Scottish boxing legend Ken Buchanan tells his story in new book
AN old wooden former scout hut beside a busy road in Lochend. Through the doors and inside, where it’s clammy and sweaty, there are heavy bags dangling from strong chains, the squeak of rubber soles on the floor and the thud-thud of punches.
Black-and-white photographs of boxing heroes and newspaper cuttings that scream in praise of new talent are pinned to the walls. On the floor, pummelling away at a swaying bag, feet constantly shuffling, bright red boxing gloves swinging, grey haired but just as lithe, focused and steely-eyed as ever, is one of the greatest boxers Scotland has yet produced.
Ken Buchanan steps out from behind the punch bag, grins broadly, wrestles off his gloves and white bandage strapping to reveal powerful fists that were once among the most feared around. These are the carpenter’s hands that helped him beat WBA world lightweight champion Ismael Laguna in a sweltering Puerto Rico in September 1970 – so hot that his trainer was swiping Vaseline across his bruised face in the corner, while Buchanan’s father, Tommy, sheltered him under a parasol and squirted suncream over his pasty white Scottish back. Hands which, out of 69 bouts, took him to 61 victories.
Now approaching 68, he’s still a mere one pound heavier now than when he was at his fighting peak. And as he flexes his fingers and takes a break sitting on a low wooden bench at Lochend Amateur Boxing Club, there’s the possibility that he’s only half kidding when he suggests that there’s nothing he’d like better to get back in the ring.
“You’re nearly 68,” groans his partner, Carol, exasperated, rolling her eyes. “Six! Eight! You hear me?
“Look,” she adds, keen to nip this kind of talk in the bud, “he says this kind of thing and people think he’s serious. Really! It’s a joke.”
Buchanan grins, eyes twinkling, and an adamant look crosses his face that suggests if he could possibly rewind the years and step back through the ropes for one last proper shot, a final shuffle wearing his distinctive tartan shorts, then he’d be there faster than a knockout countdown.
For a start, he still trains regularly at the Sleigh Drive gym. And besides, there’s plenty of unfinished business to exorcise, including a title that slipped through those gnarled knuckles courtesy of a rock-hard punch below the belt, one that left Ken Buchanan MBE – one of only a handful of British boxers in the International Hall of Fame – writhing in agony and, remarkably, still in pain today.
It’s certainly a “delicate” subject. Buchanan was in the 13th round of his 1972 WBA world championship lightweight title defence when Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran sneaked in a right-hander below the belt a split second – maybe two – after the bell sounded. Buchanan, not known to hit the canvas much, crumpled.
Forty years on and he can still feel that punch. Twice, maybe three times a month, the damage caused when his protective gear dented and metal pierced through to the flesh beyond makes its painful presence felt again, an aching reminder of a lost title that even now has boxing internet forum fans debating the rights, but mostly the wrongs, of the referee’s decision to hand the match to Duran.
“Aye, I can still feel it,” Buchanan says, grimacing as he goes on to describe how it left him passing blood for days after, then describing how the doctors have been suggesting a “bit of soldering” to help ease the discomfort which, thanks but no thanks, he’d prefer not to indulge in.
“But I don’t hold a grudge against Duran. He’s a friend,” he says with a shrug.
Indeed, pictures of Buchanan grinning broadly, Duran by his side, are peppered through a new book which recalls the Scottish legend’s rarely recorded Welsh links. They share space with others capturing the lightweight posing alongside Hollywood stars such as Ryan O’Neil, dancing and sharing a laugh with Princess Anne, and stories of mixing with celebrities like Frank Stallone, who Buchanan recalls haranguing over a scene in his brother Sylvester’s Rocky movie in which the boxer’s swollen eye is deliberately cut to allow him to keep on fighting – just as happened during Buchanan’s follow-up fight against Laguna at New York’s Madison Square Garden, when he told his trainer to slide a razor blade across his puffy eye to enable him to carry on. “He owes me,” says Buchanan with a laugh.
Along with the familiar celebrity faces are dozens of pictures of Buchanan with sports heroes and at events around the world, proof that his legendary status stretches much further than Lochend ABC’s old scout hut gym.
In fact, such is the lingering interest in all things to do with the Northfield-raised boxer, that the book Ken Buchanan: Adopted Legend, launched last Friday, has sold out.
“That’s the thing,” says author Phil Jones, whose mum, Myfanwy, and dad, Brynley, did not hesitate to open their home to the young Scot who arrived, bag in hand, one day in 1965, seeking somewhere to stay while he trained with world champion Howard Winstone.
“Ken is loved down in Merthyr Tydfil, the Japanese love him, in America they think the world of him.
“But here in Edinburgh he goes about unrecognised.”
For Buchanan, that’s life. He remembers returning to Edinburgh after the thrill of his first world title victory in Puerto Rico, to be met by a handful of excited relatives, his newborn son – and no-one else.
He still fizzes at having tried and failed to encourage the authorities to allow him to box for a world title on what would have been quite possibly the most stunning location imaginable for a global bout – the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle.
“I fought 69 professional fights, was undefeated British and undefeated European champion, held world titles for two years . . . and I never fought in Edinburgh all my professional life,” he fumes. “I spoke to people about fighting at the Esplanade after the Tattoo. I said there’d be Americans who would come over to see it, it would be a sell-out, the pictures would go around the world. But they’re not interested in boxing. Tennis, Andy Murray, aye, but not boxing.”
He pauses to look around the gym where young prospect John Thain, 25, six feet of muscle, power and good looks, who recently signed with promoter Frank Warren and is tipped as potentially the “next Ricky Burns”, is soaked in sweat having bashed a punch bag into submission. There are others there too, focused on punishing the red swaying bags, strong, fit and powerful.
They are, says Buchanan, all good lads who have found a sport that keeps them supremely fit and active. It keeps them off streets and out of trouble and gives them focus, something to aim for and self confidence. So, he wonders, why is their sport not good enough?
“I think kids should be encouraged to get into boxing,” he adds. “All this taekwondo stuff, it gets all the attention but there are youngsters boxing hard and the work they put in is hardly ever recognised.”
Unfortunately, for a while the only recognition Buchanan attracted seemed to come in the form of worrying tales that suggested retirement from boxing had brought with it hard times and too much time in the pub. Thankfully now, perhaps thanks to Carol, he looks well, fit and fresh faced, no longer haunted by the void left by his years at the top.
And while his friends and fans might lament the lack of recognition in his home town, at least here, in the stifling wooden hut with a boxing ring at one end, some well-used gym equipment lined against the walls and punch bags dangling from the ceiling, he’s a living legend.
“He’s done it all,” says Thain, speaking just hours before learning his bout which had been pencilled in for this weekend as part of world lightweight champion Ricky Burns’ title bill has been put back after the Coatbridge boxer split with Warren.
“We all learn a lot from him, he’s always there to advise the young boxers, especially myself.
“He’s come along to a few bouts as well. He was there when Ricky Burns won his title and a couple of years back we went to America, to Los Angeles, to do some training and the Americans were all over him.
“He’s a legend.”
• Ken Buchanan: Adopted Legend by Philip Jones costs £9.99. For details, go to www.kenbuchanan.co.uk
Champion’s first lesson
KEN Buchanan was eight years old when his father, Tommy, who died last year aged 97, first took him to a boxing club.
He’d been inspired watching a film about boxer Joe Louis, The Brown Bomber, at Leith’s Palace picturehouse. Having suffered at the hands of bullies, he pestered his dad for boxing lessons and ended up at Sparta club in McDonald Road.
Trainer George Shaw quickly recognised his potential and he went on to win his first youth title within weeks, weighing in at just 3st 2lbs.
Buchanan combined boxing with what he calls the “longest apprenticeship ever”, training to be a carpenter with a joinery firm in Dalry Road, earning himself the nickname, the Fighting Carpenter.
He was ABA featherweight champion in 1965 when he left Edinburgh for Merthyr Tydfil to turn professional and train with Eddie Thomas, who trained featherweight champ Howard Winstone.
He beat Ismael Laguna in Puerto Rico in September 1970 to become WBA lightweight champion. He defeated Ruben Navarro in Los Angeles in February 1971 for the WBC title.
He later successfully defended his title against Laguna but his next defence in June 1972, against Roberto Duran, ended controversially with the “below the belt” punch which led to Buchanan requiring surgery. Duran never took up Buchanan’s offer to fight again.
In 1973, Buchanan he beat future world lightweight champion Jim Watt in Glasgow to regain the British lightweight title. He immediately gave up the title so Watt could pursue it.
He continued to fight abroad and eventually retired in 1983.