Getting in the back of a stranger’s pickup truck with your brother doesn’t sound like something that would one day lead to hall of fame inductions, but for Johnny and James McClain, it did.
The brother-boxer duo of Gastonia and Charlotte was inducted into the U.S. Marine Corps Boxing Hall of Fame in 2018 and were later inducted into the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame in April.
In 1974, their older brother Danny McClain introduced James and Johnny to Jack Stewart, who would pick them up in Kings Mountain and take them to box with the Gastonia Police Athletic League under the guidance of Dean Huffstickler.
“That was an honor, just to have my brother being recognized for the same achievements in boxing in the Marine Corps that I was being recognized for. It was great. It was really like the pinnacle of our boxing career or so we thought,” said Johnny. “To then be recognized at home for your achievements, it has a greater impact. James and I both, having been born in North Carolina, our boxing careers started here, you know that was just even sweeter because you’re recognized at home with fellow North Carolinians. It was definitely an honor.”
When he was no more than 11 years old, James told heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, who beat Muhammad Ali by split decision in 1978, that he’d be boxing with the Marines one day as well. Spinks, a former Marine, laughed and asked if he was sure about that, but James assured him that he was sure and Spinks said he’d see the young man in a few years.
“The Marines were knocking everybody out and it just impressed me, not just because they were knocking everybody out, but the way they would go back to their corners. They weren’t allowed to sit down; they stood up at the position of attention. And I was like, ‘wow, these guys are bad and disciplined,’” said James. “At 11 years old I already knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to go to the Marine Corps and be on their boxing team and try out for the Olympics and continue like that.”
Of course, neither brother could have expected at the time to be receiving the honors they did several decades later. Johnny finished with an amateur record of 90-18 while James went 69-14 and 11-4-1 as a professional. Just as any boxer would say, though, they know which losses truly count as wins in their books.
“If I had it to do all over again, I would do it again because there was something about being on the Marine Corps boxing team, and then to serve my country, that was just awesome, traveling all over the world and meeting different men and women,” James said. “It was just outstanding and I really enjoyed that.”
The McClains came from a family of 15 with three more brothers and eight sisters. Their brother Danny finished his own boxing career with a record of 35-1, but had to retire because of a heart murmur that also kept him from being the first brother to join the Marines. Danny died in 2004 and now his brothers are rallying for his induction into the Carolinas Boxing Hall Of Fame, confident that he was the better boxer.
“James and myself, we always looked up to Danny and the thing about it is that it felt like hey, I’m going to carry on the mantle and I believe James felt the same way that we’re going to do this for Danny,” Johnny said. “He’s definitely deserving and James and I, we’re going to continue to push for it and hopefully it will happen. If not next year, then maybe the year after that, but we’re definitely going to push for it.” — (AP)