A Boxing Memory: John Conteh
John Conteh could have gone to the 1972 Olympics. He didn’t. He could have reigned as the light-heavyweight champion of the world for longer. He didn’t. Too many times he made the wrong decision usually with money the temptation to go down a different route. The usual rows over money, too many parties that he wouldn’t have remembered. Conteh was the George Best of boxing. Incredibly talented, but the demons that took away some of his prime and almost certainly stopped him from becoming the greatest British fighter of all time.
Mickey Duff called Conteh the most talented fighter he was ever involved with. Duff knew the sport inside out, and dealt with many talented fighters, from him, that was some statement.
Bob Arum thought Conteh had the potential to be the greatest British fighter since Randolph Turpin. Don King thought he had everything to be a star. With a face ready-made for the camera, Conteh appeared to have it all.
The most talented are always judged the harshest. Best gave us many memories, more than the vast majority of footballers could ever hope to give us. But we wanted more. With Conteh, we have a similar narrative.
Conteh gave us plenty, but is another story of what could have been, even though his resume even now stands the test of time against the vast majority of British boxers.
An ABA and Commonwealth champion as an amateur. A British, Commonwealth and European champion as a professional, and he held the WBC world light-heavyweight title from 1974 until 1977, Conteh was some fighter at his peak. The first fight with domestic rival Chris Finnegan in 1973 should never be forgotten, an absolute classic between two very good fighters. It could have gone either way, the rematch the following year removed all doubt.
The win over the tough Argentinian Jorge Ahumada in 1974 to claim the world title was an incredibly hard fight, in many ways, too hard. Conteh would tell his trainer the late George Francis that it was like being in a long dark tunnel not knowing if you would see the other side. Conteh celebrated his big win in a Playboy Club surrounded by champagne and heaven only knows what else.
The fight with Ahumada seemed to change Conteh. Management problems started, he wanted the big money and he wanted it quickly. He resented the cut the money men took when he was the one taking all the risks. Fights with the likes of the WBA champion Victor Galindez and the then world middleweight champion Carlos Monzon failed to materialise. Legacy fights lost somewhere in cigar filled rooms full of mutual resentment.
Francis was sacked, Duff and Conteh ended up in court to try and their differences. They went their separate ways before the inevitable reconciliation with Francis and Duff many months later when the damage was already done. The Liverpool fighter broke his hand in a non-title fight in America and ended up being out of action for a year. Much later Conteh crashed his Rolls Royce into six parked cars early one morning, his hand was so badly damaged he couldn’t again make a proper fist.
Duff claimed Conteh wanted to fight Idi Amin in Uganda. It never happened, Conteh might be thankful now it didn’t. Probably a fight in different ways he wouldn’t have won.
A champion tends to have many words in his ear, advice is everywhere, good advice a little more remote. Conteh wouldn’t go through with a planned defence of his world title in yet another fallout over money and was stripped of his title, and he never got it back, he came close, but not close enough. Conteh needed a little luck and fair play, he didn’t get either, he instead got witchcraft and skulduggery.
Mate Parlov was now the WBC light-heavyweight champion of the world, and Conteh dared to challenge Parlov on his home turf. It looked like mission impossible, the old reference of needing a knockout to get a draw, was made for nights like that. Fighting Idi Amin in Uganda might have been easier.
Conteh said he knew he had no chance in Belgrade, he was right. Parlov had the little extra protection he needed. His eyebrows were coated with a synthetic skin, Conteh had two points unfairly deducted, and lost via a split decision. The knockout he needed very nearly came in the final moments, Parlov was exhausted and teetering on the brink of defeat. The 40,000 passionate and vocal faithful went home relieved. Anywhere else in the world Conteh would have regained the title he never lost in the ring. The decisions taken in the past were now affecting his future. Conteh had lost control of many things by that stage of his life.
The Liverpool fighter fought on but failed to convince, another world title opportunity against Matthew Saad Muhammad in 1979 looked like a lamb to the slaughter, but Conteh gave his last great performance. A reminder of the brilliance that had been lost in a cocktail of drink and drugs. The high life that had taken away much of his fighting life.
Conteh was fighting well and winning. The champion was cut badly and on the verge of being stopped. But Muhammad came with the illegal help which saved his night. His corner had a secret coagulant to close the cut. The champion had a little help from his friends, but his fists also helped pull off one of his many miracles. Conteh faded down the stretch, he was battered in the 13th, knocked down twice in the 14th and again he was second best on the judges cards. It was close, but again he came up short. Conteh on his last great night deserved better.
A rematch the following year was sad, a humiliation he didn’t need. Conteh living and fighting on memories, lasted only four rounds. It was the sort of night where all the fight just drained out of his body. It had been coming. In truth, Conteh had done well to last that long.
Conteh admitted he didn’t want to be in the ring that night in America. The mind wanting to be elsewhere sipping champagne, the body wishing the mind had won that particular argument. The aftermath brought more misery, a long session ended with Francis strapping his fighter to his hotel bed while the effects of his night had worn off. The end is never pretty, this was downright ugly.
After one more fight, Conteh retired aged just 29. A fighter burnt out when he should have been in his prime. His retirement was brutal and unforgiving, as hard as any fight he ever had. The drink and drugs spiralled even further out of control, he needed psychiatric care, the money long gone, the taxman finishing off what was left.
But Conteh got the help he needed, he found God, he got sober and has stayed that way for over 30 years.
Conteh is only now a casual fan of the sport he once graced and spends much of his time on the golf course. Conteh was awarded an MBE in 2017 and lives his life with few regrets. Despite everything he threw at his body, Conteh still deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest fighters in British boxing history.