The man who partially inspired my latest life turn has died. My mother told me Saturday that her youngest brother, my uncle Robert, had succumbed in Glasgow to a virulent cancer that had just recently spread to his brain.
According to my mother, who was 16 when Robert McDermott was born, he was the baby brother whose nappies she would change and she became, as often happens with the eldest children in large families, a de facto parent.
When my sister and I were young, uncle Robert would sometimes look after us (as would my other aunts and uncles despite some of their youngish ages — uncle Robert was only six years older than I). But he was the “fun uncle,” who’d let you do things your parents mightn’t. Who’d let you wade in the burn (creek) you weren’t supposed to go to. Also, and more relevantly today for me, uncle Robert was a champion boxer. As the chubby “wee professor” bookworm I was, and on which track I’ve lived my adult life, I envied that. In addition to my Muhammad Ali fandom, uncle Robert made a boxing fan for life, something that I think comes across even in my film writings.
Uncle Robert fought for the Scottish national team as an amateur, including at the European Games. He won an award named for 1970s world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan, as Scotland’s top boxing prospect. Apropos of that, the Daily Record did a center-page spread showing him in a ring corner, in his gear, surrounded by all eight of his sisters who still lived in Scotland. But at least a couple of his trophies and medals he gave to my mother, who had emigrated by this time. After we left, she would frequently talk about trying to bring him to America, where there’s much more money and potential for glory in professional boxing.
While that never came about, he did turn professional and had a decent career over there. Here is the only tape of him fighting that I know exists in public — it’s 1980s-vintage video and is of a whole card. His fight starts just after the 28:30 mark and lasts 6 rounds to a decision.
Uncle Robert got as far as a British bantamweight-title eliminator — a “winner gets the next shot at the reigning champion” fight. He got his nose broken in that fight en route to a 10th-round KO loss. His conqueror, Dave McAuley, went on to become a British and world champion. Only two other men stopped him — one went on to become a British champion, the other a world champion. But his career was hampered and eventually cut short by drugs and crime. He talks about that part freely here.
I’ve mentioned in vague terms, here and elsewhere, that my extended family and the law haven’t always been on the most cordial of terms (and no, I won’t go into further detail than saying my uncle Robert wasn’t the only one to do hard time). While I can truthfully say along those lines that I’m thereby not sorry I left Glasgow, I still envied my uncle the “hard man.”
Over the last few years, some changes in my life priorities have happened, in part because of uncle Robert the hard man. While by anybody’s definition, I’m still an obsessive cinephile — I depart in a couple of weeks on a 3,000-mile flight for a festival of 85- 90- and 100-year-old movies that don’t even talk, it’s become relatively less important to me. What has become my life’s avocation is becoming a fighter, at whatever level of success I can achieve.
Now … I’m no under no illusion that, at just a few weeks short of 49 years old as I type, I could ever become a full professional, much less one as successful as uncle Robert. But a few years ago, I weighed 250 pounds and a couple of things happened, one of which was watching two UFC fighters on TV, both flyweights, both standing 5-4 — my height. The mixed-martial-arts flyweight limit is 125, so I weighed as much as these two men put together. And comfortably more than twice the fighting weight of the only pro boxer I knew; uncle Robert fought as a bantamweight (118) and flyweight (112).
It’s taken about three years to get where I am now, with fits and starts, in part because at the start I was too out of shape to get in shape. I walked into an MMA gym and left in humiliation after a week because I felt like the fifthest fifth wheel in history. So I took things slowly because I had to. And to be honest, I started with the modest goal of simply not becoming unhealthy over it. I now weigh a little over 140 pounds, with 15 more pounds to go before I’ll be satisfied with my weight loss. First diet-only, then cardio, then weightlifting and now boxing. For the past year and a half, I’ve had a gym membership and about half that period, I’ve trained with a pro fighter — first on the punching bag and pad drills, now sparring more-or-less weekly.
Now I can run 2 miles in 20 minutes, and longer than that at a slower “jog” pace. I have defined shoulder, chest and arm muscles and routinely visible veinage. I can box on the heavy bag for an hour and can spar with my trainer for five or six 3-minute rounds. I can land punches on him, and take punishment without too much cowering or blinking. In the attached photo, my trainer noticed I was bleeding before I did and took this photo at round’s end. I insisted we keep going for the rest of the scheduled rounds. He obviously holds back his power a bit (maybe a lot; hell if I can tell now), while I don’t/can’t really. But a pro fighter is a pro fighter. He obviously still dominates our sparring and he’d stiffen me inside a minute if he fought 100%, but I can actually make him fight hard and sweat. My trainer thinks my goal of fighting a live fight in 2016 and being competitive, even if (especially if) it’s only in the “Old Boys” division, is very doable. I now post a video channel of myself sparring with him (and losing, but still … here’s one round embedded)
To bring this back to uncle Robert — however much one tells oneself not to let your imagination run wild with grandiose ambitions (and even if you largely succeed), you get “some day …” dreams. I had one regarding boxing and him. Had I gotten into the ring and had at least some success at the start, I would have brought him over here for a few days so he could see his “brainbox nephew” fight, as he did. And I don’t mean if I had big success anything approaching what he had … just enough to know I wouldn’t fold like many men do upon entering the ring for real, a possibility which I obviously still cannot exclude regarding myself. I wouldn’t want to make a fool of myself and/or waste his time. When I told my mother of this plan several weeks ago, she told me the then-recent bad news about uncle Robert’s cancer. I said I hoped he could see my videos, but she told me he already was going blind and would soon be put in hospice care away from Internet access. She did tell me that she had told him of what I’d been doing in the previous couple months and told him of the bloody-face photo. His reply (and my mind’s ear can play uncle Robert saying it) was “aye … well he better get used to that if he wants to get good.” I can tell myself he’d seen me and approved.
RIP, uncle Robert.