Superb, brave, scrupulously fair: Harry Perry, Ireland's boxing champion

Popular Dubliner, who died last week, won nine national titles and a European bronze

The passing of Harry Perry, an amateur boxer of impeccable character, marks the loss of one of the country's more enduring sporting personalities of the second half of the 20th century. His death at the age of 86 followed a long illness.

Harry's unannounced arrival at the top level of boxing could scarcely have been more dramatic when, as an 18-year-old student at Terenure College, he succeeded against all the odds in winning the national senior featherweight championship in 1952, a title held in previous years by such revered names as Terry Mulligan and John Cummins.

After a successful defence of that crown 12 months later, increasing weight problems forced him to move to the lightweight division in 1954 when he met and mastered Tony Byrne, a difficult, mature opponent in what was long recalled as one of the most riveting championship finals in years.

On that captivating start was built a career which, as he moved up the weight divisions, encompassed no fewer than nine national titles, at that point a feat achieved only by the former European champion Gearóid Ó Colmain in the less competitive environs of the heavyweight class.


And that was rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that, for the greater part of his long reign, he was conceding all the advantages in height and reach to opponents who, on international assignments at home or overseas, frequently possessed the full array of technical skills to complement physique.

He would later recount that he stumbled on pugilistic acclaim almost by accident. After joining the local club his initial enthusiasm evaporated and he left in some disillusionment soon afterwards.

Sometime later he was persuaded by a school pal to go and watch him box in a nearby inter-club tournament. No sooner had he arrived there than he was inveigled by a Terenure club official to fill a vacancy occasioned by the no-show of another boy.

Protesting that he had no boxing gear with him, he eventually changed his mind after another starry-eyed youngster had agreed to loan him his boxing boots. After winning his bout Perry was quickly embarked on a journey to the top of his chosen sport and Sonny Knowles, proud owner of the aforementioned boots, changed direction to become one of Ireland's finest entertainers.

By his own admission, Harry Perry was not a damaging puncher, more a cluster puncher who, because of his build, was forced to stop a lot of incoming leather to get close enough to bring his short-arm hits to bare.

When range and rhythm were in sync, he was pretty unstoppable, persistent as a winter drizzle, dancing in and out before the bigger men could set themselves for a positive response.

Inevitably perhaps, it was a lot different in the major championships including the Olympic Games where the quality of the opposition enabled them to hone in on his perceived physical limitations to outrun and ultimately outbox him.

Scant reward

That accounted for the Dubliner’s inability to make his anticipated impact on the days it mattered most, with a bronze medal from the 1959 European Championships in Lucerne, the only scant reward in a career which once promised so much more.

In retrospect, the IABA's decision not to expose a schoolboy to the rigours of Olympic competition in the 1952 Games at Helsinki possibly deprived him of his best opportunity of success at that level for once he was obliged to vacate the featherweight division where he could trade parity with shorter men, he struggled to offset his deficiency in reach.

That said, one can only guess at what might have been if he was allowed to box at his natural weight in the welterweight division at the Melbourne Games in 1956. In the biggest contest the National Stadium had hosted in years, Perry outpointed Fred Tiedt in the National Championships but in order to accommodate both men in the Olympic squad, the IABA convinced the champion of the merits of dropping down a division in weights.

In shedding the extra poundage to get inside the light-welter limit, Perry undeniably diluted his preparation for the games and it showed as a skilled exponent of the noble arts made an uncommonly early departure from the preliminaries.

Tiedt, by contrast, progressed serenely to the welterweight final in which he received more points (299) than the man declared as the new Olympic champion Nicolae Linca of Romania (297). Judges from Italy and Germany had the Irishman a clear winner while those from Britain and Korea marked the bout even before giving a casting vote to the Romanian. A Polish judge was the only one to make Linca an outright winner.

That disappointed many thousands of Irish supporters but the trademark smile on Perry’s face as he returned to base in Dublin was still as prominent as ever when he reflected on what might have been. Significantly, he again out pointed Fred Tiedt on the next occasion they met post-Melbourne.

One got the impression that Perry, an unpretentious person who would have been happy to soldier with the rest of us, was never less than gracious in reflecting on Tiedt 's brilliant performances in Australia. In the course of covering many of Perry's contests in Europe and beyond, I was wont to adorn his qualities with adjectives such as superb, brave and scrupulously fair.

To these can now be added the word noble for nobody surfed the mountainous joys of victory or the black despair of defeat with as much equanimity than the admirably rounded man that was laid to rest last Wednesday. And more often than not, that was a trait which simply defied comprehension by all the lesser mortals in the remainder of our entourage.