IMAGINE being called Duke, winning titles at three weights and yet there is another fighter nicknamed the Duke getting the publicity? It can happen, trust me. It is not often that we miss an anniversary, but in late June of 1991, Duke McKenzie won his second world belt, the WBO bantamweight title, with a triple shut-out: two scores of 120-108 and one of 120-109 against Gaby Canizales at the Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre. It is a win that seldom gets the high respect it deserves.
I know it was not called a Leisure Centre, but I always add ‘Leisure’ to the least exotic outpost on the boxing trail.
Duke’s win was buried at the time, lost under a fury of real and invented outrage at the loss on points suffered by Michael Watson in his fight with Chris Eubank for the WBO middleweight title. That fight was close, not the ridiculous piece of larceny we all like to imagine. Watson deserved a rematch, and all week in makeshift and hastily arranged conferences, he moved closer to getting it. Nobody was talking about McKenzie against Canizales.
McKenzie walked to the ring at the venue, which always had the smell of chlorine in the air from the wave machine, on that Sunday, looking as calm as I had ever seen him. It was a fantasy land of fights and claims and lights away from Earl’s Court eight nights earlier when Watson fell just short.
At the Elephant, the press row at ringside was not even packed; Eubank and Watson had been on News at Ten, the nation was calling for justice in a rematch and meanwhile, in South London, the little fighting idol of boxing’s first family was getting ready for the fight of his life. There was a feeling in the air and it seemed like a lot of diehard fans had made the Sunday pilgrimage. Duke was a boxer for purists.
And at about the same time, far away in a crazy land of missed fights, bad nights, bed-hopping and other reckless pursuits, Tommy The Duke Morrison was the jinxed master at his own brand of carnival. Morrison was a one-man riot, apologies to Jody Meikle, and he was just getting started. Morrison was unbeaten in 28 with 24 stoppages or knockouts; Morrison was getting ready for a routine win over Ray Mercer for the WBO heavyweight title in October of the year. That went wrong, but don’t worry, the Duke was still the story.
A couple of nights before McKenzie fought Canizales, Morrison had a 100-second blow-out in Las Vegas. They lived in parallel boxing worlds, make no mistake. Tommy then went back to preparing in the comforting arms of his adoring fans.
Canizales had won and lost title fights over 15 rounds, he had been in with the finest bantamweights of his generation and he had won the WBO version a few months earlier. He had lost a total of seven of his 56 fights and was not finished; Mickey Duff gambled correctly on bringing him over without fanfare. It was cold-eye judgement, faith by Duff in one of his favourites – McKenzie had to win to make the gamble pay.
McKenzie had lost his IBF flyweight title to the scales and Dave McAuley, a fearsome duo, and lost a European title at bantam in France to the local idol, Thierry Jacob.
The fight against Canizales was not a walkover – that translation of the night came after the masterclass. And that is what Duke delivered in the ring at the soulless venue. It was a sad building, that fancy swimming pool and it never came close to replacing Manor Place Baths, which stood empty for decades with just the lost echoes of fans after the padlocks went on the doors. That’s not rose-tinted, memory-lane garbage, that’s a simple fact: the wave-pool, a few hundred metres up the Walworth Road, was a poor replacement as a boxing venue.
I know diamond and fur world title baubles are a fiery topic at the moment, but for posterity it is worth recognising that Duke McKenzie was the first British boxer since Bob Fitzsimmons to win world titles at two weights. Bob started his business in 1891, a century earlier and remained an exiled boxer throughout his career.
That historic night at the very end of June in 1991 is worth commemorating.
Canizales had lost a WBA bantamweight fight over 15 rounds to Jeff Chandler in 1983, stopped unbeaten Richie Sandoval in 1986 to win the belt and retired after the McKenzie loss. He was a quality operator. He was only just 31 when he lost to McKenzie, who by the way was 28. Gaby and his brother, Orlando, remain Texan legends.
The other Duke, Morrison, is dead. He died too young and surrounded by too many legends. His struggle to deny HIV infection became the story of his life, a far more vicious conflict than any of his fights in the ring and the true bedlam of his private life. Tommy was just 44 when he died, but he lived a helluva life.
Our Duke was quite brilliant that night. Fabulous, controlled, skilled, subtle, a little boxing genius. Try and watch it – it was a privilege to be at ringside. Also, he did turn that venue wild with his fine boxing display. McKenzie beat Cesar Soto and Wilfredo Vargas in defences and lost the belt to Rafael Del Valle. He was not finished and just a year after beating Canizales, he won the WBO super-bantamweight title, his third weight, with another night of brilliance against Jesse Benavides. Duke McKenzie was special.
Incidentally, the real one-man riot, Jody Meikle, is still out there – you have been warned.
What I find most charming about that Sunday is the geography of Duke’s career. He barely left South London – he gets a nose bleed if he gets further north than the Thames – with title wins at the Elephant and Castle, Battersea and Lewisham. That, my friend, is what you call a local idol.