Aidan Smith talks to gentleman boxer Ken Buchanan
THE thrill of meeting a top sportsman from yesteryear begins with the research. I’ll call up to the office library: “Brown envelope, Craig – this guy’s bound to have one.” And, from the pre-computer database era, out will tumble lots of lovely, pongy, yellowing cuttings.
Ken Buchanan has eight envelopes to his name, all of them bursting with the dramas of his life, in and out of the boxing ring, and right away a story from September, 1971 intrigues. It finishes with the line: “If Edinburgh doesn’t want him, New York will take him and cherish him.”
The piece has the byline of the late, great Scotsman sportswriter John Rafferty and draws from a lengthy, lyrical description of the fighter and his hame toon by John F. X. Condon, the boxing PR majordomo for Madison Square Garden, where Buchanan in his trademark snazzy tartan shorts was defending his world lightweight championship against Ismael Laguna of Panama.
“Edinburgh,” says Condon, “is a city of little green doors ... practically devoid of black people and funeral parlors.” He raves about the history, the civility, the artists, the poets, the scientists, the scholars, the “passionate” Mary Queen of Scots and even the elegance of Auld Reekie’s chimneys. If you want to appreciate the full majesty of Edinburgh Castle, he informs New Yorkers, imagine it plonked in Times Square and abounded by lawns and monuments, “not by honky-tonks, hot-dog stands and hookers”. Well, New York didn’t nick our castle and they didn’t get our Ken either, for here he is answering the door of his tiny flat in Leith, 67 now, slow-moving but still whip-thin.
“No mention of Edinburgh’s boxers,” says Buchanan, when I read the piece back to him. “It’s just not a boxing town. When I flew back from beating Laguna the first time as WBA champion, having fought in Puerto Rico in 125 degree heat, guess how many people were at Turnhouse to meet me? The missus, the bairn – born when I was away – and our folks, so four and a quarter. No reporters, not even a bloody Evening News photographer. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think the city even knew I was away fighting.”
Part of the capital’s towering indifference towards him that day might have been down to the British Boxing Board of Control refusing to recognise the triumph because of an ongoing dispute with the WBA. Maybe, he says, but he repeats: Edinburgh has never been boxing-daft like New York, a city that loved him and which he loved right back. “The bloody Edinburgh Corporation,” he says. “I dearly wanted to fight on my home patch and my dream would have been the Esplanade, the night after the Tattoo had finished. We had a few meetings at the City Chambers but couldn’t get them interested. I guess Andy Murray would have more luck staging a tennis match up there. And of course Edinburgh loves its rugby and golf. But boxing? Too seedy.”
Buchanan has lodged these grumbles before, and I probably expected him to be a tricky interview, given that, post-boxing, he suffered defeats in matrimony (two divorces) and business (his flat is a few minutes from a much grander building, the old Ken Buchanan Hotel). In the cuttings, John Rafferty frequently mentions his “dour, broody” demeanour, even when winning. And his Big Apple cheerleader, John F. X. Condon, is forced to admit: “Perhaps it is not their fault that his people have not taken to Ken Buchanan. He is aloof, independent. He does not have the rugged charm or the lovable ignorance of a Rocky Graziano. He doesn’t have the smoothness or flamboyance of a Joe Naimath.” But I have to report that he’s on good form today, friendly and sharp with the anecdotes, and life’s disappointments are described with little bitterness. “Rugged charm” would be a good description of the man.
Just as it was always crowded in the Garden for him, so the living-room of his humble abode is pretty packed. There’s his pal Jock and his new-ish woman, Carol, who fetches two substantial rhubarb tarts. I offer the plate to Buchanan but he waves it away. Got to watch the weight, he says. Well he does tip the scales at 9st 10lbs, a whole pound over his championship weight of 40 years ago. How decadent is that?
He seems to have good people in his corner now. He lost his father in the summer at the grand old age of 97 and gets teary behind his big frames when trainer Tommy’s name crops up. “I miss him so much,” he says. But it sounds like Carol came along just in time. “Back in 1965, I had to choose between her and another lassie. I went with the other lassie and had a kid with her. [A claim for ailment money of £3 a week went to the courts when Buchanan, then a contender, was described as “a boxer of the highest class; his future is a matter for speculation.”] Then a few years ago I bumped into Carol in Easter Road, coming out of a pub half-pished. That was me, not her, and we just picked things up again. It’s going great and I’m very happy. I don’t do much now but I still like to train three times a week at Lochend ABC. So have that other tart, son. Or give it to Jock, he’s aye finishing what I don’t eat.”
I’m thinking that Jock might be here for fight-fact corroboration but Buchanan’s recall is as quick and incisive as that stunning left jab use to be. Jock is the son of Willie McKinnes, who Buchanan fought in 1963 as a highly promising teenager, in thrall to the fight game from the moment, aged eight, he emerged from the Joe Louis biopic at Leith’s Palace picturehouse. Indeed, Buchanan has to correct Jock on some details of that contest at East Fife’s old Bayview ground in Methil – “the only other time in my career I fought in the open air.”
A different experience from that baseball stadium in Puerto Rico? “Just a bit! Methil was perishing in what was supposed to be summer. Against Laguna, there was no roof protecting us from the sun. As the challenger I should have entered the ring first and would have claimed the only corner that was in the shade, but Laguna ignored protocol and nicked it from me. Right away that told me he was a bit worried. My dad, who was always by my side when I fought, asked a wifie in the front row with a parasol if he could borrow it. That must have been a first for a world title fight – imagine it happening now! The parasol helped but, as I always say, I must be the only champion who ever got sunburnt for his trouble.”
It was his dad who took Buchanan to see Louis’ The Brown Bomber, and after his granny had sneaked him under her coat to witness his first bout in the raw, the old man presented him at the Sparta club in Edinburgh’s McDonald Road where he quickly won his first title at the weight of 3st 2lbs. Buchanan was always in punch-ups in the school playground, but don’t feel sorry for him for he says: “I liked fighting so much.” And it wasn’t long before he was falling out with his manager, quitting the sport, going back to joinery and turning out for Whitson Star FC at inside-right – all because he’d run out of opponents.
“Look at this ring,” he says, and it’s hard to miss on his gnarled hands: a gold whopper. “You get given it when you’re admitted to the International Hall of Fame in upstate New York. No other British boxer has it because no one fought so many places as me. A book came out last year which said I was the most-travelled champ ever.”
Of his 69 pro fights only six were in Scotland, none in Edinburgh. In the cuttings there’s constant speculation about him emigrating for the sake of his career: Canada, Australia, South Africa. “I really fancied Toronto. The guy who wanted to manage me was going to buy me a big house with a pool. But the missus didn’t want to move. All my life folk have said to me I was born in the wrong place.”
Global communications not being what they are now, the new champion had to phone news of his first, disputed world title triumph back home to Edinburgh’s Drum Brae. His winnings were £4,000, reduced to half that after his manager’s cut and training costs, and he splashed £800 on a Daimler Sovereign. “I’d seen it in this West End showroom before going out to Puerto Rico and asked the guys to keep it for me. They laughed and said: ‘British boxers dinnae win abroad’.” Up until 1970 that was true, Ted Kid Lewis being the last to return from overseas with a title, way back in 1914.
Buchanan became undisputed champ in ’71 and the following year was Britain’s highest earner, ahead of Jackie Stewart, Tony Jacklin and even Mick Jagger. There were two successful defences and, in all, six appearances at Madison Square Garden. Returning to the testimony of John F. X. Condon across in New York, we learn that our man graduated to a Rover with calfskin upholstery. Condon adds: “In this country, Ken Buchanan would be classified as a gentleman-boxer, like none we’ve ever had.”
The names of old foes and old friends – and foes who became friends – are now being fired off like flashing blows in a classic Buchanan combination. There was Carlos Ortiz, who Roberto Duran didn’t fancy fighting, and the Garden had to plead with a holidaying Buchanan to save the bill. “No wonder Roberto said no; Carlos had had eight knockouts in a row. He was heavier than me; the Garden said: ‘Don’t worry, Ken, you’ll be quicker.’” He was. It’s rare, though, for replacement fighters to be so spectacular.
Buchanan sympathises with Ricky Burns, the WBO flyweight champ from Coatbridge who’s without a fight tonight after a second opponent’s late withdrawal. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to a show. Even if another boxer had been found, what condition would he have been? I feel sorry for Ricky. He’s a lovely laddie. Good jab, good movement – he impresses me a lot.”
Back to Buchanan’s pomp. Does he remember his first time at the Garden? “Of course. It was me versus Donato Paduano and, further down the bill, Oscar Bonavena against some guy called Muhammad Ali – the only time a British boxer’s name appeared before Ali’s. The great man didn’t have a dressing room. Angelo Dundee [Ali’s trainer] hurried over: ‘Can we share with you?’ Mine, I have to say, was four times the size of the room we’re in now. Ali had a big entourage so I got a piece of chalk and drew a line on the floor. The place went silent. Muhammad said: ‘What you doin’, Ken?’ ‘Just so we don’t get confused, Muhammad, this area is mine and that much smaller bit is yours. Step over the line and you’re for it!’ He just laughed.”
Buchanan lost his title to Duran, another Panamanian, in ’72 (share of the purse: £35,000). In the 13th round of a fearsome contest, the challenger struck a low blow. “It dented my protector and metal burst into my right ball. I was peeing blood for days. Roberto and I have long since made it up; we’re good friends. Although I still get a sharp pain in that ball once a month and am aye telling him about it!”
He likes the fraternity of old boxers and loves his rare visits to the Hall of Fame. He was pleased to take his daughter there a few years ago and is glad to have his son back living in Edinburgh, both children from his first marriage having been estranged for some time. And the Hall was also the setting for his reunion with Ismael Laguna after their epic fights. “It made me greet, seeing him again. I tried to shake his hand but it looked like he’d gone. Then his wife said: ‘Kenny, he knows who you are.’
Edinburgh knew who Buchanan was when he returned a defending champion and there were rides in open-top buses. His rumbustious life subsequent to the championship loss provided the odd lurid headline and meant the city didn’t forget his name. But even at the absolute peak of his powers, it continued to behave in a manner you could only describe as “very Edinburgh”.
He was desperate to box for his people in a world title bout. Big promoters got involved; Easter Road, Tynecastle and Meadowbank were proposed and discounted, possibly because memories of Methil still sent a shiver. So the champ steered the big car towards Murrayfield Ice Rink. “We met the manager. We assured him he’d make a fortune from the bars. We knew skating was popular on Fridays and Saturdays so we said: ‘Just give us a gash Tuesday.’ He thought for all of two seconds. ‘Sorry, son, but it can’t be Tuesday. I don’t want to put out my curlers.’”
Buchanan smiles. “I’m sure at the time I was raging but now that story just makes me laugh.” Edinburgh – it’s not New York. In so many ways. Down on his luck in the Big Apple, the former gentleman-boxer would probably never stand a chance of bumping into an old flame, almost half a century down the line.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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