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From Irvine to Hollywood & back

By, Sergio Burns

Blood blurs his vision, a shadow, large and threatening, moves toward him. His body screams at him to stop, rest. He must go on, he can’t give up, the baying audience has expectations.

He loves the movies, it could be a scene from a film : Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull or Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. It could also be a metaphor for Rab Affleck’s life, fought hard against great difficulties. A man who was raised tough, one of a family of 11, in Irvine. A man who has no pretensions, a sharp wit, who talks articulately – with expletives – about the powerful influence of circumstance. Who reminds us we don’t live in an existential vacuum, we don’t all have choices.

“You expected to become a street fighter, The auld man was a fighter. My auld man used to say if you like to be a hard man go into the boxing ring, put the gloves on and see how you are with a guy the same size and the same weight. That’s where the real men are. He was right. But I wasn’t interested in boxing, it wasn’t on my agenda. At the time I was looking to do… wrestling.”

It was a man called George Watson who convinced the reluctant Rab to climb into the boxing ring. Initially, it wasn’t a happy experience.

“First time I went to Jimmy Murray at the Cardowan club (Glasgow) I got punched up and doon the place,” Affleck admits. “I got…two black eyes, bust nose. But, at that time Jimmy was using me, and I knew he was using me…because he had fighters training for titles, light heavyweights and middleweights…so, I was the punch bag.”

After a brief amateur career, becoming Scottish Heavyweight Champion by knocking out Ian Crawford in 1972, Affleck decided he wanted to turn pro. His trainer, Billy Ward, thought he was ‘nuts’, and tried to convince him to wait and gain more experience. But Affleck was determined.

“Jimmy Murray…come up on a Sunday,” Affleck chuckles as he tells the story. “The umbrella, the briefcase, the big long coat. I said, ‘I am no turning pro with him. ‘ My father says, ‘leave him with me and I’ll shout you through.’ Murray said : ‘I am here about Big Rab and I want to know if he would turn pro with us?’ My father said : ‘I’ll tell ye whit tae dae, gie me twenty quid and he’s yours.’ So, he got his twenty quid and shouted ‘He’s aw yours Rab!’ I said ‘Jimmy… I am no signing, the best thing you can dae is just walk oot that door.’ ‘Whit? Whit?’ Says Murray. ‘I just gave yer da twenty quid for you to sign.’”

Murray, who once trained former lightweight world champion Jim Watt, was informed that Rab’s father had hot-footed it to The Eglinton pub. By the time he got there the money had gone, it was in the barman’s till. There is much laughter from Affleck at the plight of the well-dressed Murray.

Peter Keenan also tried to sign Affleck. But buying the big man a fish tea at the local chippie, when others were being wined and dined at the Albany Hotel, didn’t impress. To Keenan’s surprise Big Rab turned him down, and a furious Keenan tried to take his fish tea back.

Rab Affleck finally signed with Tommy Gilmour and began his professional boxing career with a win against Mick Jay at the St Andrews Sporting Club, Glasgow, on April 22nd, 1974. In a relatively brief professional career he won a total of 15 out of 20 fights. He also fought for the British Light Heavyweight Championship against Bunny Johnson, a man with 63 fights behind him.

“I got knocked out by Bunny Johnson in four rounds,” The memory is painful for the proud warrior but he is philosophical. “I did what I had tae dae I fought for a British title…it wis whit wis in my head…I wanted to win a Scottish title, I wanted to be good enough to fight for a British title whether ah won it or no didnae matter… and then my eyes were bad so I got knocked back for my licence the following year.”

As he reflects on today’s crop of fighters, he recognises everything flows from one point to another in the overall journey of life. The people we meet and come into contact with, the actions taken, and that simple thing called fate and/or circumstance

“Ah wis oot there working on building sites,” He told Ayrshire Magazine of early training regimes. “They’re getting groomed they’re getting…the best of sparring. I hardly did any sparring, the only time I saw a ring was when I was in it. But boxing was good to me…saved me a life of crime…a journey tae the jails and it changed my whole life. If it wisnae for boxing I wouldn’t be here today talking tae you, I wouldn’t have made over 50 movies and television so I owe it a lot that way.”

Rab Affleck is a refreshingly frank and open man. When his wife died at the age of 32, leaving him with three kids, he found it hard and briefly turned to drink. But once again, forced to dig deep, he turned things around for the sake of his children and had the strength to hold the family together.

In 1990 – 11 years after Rab Affleck was forced into retirement – Johnny Mullen, who ran the boxing club at Springside, was visited by a film crew. They were looking for a fighter for a film they were making starring Liam Neeson. Mullen suggested Affleck but The Big Man thought it was a wind up and threatened to wreck the boxing club if it was.

“Right enough I met Liam Neeson and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (now Joanne Whalley) who played his wife,” He recalls, and the boxing club stayed intact. “So, I spoke to the director and he says you want to have a wee spar with Liam and I said nae bother. They said we could dae wae you… as a fight consultant.”

Affleck, working with Liam Neeson and director David Leyland, soon began to wonder about the actor hired to play the fighter in the movie. Leyland’s hunt for the right actor had proved fruitless, however, and it gradually became apparent to him that the man for the part of Cutty Dawson, a seasoned, ageing fighter, was, in fact, already in the camp : Rab Affleck.

Given the role, he tells of a night out to meet the author of ‘The Big Man’, the book the film was made from, the now deceased William McIlvanney. McIlvanney, coincidently, had once taught Affleck at school and a meeting was engineered between the two when the author arrived.

“‘Aw Rab I haven’t seen you for a while how are you keeping? You’re looking great.’” Affleck remembers McIlvanney greeting him. “I said : ‘Same tae yerself, whit are ye daein in here?’ He said : ‘I’ve got this film… they’re doing a film based on my book.’ I went, ‘That’s great,’ and he said, ‘ What are you doing in here? Are ye the bouncer, ye bouncing in here?’. ‘Naw’ I said, ‘I’m playing Cutty Dawson.’ He nearly fainted, he was in shock. We had a few drinks, and he said : ‘When I wrote that book I was writing the Cutty Dawson part round your father. I remember your father, I remember the things your father used to do.”

Affleck paused for a few seconds smiling as he remembered his old teacher, someone, he said, who always had time for you. Didn’t matter who you were. Then thinking about his father he said:

“You know all the Ayrshire toons, they’ve all got their heroes.”

Rab Affleck has now appeared in many top movies and television shows. These include Layer Cake, Gangs of New York, and on television Dr Who and Still Game. He has appeared with superstars including Liam Neeson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill.

“Enjoyed Gangs of New York, it was good,” he reminisced. “Me and Big Bill Barclay were inseparable when we got over there, it was terrific. We were only meant to be over there for a week but we ended up over there for…six weeks.”

We ask him about his latest part as Ronnie Anderson in the 2016 movie Breakdown. What can the general public expect from this offering?

“Nothing,” he says deadpan, the timing and delivery of the tongue-in-cheek aside perfect, bringing laughter from those present. He laughs himself, then corrects. “Naw it’s a good movie it has…a really good story to it.”

He then mentions Breakdown’s director Jonnie Malachi, so fascinated by Affleck’s own unique story he is now working on a documentary about the Irvine man. A man who has never forgotten his humble origins or his home town, Irvine.

“It’s the people,” he says candidly. “You’re dealing with a community, a town, you’re dealing with the people you grew up with. There is nothing better than coming hame tae yer ain wee place, and it doesn’t matter where ye go in the world.”

He reflects for a few seconds and adds:

“My life has all been through circumstance, it has no been planned.”

Rab Affleck is Rab Affleck. The master of his own universe, an incomparable, irascible, enigmatic character. Driven, not by ego or money, but simply by being Rab Affleck. A somewhat existential take on the circumstances that have produced one of Scotland’s finest boxers, an Ayrshire ‘superstar’ actor, and above all, a working class hero.