Interview: Dick McTaggart, retired boxer

Dick McTaggart, still sprightly at 76. Picture: Robert Perry
Dick McTaggart, still sprightly at 76. Picture: Robert Perry
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“I was introduced to Cassius Clay, who everyone had been talking about, and thought,’The boy’s a bampot’”.

Ask Dick McTaggart to show you his medals and he is only too happy to oblige. Not that there is even the slightest hint of braggadocio from one of Scotland’s greatest Olympians, still regarded by many sound judges as the finest amateur boxer Britain has ever produced.

Dick McTaggart, who won gold at the 1956 Olympics. Picture: PA

Dick McTaggart, who won gold at the 1956 Olympics. Picture: PA

But as much as it is a delight to see the collection of gold, silver and bronze McTaggart gathered during his remarkable ring career, it is even more rewarding to tap into the vast reservoir of memories he is equally willing to share.

An hour or so in the company of the still sprightly 76-year-old sees him lead you on an Olympic journey which included skinny dipping in Honolulu, dinner with Cassius Clay in Rome and party invitations from Tom Jones in Los Angeles.

As tales to dine out on, they are more than McTaggart could ever have imagined as one of a family of 18 children raised in post-war austerity in Dundee. But boxing, as it has done for so many of its most gifted exponents through the years, provided the platform for a life rich in self-fulfillment.

His path to becoming the first British boxer to compete in three Olympic Games began on Blackness Road in
Dundee at the now long since defunct Belmont Boxing Club.

“There were seven brothers in the family, but one of my older brothers died before I was born,” says McTaggart. “He was called Richard, after my father, so when I was born they called me Richard as well. So they always say I’m Richard the third.

“Like a lot of brothers, I suppose, we were always scrapping and one day my Dad just said ‘That’s enough, you’re going to the boxing club if you want to fight’. Boxing was in the family, because my Uncle Danny Cunningham was a fairly well known booth fighter in the days when the fairs went around the country.

“I took to it right away, but only in the sense I really enjoyed the physical aspect of it and the discipline of the training. I wouldn’t say I had any great ambitions at that stage. I also played football, as goalkeeper for the school team at St Mary’s Forebank in Dundee. Jimmy Briggs and Jimmy Coyle, who both went on to play for Dundee United, were team-mates. But I was always better at the boxing.”

Not that his talent was immediately appreciated by his earliest coaches in Dundee, for McTaggart was as unorthodox as he would ultimately prove to be brilliant.

“I boxed southpaw, even though I wasn’t left-handed,” he recalls. “So they tried to change me and told me I was doing it all wrong. But I couldn’t do it any other way.”

It was only when National Service called McTaggart into the Royal Air Force that he found a mentor who recognised his potential. Even then, he was almost lost to a sport which came to revere him.

“I actually chucked boxing for three months when I was down at RAF Halton. I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere,” he says. “But the Flight Sergeant who did the coaching told me I was too good not to box on. I suppose he was proved right.”

Just a bit. McTaggart won an astonishing 610 of his 634 amateur contests, his first major honour coming with victory in the 1956 Amateur Boxing Association championships at Wembley Arena. It earned him selection for the Olympic Games in Melbourne later that year, the event which transformed him into one of Britain’s leading sporting celebrities of the era as he claimed the lightweight gold medal in memorable style. The trip Down Under was an eye-opener for the lad from a Dens Road tenement building.

“It took us five days to get there and four days to get back,” he says. “We had loads of stopovers, including one in Honolulu where we were allowed to get off for a while.

“All of the boxing lads headed for the beach and ended up swimming in the nude as all of our shorts were in the luggage back on the plane. I don’t think the team bosses would have been too pleased if they had found out.

“It was great fun and people had told us before we left we should go there are enjoy ourselves, with the Olympic motto all about 
taking part. But I wasn’t going to travel all that way just to enjoy myself. I wanted to get a medal. I didn’t care what colour it was, as long as I got a medal.”

Although on the other side of the world, McTaggart found himself with plenty of support at the West Melbourne Stadium where the boxing was held.

“There were cousins from my father’s side of the family, the McCoids they were called, who had emigrated years before,” he says. “So I had loads of the crowd on my side right from the first round.

“My brother Thomas, who was in the Merchant Navy, also turned up for the semi-final. An official told me someone was at the gate, saying they were my brother. I said ‘No way, he’s at sea somewhere’. But he had jumped ship and I managed to get him into the venue. He slept on the floor of my room that night at the athletes’ village.”

McTaggart had already exceeded
expectations by reaching the final where he was certainly the outsider against Harry Kurschat, the reigning European champion from Germany.

“I hadn’t known any of the other lads I fought, but everyone had heard of Kurschat,” he adds. “But I had him down twice in the first round and thought it was over. He got up twice, though, and came back strong. But I won it clearly enough in the end and it was a fantastic feeling.”

Such was the level of McTaggart’s performances in Melbourne, the gold medal was not his only reward. He was the first and remains the only British boxer to also collect the coveted Val Barker Trophy given to the most stylish performer in all weight divisions at the Olympic Games.

“I had collected my gold medal and just wanted to go away and celebrate with wee Terry Spinks, who had also won gold, and the rest of the lads in our team,” he recalls. “But George Jones, who was in charge, said, ‘Dick, do not leave the hall, there might be a wee surprise for you’.

“So I had to wait, sit and watch the rest of the fights with the heavyweight final being last. I was just dying to get out and drink my champagne, because we hadn’t had a drink for three or four weeks. Then they announced that I’d won the Val Barker Trophy. That meant more to the British delegation than any of the medals the team won, because no British boxer had ever done it before. I think I filled the trophy up with champagne about 150 times that night.”

McTaggart soon discovered that his new found status as British sporting royalty singled him out for special treatment and attention. “On the final stage of our return trip from Melbourne, the plane had to make an emergency stop in
Dusseldorf,” he says. “While most of the GB team had to wait around for ages, the gold medallists were moved to another plane immediately to get us back to
London on time for the welcoming reception.

“My parents had been taken down to London to meet me. My Mum had borrowed my Auntie Marion’s fur coat for the day. I don’t think she had ever been out of Dundee before in her life. It was a great moment and I also got an amazing welcome when we got home to Dundee.”

Inevitably, McTaggart was besieged by boxing promoters and managers eager for him to join the professional ranks. Yet he remained unmoved by the pound signs being flashed in front of his eyes throughout his career.

“All of the big name promoters of the time, including Jack Solomons and Peter Keenan, wanted me to sign,” he says. “I got one offer of £1000 up front, which was a fortune in those days. But if someone is giving me £1000 to turn pro, they will be earning at least five times more than that from me fighting.

“I enjoyed boxing, but I never wanted it to become my job. I knew that I didn’t have many brains, but I wanted to keep the ones I had. I have never regretted my decision to stay amateur.”

While his Melbourne heroics made him one of Britain’s most popular sportsmen, that affection was not immediately shared throughout Scotland. For through curious circumstances, McTaggart had effectively boxed at the Olympics as an Englishman.

“When I first boxed in the RAF, Scotland never picked me,” he explained. “To be fair, they had a lot of good lightweights at the time, like Johnny Kidd and Malcolm McKenzie. If you were in the forces, though, you could box for the country where you were based. So England picked me first and I fought for them in several competitions.

“In 1958, I went up to Edinburgh to take part in the Scottish championships for the first time. It was at the old Music Hall and there were more fights outside the venue that night than there were in the ring. My brothers were involved in most of the scraps, because they didn’t take kindly to some of the comments made about me.

“I was jeered like hell all night, because I’d boxed for England. But I stopped every opponent that night and became Scottish champion. It got me selection for the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff that year when I won the gold medal in a Scottish vest. I loved boxing for Scotland for the rest of my career. There was never a problem with the fans after Cardiff.”

The 1960 Olympics in Rome saw McTaggart travel in high expectation of retaining the title. But he had to settle for bronze, controversially beaten in the semi-finals by eventual gold medallist Kazimierz Pazdzior of Poland.

“I felt I won the fight and it was really disappointing,” he says, “although the judging back then was much fairer than it is nowadays. But looking back, to get another Olympic medal of any sort wasn’t bad.”

The tournament also saw him share a bill with the man who would become the biggest star in boxing’s firmament. Not that McTaggart’s first impression of the future Muhammad Ali was entirely positive.

“Because I’d won gold four years earlier and was quite well known, the Americans invited me to eat with them in their canteen,” he says. “I was introduced to Cassius Clay, who everyone had been talking about, and I immediately thought ‘The boy’s a bampot’.

“Even then, he was jumping about and shouting his mouth off, saying he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. He was great fun to be around, though, and I thought he should have got the Val Barker Trophy at those games.”

European gold and Commonwealth silver were added to McTaggart’s haul of medals in the following two years and he earned an unprecedented third call-up to the GB squad for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He was unable to make it a hat-trick of podium placings, this time losing to eventual champion Jerzy Kulej of Poland in the last 16.

‘Dandy Dick’, as he was nicknamed by the great broadcaster Harry Carpenter in reference to both his ringcraft and fashion sense – “I was the first boxer ever to wear white boots, I always liked to be smart’ – retained an Olympic link after hanging up his gloves when he became a member of the boxing squad’s coaching team. For those of a certain vintage, his star power never waned. At the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, McTaggart found himself sought out by local resident Tom Jones, the Welsh crooner keen to spend time with one of his sporting heroes.

“He invited us to a party at his place, but the lads were boxing the next day so we couldn’t risk it,” he smiles. “You have to set a good example and I might have struggled to meet the curfew if I’d gone to the party.”

Now happily retired in Troon, where regular walks along the seafront help keep him in good health after surviving a cancer scare almost ten years ago, McTaggart will attend some of the boxing in London this summer. He has high hopes for Josh Taylor, the Prestonpans boxer who has qualified for Team GB in the lightweight division.

“He’s a good lad, a talented boy and I’d love to see him get a medal,” says McTaggart, who will carry his own chunk of gold around with him as he does to any function he is asked to attend.

“It’s not actually real gold, of course, just gold plated,” he smiles. “The gold wore off mine after a few years and the Timex factory in Dundee restored it for me. I know Eric Liddell’s gold medal was the same. It went silver, but his grand-daughter wants to keep it that way.

“I remember going into a jeweller’s when I had it with me, just out of curiosity, to see how much it was worth. His eyes popped out of his head when he saw the medal. He just said you couldn’t sell something like that. I never would, anyway.”

Just like his memories, McTaggart’s medals are as priceless as they are precious.