Boxing clever

Mark Owens and Damien McDermott at Oakleaf boxing club. (2306SL16)
Mark Owens and Damien McDermott at Oakleaf boxing club. (2306SL16)

Irish amateur boxing is among the strongest boxing nations in the world and many Derry boxers, coaches and officials have played instrumental roles in that achievement.

A select number of Derry City pugilists have won Ulster senior boxing titles, including Charlie Nash, Neil McLaughlin, Damian McDermott, Danny Ogle, Gerry Duddy, Roy Nash, Neil Duddy, Sean Casey(RIP), Charles Nash Jr, Thomas Duddy, and Tyrone McCullough. County Derry boxers Mickey McCafferty, Paul McCloskey and Eamon O’Kane have also climbed the Ulster podium as champions.

Here boxing fan, Dr. Mark Owens, reflects on the career of modest Creggan man and former Ulster and Irish Senior featherweight champion, Damian McDermott.

Born in 1954 Damian began his boxing career in 1965, availing of the tutelage of coaches Tommy Donnelly and the late Bosco Hegarty, at the old St Mary’s Boys’ club in Creggan. Such was McDermott’s will to succeed he was soon requesting additional contests. This was all the more exceptional considering Damien suffered defeats in his first three successive amateur bouts.

Champions in the making rely on dedication, application and resilience to improve their skills and technique and so a determined Damian continued to develop apace: Largely thanks to club coaches Tommy Donnelly, John Daly, Patsy “Hasher” Harkin(RIP) and club secretary Paddy Canning. There was of course the encouragement of his father Jim (RIP) and club caretaker and uncle Eddie McDermott.

In the late 60s and very early 70s the St Mary’s boxing club in Creggan flourished producing champions such as Charlie Nash, Willie Nash (RIP), Martin “Mousey” Harkin (RIP), Drew McGarvey, the Ferguson brothers John, Billy, and Patsy, Mickey Daly, Terence Donnelly, Gerry Deeney, Josey Irvine, and younger members Micky Duddy, Mickey Nash, Liam Owens and the Forbes brothers amongst others.

With this line-up of boxing talent the competition to succeed even within the club was fierce.

In 1970, as a 16 year old apprentice bricklayer, McDermott traveled to London to contest the National Association of Boys Clubs championships as part of the elite junior team from Ulster. That team also included, Jackie Duddy (RIP) of the Long Tower boxing club and Billy McIntyre (RIP) of the old St Eugene’s boxing club. While there, Damian added the British National Association of Boys Clubs bantamweight title to his two Irish youth titles.

The strength of this team can be measured by the fact that both Jackie Duddy and Billy McIntyre missed out in a place in the finals with narrow losses at the semi-final stage.

Resultingly, McDermott remains one of a very small select band of Irish boxers to complete the feat of holding British and Irish amateur titles simultaneously. Due to his success Damian was invited to participate in a training camp in Hungary under the auspices of world heavyweight title challenger, Joe Bugner, in the early 70s.

The same period, particularly, ‘72, was to provide both triumph and tragedy for all associated with St. Mary’s. In early January club mate, Martin ‘Mousey’ Harkin passed away a few days after a contest.

Damian and pal Jackie Duddy carried the coffin of their boxing colleague. Further tragedy followed on Bloody Sunday. Only the night before, both Damian and Charlie Nash were in Dublin. Damian lifted the National Junior bantamweight title and the title of best boxer of the championships.

It was a most brilliant set of boxing performances, the young Derry man stopped every opponent on the way to lifting the bantamweight crown. His accomplishment was to fade very quickly with the horror of what was to unfold over the next 24 hours.

As both young men travelled home they received the devastating news of the tragic events unfolding in their home town.

Damien’s club mate William Nash (brother of Charlie) and teammate Jackie Duddy, both lost their lives as a result of the well documented and murderous actions of the Parachute Regiment.

There can be little doubt the events of that day had far reaching effects on both the club and its members.

In 1973 Damian lifted the Ulster Senior featherweight title with a most brilliant victory over Irish amateur boxing legend Gerry Hamill. McDermott’s southpaw counter-punching, power and fitness proved the difference between two technically gifted boxers.

Incidentally, Gerry Hamill was to go on and lift the Gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games. By now Damien’s boxing career was on the way up to the elite level and he added the Irish Senior featherweight title a few weeks later in the National Stadium, Dublin, following victory over Tommy Davitt (Phoenix club, Dublin).

The 1973 Senior championships proved a purple patch for Derry boxers, Neil McLaughlin won the Flyweight title and Charlie Nash lifted the lightweight title.

These title victories now elevated McDermott, aged 19, into the full Irish elite boxing team alongside club mate Charlie Nash and Kilkenny boxing legend, Mick Dowling.

A USA tour with the Irish elite team in 1973 presented McDermott with probably one of the most unbelievable and unenviable tasks of any Irish amateur boxer at that time. Damien contested bouts with both Howard Davis Jr at MSG, New York and Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor in Chicago within a ten day period.

Davis went on to win the Val Barker trophy as the best boxer in the 1976 Olympics.

Both Davis Jr and The Hawk Pryor would go on to win world professional titles and indeed Pryor is recognised as one of the all-time greats of the professional and amateur game.

Damian was subsequently presented with a bronze medallion marking his status as an Honorary Citizen of the City of Chicago. The accolade was personally conferred by then Irish-American political stalwart, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Having narrowly missed selection to the 1976 Olympic team Damian entered the professional ranks aged 23, in March 1977. He won the Irish professional featherweight title within two bouts.

McDermott was recently presented with his Championship belt 35 years after claiming it at Templemore Sports Complex with a fourth round KO of Belfast’s Jim McAuley.

Back in 1977 these championship belts were not presented to boxers.

Last year the Professional Boxing Union of Ireland recognised and honoured Damian as a champion. The, his championship belt was presented to him by BUI president Mel Christle, at the Four Courts in Dublin last June.

Persistent spinal injury and contractual wrangles were two of the main factors in the career failing to scale its undoubted full potential.

However the Creggan man set about applying all his skill, experience, expertise and knowledge of the sport in order to assist and inspire others to achieve their potential in “the hardest sport of all.”

Damian would go on to successfully coach, develop and mentor a line of local amateur boxing stars at the St Mary’s club in the Creggan, many of whom became established Irish international boxing stars in their own right, Gerry Duddy and Roy Nash for example.

Those coaching techniques and motivational skills were recognised by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association. They appointed Damian head coach to Irish elite boxing squad on several occasions, most notably as head coach to the Irish team at the European Junior championships in Denmark in 1986.

The unassuming McDermott was awarded with a civic reception in recognition of his achievements in August 2012.

The modest boxing coach remains, as many will attest, a credit both to amateur boxing and to the City of Derry.