RECOGNISED as one of the finest fighters Derry has produced, Charlie Nash reflects back on the magical moment he created history in his own backyard when winning the British lightweight title exactly 40 years ago.
The Creggan southpaw was less than three years into his professional boxing career on February 28th, 1978 when he became the first Derry man to fight for the Lonsdale belt in front of 2,000 fight fans at Templemore Sports Complex.
Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly had previously made ring history when he followed in his father, Jimmy’s footsteps by winning the British and Empire featherweight title at the King’s Hall, Belfast but Nash brought the first ever British title fight to Derry and it captured the imagination at the height of the Troubles.
Coming off the back of a first professional loss four months earlier, Nash (14-1-0) secured a shot at the vacant title against a heavy-handed butcher from West Ham named Johnny Clayton (20-5-1).
It was just three years after Nash had returned empty handed from the European Championships having lost to the eventual gold medallist. At that point the Dunree Gardens man was married to Betty and was a first time father to four year-old daughter, Julie, working full-time operating a guillotine at Nu Print Ltd in Pennyburn and had decided to hang up his gloves following a glittering amateur career.
He was encouraged to turn to the paid ranks and within 36 months he had won the Irish lightweight title and was handed a shot at the coveted British crown 13 fights later.
To win the British title in Derry and then become the first Derry man to win the European title is special.Charlie Nash
With the city behind him and standing room only at the sold-out Complex, Nash produced a memorable performance against the Londoner to spark remarkable scenes.
Nash remembers his late mother, Bridie couldn’t watch the biggest moment of his career and instead paced the floors of a small room in the Complex outside the main hall, grasping her rosary beads and praying while his wife, Betty opted to stay at home.
But they need not have worried as the fight was stopped in the 12th round and her son’s hand was raised in victory. It was not only an historic win but a landmark one which led to a rule change by the British Boxing Board of Control.
Recalling the fight 40 years on, Nash remembers fearing the worst when referee, Roland Dakin took a long look at the nasty cut sustained above his right eye at the end of the 12th round in the scheduled 15 rounder before dramatically bringing the contest to a halt as confusion reigned.
The Derry lightweight was ‘annoyed’ at the sudden turn of events and felt his dream was shattered until consulting with his trainer, Tommy Donnelly in the corner who told him he had actually won the fight and was the new British champion.
With three rounds to go Nash couldn’t be caught on the judges’ scorecards. The BBBoC rules at the time stated if one boxer reached the stage where he was 10 points ahead, then the referee has no option but to stop the fight in his favour. Otherwise you would have the ridiculous position where if he was knocked out in the next round he would still not be behind on points.
Johnny Clayton had to win or at least share the 12th round to stay in the fight. He lost that round and with it the point for him of no return had been reached. It was a rare end to a title fight and one that forced the hand of the governing body to change the rules.
Nash picks up the story . . . “I got a cut above the right eye around the end of round nine or 10. For a couple of rounds Tommy Donnelly was working on the cut but I was thinking ‘that’s all I need is for this fight to get stopped because of a cut’.
“The referee would’ve been firm and stepped in right away to stop the fight if the cut was bad. It gave Clayton the inspiration to keep on top of me and throw more punches. He wasn’t that skilful but was on top of you all the time and the punches were just thrown one after the other.
“I knew I had to keep the distance and when it came to the last couple of rounds I would’ve been counting the rounds in my head and would’ve thought I would win if I could win two of the last four. Whenever it got to round nine or 10 and I was feeling the pressure.
“The referee came over and stopped the fight in the 12th and I went to the corner annoyed because I thought it was because of my cut. All of a sudden Tommy told me ‘Charlie you won the fight’ and I couldn’t believe it.
“The crowd were scared I think at the time because they were in the same position. They saw the referee come over and have a look at the cut and started waving ‘fights over’. He didn’t say you won the fight. He looked at the cut and waved his hands to signal it was over and away he went to the judges.
“The reason why was, he gets the scores between rounds and I was probably 12 points ahead and you get 10 points for a knockout. So even if he won the last two rounds he still couldn’t have won the fight.
“A couple of weeks later I got word from British Boxing Board of Control to say professional boxing scoring was changing. It was entered into their rule book that you got 10 points for a round and half points as well.
“Once I beat Clayton I was over the moon, I was British champion,” he beamed. “The fact it was myself, Billy Kelly and his father, Jimmy, was special. My father would’ve been a good friend of the Kellys and would’ve went out drinking with them.
“Whenever I won the British title I couldn’t believe it happened so quickly after turning professional in my 14th or 15th fight and then I was up the European ratings as well.
“I knew things were going to get better because Jack Solomons was a good promoter and was doing his best to get me to the top. Without the likes of Jack Solomons I don’t think I would’ve had the same career I had in boxing.”
The British title victory announced Nash’s arrival in the professional ranks and was met by unforgettable scenes.
Indeed, a report in the ‘Derry Journal’ at the time described how ‘the majority of people set off in a jubilant mood, sounding their car horns to let everyone know that the Derry boy had won the title.’
In the same article it describes the scene at a victory function at St Mary’s Boxing Club at Fanad Drive where Nash was greeted by a large crowd of well wishers in the rain in the early hours of the morning.
“As he came inside the ‘Tradewinds’ band struck up with ‘Congratulations’ and the crowd who had waited patiently swarmed round Nash and his companions.
“When he got to the stage, Nash raised the Lonsdale belt above his head and there were shouts of ‘Charlie, Charlie.’ Then, as the band played “The Town I Loved So Well”; Tommy Donnelly, John Daly and Patsy Harkin took it in turns to raise the belt above their heads for all to see.”
Charlie remembers those remarkable celebrations like it was yesterday.
“It was special. In the old days you had the success of young ‘Spider’ Kelly. He was very popular in the 50s and boxing was massive in Derry at that time. The crowds that would turn out for his fights were huge.
“Boxing was always second best to soccer. When it came to people’s enjoyment, football was the first thing and Derry City but the next favourite sport would’ve been boxing.
“If we had a hall at the time which held 5,000 we probably would’ve filled that as well. The atmosphere was fantastic. The people behind me gave me the inspiration to try and learn and go as hard as I did go.”
Nash reigned for 18 months as the British champion, successfully winning his following four fights which the British Boxing Board of Control refused to recognise as title defences.
However that title success at Templemore Sports Complex set the tone for what was an outstanding, record breaking career in the sport for Nash. He went on to become the first Derry man to win the European lightweight title when defeating Andre Holyk for the vacant belt in June 1979 and defended it against former world champion, Ken Buchanan in Denmark six months later.
Earning a world title shot at the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow in 1980 against Jim Watt, Nash’s title winning spree came to an end as the Scotsman stopped him in the fourth round.
“The world title is something I really wanted but I obviously wasn’t good enough. I did my best but it’s hard to believe I was the first Derry boxer to win an Irish amateur title and I’m the only Derry boxer to win five. That makes me feel good as it’s a bit of history. To win the British title in Derry and then become the first Derry man to win the European title is special.”
The fight report from that British title success in the ‘Journal’ ended with a fitting tribute to the Creggan man, describing Nash as a ‘true professional’ and a ‘champion in the true Derry tradition’.
“He can go on to greater things and he deserves to, because he is a true professional,” it read. “And he is a champion in the true Derry tradition - not the biff and bash, blood and thunder, kill or be killed brigade - the tradition of skill and poise, plus that streak of originality and ability to read the changing contours that every fight poses, that is talent given and never to be learned.”