Boxing comment: In the history of boxing, 1974 will forever be synonymous with Muhammad Ali’s epic fight against George Foreman in Zaire.
The Rumble in the Jungle, as it came to be known, has gone down in the annals not just of boxing but sporting history as an ageing Ali ovecame the odds to defeat the wrecking machine that was Foreman in his prime and regained the heavyweight world title he’d lost to Joe Frazier.
But 1974 was also the year in which Britain’s very own Ali, in the shape of Liverpool’s John Conteh, made his mark when he won the light heavyweight world title at just 23 against Jorge Ahumada.
Many writers and commentators felt that the tough Argentinian would be too experienced for Conteh but the man from Kirkby confounded the doubters by defeating Ahumada over 15 hard rounds to take the belt on points in front of a packed crowd at Wembley Arena.
John Conteh is a name that conjures up the ’70s, one that is instantly recognisable even today along with the likes of Alan Minter and John H Tracey as a British boxing legend.
A ubiquitous presence on the chat show circuit and on television, he exemplified a decade associated with the dominance of working-class culture. On television, on stage, in cinema, music, politics and sports, the ’70s was our decade and with his staunch working-class roots, film star looks and prodigious boxing skills, Conteh was one of its pin-ups.
At the height of his fame he was on the cover of Paul McCartney’s Band On The Run album.
Conteh began boxing at the age of 10 at a local amateur club in Kirkby.
At 19, boxing for England, he took the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
Turning pro after the games, he fought 26 times before fighting for the world title, losing once.
In terms of style, Conteh was easy on the eye, combining an excellent jab with sharp combinations and superb reflexes to make him one of the best British fighters to ever step into a ring.
What he lacked in power he more than made up for in pure boxing skills that had many touting him for a possible fight against Ali at heavyweight.
Prior to winning the world title he was involved in one of the all-time classic British domestic fights when, as European champion, he took on and defeated the then British and Commonwealth champion Chris Finnegan in 1973.
When considering Conteh’s career now, the impression left is of a naturally talented fighter who ruined his career after winning the title by falling for the lure of nightclubs and parties, where he drowned his talent and discipline in alcohol.
But coming up, he was one of the hardest-training fighters around.
His spartan training regimen was legendary, involving mammoth sparring sessions, hill runs and regular swims in freezing cold water to develop the mental and physical toughness he was known for.
Like most hungry young fighters he lived in the gym, where he applied himself to the task knowing that boxing offered him a path out of poverty.
After winning the world title in 1974, Conteh’s fame went through the roof and his looks and charisma helped him transcend the sport to become a household name.
He successfully defended his title three times before he was stripped of it for pulling out of a mandatory defence against Miguel Cuello two days before the fight.
In 1977 Conteh attemped to regain his belt but lost to Mate Parlov, the Yugoslavian champion, in a controversial 15-round split decision in Belgrade.
He fought a further six times before retiring in 1980 after his licence was revoked on medical grounds, with a record of 34 wins, one draw and four defeats.
Thereafter he embarked on a career in showbusiness but an addiction to alcohol saw him follow the sad but well worn path of ex-fighters who, after achieving fame and wealth in the ring, go on to
self-destruct in retirement.
Over the past couple of decades Conteh has beaten alcoholism and enjoyed a successful career on the after-dinner speaking circuit, as well as devoting a lot of his time to charity work.
He will forever be considered one of Liverpool’s favourite sons.
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