Classic Irish Boxing:Jim McCourt – The King of the Immaculata
November 20th, 2005 – by Barry Flynn
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the day that Jim McCourt first passed through the doors of Belfast’s world-famous Immaculata Boxing Club.
What the 11-year-old from Leeson Street didn’t know was that he was embarking on a glittering boxing career that would see him achieve Commonwealth, European and Olympic glory. Or that he would rub shoulders with presidents and popes, tour the world with his country and finish his career with an astonishing record of 496 fights, with only 15 losses.
Now in his 60s, McCourt is a living legend in the world of Irish amateur boxing. A quiet and unassuming man who is reluctant to boast of his achievements, preferring only to speak of his love for the game which he has devoted most of his life to.
However, to appreciate what made Jim McCourt the boxer he was, it is necessary to understand the place that was Belfast in the 1950s. In essence, the city was a pugilistic conveyor belt that produced boxers of style, class and quality. Fighters such as John McNally, Freddie Gilroy, Bertie Meli and John Caldwell were the heroes of that era who put Belfast and Ireland on the world boxing map.
Housed in Devonshire Street in the Lower Falls district, the Immaculata Club was setting the standards for boxing in the city, and for new boy Jim McCourt a world of opportunity and glory awaited him. Within two weeks of joining the club, McCourt reached the final of the Down and Connor Boys’ championship, only to lose narrowly.
That first competitive experience of the noble art left the love of boxing coursing through McCourt’s veins.He learnt his trade and progressed rapidly through the ranks. Then in 1962 he won his first Irish vest representing his country against Bulgaria.
In 1963, a clean sweep of Ulster and Irish junior and senior lightweight titles made the pundits sit up and take notice of the Belfast boy.
The following year, McCourt again took the Ulster and Irish titles and he was on his way in October to represent Ireland at the Tokyo Olympics.The only Irish medal of those games came courtesy of McCourt when he won bronze in the lightweight division.
His memories from the games are fond but because he was involved in competition until the final day he never got to see much of Tokyo.
“I had to stay at the arena right up to the last day to get my medal after the final, so I didn’t get a chance to see much else but inside the village,” said McCourt.
“The gold medal that year was won by the great Josef Grudzien of Poland. I was very disappointed to lose my semi final to the Russian Barannikov, indeed many thought that I was the winner on that day.”
On arrival back in Ireland, McCourt and his medal were the centre of attraction for the media at Dublin Airport, but he had little or no knowledge of the welcome that awaited him back in his native Belfast.”My mother and father joined me on the train home from Dublin and when we arrived at Great Victoria Street I saw the St Peter’s Brass Band on the platform, but I thought that they were going off somewhere to perform,” he said.
“Then I saw the crowds and the band began to play. The next thing I knew I was lifted shoulder high through the station and onto the back of a lorry and up to Leeson Street.”
The strange thing for McCourt was that he could not understand why he was receiving all the adulation. He felt that he had let everyone down by getting beaten in the semi final.
“When I arrived back in Leeson Street, there were crowds and photographers everywhere but I felt that I had failed and was still a bit disappointed,” he said.
However, retribution was not long in coming as in November of that year he was a convincing winner over the gold medallist Grudzien in an Ireland v Poland international at the National Stadium in Dublin.
The success story continued two years later, when he won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica. That was followed by a further – but less successful – Olympic outing in 1968 held in Mexico.
With McCourt now operating at the pinnacle of the amateur game, it was inevitable that he would attract the attentions of the professional fight promoters. To his regret, McCourt never took the leap into paid ranks.
“In about 1966, English promoter Bert McCarthy offered me a £5,000 contract for 12 fights in London,” said McCourt. “In those days a fee like that could have bought you four semi detached houses in Belfast and was not to be sniffed at.
“I thought about it long and hard, especially as McCarthy was going to let me train out of the Immaculata, but I was told confidentially by a prominent Olympic official that if I stayed an amateur that I would, on retirement, be given the job of Irish coach, so I decided to stick to the amateur game.
“Of course, it never happened and I do regret that I never tried the paid ranks.”In the 1960s, the demarcation lines between the amateur and professional boxing ranks were fixed in stone. McCourt, a joiner by trade, recalls the hardships he had to endure to keep down a job and continue a boxing career.
“Today to achieve success in the Olympics would guarantee some sort of sponsorship or grant but in those days I was not allowed to undertake anything that would break my amateur status,” he said.
“When I was interviewed for television or radio the cheque was made payable to the club. I recall on many occasions training on a Thursday evening, then working on a Friday while fasting and travelling to Dublin to take part in a tournament that evening.
“If I won through I had to travel back to Belfast that night for work on the Saturday and then back to Dublin to fight in the final that evening.
“I lost every penny for being absent from work on international duty and I had to pay my own way to Dublin to compete in tournaments,” he added.
What drove McCourt on to greatness was his love for the sport and especially representing his country at international level. If financial reward was not forthcoming, there were other compensations to be had. McCourt recalls with pride sitting not five feet from Pope Paul VI in the Vatican when the Irish boxing team had been afforded a private audience with him in 1966.
Indeed time has not erased his achievements as on a trip recently to a function for Irish Olympic medal winners at Áras an Uachtaráin, Mary McAleese took the opportunity to tell McCourt of how she skipped an afternoon of lessons at St Dominic’s to see his return to Leeson Street from Tokyo in 1964.
Towards the end of his career, controversy occurred when McCourt was at loggerheads with the Irish Boxing Board over their insistence that he undertook collective training with the rest of the Irish squad.
“I just couldn’t go along with it,” said McCourt. In the Immaculata, under Ned McCormick and Vinty McGurk, I had the best training available in Ireland. I was sparring with professionals like Spike McCormick, Peter Sharpe and Jim McAuley, and to be truthful the collective training did not help me.
“I started having weight problems when I did the collective training and in the end I indicated to the authorities that I was unwilling to do it.”
This decision cost McCourt dearly and he was not picked to represent his country at the Munich Olympics in 1972. His career as an international was, at the age of 28, all but over. McCourt left the Immaculata in the 70s but continued to fight for the St Agnes’s club in Andersonstown until 1976.
Since then, apart from a couple of stints as a trainer in St Agnes’s, he has been by and largely absent from the world of Irish amateur boxing. His Finaghy home bears no evidence of the sparkling amateur career he enjoyed which is in keeping with his own personal unwillingness to boast of his achievements. On other boxers, McCourt is keen to heap praise on those who he admired.
“The greatest boxer of all time in my view was Ali and nobody could touch him,” said McCourt.”In Irish terms, I always thought that Mick Dowling was a bit special as was Brendan McCarthy. But the question as to who was best boxer that this island ever produced is easily answered, and without a shadow of a doubt that was John Caldwell.”
Recently a mural was commissioned in the lower Falls district to the heroes of the Immaculata club and on it are both McCourt and Caldwell.
McCourt was emphatic onhis proudest moment in his career when he said: “It has to be representing my country in the green vest over the years; nothing else came close to giving me so much pride.”