WHEN I signed with my trainer and manager Terry Lawless in 1976 I did feel I had missed the boat, I was in my late 20s, but he was the main man at the time, and it became clear pretty soon that I would get opportunities. He felt I was the best lightweight in Europe and had underachieved.
If you look at my losses, three were on cuts in fights I would probably have won today with the changes in regulations [that send many bouts ended by cuts to the scorecards]. I also lost a couple of pretty bad decisions, one in South Africa. I had lost to Ken Buchanan and I didn’t complain. I lost for the vacant Commonwealth title in Africa and never complained.
You don’t moan, you just accept them. But I did it the old-fashioned way, I was the British champion, so
I proved myself the best in Britain, then I won the European title and defended it three times, once against a former world champion in Perico Fernandez. I was due a world title fight. I was the No. 2 contender, Alfredo Pitalua was No. 1 and WBC champion Roberto Duran had not made lightweight in a long time [and he vacated the belt in January 1979]. Not in a million years would I have beaten Duran at lightweight.
The hometown setting was very important. There’s nothing quite like boxing at home, it’s a huge advantage in any fight. The pressure can tighten you up in the early stages, but when the fight reaches the tough stage and the crowd are behind you it really lifts you. It was huge for me.
You can’t go into a fight worrying about cuts; it’s like worrying about what the judges are going to do, because there’s nothing you can do about it. Also, some cuts had come earlier in my career when I would still keep my head a little too high. You learn to keep your chin down.
Today, any opponent you get, you can see their last couple of fights on YouTube, but I hadn’t seen anything of Pitalua, so you’d speak to people you knew, in this case especially those in the States [where the Mexican had fought twice]. All I did was get all my tools ready, I didn’t have one specific plan in mind, but I did things properly. I didn’t drink while I was boxing or get out of shape between fights.
On fight night, I felt the pressure because I was almost 31; now, being a lightweight in your 30s is no big deal but I was very conscious of the fact that this was the only chance I’d get – if I slipped up or froze that was it.
I remember walking out behind the bagpipes, there were 10,000 people in the Kelvin Hall and the reception they gave me was phenomenal.
Pitalua was aggressive, very fast and powerful and he threw a lot of combinations. The early part of the fight was a bit of a struggle, but the longer it was going the more I could feel it tilting in my favour. I was a right-handed southpaw so I was doing 80 per cent of my work with my best hand. The likes of Marco Antonio Barrera and Oscar De La Hoya are left-handers who fought orthodox, and I used being the opposite to my advantage, taking punches back as fuel and getting in control. I scored a knockdown with a left hand in the seventh but the jab was my main weapon, the key to keeping Pitalua under control. I felt by the halfway point of our 15-rounder that I would be world champion if I carried on the same way.
By around the ninth or 10th round I was in control but I saw it going 15 rounds and I always worried about running out of steam. So I came back to the corner after the ninth or 10th and Terry Lawless gave me a roasting! He saw I was winning but he also saw that I was pacing it for 15 rounds. He reckoned if I upped the pace it wouldn’t go 15 rounds. He accused me of not wanting to win enough and of being on the verge of quitting! The fight was on a Tuesday night, so my son Andrew was going to school the next day, and Terry said, ‘He’ll go knowing his dad’s not world champion champ because he didn’t try hard enough.’ He demanded I raise the pace and in the 12th round I stopped him. That’s probably thanks to Terry Lawless and how brilliant he was.
In the deciding round, I was pinned on the ropes, I landed a solid shot to his ribs and I felt him sag.
He’d slowed down, I was firmly in the driving seat. I was trying to finish him and I think I was holding and hitting. When the referee, Arthur Mercante, split us up, I thought he was stopping it but he waved ‘box on’. [Mercante said at the time, ‘He seemed to be caught there the way Benny Paret was against Emile Griffith, and I had to satisfy myself he was okay.’]. I landed a few more punches, Pitalua’s head was rolling around, he was trapped on the ropes and Mercante dived in.
It was fantastic, the jubilation. Terry was in the ring, I jumped up and he cuddled me with both my feet off the floor. It’s funny but one of my first emotions was relief because it was a tough fight all the way through and I was glad it was over.
But it’s a great feeling, winning a world title is what I’d been heading towards my whole life and, whatever happens in the future, they can’t take it away from you. Back then, British fighters didn’t tend to hang on to world titles for very long and I didn’t know I had five more world title fights ahead of me. It was a terrific night.