Almanac Boxing: Ken Buchanan, Scotland’s greatest boxer, turns 70

Ken Buchanan is Scotland’s greatest boxer and he will celebrate his 70th birthday this year in a blaze of positive publicity and a civic reception in his native Edinburgh.

Yet life hasn’t always treated the former world champion so kindly. Let me take you back to my meeting with this true legend at the start of the millennium.

“THE first thing you notice is the walking stick next to the coat rack at Ken Buchanan’s lodgings in Cumbernauld. That this once spry, nimble will-o-the-wisp of the boxing ring should require a stick at the age of 54 nearly defies comprehension.

“It’s as much of a shock to the system as Kenneth Branagh fluffing a line or Pavarotti singing flat. But there it is: the wooden cane obtained at a car boot sale in Fife, which has subsequently proved the butt for some ill-judged humour among the confreres of the New Town. As Willie Pep, the former world featherweight champion, remarked: “First your legs go. Then you lose your reflexes. Then your friends.”

Buchanan can empathise. Indeed, it’s as if somewhere in his heyday he accidentally broke a suitcase full of mirrors. Even now, with his back a rickety mess and his slender physique ravaged by the effects of taking 12 tablets a day – white ones to help ease the pain, red ones allowing him to sleep or relax – allied to a copious intake of alcohol, which permits this little fellow a temporary escape from the wreckage of his existence, Buchanan rages defiantly against the dying of the light.

The body may be frail, but his eyes remain focused and purposeful. Stare into them, and you can discern the spirit of a boxer who reigned supreme across the globe 30 years ago and marvel at the mettle of a man who learned this month that, at last, he has been inducted into the sport’s International Hall of Fame.

The accolade arrived out of the blue, but it represents the apotheosis of a pugilistic career which began on a summer’s afternoon in 1953 when his father, Tommy, took him to see The Joe Louis Story at an Edinburgh cinema.

At 8+ and a mere 3st 2lb, the kid was soon entreating his dad to buy him a pair of boxing gloves and his ceaseless cajoling paid dividends.

“I would badger him and pester him, but he kept stalling, so I had to use a different strategy,” recalled Buchanan, his face lighting up, voice rising with a fleeting thrill last Thursday. “So I waited until one of his pals was talking to him in the garden, then I dashed up to him and shouted: ‘Dad, dad, are you going to teach me how to box?’

“He looked at me with irritation, and replied: ‘Aye, but just wait a while.’ I answered back immediately: ‘No, no, you have to promise,’ and out of sheer exasperation, he said: ‘Okay, I promise’ in front of another person. So that was me settled, and we went down to the Sparta Club in the next couple of days. I loved it, you know. Sure, I was a dunce at school, but once I had slipped the gloves on, I was an equal for anybody.”

That much was unarguable during a halcyon period from 1970-75 when nothing, be it partisan officials, riotous foreign fans or dishonest antagonists, could prevent Buchanan from feasting on a rich diet of honours and baubles.

Whether overcoming midday temperatures in excess of 100 degrees to beat the WBA lightweight champion, Ismael Laguna, or trouncing the WBC numero uno Ruben Navarro in Los Angeles five months later, there was an unstinting dedication from the Scottish fighter in his disposal of rivals such as Donato Paduano, Mando Ramos and Carlos Hernandez in the build-up to one of the most famous and notorious tussles in fistic history at Madison Square Garden, where Buchanan, pitted against the Panamanian Roberto Duran, nicknamed “The Hands Of Stone”, competed so perseveringly and courageously that the South American eventually rammed his knee into the groin of his adversary, leaving him unable to continue amid bedlam from all quarters.

To many of the throng, it was a blatant transgression, yet life has had a terrible habit of booting Buchanan in the nether regions ever since. No wonder that as he looked through the remnants of memorabilia in his Cumbernauld digs, he should prove resolutely combative one instant and a manifestly crushed soul in the next.

“It still rankles with me, yes of course it does. Duran robbed me, simple as that. He attacked me after the bell, and he should have been disqualified. I could have gone on, even though the pain was indescribable, but the referee was having none of it,” says Buchanan.

“Ach, it’s a hell of a long time ago now, but it still hurts. It had been bloody hard graft seizing the world championship from Laguna in San Juan and holding on to it for two years, because don’t forget this was at a stage when any one of half-a-dozen guys would have been good enough to win a world title today.

“But, on the other hand, there were great times and a stack of tremendous stories to put next to the disappointments. I mean, there was one occasion when I met Muhammad Ali in New York in 1970, and we shared a room together before the fight. You know how? Well, whilst we were at the weigh-in, Angelo Dundee came up to me and said: ‘Ken, is it okay if Ali shares your dressing-room?’ Think about it. Here was me, this wee laddie from Dalkeith, and I’m getting asked for a favour by the trainer of the greatest fighter who has ever lived. I said to Dundee: ‘You’re only kidding, right?’ But no, he was deadly serious, and Ali and I swapped banter and jokes and warmed up together prior to our contests. Memories are made of these moments.

“I guess now that, in retrospect, I didn’t realise how fortunate I was in my youth, but that’s not uncommon, is it? There was also one night in 1971 when I was named the British Sportsman of the Year – Princess Anne collected the women’s award – and the pair of us had to dance together at the dinner. Anyhow, I’d gone to lessons for three months – my dad was a terrific dancer – and I thought I would be a natural, but I wasn’t. In fact, I was more nervous than I had ever been before walking on to the floor.

“But, like a fool, I found myself telling the princess: ‘Don’t worry, hen, dancing is in my blood.’ Well, after a couple of minutes shuffling around with not a shred of co-ordination, she spoke through clenched teeth: ‘You must have a circulation problem then because it hasn’t reached your feet.’ That was me stymied – after all, what could I say to royalty?”

In these balmy yesterdays, cash was flowing into Buchanan’s coffers and vanishing with equal speed. His buddies, the kind of shysters who would steal the ornaments off their granny’s mantelpiece, slapped him on the back and supped deep on his largesse and naivete. On and on it rolled, this giddy gravy train, until the inevitable decline commenced. Buchanan lost a fraction of his sharpness, relinquished a scintilla of his instinct for survival, and gradually, inexorably, his lustre vanished along with his supposed drinking acquaintances.

“There’s no question about it, if I could change things, I would do so, but there’s no use dwelling on what might have been. By the end of the 1970s, the papers regularly carried pieces claiming that I was a washed-up has-been, down on my luck, and I reached the point where I would tell the journalists ‘Ach, write what you want. If you believe I’m an effing down-and-out, then go ahead, stick it all down.

“Yet, let’s be honest, you can’t be the world champion for ever, and it had to come to a full stop. If it hadn’t been Duran booting me in the balls, Father Time would have done the same thing, sooner or later, wouldn’t he?

“At least, I didn’t wind up like Ali. Jesus, it was hellish when I went to see him at Waterstones in Edinburgh a few years ago. I’d heard stories that his illness was really bad, but when I watched this giant of a man reduced to shambling into the shop with no idea where he was, it was more than I could stand.

“I had to leave the store and dash away because I was greetin’ my eyes out at the state he was in. It dragged me back to that scrap he had with George Foreman, where he took punch after punch on the ropes – it was the sort of fight the authorities shouldn’t have permitted to continue – and was pummelled beyond any reasonable bounds. [Even though Ali finally triumphed].

“Genuinely, I think he suffered a dreadful amount of damage that night because he wasn’t a moving target: he was a human punchbag, and the cells in his brain must have been obliterated. They must have been.”

Given the gravity of Buchanan’s tone, one might envisage he has some sympathy for boxing’s would-be abolitionists, but despite the evidence of his own eyes, he defends the noble art to the nth degree.

Yes, he may tell you, you don’t know what it’s like to feel frightened or find that bitter taste in your mouth, until you’ve squared up to your enemy and discovered he’s better than you – “you’re telling yourself this isn’t happening, and that you’ll wake up from the nightmare, but it is happening and you feel sick at the thought” – but even as Buchanan mused on the shroud of fear which habitually hangs over his business, he was licking his lips in anticipation of the clash between Mike Tyson and Julius Francis in Manchester.

“The ring is the loneliest place in the world to be, especially when your opponent is battering the stuffing out of you and the referee’s not bothering his backside” says Buchanan. “But you can’t ban boxing because it’s man’s first sport. From the minute you are born, you’re fighting…for air, for water, for food, everything. So, regardless of the risks, there will always be guys like me in love with the game.

The ultimate irony, that where Buchanan could evade the punishment of boxing’s meanest practitioners, he has been grievously harmed by the arrival of Old Father Time, was pathetic to behold. But not half as depressing as the fretful questions this once-proud warrior agonises over. Namely, how does he occupy the remainder of his days? And what’s to be done when you have prematurely checked into the departure lounge of life?

“It scares me to think there’s nothing there. That’s why sometimes I sit down and start drinking and it numbs me, but I haven’t a clue what lies ahead. I don’t want hand-outs, I don’t want favours. But I just want to feel I have a purpose in the years ahead.”

Buchanan will travel to Canastota, New York, in June to join the illustrious ranks who adorn the Hall of Fame, where boxing’s legends live forever. Were this Hollywood, that would be an appropriate moment for the curtain to fall.

But this isnt a movie.”

* The legend *

KEN BUCHANAN’S myriad achievements speak for themselves. The undefeated British lightweight champion from 1968 to 1971, world lightweight champion from 1970-72 and European title-holder from 1974-75, he was presented with numerous awards by the notoriously hard-to-please American press corps and was voted Britain’s Sportsman of the Year in 1971 as well as collecting an MBE for his services to boxing.

Buchanan will make further history this summer when he becomes the only living Scot to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, near New York. The 54-year-old Edinburgh man will attend the ceremony in the company of a list of other distinguished fighters such as “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Willie Pep and Joe Frazier.

In recent times, Buchanan has suffered a string of personal problems, but he remains one of Scotland’s most famous sports personalities. Indeed, according to the boxing historian, Brian Donald: “His talents were unique enough to make him Scotland’s greatest-ever fistic champion. Indeed, he was and remains one of the most accomplished and courageous British fighters to parade his skills in foreign rings.” Nobody would argue with that assessment.

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