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Johnny Hill, Scotland's first boxing world champion 1928

Johnny Hill

© Hulton Getty

These days, most people think Benny Lynch was Scotland's first world boxing champion when the truth lies in an earlier and equally tragic tale.

In 1928 Edinburgh flyweight Johnny Hill was recognised by America's most powerful boxing authority – the New York State Commission – as the world champion.

Born in 1905 in Edinburgh's Brunswick Road only yards from the same Sparta Amateur Boxing Club that would produce world champion Ken Buchanan, Hill won the British, European and world titles in just 18 months, a record never equalled to this day by any other Scottish boxer.

Benny Lynch had to wait nearly two years until January 1937 to get unqualified American recognition as world flyweight champion. In contrast, Hill received the recognition from the NYSAC on 10 December 1928 just three and a half months after he had out-pointed American world flyweight title claimant "Newsboy" Brown over 15 rounds at London's Clapton Greyhound Stadium on 29 August 1928.

This is a fact confirmed by Johnny Hill's sole surviving brother, Alf, who has a letter in his Strathmiglo, Fife home on New York State Athletic Commission-headed newspaper dated 10 December 1928.

Written by Charles J Harvey, chairman of the then all-powerful body in charge of matters of American world title legitimacy, Harvey assures Johnny's father David that while there are American claimants to his son's world title they would not be recognised until they had taken part in an elimination tournament to box Johnny Hill.

Similarly, most Scottish and British newspapers in August 1928 hailed Johnny Hill as Scotland's first world champion.

But who was Johnny Hill? He was born in relative middle-class comfort in a respectable tenement that still stands just off the capital's Leith Walk.

His father David, an ex-boxer with Edinburgh's West Bow Amateur Boxing Club, brought up his son to be a fanatic teetotaller, although ironically that did not save Johnny Hill from dying aged 23 from pneumonia, the same illness that killed alcoholic Benny Lynch aged 33.

Alf Hill recalls: "Johnny never smoked, drank or did anything that would interfere with progressing his boxing career. Besides, my father's word was law to him in boxing matters."

Hill exploded on the Scottish amateur boxing scene aged 19 in 1924 when, tutored by his dad and Scotland's first outright Lonsdale belt winner James "Tancy" Lee at Edinburgh's Leith Victoria Club, he won in quick succession the Scottish flyweight and bantamweight titles.

Possessing a brilliant left jab, a crashing right cross and outstanding ring generalship, one newspaper report of February 1925 hailed Hill's victory over Glasgow's Willie Barr thus: "Hill was simply the most polished boxer on view."

In 1926 Hill not only won the British ABA flyweight title by beating English favourite Ernie Warwick in London's Albert Hall, but was awarded the Best Boxer of the Championship trophy.

Johnny Hill

© Hulton Getty

Turning pro under the management of his father, Hill became an immediate hit with the aristocratic patrons of London's National Sporting Club where he attracted a huge following, including the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor.

Indeed, one of Alf Hill's most treasured possessions is a sepia press photograph of the Prince of Wales sitting beside their father in the NSC watching Johnny Hill stop Londoner Young Johnny Brown in the 11th round of what was only the Scot's fourth pro bout. The Daily Herald described Hill's performance that evening as an "astonishing display", and it was sufficiently sparkling to make the Prince visit Hill in his dressing room after the bout.

Eugene Corri, who refereed a bout of Hill's at the NSC wrote in a London newspaper: "The more I see of Johnny Hill, the more I am certain that he will become a pugilist of high degree."

Within a year of turning pro, Hill stopped Englishman Alf Barber in the 14th round to take the British flyweight crown (Lynch took four years to win the same title).

The following year, 1928, the European title was annexed from Frenchman Emile Pladner on points, despite being decked in the ninth round by a vicious left hook. Pladner would later win the title back by inflicting the only knockout defeat suffered by Hill.

Johnny Hill's tilt at the world flyweight title came on 29 August 1928 at Clapton Orient's football ground. There he fought Californian "Newsboy" Brown in front of 50,000 spectators. Hill won the title on points in a thrilling 15-round bout.

The Sporting Life reported: "There began the greatest flyweight contest seen in this country since the war – culminating in a British victory and the return to this country of the world flyweight championship which Jimmy Wilde lost to Pancho Villa in New York five years ago."

The Scotsman commented that: "Hill won because he was slightly the quicker and because Newsboy Brown's tactics were ruined by his inability to avoid Hill's straight left."

Johnny Hill

© Photo Press

Unfortunately, Hill's career would come to a similarly tragic end as that of Lynch. While the Glasgow boxer's problems with alcohol were largely responsible for his death at the age of 33, Hill was a clean-living 23-year-old when he died of pneumonia, just like Lynch. Just 12 months after becoming world champion Hill caught a chill training and was killed by a blood clot in the lung.

While Hill was dying, an American fighter called Frankie Genaro, who had won a gold medal at the 1920 Olympics, was on his way to challenge him for the undisputed world flyweight title. Genaro only learned of Hill's death as he stepped off the ferry on England's south coast. Fight promoter Jeff Dickson broke the shocking news to the challenger.

Frankie Genaro ended up attending Hill's funeral in the late champion's adopted home of Strathmiglo, Fife on the very day that he and Hill should have been crossing gloves in the ring.

Alf Hill remembers the visitor well: "Frankie Genaro came up to Strathmiglo with his girlfriend. He was smartly dressed like a character in a James Cagney gangster movie, but he was a really nice guy. He was heartbroken, and acted as a pallbearer. It was strange: he should have fought my brother, yet Frankie ended up attending the funeral!"

The 1985 edition of the British Board of Boxing Control Official Yearbook lists Hill on page 279 as being "undefeated world flyweight champion 1928-29". It is time to salute the first ever world boxing champion from Scotland

Written by: Brian Donald

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