I THINK it’s a surprise that Scotland has produced very few top-class heavyweights. From Wales we have had Tommy Farr, Joe Erskine, Dick Richardson and, more recently, David Pearce and Scott Gammer. Gary Cornish, from Inverness, challenged for the British title in 2017 but there weren’t many of his compatriots before him that were good enough to do so. Quite why this is the case is a mystery.
Manuel Kid Abrew, from Edinburgh, came close. Pat Garrow, in a BN memorial to Abrew, which he penned back in 1990, a few weeks after the boxer’s death, described Abrew as “the greatest heavyweight ever to come out of Scotland” but that “there was never any surge of national joy from the ultra-conservative Scots over his ring successes. If he had been a white man, Abrew’s first year as a professional in 1934 would have had the fans shouting with excitement.”
Abrew certainly mixed with some of the best heavyweights around during his career, which lasted until 1947. He fought 75 times, with 52 victories, and during his first year he took part in 27 contests, losing only five, as he grew from a middleweight to a heavyweight. He came from Leith, a busy dockland area just a few miles to the north of Edinburgh city centre. Leith had a reputation for producing excellent boxers, with Johnny Hill, Alex Ireland and George McKenzie all hitting the fistic heights just a few years before Manuel came to the fore.
Garrow stated that he thought that Abrew was the victim of the notorious colour bar, then enforced by the Board of Control. Tommy Martin from Deptford, who fought at the same time as Abrew, and at the same weight, is also often cited as suffering from the same fate. I am sure that due to the prejudices of the time that both Abrew and Martin were denied the opportunities for advancement that would automatically have been provided to a budding white boxer, but I also feel that neither of the two were quite good enough to win the British title even without the prejudice they were forced to endure. Despite this, Abrew certainly caused a stir amongst the heavyweight elite during the mid-1930s.
There was an abundance of small-hall venues around Edinburgh where Abrew could cut his fistic teeth, including the Leith NSC on Mill Lane, the Marine Gardens in Portobello and the Music Hall in the city centre. The important contests took place at the Waverley Market, near Princes Street, and it was here, in 1935 that Abrew battered his fellow-townsman, Alec Bell, then the Scottish heavyweight champion, in 12 rounds in a bout that was full of ill-feeling. Abrew had upset the crowd by clobbering Bell immediately after they had shaken hands after Bell had got up from a slip. Despite the two being locals, it was Bell who was the crowd favourite, and the ending did little to win people over to Abrew’s side. He saw out the year with wins over Jack Pettifer and Alf Robinson, who were both just below championship class.
In 1936 Manuel started to mix at the top level and, after defeating the American Roy Lazer, a fighter who had been in with Joe Louis, he was knocked out by the great South African, Ben Foord, in a humdinger at Leicester. He picked himself up from this setback and went on a long winning streak during 1937, which culminated in a contest with Len Harvey. Once again, Abrew came up short, losing in 14 hard rounds, and a loss to Tommy Farr in 1939 virtually put paid to his title aspirations. Manuel later settled in London, where he became a chef, and he was a great favourite at LEBA, which he attended with his brother Charlie, also a boxer, and both may still be remembered today by some of the older members.