Derry Olympian Neil passes on

Neil pictured after he knocked out Henry Schmitt, USA Golden Gloves champion in 1971.
Neil pictured after he knocked out Henry Schmitt, USA Golden Gloves champion in 1971.

DERRY and, indeed, the North-West boxing fraternity, lost one of its true legends following the passing of local Olympian, Neil McLaughlin, on Monday last, December 23rd. He was 65.

The Ardnamoyle Park resident was laid to rest in the City Cemetery following Requiem Mass in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Steelstown, yesterday morning.

Neil will be fondly remembered for his undoubted talent as an amateur pugilist with a career highlight centring on representing Ireland in the Olympic Games in Munich back in 1972.

Indeed, he was one of a quartet of Derry men who competed in those games and, as was the case with his great friend and fellow boxer, Charlie Nash, he reached the quarter-finals having lost out to the eventual silver medallist.

The late Liam Ball and local Judo great, Terry Watt, made up the Derry team which represented Ireland.

Both Nash and Neil got as far as the quarter-finals in Munich, a Games more remember for the storming of the Israeli athletes’ compound by the “Black September” Movement.

However, many amateur boxers would openly admit that, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, winning a medal in the European Championships was just as difficult as securing an accolade in the Olympics.

Back then, the ‘Europeans’ were littered with unknown yet formidable Russian, Polish, Turkish and East German boxers among others.

European medals were hard to come by from an Irish point of view but back in the early 1970s - one year before the Olympics - a trio of bronze medals were claimed by the Irish when boxing in Madrid.

Mick Dowling and Brendan McCarthy secured two such medals for Dublin but at flyweight, a Derry fighter named Neil McLaughlin, claimed the third to ensure that an Irish gold medal would be making its way north of the border.

In West Germany, the then St. Eugene’s Amateur Boxing Club member, recorded victories in his opening two contests to move within touching distance of an Olympic bronze.

However, a defeat to Ugandan Leo Rwabwogo in his quarter-final, proved to end that particular dream.

Boxing by mistake!

Born in the Bogside area of Derry back in 1948, McLaughlin openly admitted that he got into boxing “by mistake.”

Interviewed by Belfast author, Barry Flynn, in his excellent book “Legends of Irish Boxing,” McLaughlin stated: “I loved gymnastics and I was all set to try and go on to take it seriously when I had a bit of a falling out with the teacher of the club.

“I was at a loose end so somebody suggested that I go up to St. Eugene’s Boxing Club and give the fight game a try. The next thing I knew I was in the ring sparring under the watchful eye of trainer, Patsy Havern, and I began to realise that boxing came naturally to me.”

Neil won numerous north-west schoolboy titles before progressing to Ulster awards and All-Ireland titles.

He made his international debut for Ireland late in 1969 when travelling to Dundee to box against Scotland.

His success was constantly monitored and when selected to represent Ireland in the European Championships in Spain, the Derry man was well on his way to boxing at the highest level in the amateur game.

He won back-to-back All-Ireland flyweight titles in 1971 and 1972 before eventually turning professional and, indeed, claimed the N. Ireland Area title in the Templemore Sports Complex back in 1977 as a bantamweight when stopping Terry Hanna in the fifth.

His great friend and sparring partner, Charlie Nash, who attended yesterday’s funeral, said Neil would always be remembered for his great dedication, skill and movement around the ring.

“He was a superb boxer and, as a flyweight, had to be so disciplined to make the 8 st. weight. That was tough, but he achieved it,” said Charlie.

On behalf of the local boxing fraternity, sincere sympathy is extended to Neil’s devoted wife, Margo; his loving children Neil, Liam, Michael, Fiona, Mark, Colm and Isabelle, his grandchildren and the wider McLaughlin family circle.

May he rest in peace.