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THE sad news that former Scottish lightweight champion and bonafide world boxing legend, Ken Buchanan, has been taken into a care home in Edinburgh with mental health issues is a sobering reminder of the man’s unending struggle to successfully transition from life in the ring to the challenges thrown up by life outside it.
A proud son of Edinburgh, who was always more revered in America than in his home town, Ken Buchanan was active during the sport’s golden age in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Winning his world title in the scorching heat of Puerto Rico over 15 gruelling rounds against Panama’s Ismael Laguna in 1970 remains arguably the most outstanding performance of any Scottish and British fighter overseas in the sport’s history.
Afterwards Buchanan turned Madison Square Garden in New York into a home away from home, headlining there five times in the early 70s. The acknowledged Mecca of boxing in its day, this was an arena where even the most accomplished of champions and contenders were liable to be overwhelmed by the pressure of occupying its hallowed terrain.
And many found 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.
Buchanan’s popularity among US fight fans was no surprise when you consider that he brought to the ring the elegance of a ballerina and the heart of a pitbull.
A piston jab so accurate it could have been the prototype upon which precision-guided missiles were based 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.
His first appearance at The Garden in his trademark tartan shorts came just three months after he defeated Laguna in Puerto Rico, when he faced Canadian welterweight contender Donato Paduano in a 10-round non-title fight.
Giving away 10 pounds in bodyweight to his heavier opponent, the Scot lit up the crowd to such an extent that it rose more than once in a standing ovation in appreciation of the wonderful artistry he displayed in the process of taking his opponent to school.
His next outing at The Garden took place against Laguna the following year in a widely anticipated rematch.
Buchanan had already defended his title twice in the interim, and by the time he stepped into the ring to meet his old rival he’d established himself as the undisputed champion.
It was a contest that took on the same pattern as the first fight, with 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.
Another Panamanian in the shape of a young Roberto Duran was Buchanan’s next challenger. 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, throwing bombs.
The Panamanian’s fight against Ken Buchanan on June 26 1972 remains one of the most controversial.
The Garden has ever hosted. It began at a blistering pace, when from the opening bell Duran jumped on the Scotsman with the objective of denying him the use of a jab that by then was considered 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 he was in for a long night.
Back he came though, trading combinations with the challenger in an attempt to keep him at bay. It was in this fashion the contest continued over 13 bruising rounds in which Duran’s head rarely left the champion’s chest, so intent was he on fighting on the inside.
The low blow that concluded proceedings came after the bell rang at the end of the 13th. The resulting controversy continues to be the subject of debate among boxing fans to this day.
More importantly, it still rankles with Buchanan himself, who’s revealed more than once in interviews that he’s still reminded of it by an occasional shooting pain through the groin.
Buchanan fought twice more at The Garden, recording victories against former three time world champion Carlos Ortiz and then South Korea’s Chang-Kil Lee.
His career thereafter followed the all too familiar pattern of slow but steady decline, until his eventual retirement in 1982.
Nonetheless, the former lightweight world champion will forever be remembered as a true ring legend and one of only a select few to ever hold the unofficial title of King of Madison Square Garden. It’s one title that no-one can ever take away from him — not even with a low blow.
Now at 75 he faces yet another tough opponent in the form of mental illness.
Ken Buchanan has been fighting all his life, in and out the ring, and weathered more personal crises than most.
Let’s hope he pulls this latest one and is always regarded with the reverence he fully deserves, but has for too long been denied, for exploits in the ring which at times came close to superhuman.
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