In the Douglas Adams story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is supposed to be “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.” Adams meant it as a silly joke but the number is highly significant in British boxing history because it’s 42 years since 23 year-old John Conteh won the vacant WBC light-heavyweight title against Argentinian Jorge Ahumada in a 15-round belter of epic proportions.
Hang on a mo, John Conteh… Who the Hell is he? John Conteh, that’s who, you fffing divvy! The British, European and World champion from the battle hardened streets of Liverpool, the black prize-fighter with the matinee idol looks; the people’s champ, the people’s choice, the people’s hero, and, according to Colin Hart, the veteran boxing correspondent of the UK tabloid The Sun, “the best British fighter I have ever seen.” So good, in fact, that Conteh was once touted as a possible opponent against Mohammed Ali in the 1970s.
That bout against the Louisville Lip never happened, but it didn’t stop Liverpool’s finest badass from delivering the goods in a series of action packed tear ups throughout that decade. Rewind to the year 1970, when Conteh won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games at the spring chicken age of 19. The middleweight amateur champ bulked up to light-heavy as a pro, worked his way through the domestic ranks and exploded in a memorable series of contests against Rudiger Schmidtke, Chris Finnegan (one of the great Brit southpaws) and Tom Boggs to become the British, European and Commonwealth Light-heavyweight champion.
Back in the grainy days of the 1970s, we didn’t have that many boxing champs in England but John Conteh was one of them. For kids growing up in Liverpool, like me, Conteh was the good looking winner from a city of losers, a role model, a superstar sportsman and the nearest thing that we had to a Muhammed Ali. He gave us hope in an age of none.
Table d'hôte or à la carte, in the ring Conteh was capable of dishing up a gourmet KO on many an opponent, and, just as important, fit enough to go the distance and wait for the verdict of the cards. Despite an injury prone right hand, Conteh was a brilliant tactician in the ring, able to close the gap with a blurring jab and who always got off the floor to win, lose or draw. Off duty, the sharp-humored Liverpudlian became a TV chat show favorite, and his pin-up looks and six-pack body put him in much demand as a male model. He was able to pull it off, in skimpy red knickers for HOM underwear, as the evidence shows.
Titles are won and lost the hard way. After beating Ahumada in 1974, Conteh defended the WBC belt against Lonnie Bennett, Yaqui Lopez and Len Hutchins.
In 1977, the WBC stripped the undefeated Scouse for refusing to fight a title defense against Argentinian Miguel Cuello, and he was unsuccessful in his attempt to regain the green belt against Serbian boxer Mate Parlov in 1978 (a contentious split decision).
The Liverpool lad lost again in two dramatic attempts in 1979 and 1980 to reclaim the title against the fast and powerful American Mathew Saad Muhammad.
After a comeback TKO of American James Dixon in 1980, Conteh retired from boxing with a record of 34 wins (24 by KO), 4 losses and 1 draw. He was only 30 years old.
When Conteh left boxing he found himself at a bit of a loss. He got absorbed by the lurid celebrity circuit of London and became, for a short spell, a boxing version of alcoholic soccer player George Best. His antics had gone from the sports pages at the back of the newspaper to the headlines at the front. I recall one story on the TV news about Conteh blowing £100,000 at a ritzy nightclub, and the occasion he drove his white Rolls Royce into several vehicles after a boozy night out in London’s swanky Mayfair district.
In a short space of time, Conteh had reputedly blown half of his fortune and toyed with a return to the ring in the new cruiserweight division in the early 80s. It never happened. It was a new decade and his time had passed. Conteh retired with his looks and brains intact but his biggest battle was to come outside the ring. Never a big drinker in youth (boxing got in the way), Conteh lost his sense of discipline and he went from 15-round fights in the ring to 12-pint sessions down at the pub.
A champion of the world, a superstar of the ring, a legend in his own lifetime; lots of fight fans in Britain kind of forgot about Conteh in the 1980s and 1990s as new boxers, like Lloyd Honeyghan, Herol Graham, Michael Watson, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Naseem Hamed, rose to prominence and blotted out the glorious past. Conteh, a jovial chap and sharp commentator, was noticeably absent at ringside and noticeably absent in general. Where was the former WBC light-heavyweight champ and what in the Sam Hill was he doing?
He wasn’t in rehab or the pub. Now dry, Conteh had traded breaking noses in the ring to treading the boards as an actor on the stage and screen. However, Conteh, now aged 65, is invariably typecast as a shady hood, violent con or ex boxer type down on his luck. And like Ernie Shavers, the heavyweight boxer who famously rocked Muhammed Ali’s African gene pool, Conteh is much in-demand these days as an after dinner speaker at gala dinners and black tie functions. He has many boxing stories and anecdotes to regale the punters. After all, the sport was good to him. It took Conteh to heights undreamed of, gave him rewards never even imagined and was the answer to the ultimate question of his life, the universe and everything.
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