Duke McKenzie: “Before I turned pro, I lost 17 fights back-to-back.”

Duke McKenzie: “Before I turned pro, I lost 17 fights back-to-back.”

By Garry White

It’s Tuesday lunchtime and Duke McKenzie’s name flashes up on my phone. It’s partially unexpected and has me scrambling and fumbling to answer. We were due to meet a little earlier in the day, but when I called at the allotted time the line just rang out. This is a not altogether unfamiliar scenario for those of us who are used to chasing boxers for stories and quotes. But I needn’t have worried. Several days later when searching through my mobile I finally pick up his earlier message apologising for the late rescheduling. 

I still have the voicemail. In my head, it is bound in a solid gold frame, for the sole reason that not once, but twice, Duke called me ‘Champ’. I am sure he says that to everyone whilst motivating the athletes and pudgy wage slaves alike at his brilliantly named ‘Duke Box’ gym in South Croydon. But from the perspective of my own ego, it has the same restorative effect as being called ‘genius’ by Albert Einstein. 

The voice on the end of the phone is breathless. It launches into a good-natured rant about the terrible deal he’s just been offered at his local Mercedes dealership. Three world titles and the Arthur Daley’s of this world are still trying to rip him off. Perhaps, it is always the lot of the flyweight to be under-valued and undersold. Perish the thought that big Frank, who only wore the green strap of the WBC for six months, would be subjected to this kind of treatment.

His automobile woes now fully disclosed and behind him, Duke finally pauses for breath. I would normally say ‘McKenzie’ but once you have spent an hour chatting to the warm and engaging south Londoner it feels impossibly stiff and formal. Anyway, he later discloses, “Mickey Duff, always called me by my name. He always called me ‘Duke’. I loved that about him. It was never ‘mate’ or anything else.”

We exchange small talk -even once asking me to tell him about myself- and then when he’s ready he hits me with it again. “I’m happy to help champ… fire away!” His politeness and gentle tones are disarming. The story that he describes in detail for the next 50 minutes is one that he must have recounted a thousand times over the years, yet he does so patiently; on several occasions treading back over old ground to carefully correct a name or an event that he has cast out of sequence

Famously, the youngest of six brothers, the journey he recounts takes him from hopeless amateur at the back of a dole queue to world champion in triplicate; via Mickey Duff’s old office in Wardour Street and a Nestle mailroom. It is a story worthy of a movie screenplay, but the autobiography remains unwritten; some familial parts of it still too raw for the 58-year-old to fully turn over.

His eye for detail is as focused as his shot selection was between the ropes. At one point he pauses to recall the full address of Duff’s former Soho basecamp. Irresistibly I Google it straight afterwards and note that it now houses a monolithic branch of Starbucks. Something that sits at odds with Duke’s evocation of 80s London and his liberal mentions of long-departed landmarks like the Thomas a Becket on the Old Kent Road. The likes of boxing manager Bert McCarthy, journalist Jonathan Rendall, and a smorgasbord of old fighters are also sprinkled in for extra time-and-place seasoning. It is the evocation of a lost world that could be located anywhere between the 1950s and the dawn of the internet age.

“I never really wanted to box,” he admits. “From 13 to 19 I showed no signs of being anything. I must have the worst amateur record of any professional world champion ever. I was honestly so bad that they were queueing up to fight me.

“Before I turned pro, I lost 17 fights back-to-back,” he adds amidst laughter.

Yet despite this conspicuous lack of success, his entry to the gym and ultimately into the ring was perhaps inevitable, as his brothers Clinton, Dudley, and Winston had trod the path before him. It led him to the same gym and expert guidance of Colin Smith -described by Duke as “a really lovely person”- who went on to train him throughout his time in the amateur and professional ranks. 

Ultimately, the decision to turn pro was really on the recommendation of his brother Dudley. “I was unemployed. I didn’t have a pot to piss in,” recalls the former three-weight world champion. 

“Dudley had just turned pro [following a glittering amateur career where he’d won the ABA national title eight times back-to-back] and I remember him saying to me: ‘Little man’. He always called me little man – ‘You can nick a few quid here if you want’. Whatever Dudley was I wanted to be. Basically, he was my main source of inspiration along with Clinton in me deciding to turn pro.

“I really had no confidence as an amateur boxer. But when my brother Dudley said I would be exceptional as a pro, I had no cause to doubt him. Because whatever my brother told me to do, I just did. His saying that gave me the confidence to believe in myself and aspire to be better. Honestly, he could have convinced me that I could’ve beaten King Kong! He played such a big part in my life.”

Whenever Duke mentions Dudley, as he does frequently throughout our conversation, he nearly always pre-fixes his name with: ‘My brother’. The bond is unshakeable and one solidified still further following his untimely death by suicide in 1995. 

That he still misses him is obvious and remains the chief barrier to the 58-year-old ever sitting down to commit his full life story to print. In his own words, he worries about the emotion of it “tripping me up” – as do I when venturing into such personal territory in the back story of such a likeable and fundamentally decent individual. 

It is perhaps a quirk of boxing, that Duke achieved almost unheralded success for a British boxer in the paid ranks, whilst his brother’s career lasted a mere 18 months, and including two losses in ten outings. But in any event, Dudley’s early retirement from the sport acted as a further boon to Duke’s emerging career. “Him jacking boxing in did me a favour as he put all his love and energy into my career,” he recollects. 

“The most valuable thing you can give anybody is your time. And you know, my brother gave me so much time. He always told me I was going to be great. We were more than brothers. We just had a great relationship.” 

Determined to turn pro Duke sought out famed manager and promotor, Mickey Duff, to manage him. Duff’s leverage over British boxing in the latter half of the 20th century is now legion, however, there is little that he thought he could do for a diminutive teenager with a mediocre amateur record. “He just point blank refused. I had nothing to sell and he just told me ‘it ain’t going to happen,’” he recalls. 

But unperturbed Duke took to taking frequent visits to Duff’s office in the hope of changing his mind. “I was 19 years old, unemployed and I had nothing else to do with my time. In fact, time was about the only thing I did have,” he quips. 

“For me going into the west end most days was an adventure. Really my whole week was just about going up to the west end to see Mickey Duff. I’d go to the office and nine times out of ten he wouldn’t be there. His secretary, a lady called Eileen -she was a lovely lady [most people are ‘lovely’ in Duke’s universe]- would make me a cup of tea and chat to me. I’d be up there most days just talking to his staff; people like Archie Chester, Davey Jones, and Dennie Mancini. They all seemed to like me as a person, which is something I really appreciated. 

“Eventually I became a bit of an errand boy; doing the post, making the tea; and then one day Mickey shows up and I’m the first person that he sees when he walks in. I’d waited there all day like a lap dog for him. You couldn’t make it up really.”

Duff may be more famed for his hard-headed approach to business, but Duke recalls an altogether more paternal character. “He sort of gave me a look like a father would to a son,” he reminisces. “He said: ‘Duke, what are you still doing here?’ At the same time he sort of melted a bit and told me he’d arranged some sparring for me down at the Thomas a Becket.” After weeks of being given the brush off this one opportunity, that Duke puts down to ‘fate’ but could easily instead be attributed to his remarkable persistence, was the catalyst for his storied professional career. 

Entering the ring at the Thomas a Becket he was matched with reigning British flyweight champion Kelvin Smart. For a teenager with no pro experience and a habitual losing record in the amateurs, this should have been little more than a ritual slaughter, but Duke recalls an altogether different outcome. “Kelvin honestly came out of the corner flying at me trying to knock me out. I literally closed my eyes and threw a punch -if I tried it again it would never happen- but it landed and fractured his jaw. It was a total fluke. 

“In the space of about 20 minutes, there was a telephone call. It was from Mickey Duff and I thought I was in big trouble, but he called me to his office to sign a contract right there and then.”

Within a few months, the teenager was on the fast-track, treading a whistle-stop tour around America with Duff and his golden boy former WBC super featherweight champion Cornelius Boza-Edwards. Duke admits that the man known to everyone as Boza was “like a big brother” to him in these early days of his newly minted pro career. “He took me everywhere and introduced me to everyone. We did all of our training camps together at Johnny Tocco’s Gym. Everyone who was anyone was there.

“I went to New York, Atlantic City, Los Angeles, and Miami. I was meeting people like Don King, Bob Arum, and Shelley Finkel. As a kid, I didn’t know who these guys were. It was just a roller coaster and I boxed on adrenalin. I was one of the first British fighters to box at the MGM Grand. Mickey used to introduce me to people like I was Johnny Big Bollocks but I think he knew it wouldn’t go to my head and that I’d never get drunk on it.”

In the space of 14 pro fights, Duke had decisively collected a British title [TKO4 vs Danny Flynn] and positioned himself to fight the much-loved Charlie Magri for the European flyweight belt. On a late spring evening in 1986, he dominated the man known as ‘Champagne’ Charlie and battered him into retirement. “I was hated for it by some people,” Duke still remembers. “He was the darling of British boxing and I think it upset some people with me beating him. 

“But it was really my coming of age fight. I knew even if I’d lost that I was young enough to come again, so I was relaxed going in. But I gained so much confidence from beating him, because of his great reputation. He was still the big noise in this country at that time. My preparation was superb. But it turned out that the sparring and the preparation were harder than the actual fight. Colin [Smith] had really done his homework on that one.”

A world ranking followed, and with two successful defences of his European belt, Duff secured him an opportunity to challenge Filipino Rolando Bohol for his IBF flyweight title at the Wembley Arena. In what was his 21st pro contest, Duke is open about his doubts going in against the respected champion. “I just had to convince myself I deserved the shot; even on fight day, I remember waking up sort of crying and thinking fucking hell: there’s no turning back now!

“When I saw Bohol at the weigh-in he had muscles everywhere. But Dudley said to me, ‘There’s nothing to fear except fear itself’. He was great with the one-liners was Dudley.”

As Duke recalls his preparation and the 11 rounds of action there is the sense that rather than have his eyes firmly on the prize, there was a substantial part of him that was equally focused on not embarrassing himself in front of a home crowd and a substantial television audience. These were the last fading glory days of boxing where big fights filled prime time slots on free-to-air television and captured viewing figures in their millions. 

“The strategy was to break the fight down into sections and just to see where I was at each stage. For the first three rounds, I was like a thief in the night. I really didn’t want to get hit early. I was just focused on staying in the pocket and not getting hurt,” he admits.

“At the end of the third, something clicked; I was tired of running. I stood and had a little trade-off with him and came off okay. That gave me more confidence and it just increased round by round from there. Before I knew it, we were in round nine already. I thought if I can get to the end of round 12 and not get knocked out, I’ve done myself proud.”

“But when Bohol went over in the 11th round [Following what a ringside Harry Carpenter described as a “Savage onslaught”] – well elated doesn’t explain it properly. it was more than elated! I was relieved, shocked, over the moon. There were so many emotions that it was hard to pin one down really.”

Within eight months Duke had lost the belt in only his second defence. Still only 26, he performed poorly in what was an uncharacteristically listless effort over 12 rounds, against Ulsterman Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley. Whilst Duke maintains every respect for McAuley’s merits as a fighter he does concede that “it wasn’t the real me in there that night.”

Already struggling to cope with the trappings and attention that his newfound fame had foisted on him, his preparation for the fight was further hampered by attending his brother’s wedding in Barbados just a short time before. “Dudley was getting married and I was his best man. You know, two weeks before the fight I was in the Caribbean.” he discloses. 

“Anything I did before or after that fight surpasses that performance tenfold. I took my eye off the ball and paid the penalty. I was weight drained and had nothing in the tank. When he hurt me in the first round, I just went into survival mode and told myself I had to get through to the end.

“But on the flip side, it helped me decide to stop struggling with the weight and to move up to bantam,” he adds, with his customary optimism.

The disappointment proved to be a springboard to additional world titles at both Bantam and super bantamweight. The first of these emerging on the back off a hard-fought loss to Frenchman Thierry Jacob for the vacant European strap. In today’s world, obsessed as it is with unblemished records, this reverse could have directed Duke’s career into a permanent cul-de-sac; however, in those less risk-averse times Duke is adamant that this defeat “made him.” Remembering the last round, he recalls, “I didn’t want to come out. Mickey Duff read me the riot act. I knew I’d lost, but Mickey kept telling me I could win. 

“But I am certain without that experience I don’t think I would have beat Canizales. That fight absolutely made me. I remember it as the ‘fight of my life”.

Just nine months later and with five wins in the tank -a level of activity that would leave today’s fighters and managers bleary-eyed in confusion- Duke was outpointing Gaby Canizales at London’s Elephant & Castle Centre to take home his second world title. The win finally providing him with sufficient financial security to give up his job as an Internal Messenger at Nestle. A role that he’d taken up early in his professional career on the advice of Duff.

The win ended Canizales’ career whilst the new champion went on to record two successful defences before being blown away in a single round by Rafael Del Valle. A shock result that Reg Gutteridge at ringside described as “one of the upsets of the year.” Duke is even more direct in his assessment of his performance that night nearly 30 years ago at the Albert Hall. “He took the piss basically,” he says dryly. “He just destroyed me. Wiped me out!”

Stepping up to 122 lbs, all he needed was a quick tune-up against Peter Buckley [then only 39 fights into an eventual 300 fight career] before besting Jesse Benavides via a narrow points decision at south London’s 1,800 capacityLewisham Theatre. 

“The only person who thought I could beat him was Dudley,” recalls Duke. “Benavides was Ring magazines ‘Fighter of the Month’. The only difference on the night was that I wanted it more than he did. He was away from home and he didn’t want to dig in and go to the well. Whereas I kept saying to myself: ‘This is my last fight. Leave every ounce of energy in the ring.’ 

“At the end of the fight, the sense of relief that I’d won and become a three-weight world champion is something I am extremely proud of. Nobody can ever take that away from me.”

Ultimately it wasn’t to be the last fight of Duke’s career. Losing his title in his first defence he fought on for another six years and ten further fights. He won a British title at featherweight but already had too many miles on the clock by the time he was beaten by Steve Robinson in his final world title challenge. The end finally came in March 1998, aged 35, when he suffered the indignity of being knocked out in a single round at Crystal Palace by a Spanish-based opponent with a 50/50 record.

With his achievements in the ring unshakeable and widely admired for the honest and gracious way he conducted himself outside of it, it is easy to think that he deserved a better exit from the sport he gave so much to. Yet when I suggest that to Duke, he politely rejects my sympathy. “I’m one of the really lucky ones,” he counters. 

“I had a great career. I wouldn’t change a thing. I hear it all the time of boxers falling on hard times. I’m not saying I haven’t had hard times before -I’ve been destitute even after winning a world title, so I know what that’s like. 

“But to have my health, my faculties; that alone is a blessing. I’m not a rich man by any stretch; I’ve got a mortgage and things, but I have everything I need: three beautiful kids and a wife who I love.”

Even just writing this piece has brought with it a wonderful sense of nostalgia. Flicking back through the old fights on YouTube, whilst rekindling distant memories facilitated by commentary from the likes of Reg Gutteridge and Harry Carpenter. I have my own memories of watching Duke fight, most vividly his surprise defeat to Dave McAuley. I remember myself as a 12-year-old willing him to get going and he never did. 

He has a little chuckle at that memory and offers an apology, before reminding me that there were many other good times. And of course, there undeniably were. 

But surely when you have achieved such wondrous things as a young man, and these achievements are writ large everywhere in moving pictures across the internet, it must be hard not to continuously look back on them with longing? But not for the first in our conversation the former three-weight world champion that is Duke McKenzie sets me straight. 

“My best days are actually ahead of me,” he says suddenly. “I know that might sound hard to believe but I honestly believe I’ve got some really big things still to happen in my life. I don’t know what or when? But at some point in time, it will happen.

“I bet I win the lottery or something like that!” – and do you know what? It would be impossible to begrudge him such an unexpected windfall.

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