Obituary: John McCluskey, boxer

Flyweight boxer who won British and Scottish titles and competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Picture: Hamilton Advertiser
Flyweight boxer who won British and Scottish titles and competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Picture: Hamilton Advertiser
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Born: 23 January, 1944, in Hamilton. Died: 17 July, 2015, in East Kilbride, aged 71.

John McCluskey, who has died aged 71, was a top Scottish flyweight boxer of the 1960s and 70s. As an amateur he won Scottish and British titles and competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As a professional he won the British and Commonwealth titles, retaining his British one for a record ten years, and fought three European title bouts.

His motto might have been “have gloves will travel” as he fought throughout the world in Romania, Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, East Germany, Sweden, Japan, South Africa, Zambia, Australia and the USA. A steely competitor, he was dedicated to his sport and was highly regarded and widely respected.

He began boxing aged 16 when he went to Larkhall amateur boxing club “to give it a try”. After a couple of initial training sessions, trainer Dave Barry told him “he was a natural”. Progress was swift, under-age titles soon being won before he went on to win the Scottish senior title twice.

One of his first international appearances was as a 19-year-old in September 1963 in Bucharest when Scotland took on Romania. Others soon followed against the likes of Bulgaria, Denmark and England before he achieved his first major success in April 1964, winning the ABA (British Championship) title and putting himself in the frame for Olympic selection.

Selected for Great Britain against Europe in an “Olympic trial” contest that summer, he distinguished himself by stopping German Hans Freistadt, an opponent he would meet again.

That sealed selection for Tokyo in October, but his employer in the barber’s where he worked refused him time off to go to the Olympics. He ignored that embargo and went to Tokyo where he performed respectably to reach the quarter final, only to find himself unemployed on his return. Soon he found a job as a driver with the Scottish Special Housing Association where he would spend much of his working life.

1965 would be his last year in the amateur ranks. In the European Championships in East Berlin he excelled in winning a bronze medal, losing this time to old foe Freistadt, the eventual gold medallist.

Teammate and future world pro champion Ken Buchanan also won bronze at these championships. And a second ABA title was claimed, cementing his position as top British amateur flyweight. Three other Scots also won ABA titles then, Bobby Mallon, Dick McTaggart and Buchanan. Aged 21, he decided to turn pro. After advice from former flyweight champion Dick Currie, he signed up with London-based manager Jarvis Astaire and made his pro debut in London on 11 October 1965 beating “Baby” John, a Rhodesian opponent.

On 16 January, 1967, in his eighth fight, he won the British flyweight title against Tony Barlow in Manchester, knocking him out in the eighth round, and became the third Scot in succession to hold this title after Jackie Brown and Walter McGowan, future world bantam weight champion.

Two successful defences of his title, one against Barlow and the other against Tony Davies, earned him a coveted Lonsdale Belt which had pride of place in his Hamilton home. Having won his first ten fights, he lost the next, at Paisley ice rink, against an opponent who would become his nemesis, Fernando Atzori, the Tokyo Olympic champion. He would fight him twice more and lose both – the first in Naples in 1968 for the European fly weight title and the other in Zurich in 1971 for the same title.

Between those bouts, he fought for the European bantam weight crown, also in Zurich, against Franco Zurlo, losing narrowly on points. Despite that result, a fan presented him with 200 red roses, apparently much to Zurlo’s annoyance.

And in Melbourne he won the Commonwealth fly weight title against Harry Hayes on points over 15 rounds, losing it a year later at the same venue to Henry Nissen, rated by McCluskey as “one of the hardest men he fought”.

A career that had taken him round the world gradually slowed down in the early 70s. His global travels had been necessary to find suitable opponents due partly to there not being a large number of home-based flyweights, which also occasionally resulted in him stepping up to bantam.

It became harder to find opponents after 1971 with his having only four fights between then and his final one in December 1975 in Hamilton Town Hall. Once retired from the ring, he began coaching and maintained his links with the sport, becoming honorary president of his local Hamilton boxing club. In 2006 he was proud to be inducted into the Scottish Boxing Hall of Fame.

Brought up in Burnbank, Hamilton, he spent all his life in the town, also home to Walter McGowan, a near contemporary with whom he sometimes sparred. McCluskey’s career coincided with what was something of a golden era for Scottish boxing. At amateur level, in addition to the names already mentioned, John Fisher and John McDermott enjoyed notable careers while at professional level; apart from world champions McGowan and Buchanan, others who flourished included another Hamilton boxer Sammy McSpadden, Evan Armstrong and John O’Brien.

Frank Gilfeather, well-known sports commentator, former fellow amateur international and friend, recalls McCluskey as “a thoroughly decent guy, very witty and warm and quite self-deprecatory. He shunned the limelight and was modest to a fault. At his recent Requiem Mass in St Mary’s in Hamilton, Father O’Brien, who knew John well for years and about his boxing career said that John himself never once spoke about it.

“He brought a steely determination to the ring and was completely dedicated to the sport. When we holidayed together as youngsters he always brought his training kit and used to make me feel bad as he went out running. Even on holiday he would not drink alcohol, it was always orange juice. He truly was a role model for the sport.

“He was a devoted family man and loved having his family around him. Married to wife Evelyn for over 40 years, he was very proud of his three children, John, a solicitor, Paul, a teacher and Angie, an actress.”

He had not been in good health for the past year and died after a short stay in Hairmyres hospital in East Kilbride. He is survived by his wife and children and their families.