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Men’s Boxing When boxing came to Celtic Park and almost caused a riot

JOHN WIGHT discusses the rich history of the stadium, focussing particularly on the controversy caused by Sean O’Grady’s visit in 1980, which he witnessed firsthand

CELTIC PARK in the East End of Glasgow has an interesting history with the sport of boxing.

On June 2 1937, for example, the stadium hosted Glasgow’s legendary flyweight champion Benny Lynch’s non-title bout against Belfast’s Jimmy Warnock, which the Scot lost on points. 

Just over a decade later on May 18 1949 Celtic Park hosted a British lightweight title contest between Harry Hughes and Billy Thompson. This was a classic Scotland v England clash which ended in victory for England’s Thompson by TKO in the 5th round.

Along the way a litany of boxing legends have visited Celtic Park without fighting there too, up to and including Muhammad Ali, who appeared in 1965 to generate publicity for the exhibition bout he fought against sparring partner and close friend Jimmy Ellis at Paisley ice rink in August of that year.

Other notables of the sweet science to have pitched up in the East End of Glasgow at different points in Celtic’s long history include Jim Corbett and Sugar Ray Robinson. 

Of all the fighters who have visited Celtic Park, however, none caused more controversy than Oklahoma’s Sean O’Grady.

The date was Saturday October 25 1980 and Celtic were playing Kilmarnock in what turned out to be a comfortable 4-1 victory for the home side.

But this otherwise pedestrian league fixture was made remarkable by the appearance on the pitch at half-time by the Oklahoman.

In town in advance of his fight against Scotland’s then WBC lightweight champion Jim Watt at the old Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, O’Grady’s team approached Celtic and asked if the fighter known as the “Bubblegum Bomber” could appear to help promote the fight.

Celtic chairman Desmond White and the rest of the club’s board were happy to oblige. Little did they anticipate what was about to unfold. 

Your writer was actually in the crowd to witness the occasion live. I was 14, a passionate Celtic supporter at the time, and among a packed throng of other Celtic fans in the Jungle — the old Celtic Park’s famed stand and suitably named given the noise generated by the fans who used to pack its terraces — I watched with only mild interest as O’Grady was announced and emerged from the tunnel resplendent in a ten gallon cowboy hat, cowboy boots and denim jacket.

Who is this guy? I recall thinking, just as I’m sure the vast majority of Celtic supporters did as this little known US fighter smiled and waved to the crowd.

It was then that, crossing the pitch and approaching the Jungle, he removed his jacket to reveal a Celtic top underneath.

In response the place went crazy, with thousands of Celtic supporters erupting into a resounding chant of “There’s only one Sean O’Grady… one Sean O’Graaady! There’s only one Sean O’Grady!”

Moments later a fight broke out in the then unsegregated Rangers end, caused by Kilmarnock supporters taking umbrage at Celtic fans supporting the American over Scottish champion, Jim Watt.

This is the point at which the Jungle broke out into perhaps the loudest and most passionate rendition of A Soldier’s Song — Irish national anthem and rebel song combined — I think I ever experienced in all my time following the club. 

It confirmed that when invited to choose, for many if not most Celtic supporters it is Ireland not Scotland where their primary loyalty lies, reflective of the turbulent social history of Scotland’s Irish Catholic migrant population and the bitter divisions wrought by the country’s malign culture of sectarianism in consequence.

O’Grady had unwittingly opened up this particular Pandora’s box and the backlash was fierce.

Celtic chairman Desmond White came in for harsh criticism in the press, accused of providing the American with a platform due to his Irish-American heritage and exploiting the tensions surrounding the  Catholic-Protestant divide within Scottish society. 

The fact that Jim Watt — a fighter who conducted himself with grace and dignity — was known to be a Rangers man set the scene for the ugly charged atmosphere in the lead up to the fight and at the actual fight itself.

In all but name it was now more than a title fight it was Celtic v Rangers inside a boxing ring, which the fight itself reflected.

Fought in the era of 15-round championship fights, no quarter was asked and none given.

O’Grady at 21 possessed decent feet, good movement and he was heavy handed. Coming in having lost only once in his pro career to this point, and that back in 1976, he had reason to feel confident.

Watt had won the title in 1979 against Alrdeo Pitalua and successfully defended it three times against Robert Vasquez, Charlie Nash, and most notably against America’s Howard Davis Jnr in front of a sold-out crowd at Ibrox Stadium, home to his beloved Rangers FC.

Notwithstanding, his defence against the American turned out to be one of his toughest.

The fight was a nip-and-tuck attritional affair, made so by Watt especially, whose judicious use of the head in the clinches left O’Grady’s corner feverishly combatting cuts between rounds from the middle of the fight on.

Watt himself received cuts over both eyes during proceedings and began bleeding heavily from the nose.

Sensing that he was in danger of losing, and urged on by veteran trainer Terry Lawless, Watt came out for the 10th and went straight on the front foot, pushing the American back.

A controversial clash of heads late in the round left a nasty gash on O’Grady’s forehead and with the blood streaming down over his eyes, French referee Raymond Balderouy stopped the fight in the 12th to give Watt the nod and ensure the title stayed put in Scotland.

O’Grady received a death threat on the morning of the night of the fight, threatening to kill him and everyone in his team.

The letter was signed by a group calling itself the Protestant Army and clearly it would have affected him going into the ring.

After the fight Watt’s promoter Mickey Duff had nothing kind to say about the American’s team, dominated by his parents: “If I don’t see Mr and Mrs O’Grady again it won’t worry me at all. Their behaviour was impossible. It seemed to me that they wanted to create irritation and controversy.” 

The O’Gradys, it should be noted, had been promised 5-star accommodation during their stay in Glasgow by Duff, but instead found themselves booked into 3-star accommodation way out on the outskirts of the city.

As for the champ, Jim Watt, his words were characteristically measured: “I had my stitches done first and then went to see him. He was very gracious, everything he said was nice.”

The memory of that cold day standing in the Jungle at Celtic Park — a naive skinny 14-year-old with his ears ringing as thousands of fans belt out A Soldier’s Song in tribute to a hitherto unknown American boxer — has never left me. 

You can be sure that it’s never left Sean O’Grady either.

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