THE passing on December 28 of former British and European bantamweight titlist Johnny Clark came as sad news to anyone connected with the ex-boxers movement, and more broadly to British fight fans whose memories stretch back to the 1960s and ‘70s. For them the name Johnny Clark will recall one of the most exciting fighters of the period. He could box, he could punch and he could be banked on to entertain from first bell to last. It’s been 46 years since the Walworth man’s final ring appearance, so let’s revisit four of his most memorable fights.
ALAN RUDKIN, APRIL 1970
Boxing News fancied that red-hot unbeaten prospect Clark (26-0-1) could put an end to Liverpool maestro Rudkin’s five-year reign as British champion in this, Johnny’s first tilt at national honours. It was the biggest challenge yet for the 22-year-old Walworth fighter. Rudkin had fought three times for the world crown, losing to Fighting Harada, Lionel Rose and Ruben Olivares. The contest was a classic fought at breakneck speed. In the early rounds Clark troubled Rudkin with blazing attacks, and the Liverpudlian had to call on all his experience to evade the assaults. But as the fight progressed, Johnny began to tire and by the eighth Alan looked a sure winner. Courageously, Clark battled on until referee James Brimmell intervened in the 12th to save him from further punishment. “Clark lost the fight but won a new army of admirers. He’ll be a champ one day,” predicted BN.
ALAN RUDKIN, JANUARY 1972
This eagerly awaited championship rematch was difficult to call beforehand. Clark said he had learnt from the mistakes of their first bout and would pace himself better this time. Alan, at 30, was thought to be a shade past his prime but still a force to be reckoned with. The fight was a British boxing classic, described by BN as “a punishing, skilled battle that will never be forgotten by those who saw it.” It was close from start to finish. True to his word, Johnny’s pacing was spot on this time as the battle tantalisingly see-sawed. Rudkin was often busier, but Clarke’s shots were meatier and he rocked the champion numerous times. An incredible 15th-round rally from Alan earned him referee Harry Gibbs’ verdict by a mere half-point. Both men had been brilliant.
PADDY MAGUIRE, FEBRUARY 1973
Clark and Belfast’s Maguire met for the title vacated by Rudkin with press opinion widely split over who would triumph – the skilled and widely experienced Londoner or the remarkably tough but less seasoned Northern Irishman. The matchup produced yet another barnburner as the two 25-year-olds put up the fight of their lives. Maguire, as expected, threw everything he had at Clark, but he was facing a man at his peak. It was a gruelling encounter but Johnny survived the early storm to outclass Paddy in the final third of the bout. The Belfast man showed tremendous heart to stay the full 15 rounds and see Clark declared new champion. Two years later, Maguire would be champion himself after Johnny’s retirement.
FRANCO ZURLO, APRIL 1973
Clark faced Italian veteran Zurlo, a crafty switch-hitter, for the vacant European crown. Johnny did most of the forcing and boxed with skill and intelligence to win the three judges’ verdicts and cap a highly successful three months by proving himself the best bantam in Europe. Although age 33, Zurlo was far from finished. After Johnny’s retirement he was crowned champion himself and made five successful defences in the late 1970s, which makes Johnny’s win all the more impressive. After collecting the European belt, Clark won all five of his remaining fights, including a European defence against future champ Salvatore Fabrizio.