Ken Buchanan 28 June 1945 – 1 April 2023
In a boxing sense it is fair to state that Ken Buchanan put Scotland on the map in the 1970s. Travelling the world and taking on all challenges, the man who once trained to be a carpenter left woodwork behind when it became clear that his real talent was boxing.
He also had to leave his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland's capital, behind to get the most out of his ring career. It is amazing to learn that during his 17-year professional campaign, Buchanan never once gloved up in Edinburgh. He was the ultimate road warrior.
That road was a long one – America, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Japan, Italy, Denmark, France and Spain were just some of the locations across the globe where “The Fighting Carpenter” boxed. More often than not he had his hand raised. The great Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney described Buchanan as “the out-and-out fighting man.” Beautifully succinct.
Early Success, Defeat in Madrid and Becoming World Champion
Buchanan won a British amateur title before turning professional in 1965. His professional journey opened with 33 consecutive wins – most of the contests taking place in English and Welsh venues. He didn't box in Scotland until his 17th bout – defeating John McMillan in Glasgow.
This run of wins took Buchanan to Madrid in January of 1970 to face tough Spaniard Miguel Velazquez for the European lightweight title. Buchanan lost on points in hostile territory that night, but much bigger and better things were on the horizon for him.
Just eight months later, the Scotsman found himself in the searing heat of San Juan, Puerto Rico to challenge the great Ismael Laguna for the WBA 135lb belt. The partisan Hiram Bithorn Stadium and the afternoon temperature in excess of 100F (37C) wasn't exactly ideal for Buchanan – famously his trainer was plastering his face with vaseline between rounds while his father did the same with sunscreen on his back.
Buchanan didn't wilt and actually finished the fight looking much stronger than Laguna. Banking the late rounds won him the title via split decision. Remember that was back in the 15-round era – the precise definition of gruelling. To this day it is still one of the best away performances I have ever seen from a boxer.
That effort won Buchanan high praise from the American boxing scribes of the day. He was named the American Boxing Writers' Association Fighter of the Year in 1970.
Undisputed Joy, Bantering With Ali and Pain Against Duran at The Garden
Three months later Ken Buchanan had the first of his six fights at New York's famous Madison Square Garden, handing Donato Paduano his first career defeat.
This particular night led to an encounter with Muhammad Ali which has its own amusing story attached to it.
In a 2015 interview with Tom English of BBC Sport, Buchanan told the tale in his own words, and accent: “The first time I was at Madison Square Garden was when Ali fought Oscar Bonavena and I fought Paduano. I was top of the bill, I was world champion and Ali hadn't yet won the title back. I had a dressing room and he didnae so Angelo Dundee asked if Ali could share my room. I said aye. There was an ashtray with a piece of chalk in it so I took the chalk and I made a mark on the wooden floor and when I got to the end Ali is standing there, saying, ‘Hey man, what are you doing?' I says Muhammad, this is my dressing room, and I'm letting you share it. That's your side and this is my side and if you dare cross that line. I showed him my fist and he did that tight-faced thing and burst out laughing. Thank God he saw the funny side.”
Buchanan then headed west. The Sports Arena in Los Angeles hosted his clash with Ruben Navarro. Again, Buchanan had few allies in the stands. The LA crowd had come out to support one of their own, but they were left disappointed as Buchanan, employing his ring craft mixed with power hitting which had to be respected, came away with a wide unanimous decision win.
By adding Navarro's WBC crown, Buchanan became the undisputed lightweight champion. It was an amazing five months for the Scottish boxer.
From there Buchanan made Madison Square Garden his home away from home. A contract dispute dictated that the WBC title had to be dropped, but the Fighting Carpenter defended his WBA belt in a rematch with Laguna at the Garden – winning in more convincing fashion this time by wide unanimous decision.
Buchanan's next appearance at MSG saw him lose his world title. You may be aware of this fight. It was June 1972 and Buchanan's opponent was the young phenom Roberto Duran. Duran had just turned 21-years-old and was taking the boxing world by storm.
In a fight that has become part of Scottish boxing folklore, the energetic and amazingly talented Panamanian was too much for Scotland's finest that evening. Although the fight ended on a suspiciously low blow from Duran in round 13, Buchanan had done well to last that long against the relentless assaults from Duran.
Folklore tells us that Buchanan was winning the fight until the low punch, but the truth is he was well behind on the cards. Gruesomely, we have since learned that the blow rocked Buchanan's crotch protector and the metal from it pierced his right testicle. Buchanan was urinating blood in the weeks following the bout.
Incredibly, Buchanan was back at Madison Square Garden just three months later. Punctured testicles or not, they didn't mess around in those days. The Scotsman was opposite another formidable foe – the great Carlos Ortiz. Buchanan was too much for Ortiz on the night – in what would be the legendary Puerto Rican's final bout, he retired after six rounds of punishment at the hands of Buchanan.
Late Career and A Fitting Tribute
Ken Buchanan would box on for most of the next decade after his win over Ortiz. An interesting 1973 British lightweight title fight presented itself against his fellow Scotsman Jim Watt.
As was the norm for Buchanan, he was in the away corner. Watt had the home advantage for the domestic showdown which took place at the Albany Hotel in Glasgow, Watt's home city. In Scottish terms, a fighter from Edinburgh crossing to the west of the country to fight a Glasgow native can feel just as unfriendly as being the visiting fighter in San Juan or Madrid.
Buchanan prevailed on points that night against his countryman. The two would go on to become friends in the years that followed.
Buchanan had one more attempt at world glory. The assignment took him to Japan in February of 1975 to face Guts Ishimatsu for the WBC title he had to relinquish four years earlier. The Fighting Carpenter was beaten on points at the Metropolitan Gym in Tokyo.
One more title was won by Buchanan. He captured the European lightweight belt in July 1975, stopping Giancarlo Usai of Italy at the Cagliari Football Stadium.
Buchanan took a break from boxing, but returned and fought nine more times between 1979 and 1982. When he hung up his gloves for good, Buchanan's final ledger stood at 61 wins from 69 contests with 27 wins coming by knockout. He was voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000.
Although he never fought in the paid ranks in Edinburgh, there now stands a statue of Buchanan on Leith Walk in the city, close to the area he was born and brought up in.
The statue was unveiled in August last year. Buchanan, looking smart in a suit and bow tie, was there to enjoy the day. Old adversary turned friend Jim Watt was also in attendance.
During the ceremony, which revealed the impressive bronze statue made possible by the hard work done by the people who run the Ken Buchanan MBE Foundation, Jim Watt joked with the crowd, asking, “Do you think the statue will keep still long enough for me to hit it?”
Fitting words for a boxer, who in his prime, could only be matched or beaten by the very best in the sport. He truly had an exceptional career in the ring and saw plenty of the world in the process.
Ken Buchanan died on Saturday, April 1, 2023. He was 77-years old. Rest in eternal peace, sir!