall of Fame, something which gave Tom, unfortunately not enjoying the best of health, much pleasure. Boxing is a sport that echoes 
to claims of “I could have been a contender”. Tom was certainly that and more as he notched titles and lit up rings all over the world. His experience shows that ability and desire by themselves are not enough to guarantee fame and fortune in the pros. It is to be hoped that with his first-class support team around him, Charlie Flynn can take it a stage further than Tom by 
winning a professional title to accompany that famous Commonwealth gold.