An article I wrote about John McDermott for the Blantyre Telegraph some time ago, now transferred into the forthcoming book, “Blantyre People”.
A more dedicated, professional person in the world of Sport you will never meet than ex-boxer and trainer, John McDermott, MBE.
John has dedicated his life to sport, not just in his own professional career, but for several decades in the teaching of Boxing to others.
A crowning glory was winning a gold in the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Australia. McDermott only made the British team after fighting a qualifier behind locked doors in a Glasgow garage in front of invited pressmen and ringside judges as the SABA didn’t want there to be any accusations of external influences.
John said, “I won Commonwealth gold on the Friday night and had a party to remember until the team left for Britain the following Monday morning. I worked at Rolls Royce in High Blantyre at the time and a few people asked me to take gifts and suchlike to family and friends who had emigrated to Australia,” recalls McDermott. “One of them, a lad called Tommy Murphy from Hamilton, said ‘John, could you do me a big favour when you are there and visit my wife’s sister – she’s a nun in Perth’. It was an unusual request but I dutifully went along to the convent and even managed to persuade my team-mate Dick McTaggart to come with me. The nuns were all really excited to meet us and they said they would pray for us to perform well at the Games. Well, that was actually a huge confidence booster for me, because I was and still am a practising Catholic. I felt from that moment that I was going to win the gold, that it was meant to be.”
But while Perth ultimately proved to be paradise on earth for McDermott and his pals in the boxing team, who contributed almost a third of Scotland’s 14-medal haul, it initially bore more of a resemblance to Hades. A temperature of 105 degrees, 25 degrees higher than average, welcomed the athletes at the opening ceremony on 22 November at the Perry Lakes Stadium.
“I think it was one of the hottest summers they had experienced in Perth since records began,” says McDermott. “Thankfully, the boxing arena was air-conditioned.”
Which is more than could be said about the environment which McDermott found himself in when his dreams of boxing glory were first ignited a couple of years earlier, setting him on a path which has earned him an MBE for services to the sport and for working with youngsters at the Blantyre Miners’ Welfare Gym.
John added, “I was in Libya, still on my national service, based in Benghazi. The barracks were absolutely boiling, you could hardly breathe. My mum used to send me a parcel every week and one of the items was always the latest copy of Boxing News. I opened it one day and saw a piece on the selection process for the Games in Perth.”
“I’d never thought about it before, but I told myself I might just have a wee chance of making it. I didn’t think that was going to be the case at the start of my time in the Army, though. I remember coming back from a holiday in the Isle of Man, walking up the hill to my home in Cambuslang, and seeing my mother standing crying at the front door. I knew that meant my call-up papers had arrived. She said: ‘You’re going to the same regiment as your Grandad – the Royal Scots’. She was emotional about that. But my first reaction was disappointment, because the Royal Scots were not known for having a boxing team. When you got called up, you wanted to get into a boxing regiment. But luckily for me, Tom McGuinness, who had boxed for Scotland at the 1958 Games in Cardiff, was called up at the same time and we formed a boxing team. We ended up as regimental champions in Germany. We were then tanked 10-2 when we came over to fight the British regimental champions, but I managed to win my bout. That gave me the platform to compete at international level and stake a claim for a place in the team for Perth.”
McDermott’s selection, however, was anything but straightforward. In circumstances remarkably similar to the recent controversy which surrounded Edinburgh welterweight Lewis Benson earning his place at Glasgow 2014 after a box-off against Connor Law of Glenrothes, Scottish boxing politics in 1962 tested McDermott’s determination and resilience to the limit.
“Ach, it was rigged,” he says. “A big guy called John Henderson was in charge of the Scottish team going to the games and he never wanted me in the team. I was training at a professional gym at the time, under Tommy Gilmour Senior, which the amateur authorities didn’t like. I don’t know if that’s what set Henderson against me, but it’s the only reason I could think of.”
“Anyway, I’d beaten Evan Armstrong, who would go on to win British and Commonwealth titles as a professional, in the final of the Scottish championships and I thought that was enough to secure my place in the team.”
“But as Scottish champion, I first went to the ABA finals at Wembley in London which were a really big deal at the time. Ron Lendrum of Wales was the red-hot favourite, but I beat him in the semi-final. In the final, I lost to an English lad called Billy Wilson. I felt it was close but couldn’t really argue with the decision.
“The next thing I know, though, the Scottish selectors are telling me that because Evan Armstrong had previously beaten Wilson a couple of times in other tournaments, I had to have a box-off against Evan to decide who was going to Perth. The Scottish press lads, including wee Jimmy Sanderson, were all outraged and said it would be a scandal if I wasn’t on the team.
“Anyway, they went ahead and held the box-off in the Glasgow transport depot in Possilpark. They could have televised it live on Grandstand, there was so much interest in it. But they decided the public wouldn’t be allowed in.
“There were maybe about 30 people ringside. My dad and my brother-in-law managed to get in and some of the bus drivers, either starting or finishing their shifts, were able to watch. They brought in three neutral judges and I won it out of the park. I beat Evan easier than I did in the Scottish final, yet it was still only a majority decision in my favour. When that was announced, wee Sanderson jumped up from his seat while he was phoning in his copy and shouted ‘One of the judges must be wearing a blindfold!’. Even after that, I felt Henderson never wanted me to do well in Perth, as if he wanted to be proved right that Evan should have gone instead. When we got over there, the first thing he said to me was ‘You might get the favourite, Ron Lendrum, in the draw’. I said: ‘So what, I’ve just beaten him at the ABA finals’. But he just went on about how that had been a close fight and it might be tougher in the Games. He was always negative when he spoke to me, never encouraging. It just made me more determined to succeed.”
As it turned out, the draw paired McDermott with the less-heralded Mohamed Ashraf of Pakistan, while Lendrum landed a showdown with local Australian hero Teddy Stone.
“I got the luck of the draw but maybe I’d earned it or maybe it was the nuns praying for me,” he adds with a smile. “Ashraf was a tall guy, a wee bit awkward at times, but I beat him comfortably enough. I expected to be facing Lendrum in the semi-finals, but Stone beat him. That was always going to be tough, fighting the man from the host nation, especially as some of the judges always tended to go for the home boxer if it was a close fight. So that was a bit of a concern for me. But I managed to put him on the deck a couple of times and there could be no doubting I won the fight.”
“It was the proudest moment of my life, stepping onto the podium and receiving that gold medal for my country,” he says. “What I always remember most of all, though, was being in the dressing room before the fight, warming up and putting my gloves on. All of a sudden, I heard ‘Scotland The Brave’ being struck up in the hall. It was for Bobby Mallon, who had won the flyweight final earlier in the day. It gave me such a lift hearing that, I felt like the Incredible Hulk, my chest was bursting so much. I knew then that I had to win.”
Last Professional Fight
This well known man had his last professional fight in May 1967 with 15 year old Tommy Gilmour carrying the cards around the Paisley Ice Rink. Gilmour received two guineas for his night’s work when John McDermott beat Tommy Connor on the night. A youngster called Ken Buchanan was on the undercard.
As a trainer, he went on to scale fresh heights in the sport. Thirty years on from his own triumph in Perth, he was the guiding hand behind one of Scottish boxing’s most memorable nights when Pat Clinton dethroned Isidro Perez of Mexico at a raucous Kelvin Hall to become WBO world flyweight champion in March 1992.
In Summer 2004, John received an MBE within the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, an accolade not many people in Blantyre have ever achieved. At the time, Tommy Gilmour commented on John’s success saying, “His legacy to boxing, apart from winning Commonwealth gold, will be the lasting impression he’s made on young men’s minds.”
John was meticulous in everything he did and those are the values he instilled in kids he trained at the Blantyre Miners Welfare club. The club recently affected by fire and in need of new premises.
In June 2012, professionals in Scottish Boxing officially recognised the 50th Anniversary of John’s Commonwealth Games, Gold medal success, marking the occasion and John’s continued success.
Photo Courtesy: Blantyre Telegraph & Daily Record. Source: Blantyre Miners Welfare, Scotsman, Daily Record.
Incredibly, full colour footage exists of John’s 1962 fight. John McDermott (Scotland) and VA Juma (Kenya) in Australia. Just take a look at this!