When Ken Buchanan took on Ismael Laguna in the cauldron of a summer’s afternoon in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1970, few expected him to win. Buchanan was Scottish, Laguna, the world lightweight champion, was Panamanian — and the extreme temperature greatly favoured the Latin American.
To add to the home advantage, Laguna’s corner was in the shade while Buchanan had the sun blazing in his face between rounds. At one point his coach borrowed a parasol from a woman in the crowd to give his man some shelter. “It was 125 degrees and I was from Edinburgh,” Buchanan noted later.
He had lost his mother to cancer earlier that year and whenever he showed signs of wilting in the heat his father, Tommy, shouted from the corner, “C’mon son, throw a few for your mum.” It never failed and the challenger boxed with great coolness, pacing himself beautifully and matching Laguna for boxing skill and ringcraft, to gain a verdict and the world title by a split decision over 15 rounds.
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So unexpected was Buchanan’s victory, when he returned to Edinburgh hardly anyone was there to welcome him off the plane, including the press.
The acclaim and recognition would follow over the next two years as he went on to defend his world title twice: against Ruben Navarro and Laguna, again. He was even named sportsman of the year by the Sports Writers’ Association, and in that capacity was asked to step out on the dancefloor with Princess Anne, who had been named sportswoman of the year for her eventing. Resorting to bravado to cover up the awkwardness he was feeling, Buchanan told the princess: “Dancing is in my blood.” It was an allusion to his father having been a ballroom dancer. Princess Anne’s reply could not have been drier: “You must have very bad circulation then, because it hasn’t reached your feet yet.”
Ken Buchanan was born in Edinburgh in 1945 to Tommy, a joiner, and Cathy. His interest in boxing came at an early age when an aunt, at a loss what to give him as a Christmas present, bought him a pair of boxing gloves. The boy was only eight at the time, but he asked his father to take him to the local boxing club. At 14 he was East of Scotland youth champion and at 16 reached the British youth final.
Unlike many mothers who could not bear to watch their sons box, Buchanan’s mother was always ringside with sage advice. During one bout she shouted, “Kenny, use your left hand!” Another voice was then heard in the crowd: “Do what your Mummy tells you.” In March 1965, shortly after the ABA championships, Buchanan turned professional, joining the Merthyr Tydfil stable of Eddie Thomas.
After a tough 12-round eliminator, his first 12-rounder, against Jim (Spike) McCormack in London, in October 1967, Buchanan was ready to challenge the experienced Maurice Cullen for his British lightweight title at the National Sporting Club in London on February 19, 1968.
In the opening rounds it looked as if the veteran champion’s experience might be too much for Buchanan’s youthful impetuosity, as Cullen’s educated jab peppered the challenger’s face. But by round four Buchanan was beginning to catch up with his man. The strength drained from the champion under the accuracy and power of the younger man’s assault. In the event, after going down a number of times from round six onwards, Cullen failed to beat the count in the 11th and Buchanan was the new champion.
Wins over a number of fancied overseas opponents improved Buchanan’s place in the world rankings during the next 12 months, and it was something of a surprise when his attempt on the vacant European title resulted in the first loss of his professional career. On January 29, 1970, he was beaten on points over 15 rounds by Miguel Velásquez in Madrid.
The blemish did not affect his march towards the world title. There were three more wins, one of them a decisive five-round knockout of Brian Hudson in a defence of his British title, before he was matched with Laguna for the WBA title at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan on September 26, 1970.
The Americans at ringside that day liked what they saw, and Buchanan was suddenly hot property in the US at a time when “Limey” fighters were not doing much to excite boxing opinion, there.
Such was his fame the actor Warren Beatty asked for his autograph in a nightclub when Buchanan defended his title against Ruben Navarro in Los Angeles in February 1971, gaining a unanimous decision and also taking the WBC title to unify the lightweight division at the end of 15 very rough rounds — not only was he floored in the first he was subjected to low blows and punches to the kidney and groin.
In September 1971 he defended his title in a second bout against Laguna. Early in this bout a cut above his eye swelled with blood and had to be lanced with a razor, a scene that was replicated in the 1976 film Rocky. Despite this, the verdict over 15 rounds was the same as it had been at their first meeting. And this time the judges were unanimous. It was decisive enough to persuade Laguna to announce his retirement from the ring immediately afterwards. “There was a lot of blood, but it wasn’t really sore,” Buchanan recalled of his eye injury in that fight, adding: “I told Sylvester Stallone that he owed me a fortune.”
This time when he returned to Edinburgh there were hundreds of fans lining the streets as he travelled in an open-top bus to a reception in his honour. “It brought a tear to my eye,” he recalled. “I was like a big lassie. I couldn’t wait to get off and greet them all.”
Buchanan next beat the veteran former light welter and lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz in six rounds in a non-title fight in New York. He was the only fighter to have stopped Ortiz.
It was, however, his misfortune to box in the same era as the phenomenal Roberto Duran, the “hands of stone”. The latter was as yet something of an unknown when he challenged Buchanan for his title at New York’s Madison Square Garden in June, 1972. The fight was brutal.
The punch that ended the fight in the 13th round was a low blow, which Buchanan claimed dislodged the box behind his trademark tartan shorts before Duran kneed him in the same area. The Scot crumpled to the floor clutching his groin and the referee stopped the fight and declared Duran the winner.
The manner of his defeat was to rankle with Buchanan for the rest of his life. Yet the undeniable fact was that Duran had subjected the champion to unrelenting pressure for the previous 12 rounds. No one was even to look like relieving him of his title thereafter.
In the years that followed it did not escape him that Duran never gave him another crack at the world title. The Panamanian always acknowledged that Buchanan had been his toughest opponent. They finally met and embraced decades later in Glasgow, where Duran was on a speaking tour. The Panamanian praised Buchanan for his “balls”. Buchanan shot back, “Well, you would know son, you’ve had a good feel of them.”
Thereafter he regained his British title from Jim Watt in Glasgow in January 1973, and in May 1974 challenged the Sardinian Antonio Puddu in his hometown, Cagliari, for his European title. Puddu succumbed in six rounds, and Buchanan went on to defend the title against Leonard Tavarez in Paris in December, winning on a stoppage in the 14th round.
In February the following year he travelled to Tokyo for an attempt on the WBC world crown of Ishimatsu (Guts) Suzuki, but this, his final attempt on world honours, ended in a points defeat over 15 rounds. Nevertheless, he was back to sparkling form defending his European title against Giancarlo Usai in Cagliari, stopping the Sardinian in 12 rounds in July 1975. Buchanan’s victory caused a riot in which the ring lights collapsed on his back and his father Tommy was hit by a brick.
Buchanan retired at this point, but a costly divorce settlement precipitated his return to the ring in 1979. He challenged Northern Ireland’s Charlie Nash, the new EBU champion, in Copenhagen in December 1979. A defeat on points over 12 rounds was effectively the end for Buchanan, who seemed a shadow of his former skilful self.
By now Buchanan was drinking heavily. He boxed on for two more years, but after a couple more wins in non-title fights, he lost his boxing licence. He suffered three straight defeats in minor unlicensed bouts and decided to hang up his gloves for good early in 1982.
Like all too many fighters before him, Buchanan did not take much of his ring winnings home to insulate his retirement years. These were troubled ones on both a personal and financial level. Several business ventures collapsed, and he ended up reverting to his old trade as a joiner to make ends meet.
His life changed for the better in 2000 when he was inducted into boxing’s Hall of Fame, becoming one of only seven British boxers to have been so honoured.
The journey to Canasota, New York, to receive the honour was an emotional one for Buchanan, and the manifest respect of his peers which accompanied it did much to atone for the disappointments of the intervening years and his bitterness at not getting the credit he felt he deserved for heralding a golden age in British boxing.
He is survived by Mark and Karen, the children of his first marriage in 1970 to Carol which was dissolved, and by a son, Raymond, from an earlier relationship with Maria Fraser. His second marriage, in 1983, to Eileen Doherty, with whom he tried to make a fresh start with a small pub in Dagenham, east London, lasted six months.
Buchanan remained as waspish out of the ring as he was in it. At Madison Square Garden in 1972 he was preparing for a fight when he was told that Muhammad Ali was sharing his dressing room. Buchanan proceeded to draw a white line in chalk across the middle of the room. When Ali entered, he looked at him quizzically and asked: “Hey man, what are you doing?” Buchanan put up a fist and replied simply: “Cross that line and you’ll get that.” A deadly silence ensued until it was broken by Ali’s laughter.
Ken Buchanan MBE, boxer, was born on June 28, 1945. He died from complications of dementia on April 1, 2023, aged 77