(Ken Buchanan, on his knees, as Roberto Duran walks away; via)
The anniversary of one of the most controversial fights in the history of boxing falls this week. It was on June 26, 1972 that a young and hungry Panamanian by the name of Roberto Duran faced Scotland’s world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan at Madison Square Garden.
Duran may have only been emerging as the legend he was to become, but already he possessed a reputation for destroying his opponents with a relentless, come-forward style while throwing bombs. The contest was the classic boxer vs. brawler match-up, pitting the elegance and technical brilliance of Buchanan against the heart and grit of his opponent, the fighter who would come to be known as "Hands of Stone."
The fight began at a blistering pace from the opening bell, when Duran literally tried to jump on his opponent with a clear strategy of denying the Scotsman the space to use a jab that at the time was arguably the best in the business. Duran’s gameplan paid off, as within a minute of the fight Buchanan was forced to touch the canvas at the end of a right hook to take a standing eight count. If he didn't know it already the world champion knew now that he was in for a long night.
Back Buchanan came, though, trading combinations with the challenger in an attempt to keep him at bay. It was in this fashion that the fight continued over 13 bruising rounds in which Duran's head rarely left the Scotsman’s chest, so intent was he on keeping the fight ugly and on the inside.
The low blow that concluded proceedings came after the bell rang at the end of the 13th. The controversy that ensued has been the subject of debate among fight fans and commentators ever since. More importantly, it still rankles with Buchanan himself, who once told this writer that for years afterwards he was reminded of it by a regular shooting pain through his groin.
Regardless of the controversy, Duran was crowned world champion and so began the legend. As for Ken Buchanan, he was already a legend, even though he never enjoyed the recognition and appreciation he should have in his own country for his outstanding exploits in the ring. America has always been where Buchanan received his just deserts as a bona fide legend. This comes as little surprise when you consider that New York’s Madison Square Garden was the scene of some of his most memorable performances.
Not many practitioners of the sweet science can claim to have been the toast of The Garden during their careers. After all, the acknowledged Mecca of boxing is the one arena where, in its heyday, even the most accomplished of champions and contenders were liable to be overwhelmed by the pressure of occupying its hallowed terrain, only to find themselves leaving the ring to a chorus of boos from the most hard to please fans in the world in response to a lacklustre performance.
Indeed it would not be a stretch to claim that MSG has transcended the sport of boxing in the over 100 years and four different locations in which it has hosted some of the most epic contests in the history of the fight game – contests involving the likes of John L. Sullivan, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, Joe Frazier, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard…the list goes on.
Seen in this light, Ken Buchanan’s achievement in topping the bill at The Garden five times during his career is quite remarkable, especially when you consider that he hails from the unlikely boxing origins of a working class background in Scotland and plied his trade in an era when non-U.S. based fighters were a rare species at the elite level.
Yet the record doesn’t lie. During the early 1970s this Scotsman brought the elegance of a ballerina and the heart of your average pit bull to the ring. A piston jab as accurate as a precision-guided missile was complemented by the contortions of an escape artist in the way he could frustrate even the most skilled attempts to lay a glove on him. It was a combination that saw him wrench the world lightweight title from the grasp of Panama's Ismael Laguna over 15 brutal rounds — fought in the murderous heat of an outdoor arena in San Juan, Puerto Rico — in front of a hostile crowd in 1970.
In a display of guts and tenacity that still ranks as one of the most outstanding in the history of the ring, Ken Buchanan had just announced his arrival onto the world stage.
His first appearance at The Garden in his trademark tartan shorts came just three months later in December of that year, when the newly crowned champion fought Canadian welterweight contender Donato Paduano in a 10-round non-title bout. Giving away 10 pounds in weight, Buchanan lit up the crowd to such an extent that it rose more than once to accord him a standing ovation in appreciation of the sheer artistry he displayed as he took his opponent apart.
As he ducked and weaved to avoid punches, it seemed as if the Scotsman’s legs were attached to his hips by a ball and socket instead of flesh and bone. At points during the contest he dipped his head so low it was said he could have undone the Canadian's laces before coming back up again. In the end Buchanan ran out a comfortable winner with a unanimous decision. On the undercard that night — probably for the only time in his entire career — was Mohammad Ali, matched against Argentina’s Oscar Bonavena.
Ken Buchanan’s next outing at The Garden came almost exactly a year after wresting the title from Laguna, when the two met for a widely anticipated rematch. Buchanan had already defended his title twice by this point, and by the time he stepped into the ring to meet his old rival had established himself as the undisputed champion. It was a contest that took on the same pattern as the first fight: the Scotsman keeping his jab in the Panamanian's face for 15 rounds to win yet another unanimous decision in front of a full house.
Buchanan fought twice more at The Garden after that, recording victories against former three-time world champion Carlos Ortiz and South Korea's Chang Kil Lee. His career thereafter followed the all too familiar pattern of slow but steady decline. Regardless, the former world champion and still proud Scotsman will forever be remembered as a true ring legend and one of only a select few fighters based outside the United States to succeed in winning over the fans at the Mecca of boxing.
John Wight is on Twitter at @johnwight1. He is based in Scotland, where in between running up and down hills he is currently working on a book covering the years he's spent in and around boxing in the U.S. and in the U.K.