“I stood there in the middle of the ring, waiting on the referee lifting up my arm. I’d battered this guy for three rounds, I’d won every round – well, I thought I had. And then when they announce the winner, they give it to the other guy. And he collapsed! It should have been me doing the fainting, I couldn’t believe it!”
That was one of the rare occasions that Dick McTaggart MBE lost a fight. Or, as he says when he corrects my stats, “robbed” of victory. The 1956 lightweight Olympic champion, who boxed out of Glasgow, is joking, but if that kind of sharp wit can be likened to his jab, his pride is his right hook. It hits you in the face as soon as he opens up about his career. McTaggart was this year voted as Britain’s best ever amateur boxer, and is back from a dinner reception in his honour in Hastings, recognising the spirit he showed throughout his 634 bouts, from a time when boxing was just about fighting and winning. No sponsors, no TV package deals, no drug scandals. No distractions.
When McTaggart greets me at the door of his Ayrshire home with, “Good morning, what can I do for you, sir?” despite him being 60 years my senior, I can’t help but feel this man prides himself in respectful conduct, raised in the era of manners maketh man.
I don’t know if it was because this was my first time in close proximity to a boxer, but had he not confirmed it to me then there is no way I would have genuinely believed that the man is barely five foot nine inches in height. He has that aura of walking taller than he is and his hands are more like thick bear paws (at least so they seemed to me, the Hugh McIlvanney wannabe in the presence of the Muhammad Ali of British amateur boxing).
McTaggart’s upbringing was in a pack of 18 brothers and sisters, so fighting over anything became a daily occurrence. Who was the toughest brother? Without any hesitation, McTaggart puts his foot down, points at himself and says “Me,” the three actions fully emphasising the absurdity of my question. “We all got on very well together though. Six of us boxed. It was a happy family, but we were always fighting.” Staying a happy family must have been tough at times, and McTaggart explained one story to me that proved this.
“There was this policeman, down the road,” he begins, leaning into me and saying with wide eyes, “This a true story, by the way,” much in the same way Billy Connolly would start one of his hilarious (but probably untrue) stories. “The policeman said to me one day, ‘I’ve seen you McTaggarts fighting, take these gloves and fight the proper way.’” The boys barely even had a chance to slide their hyper-active fists into the gloves before their mother had burnt them, as a miserly way of heating the house for a night. Talk about a bygone era.
McTaggart’s living room has that feel about it too. Its main features are antiquated lampshades, intricately patterned lace curtains and a gorgeous trophy cabinet, filled from top to bottom with awards from the club circuit, silverware from Scottish and UK tournaments, and even bespoke teacup holders from eastern Europe. His creamy-white living room wall is adorned with the off-white of newspaper clippings from his boxing days, and his medals are sitting in a brown, square box next to his mantelpiece about five feet away from me, as we sink into his wine-red couch. It’s a tight space, much like the ring becomes for two boxers. Funnily enough, McTaggart says his wife Doreen deserves a gold medal like his for sticking with him so long (the two celebrated their golden anniversary recently, so that’s close).
McTaggart’s boxing career started while he was in the RAF. He won the RAF championship five times in a row, and has fond memories of some of the fighters he remembered from that time.
“Brian London, Peter Heath, Cowboy McCormack. All great fighters.
“Who was the best?
“Er, Brian London. Yes. He went professional and went on to be [British and Commonwealth] heavyweight champion.” London incidentally was another chapter in the Ali history books, challenging for the WBC world heavyweight title in 1966. Ali knocked out his British opponent in the third round.
“Do you regret not turning professional?
“Did you ever have any thoughts about it, with all your success at the Olympics, the Commonwealth and the Europeans?
“No. I never had money, still not got money, but I’ve got a happy wife and a happy life, and that’s the main thing.”
I have to concede that I agreed with him, but I had to persist. Surely he must wonder if he could have had a shot at a title, considering some of the men he beat, like Englishman Johnny Cooke, went on to win belts? When he shows me his medals he goes into detail about each one, telling me about the design, the year and the weight. His favourite is the bronze from Rome in 1960: “It’s the fanciest design, don’t you think?” I do. And just like that, he’d dodged my right hook. So I came back with a left.
“So, why didn’t you turn pro?
“Well you needed money back then. There were no sponsors like now.
“Do you think you would’ve had a shot at a title?
“Well no-one knows, but I think I’d have got by at least. It’s a tough game going professional though. Some people get injuries too. I wanted to keep my good looks.”
We skip from that to how boxing has changed. Since McTaggart retired, boxing has had Ali, Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard. Don King has left indelible imprint on the sport, with the Thrilla in Manila, Frank Warren has created a TV channel dedicated to boxing and the Hearns are making millions with their own promotion company that boasts on its payroll champions like Anthony Joshua, Ricky Burns and Kell Brook, among others.
“In my opinion it’s not as good now but, like football, you can’t really compare two different eras. But mine was great. The crowds in particular.” McTaggart has stern words for managers, who encourage young boxers to go pro too early.
McTaggart’s advice to young boxers coming through is: “Enjoy yourself as an amateur first, before you even think about turning professional. If you think you’re good enough then go for it.”
He has advice for two of Britain’s brightest boxing hopes: the UK’s newest heavyweight champion, Joshua, who he met at the Olympics – or, as McTaggart says: “He met me,” and Glasgow’s own Charlie Flynn. He’s excited about their chances but offered a stern reality check: “If you lose two or three fights, chuck it. It’s not worth it and you won’t enjoy it.” He jokes that they could retire as millionaires right now, such is the gulf in the sport since the fifties.
“Melbourne, 1956. The Olympic Games. Is that your greatest moment?” I ask.
“Oh yes, definitely. I had relations there too, which made it more special. That was the McCoys, who were all from Glasgow, and they spread the word about me and got everyone to cheer for me. It was great.”
When talking about the British team, McTaggart recalls it fondly, and points to the picture on his wall of the medal winners before they flew home. The Scot formed such a closes bond with them, and kept in touch so much that when he tells me that they have now all passed away, he says: “We lost another one, Nicky Gargano.”
He kept in touch with Terry Spinks and John Cowboy McCormack in particular, and is able to recount much of McCormack’s career at middleweight on his behalf, almost.
McTaggart’s memory of everything about the Melbourne Olympic final fight is vivid, even down to the name of the radio commentator who called the fight: Raymond Glendenning. One could sense that when he reminisces about the occasion, he puts himself right back into those shin-high sneakers and walks through every moment again.
“Was he the toughest opponent you faced, Harry Kurschat?”
“Yes definitely,” McTaggarts affirms. “He was European champion as well – and the Europeans were just as hard to win as the Olympics, I’ll tell you. It took me year after year to win that. In fact, I’d say it’s tougher – because you have to fight Russians, Poles, Germans, Hungarians. You don’t get any easy fights. For example in my first Olympic fight I felt straight away like I could knock this guy out, but I needed to keep going to get some sparring in.”
McTaggart lights up when I ask about the overwhelmingly warm reaction he received when he returned home – the type reserved for very few sportsmen back in those days, never mind one that was not a professional athlete. Boxing wasn’t even a full-time thing for McTaggart, as he was still in the RAF.
“Flight Lieutenant Michek, he was the man in charge of the Olympic team and he had allowed me a week off for Melbourne. I came back and got off the train at London there were thousands and thousands of people there waiting, and then they carried me to the top of the stairs – I nearly bumped my head – and then put me in an open top car and the family jumped in as well, and they took me straight to my house, with people lining the streets.
“And how did that feel?
“Incredible. I was just about crying the whole way. I’d never seen anything like it in my life and didn’t expect anything.”
I look at this warrior across from me, dressed immaculately with his blue shirt tucked inside his neatly-ironed beige trousers, with shoes shining like the sun, and this is the first time he flinches. He wells up.
“I’ll never forget it.”