Spectacular success story of Burnley's Jock McAvoy

ANOTHER Hurricane Hits Our Shores, screamed the American newspaper headline.

The date was December 21st, 1935 and British boxer, Jock McAvoy, had just sensationally defeated Eddie Risko, middleweight champion of the world.

Overnight, McAvoy became a sporting celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jack Dempsey, the famous heavyweight ex-champion, described him as the greatest British fighter he'd seen in 20 years.

It was a spectacular success story for the boxer whose humble origins began in the town of Burnley.

Originally born Joseph Bamford on November 20th, 1907, McAvoy was the son of Nellie Ginty and Joe Bamford.

Nellie had moved from Salford to Burnley to find work as a weaver in one of the town's many factories.

She soon married local man George Hardacre and they settled in the Habergham Eaves area of the town.

This first marriage was not a happy one however, and Nellie eventually left to take up with another Burnley man, a powerfully built labourer called Joe Bamford.

They moved to Luther Street, where Nellie gave birth to the future boxing star. This domestic set up was considered somewhat scandalous for the time and circumstances were undoubtedly difficult for the family.

Very little is known about McAvoy's early life in Burnley and he rarely spoke publicly of these formative years. There is little doubt, however, that these initial hardships contributed to the fierce determination that was the hallmark of McAvoy's fighting style.

Shortly after the end of the Great War, the Bamford family was forced to relocate to Rochdale to find work. It was here that young Joseph's boxing career began, making his professional debut in 1927.

Fearing his mother might disapprove of his chosen career, he decided to box under the name of Jack McCoy. However, a confused ring announcer introduced him as "Jock McAvoy" instead and the name struck.

McAvoy soon realised he had a talent for prizefighting. His style was modelled on that of his great idol, Jack Dempsey. Boring in his opposite number, he would first soften them up with punishing body blows before invariably acquainting them with the canvas floor of the ring. As one beaten opponent said afterwards: "Defending myself against him was like trying to force a genie back into its bottle!"

In the early part of his career, McAvoy fought several times in the local area.

His first contest in Burnley took place at the New Market Stadium, where regular Thursday night shows were held. The luckless opponent, Frank Ormerod of Nelson, was dispatched within a round by a tremendous right hand punch.

His next fight at the stadium, against Billy Chew of Darwen, was a more competitive affair. McAvoy eventually triumphed on points but it is said that the roar of the crowd could be heard all over the town as the two fighters tore furiously into each other.

On another occasion, in front of a sell-out crowd at the Palace Theatre, Rawtenstall, McAvoy nearly caused a riot. After his opponent had been subjected to a fearful beating, the referee mercifully stopped the contest in the second round. In those days a crowd did not readily accept an early stoppage and pandemonium broke out in the hall. The crowd only calmed down when the defeated opponent made a short speech in the centre of the ring, assuring them he had never before been hit so hard and could not possibly have continued.

McAvoy quickly rose through the ratings and in 1933 secured a British title fight against the Cornishman, Len Harvey.

Harvey was the darling of the domestic boxing scene and would eventually go on to win a version of the world light-heavyweight championship and achieve British titles in three weight divisions.

However, on the night of April 10th, 1933, McAvoy was unstoppable, thrilling the crowd at Belle Vue's Kings Hall as he fought his way to a close, but deserved, points victory.

McAvoy now set his sights on global success.

In 1935 he was to get his chance. A fight was made against world middleweight champion, Eddie "Babe" Risko, at New York's Madison Square Garden, the famous mecca of boxing.

To the despair of McAvoy, however, the bout was arranged above the middleweight limit so the American's title would not be at stake.

The 1930s were a time when boxing in the United States was ruled by gangsters and the Mob would not accept the risk of a "Limey" taking the championship back to England, away from their control.

Even with no title to be won, McAvoy's Lancashire pride made him determined to put on a show in front of the American fans.

Racing out from his corner as the first bell rang, he immediately unleashed a stunning right hand punch which cracked against his opponent's jaw and dropped him to the floor. After Risko rose unsteadily, stunned ringsiders watched as McAvoy hounded the poor champion, landing ferocious punches to body and head. Bedlam erupted in the arena as the Americans watched an Englishman attack in a manner which they thought only their own fighters could display.

The fans were also highly amused at the way McAvoy gnawed and tugged on the thumbs of his boxing mitts during the brief lulls in action. In fact, this had always been a habit of his in the ring, arising from him having small hands and being unable to get gloves to fit them.

Eventually, after one of the most one-sided beatings ever seen in an American ring, Risko was knocked down for the sixth and final time. It was all over in three minutes of wild, exhilarating ferocity.

Afterwards, hordes of cigar-chomping New York reporters raced to the winner's dressing room, hungry for a quote from this new sensation.

"Was you scared?" asked one. "Nay lad, nay" responded McAvoy in a thick Lancastrian accent that had the newsmen asking for an interpreter.

However, after such a comprehensive pummelling, Risko and his connections refused to let any return match for the title take place.

McAvoy was forced to campaign against men in a higher weight category who were naturally bigger and stronger than him. The quick victory against Risko also disguised the fact that he had begun to suffer from the boxer's curse, fragile hands.

In a subsequent bout for the world light-heavyweight championship, against the American John Henry Lewis, McAvoy started brightly before the pain-killing injection in his right hand wore off. Forced to fight one-handed for the latter part of the contest, he was badly out-boxed by the end.

His only other chance at a world title came in 1939, against his old rival, Len Harvey. The match-up, staged at the old White City Stadium, took place in front of a crowd estimated to be in excess of 90,000.

McAvoy was past his peak by this stage but the bout was still a desperately close affair. At the end of 15 hard-fought rounds, Harvey was declared the winner on the judges score cards. McAvoy, and many at ringside, felt the decision should have gone the other way.

The brave loss was to prove the last glorious night in McAvoy's ring career.

He continued to box but was no longer the force of previous years and eventually retired in 1945.

Sadly, life outside the ring proved difficult to adjust to.

Always an awkward and abrasive character, McAvoy had several run-ins with the law and narrowly avoided jail following a cheque fraud incident.

However, the biggest blow came when he contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. Still a relatively young man, he was unable to work and became bitterly depressed.

After his ring earnings eventually dwindled, he was reduced to selling postcards of himself in his fighting prime on Blackpool promenade.

Several more episodes of bad fortune followed, including the break-up of his marriage and the drug overdose death of his youngest son.

On November 20th 1971, his 64th birthday, Jock McAvoy took his own life. It was a sad end to the life of one of this country's most exciting and successful boxers.

Out of a total of 147 recorded contests, McAvoy won 132, 91 inside the distance. He was never knocked out or stopped throughout his entire career. In 2003, the bible of boxing, Ring magazine, listed him as one of the hundred hardest punchers of all time, rating him above such famous fighters as Nigel Benn.

McAvoy ultimately never won the world title he craved so much. Despite this, he can nonetheless legitimately claim to be the greatest sportsman ever to emerge from the town of Burnley.