John Conteh: One Of Britain’s Finest
By Daniel Smith
Dublin, July 19th, 1972.
John Conteh: ‘Muhammad, can you give me some advice please?’
Muhammad Ali: ‘Yeah, get out of my division!’
In 1968, a fighter by the name of Bobby Blower travelled a hundred-and-seventy miles from Wolverhampton to Basildon to compete in the Amateur Boxing Association Championships.
The morning of the tournament, Blower was pitted against a young Alan Minter, who by that point – like all the other young lads to be fair – was still cutting his teeth within the brutal trade. Four years after his encounter with Blower, Minter won a Bronze medal for Great Britain at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. However, that morning in South Essex, ‘Boom, Boom’ fell short of the mark when he fought the Wolverhampton kid.
Following his victory over Minter, Blower advanced to the next round where he faced a seventeen-year-old John Conteh. Conteh had been boxing since the age of ten and his natural aptitude for the art of fisticuffs was apparent.
Conteh was tough, fierce, and as game as they come. However, the bout was put to bed early doors as Conteh was swiftly schooled within two rounds. Blower went on to claim the ABA spoils that day while Conteh returned home battered and bruised, contemplating his aspirations of becoming a professional boxer.
Undeterred, Conteh realigned his pugilistic path, and by 1970, the Liverpudlian had won the senior ABAs at middleweight, a Gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, followed by the senior ABAs at light-heavyweight in 1971. Later that same year, Conteh turned professional at light-heavyweight.
By 1972, Conteh had notched eleven straight wins onto his record: ten of them coming by way of K.O. In the early autumn of 72, Conteh suffered his first professional loss to a Philadelphian called Eddie Duncan. The fight went the scheduled ten rounds, with both men dishing out leathered damage in equal measure. However, it was Duncan who nicked the decision by the slenderest of margins.
Defeat was astringent to Conteh, as it should be to any fighter who heeds the rapacious pangs of becoming a world champion. But no less than fifteen-days later, Conteh had moved up to heavyweight to face Hungarian journeyman, Ferenc Kristofcsak at The Royal Albert Hall in Kensington.
Savagely chomping at the bit, desperate to let his fists wreak havoc upon another man’s flesh, bone, and consciousness, Conteh brutally dismantled Ferenc within the first round. Thereafter, Conteh racked up a twenty fight winning streak, later fighting on Muhammad Ali cards at Croke Park, Dublin in 1972 and the following year in Las Vegas.
The feeling between Ali and Conteh was mutual. Conteh idolised the heavyweight champion and Ali welcomed the adulation. In return and shrouded in jest, Muhammad yielded a piece of advice to Conteh, telling him to ‘get out of my division. Conteh took the comment in good part but understood the wisdom behind the banter. The next month, he dropped down to light-heavyweight and defeated Rudiger Schmidtke for the European title.
Less than two months later, in a battle of the Brits saw Conteh take on Olympic Gold medallist, Chris Finnegan for the British, European, and Commonwealth titles. The fight was a British boxing classic and was the epitome of the sport in Britain during the 1970s. After a classic domestic title, that went 15 pulsating rounds, the referee Sid Nathan awarded the fight in Conteh’s favour, now adding the British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight titles to his collection.
It was now evident Conteh was now a formidable force within the light-heavyweight division, and fighters avoided him like a philanderer steers clear his missus on a Saturday night. By the October of 1974, the WBC light-heavyweight belt had become vacant, and Conteh was next-in-line for contention for the prestigious silverware. His opponent, Argentina’s Jorge Ahumada.
Ahumada was a hardboiled, rugged boxer who could eat punches like they were Amuse-bouche. Conteh knew he would have little chance of landing a knockout punch, therefore, a rough, fifteen-round slog was what he prepared for. The fight was a savage affair from the opening bell, with both men landing clean and hard throughout. By the eighth, Conteh was rattled from a hefty right to the jaw but he somehow managed to remain on his feet until the close of the round.
At the end of the tenth, Conteh was cooked and ready for the taking. However, in the eleventh, he gathered a second wind. The twelfth and thirteenth saw more heavy-handed exchanges; Conteh’s face a mask of bruises, cuts, and swellings, whereas Ahumada’s eye was completely swollen shut from the pummelling blows inflicted by his adversary. And as the bell clanged at the end of the fifteenth, Harry Greb declared John Conteh the new WBC light-heavyweight champion of the world.
Four years passed and Conteh extended his record to thirty-one wins, one loss, and one draw. However, he was now enduring problems with alcohol and regularly snapped by the paparazzi, drinking and partying with a conga of Playboy Bunny beauties. The swanky lifestyle and boozy nights had caught with WBC champion, which attributed to him being stripped of the title when failing to face a mandatory challenger due to qualms with financial offers.
In the same year, Conteh attempted to win back his title against the Croatian and former Olympic gold medallist, Mate Parlov. Parlov was a warm order who proved to be a little too much on the night for the Liverpool fighter, claiming the points victory and the vacant WBC strap before an arena of his fellow countrymen.
Atlantic City, March 1980, Philadelphia fighter Matthew Saad Muhammad rematched Conteh after earning a unanimous decision and the WBC belt the previous year. After Muhammad’s trainer was found to have used an illegal concoction to conceal a gash above his fighter’s eye during their first clash, the victory was tainted, therefore, a second waltz agreed. This was to be Conteh’s last chance at becoming a two-time world champion. Unfortunately, alcohol was winning the battle in John’s external life, thus, hindering his performance inside the ring. And in the absence of a mere shadow of the Conteh of old, Muhammad stopped his man within four rounds, asserting the victory from seven months earlier.
Thereafter, a spiral of destruction plagued Conteh like a bad spirit. A furious, alcohol-infused bender, a smashed-up hotel room, and a grapple with his friend and cornerman, George Francis was the depths of Conteh’s despair. Emotionally distraught, Francis restrained his fighter, strapping him to the hotel bed until Conteh – along with his demons – had exhausted into an unconscious state.
On the 31st May 1980, John Conteh finally hung up his gloves after defeating Chicago’s James Dixon in the fifth of their scheduled ten rounder. Amidst his loyal fans and fellow scousers, Conteh said goodbye to the end of a golden era and an illustrious career that will forever be engrained in British Boxing’s history.
Photo Credit: Getty Images