IT was a routine voluntary defence – the kind of fight a world titlist takes while waiting for the big-money matches. John H. Stracey, London’s WBC welterweight king, had won his crown from an all-time great when he upset the odds to punch Jose Napoles into retirement in Mexico City in December 1975. Three months later, in his first title defence, the Bethnal Green boy smashed Detroit’s Hedgemon Lewis to defeat in 10. Now it was June ‘76 and Stracey was facing an unsung Mexican-American called Carlos Palomino in defence number two.

At a London press conference Stracey warned the challenger: “Enjoy yourself while you can in the greatest city in the world, because all that’s going to end when the bell goes.” To this, Palomino simply smiled, his demeanour and persona hardly befitting a fearsome fighter. The quiet and polite Mexico-born Californian did not come from the typical deprived background of a Mexican fighter. At the time, he was studying for a degree at Long Beach State College. He did not particularly like boxing. He just happened to be good at it.

Stracey promised to finish the 26-year-old inside the distance – and on paper this seemed reasonable. John, although one year younger, was far more experienced than his challenger. Stracey started boxing at 12, won national titles as a junior and senior, and competed in the 1968 Olympics at age 18. As a pro, he was 44-3-1, with 36 victories inside time.

Palomino, by contrast, did not start serious boxing until he was 19 after joining the US Army, and was Army and National AAU champion. He turned over in September 1972, three years after Stracey, and as a pro had won 19 of 23 bouts, with one loss and three draws. Nine of his wins came inside schedule and 10 were on points – stats that hardly suggested a formidable puncher. A common opponent was the classy American Hedgemon Lewis. Stracey had stopped him in style in 10, while Palomino had drawn with Lewis.

Henry Rhiney, who had sparred both Stracey and Palomino, told Boxing News: “Palomino’s strong and takes a good punch but he slaps a bit to the body. He doesn’t seem to like it when you take the fight to him. Stracey hits harder and has more shots than Palomino.” At the time Palomino seems to have been the best-kept secret in boxing. Understandably, Graham Houston of BN tipped Stracey to win inside the distance.

From the early rounds of that fight at Wembley’s Empire Pool, it was obvious the forecasts were wildly wrong. Stracey was outgunned in a way no one outside of Palomino’s camp could have predicted. There was no retreating at any stage from either man. John did his best to turn the tide and get on top, but he could find no antidote to the shot variety and tireless stamina of the Mexican-American.

Stracey took the kind of blows to the head and body that would have finished lesser men far sooner. But in the 12th the champion was finally dropped by a left to the liver. He got up only to be decked again by a near-identical shot. John gamely rose once more inside ‘10’ and the fight resumed. But referee Sid Nathan had seen enough. As a few more rib-crunchers landed on the Londoner’s battered body, he stepped between the fighters and threw his arms around Stracey, making Palomino the new WBC champion. John had only two fights left: a stoppage loss to Dave “Boy” Green and a win over Frenchman Georges Warusfel. Palomino would make seven defences – beating Armando Muniz, Dave “Boy” Green, Everaldo Costa Azevedo, Jose Palacios, Ryu Sorimachi, Mimoun Mohatar and Armando Muniz – before losing his title on a split decision to the great Wilfredo Benitez in 1979.