A Boxing Memory: Ken Buchanan
The story is familiar, from the incredible highs to the predictable depressing lows, all that changes is the name on the door. Boxing has a way of telling the same story over and over.
Ken Buchanan was once the undisputed lightweight champion of the world before it all fell apart. The career ended with four straight defeats, but even that wasn’t the end. Money worries drove one final comeback on the unlicensed scene, two wins for meagre purses and then the final bell finally chimed.
Life after boxing was hard, the money had gone with mounting debts, only his pride remained. He suffered from alcoholism, personal woes and his ongoing battle with dementia will mean his quality of life will only get worse. Buchanan faces the biggest fight of his life. A fight that sadly only has one ending. But Buchanan will keep fighting. He always did.
Buchanan in his prime was one of the greatest boxers Britain has ever produced. Almost certainly our greatest ever lightweight. Many things have dimmed in Buchanan’s life, but the quality of his ring resume isn’t one of them. Trust me, he was some fighter.
Born in Leith in 1945, a trip to the cinema with his father when he was only 8 to see a film about Joe Louis formed Buchanan’s life. A victim of school ground bullies, Buchanan would eventually teach them a different kind of lesson.
As an amateur Buchanan won an ABA title he boxed in two European championships, but when he wasn’t selected for the 1964 Olympics, Buchanan turned professional, his signature was in much demand, with the former boxer and coal mine owner Eddie Thomas winning the race to sign him.
Buchanan started out in 1965, fighting mainly on dinner shows outside of his native Scotland, which restricted his commercial growth. Far too many of his fights were on the road, too often he lived out of his suitcase and in venues that didn’t do his career any favours, and his career didn’t get the recognition it deserved as a result.
The professional journey was stop-start, he won the British title in 1968, but when no challenger could be found, Buchanan handed his hard-won title back. He felt his career was going nowhere and lacking in exposure, and at 24 and unbeaten in 34 fights he announced his retirement.
Buchanan wanted his contract with Thomas annulled, he cited broken promises, a joiner by trade, after 4 years as a pro, with bills to pay, he returned to his day job.
But boxing and Buchanan would be reunited after his mother sadly passed away. His relationship with Thomas was patched up, albeit temporarily, Buchanan suddenly found what he was looking for.
He won the vacant European lightweight title and not long after, Buchanan would receive a call to box for the WBA version of the world title.
Panama’s Ismael Laguna thought Buchanan was an easy touch. They fought in an outdoor stadium in San Juan, the 100+ degrees heat was thought to be a detriment to the Scottish challenger. Buchanan was expected to wilt in the heat.
But Buchanan survived the intense temperatures and boxed beautifully to win the world title. It was close, very close. A split-decision, each judge had it by a point, it made Buchanan the only British world champion at the time. When he returned home, Buchanan expected and deserved a hero’s welcome. He would be disappointed, only a handful of people were at the airport to greet the new champion.
In 1971 Buchanan went on the road again, this time to Los Angeles and when the WBC sanctioned his upcoming fight with Ruben Navarro, Buchanan now had a chance to become the undisputed lightweight champion. This time the scores were wider but yet again Buchanan had his hand raised.
Buchanan was awarded the MBE in 1971, he was now at the peak of his powers. He shared two cards with Muhammad Ali and a dance floor with HRH Princess Anne.
Buchanan kept winning, he was stripped of his WBC belt, but remained the WBA champion until a fearsome marauding Panamanian landed in New York in 1972 to challenge Buchanan in boxing’s iconic Madison Square Garden.
Duran was well ahead on the cards as the fight entered the 13th round. The referee claimed he didn’t see the blatant low and late blow that left Buchanan writhing on the floor in agony, if he had, Duran would almost certainly have been disqualified. Buchanan spent 10 days in the hospital, he still suffers from the effects of that punch to this day. Buchanan passed blood for days because of the damage to his testicles, he always said he was cheated out of his world title. He had a point.
Despite the protests, the decision wasn’t overturned and Buchanan never got a rematch with Duran he warranted and was contracted to. Duran called the Scot the hardest man he ever faced, scant consolation to Buchanan who always remained bitter about the night he lost his world title.
“It still rankles with me, of course it does. Duran robbed me. He attacked me after the bell, and should have been disqualified.”
Buchanan kept trying but never did reach the same heights again. A good win over local rival Jim Watt in a tough fight in 1973 in a fight that sadly is forgotten kept Buchanan in the hunt for bigger fights. The fight with Watt for the British title was a rare affair on home soil, but again in a setting that didn’t do either the fighters or the fight justice. Buchanan would win the European title again, but one last attempt to reclaim world honours ended in defeat.
A retirement that started in 1976 after a defence of his European title and subsequent eye problems, ended in 1979, but while still more than capable, he wasn’t what he once was. A strange trip to Denmark to fight Irishman Charlie Nash for the European title was a fruitless one. An Irishman and Scot fighting in Copenhagen will always remain one of life’s great mysteries. Jim Watt the old foe of Buchanan was now the world champion, the winner of Nash-Buchanan would be rewarded with a fight with Watt. Nash idolised Buchanan, despite the win, it was a bittersweet night for Nash. For Buchanan, it was the last throw of the dice for another chance to fight for the world title.
The career ended in 1982 after George Feeney outpointed him. His career ended where it had started at the National Sporting Club in London.
Buchanan would later say he earned around £150,000 in his career, another fighter who deserved more in many ways from his sport. Bad investments after boxing cost Buchanan plenty. He earned around £1,500 per fight on the unlicensed scene, Buchanan needed that pride as his career wound down.
Buchanan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000, a fitting and deserved tribute to a fighter who has every right to be in the conversation for the greatest ever British fighter.