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John McCormack

Boxer who won Olympic bronze

Boxer who won Olympic bronze

Born: January 9, 1935; Died: May 23, 2014

JOHN McCormack, who has died aged 79, was a talented, charismatic but wayward boxing champion from Maryhill in Glasgow who won a bronze medal at the Olympics in 1956. The son of a soldier who boxed for the Cameronians regiment, he always claimed that, but for his father's unexpected premature death, he would have followed an academic rather than a boxing career (he was winner of the dux prize at his school, St Marie's).

On leaving school early to help his financially hard-pressed mother, McCormack first became a laboratory assistant at a time when most working class boxing boys followed traditional manual occupations. After a short spell at the Maryhill-based Butney amateur boxing club, his path to Olympic and professional glory began when he met up with the noted boxing coach Charlie Kerr at Glasgow's North British Loco club. Kerr found in McCormack a talented pupil who combined natural ability with a heavy punch and gritty resilience when under pressure. He became universally known as Cowboy because of his prominent bow legs.

With Kerr's help and additional input by Glasgow University coach Andy Grant, McCormack cut a victorious swathe in the mid 1950s among Scottish and British 11-stones amateur light-middleweight boxers culminating in a decisive British A.B.A. title win in London in 1956 over the Royal Air Force's John Cunningham. It was a win that propelled McCormack into the 1956 Melbourne Olympics British boxing team along with eventual lightweight Melbourne gold medal winner from Dundee, Dick McTaggart.

In Melbourne, McCormack proved his huge class and potential by winning a bronze in a division bristling with such talent as the Hungarian triple gold Olympic gold medal winner Lazlo Papp and the Puerto Rican American future world pro-lightheavyweight champion, Jose Torres. It was Torres who outpointed McCormack in the 154lbs class semi-finals, but the Glasgow boxer still became the first Scot to win an Olympic boxing medal in the 11-stone class.

McCormack then decided that only professional boxing could fund the unashamedly hedonistic lifestyle he famously pursued and made a sensational debut in the paid ranks as a middleweight with only one of his first 12 opponents going the distance.

Intelligent, controversial and never shy of encouraging the press to capture his devil-may-care devotion to pleasurable socialising at renowned 1960s Glasgow nightspots such as the Chevalier club in Buchanan Street, McCormack made himself immensely popular with the fans by highly publicised and reported escapades. Incidents such as reminding his ring opponent Len Mullen - a Glasgow bespoke tailor of some repute - during a fight that he would pick up the dinner jacket that Mullen had made to order for him.

McCormack also relished recounting how he and his regular drinking companion, Rangers footballing legend Slim Jim Baxter, became so well known at various Glasgow hostelries that they were nicknamed The Bacardi twins.

Similarly, the way McCormack won the British title in London by beating future world champion from Paddington, Terry Downes, was also headline grabbing for all the wrong reasons.

McCormack had been an 11-10 favourite before his 1959 British title challenge to Downes but the Maryhill man became the first Scot since Leith's Alex Ireland won the same title in 1928 to win the British and Empire middleweight crown by sitting on the canvas after Downes had dropped him ten times with body punches. Then the referee disqualified Downes for an alleged low blow in round eight, making McCormack British champion while crouched helpless on the floor.

But after losing the return by knockout a few months later, McCormack roared back to top international contention by beating a clutch of world-rated Americans in Paisley and Glasgow such as George Benton and Detroit's much feared Henry Hank and Ike White. This prompted the great Sugar Ray Robinson's manager George Gainford to offer McCormack a contract in the United States. Gainford said he thought Cowboy had the potential to win a world title in the US. But the Maryhill boxer declined, not least because it would have meant leaving his beloved wife, Margaret, behind in Glasgow.

Instead, McCormack continued to grab the headlines inside and outside the ring. He won the European middleweight title in 1961 by besting Dutch opponent Harko Kokemeyer. He saw off the January 1962 European title challenge of German Heinie Freytag.

He then provoked a riot in Copenhagen's KB Halle in February 1962 after the Danish crowd wrongly thought McCormack had fouled their hero Chris Christiansen. In fact, the real culprit was the German referee who wrongly tried to give the Danish challenger a standing eight count during which McCormack, as the agreed pre-bout rules permitted him to do, thumped Christiansen to the canvas. Typically as bottles and chairs whizzed around the heads of his corner team and himself, McCormack at first refused to leave the ring until Glasgow promoter Peter Keenan assured him that his fight purse would be paid.

McCormack's resolutely hedonistic lifestyle meant that weightmaking problems eventually forced him to step up to lightheavyweight. The biggest plus of this enforced move was that he scored what he considered was his sweetest ever ring win as a paid fighter: his second round stoppage victory at Paisley over former British lightheavyweight champion from Craigneuk, Chic Calderwood. Prior to their June 1965 scrap both these boxers had a long-term mutual personal loathing for each other.

That win was the closing highlight of a memorably colourful boxing career that lasted between 1957 and 1966. But even his last ring appearance in London provided Maryhill's popular boxing playboy with yet another unique Scottish boxing distinction. By losing his last contest to Ireland's John McCormack on points in London in June 1966, Cowboy McCormack became - and remains - the first and only Scottish champion class boxer ever to be beaten by a boxing opponent of identical name. After the glory years, McCormack worked for many years on North Sea oil rigs and appeared at ex-boxers social gatherings with his wife, Margaret. He became a well known face at various boxing shows where he always received a fond and enthusiastic reception from the crowd, fans who affectionately recalled his headline-making exploits on both sides of the ropes in the 1950s and 60s.

Similarly, when Glasgow's former world lightweight champion Jim Watt was once asked who his favourite Scottish boxer was, he replied: "John Cowboy McCormack. He always made me laugh because he was a real character."

McCormack died after suffering from Alzheimer's and is survived by his wife, his son, his daughter and grandchildren.

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