Obituary: John ‘Cowboy’ McCormack, boxer

John 'Cowboy' McCormack: Olympic bronze medallist and British, Commonwealth and European boxing champion
John 'Cowboy' McCormack: Olympic bronze medallist and British, Commonwealth and European boxing champion
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Born: 9 January, 1935, in Glasgow. Died: 23 May, 2014, in Paisley, aged 79

The death has been announced of John “Cowboy” McCormack, one of the best Scottish professional boxers never to win a world title.

A distinguished amateur before joining the paid ranks, McCormack won a bronze medal in the light-middleweight division for Great Britain at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.

He turned professional on his return from the Games, and went on to be British, Commonwealth and European middleweight champion.

Always known as Cowboy, McCormack gained the nickname from his bow-leggedness. He would introduce himself by saying “my friends call me Cowboy”, and when this correspondent met him in the 1960s, it was with great pleasure that I learned of his habit as he repeated the welcome and added “and you can call me Cowboy”.

The son of a soldier, John McCormack was raised in Maryhill, where he attended St Mary’s Primary School. He was a bright pupil, and became dux before leaving to attend St Mungo’s Academy.

His first love was football and he became a lifelong fan of Celtic FC. Yet it was the boxing ring which attracted him and he began training at the famous NB Loco club in Springburn as a teenager.

The premature death of his father meant that McCormack had to leave school at an early age to help provide for his family. He did his National Service in the RAF, and then became an apprentice at the NB Loco works, where a contemporary was another famous Scottish boxer and coach, John McDermott MBE.

McCormack’s amateur career moved swiftly along and by his 21st birthday he dominated the light-middleweight division in Scotland and the UK. In that year, 1955, he won the Scottish Amateur and ABA titles, and he was selected for the British Olympic team for the 1956 Games.

In Melbourne – under the wing of trainer and later manager Charlie Kerr – he defeated Alexander Webster of South Africa to earn a place in the quarter-finals where he met Jose Torres, one of the leading lights of the American team. It was a close contest, and one of the judges later told McCormack the points decision against him had been political because Britain was already winning medals that year.

Indeed, McCormack’s bronze was overshadowed by the magnificent achievement of Dick McTaggart of Dundee, who won the lightweight gold medal, and by Terry Spinks, who won flyweight gold. McTaggart and McCormack became friends for life, their companionship forged on the long trip to and from Australia.

Turning professional late in 1956, McCormack could look back on an amateur career of 103 wins against six losses, 51 of those victories coming by way of knockout.

Stepping up to middleweight, the fact that he had serious punching power – he was a difficult southpaw – was soon demonstrated in the professional ranks. He made his debut in February, 1957, with a six round points victory over Dudley Cox in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall.

It would be more than two years before McCormack would trouble the judges again as he stopped ten of his next 11 opponents inside the distance, three of them in the first round. He also suffered his first reverse when losing to Jimmy Lynas in August, 1958, but was soon back on track and defeated Len Mullen to win the Scottish area middleweight title.

McCormack had to beat the “Liverpool Dane”, the useful Martin Hansen, in an eliminator for the British and Commonwealth titles held by Terry Downes, who would go on to beat the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson.

McCormack was the victim of brutal below-the-belt assaults by Downes in their first match in September 1959, and eventually the Londoner was disqualified. Downes regained the title from McCormack after clamour for a rematch, but the Glaswegian then took the European route, beating Dutchman Harko Kokmeijer for the vacant European title in October 1961. He defended the title before losing on a disqualification to Denmark’s Chris Christensen.

Probably the Cowboy’s finest performance came with a points win over against the highly-rated American Henry Hank in June 1962, and that led to another challenge for the British title against George Aldridge in November, 1962.

McCormack had beaten Aldridge earlier in his career but his acknowledged indifference to hard training was the undoing of McCormack that night, and he was knocked out in the sixth round.

There were a number of excellent Scottish contemporaries of McCormack who never gained world titles either, most notably Peter Keenan and Chic Calderwood, but had McCormack beaten Aldridge he would probably have gained at least a shot at the title.

While Keenan once offered to pay McCormack’s fare to the USA to join Sugar Ray Robinson’s gym, it is fair to say that McCormick and Calderwood were not friends, and when they met in the ring in June, 1965, it showed. McCormack unleashed a torrent of blows and battered Calderwood all round the ring, resulting in the latter receiving a severely cut eye.

It was his penultimate fight, his last being unique in that it was against another John McCormack, “Young” McCormack of Ireland, who beat the Cowboy over ten rounds.

McCormack duly retired at the age of 31 with a professional record of 38 wins, 14 by knockout, against seven losses.

It can be fairly said of McCormack that had he the attention to training of, say, Scotland’s latest world champion Ricky Burns, he might have been a world champion, but he enjoyed a good social life and this Celtic fan ended up good friend of Rangers’ legend Jim Baxter – there were not sober encounters.

Scotland’s best-known promoter and manager Tommy Gilmour, proprietor of the St Andrews Sporting Club, said last night: “Cowboy was a great character and a great human being. He beat the biggest hero I ever had in boxing, Chic Calderwood, but I loved to invite him to the club as our guest because he was such a great personality.

“I met Jose Torres some years ago in Puerto Rico and I asked him what was the toughest fight he ever had. He thought for a moment and said, ‘The guy with the bow legs from Scotland that I fought at the Olympics was the toughest I ever met, amateur or professional.’”

When you consider that Torres, who later became biographer for both Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and a distinguished writer on boxing, fought the likes of middleweight and light-heavyweight greats Carl Bobo Olson, Willie Pastrano and Dick Tiger, that is some accolade.

McCormack enjoyed a long career as a tradesman outside the ring, working as a scaffolder and being one of the first Scots to ply his trade on North Sea oil rigs. After his retirement he lived in Paisley, but had been in poor health for some years and was latterly in care. He was happily married for many years to his Margaret, who survives him.

Funeral details will be announced in due course and the Glasgow boxing fraternity, including many members of the local ex-boxers’ association, will be in attendance.