The History of Leith

November 26, 2004

Hugh Riley, Flyweight boxer

Born: 11 August, 1929, in Edinburgh.
Died: 22 November, 2004, in Edinburgh, aged 75.

HUGH Riley was born and raised in the southside of Edinburgh into a boxing family presided over by his father and noted boxing coach and cornerman Johnny Riley.

Riley snr was a close associate of the legendary Scottish boxing teacher Charlie Cotter whose gym at the top of the capital’s Leith Street between 1895 and Cotter’s death in 1950 played host to many an international amateur and professional fight game luminaries.

Outstanding names ranging from the 1920 American Olympic light heavyweight champion Eddie Egan who became New York State Athletic Boxing Commissioner in the 1940s; the future Lord Douglas Hamilton who also won a Scottish middleweight amateur title in the 1920s and Scotland’s first-ever Olympic boxing medal winner in 1908 at London, the Musselburgh featherweight Hugh Roddin.

In such an atmosphere, Riley snr had learned well from Cotter and operating himself out of the St James Square-based Melbourne club boxing gym he coached his own eldest son to professional prominence.

This protégè fought under the nom de ring of “Johnny Summers” guiding the latter to Scottish flyweight title challenges in Edinburgh in December in 1946 and Glasgow in 1947.

Then Johnny Summers met Airdrie’s Jackie Bryce who won on both occasions. Nevertheless, the example set by his elder sibling still inspired Hugh Riley to embrace the sport. This he did with alacrity and style, exhibiting in his amateur days a beautiful left jab, classy punch combinations and intelligent ring movement.

These were ring skills which meant that in 1949, Riley proved to be a worthy successor as both Scottish and British flyweight title holder to the 1948 winner of those two prestigious crowns – the Glasgow ring great Peter Keenan.

By now boxing for the Gilmerton club in his native Edinburgh, Riley then went on to Auckland, New Zealand and won the Empire (now Commonwealth) Games flyweight gold medal – the first-ever Scot to do so and the first of three capital based boxers (Jackie Brown at Cardiff in 1958 and Paul Shepherd in Canada in 1994) overall to do so.

Soon the pro ranks beckoned to this youthful Edinburgh plumber with the fast, skilful, educated left jab and ring skills which led to him boxing the notoriously ruthless Scottish bantamweight champion, also from Edinburgh, Eddie Carson.

This bout took place in October 1953 at Leith’s Eldorado Stadium over 12 rounds for the Scottish flyweight title.

A gentle man outside the ropes noted for his good humour, Riley was always bitter about Carson’s utterly ruthless disregard for the rules and top Edinburgh referee Eugene Henderson’s alleged handling of the bout which Riley lost controversially on points.

Many times subsequently when I discussed this ring battle with Riley which was one of the dirtiest on record in Edinburgh, he claimed that Henderson had repeatedly ignored Carson’s misuse of the head while he (Riley) tried to be legitimate.

Whatever the case, the result meant that Riley had also reprised his elder brother’s unhappy record of never winning a title bout at the Eldorado venue.

Nevertheless, Riley won many more pro bouts than he ever lost and in early 1954 he emigrated to the United States.

Across the Atlantic he made such a favourable impression on the hard bitten American West Coast fight-game crowd that he subsequently boxed on the same bill as then world middleweight champion, Sugar Ray Robinson, in Los Angeles in 1956.

Indeed, in a 1990s interview Riley told me that in their shared dressing-room, Robinson was so taken with his diminutive 5ft 2in stature and Scottish accent that the fabled five times winner of the world middleweight crown had a picture taken of Riley sitting on his knee.

Although he never quite scaled the heights he had achieved as an amateur boxer, Riley remains one of the best flyweight boxers ever produced by Scotland.

His death from cancer earlier this week subsequent to returning from the US many years ago was linked to working with asbestos as a young plumber.

He is survived by wife Patsy, his son, Graham, and daughter, Sharon.

Some Text