WRANGLES over the particulars of a fight – the venue, purses, who enters the ring first and last – are part of big-time boxing, but seldom do they apply to domestic non-title fights. Back in November 1968, however, the respective managers of the participants in a bout set for a Wembley undercard were at loggerheads over one detail: the fight’s scheduled distance.
Scotland’s John McCluskey, the reigning British flyweight titlist, was to take on the unbeaten bantamweight prospect Johnny Clark at 8st 6lbs (118lbs). The bout was billed as an eight-rounder. But McCluskey’s handlers did not want their champion to fight less than 10 scheduled rounds, presumably feeling that a longer distance might give him an edge over the less experienced Clark, who had never gone beyond seven rounds. Clark’s manager, Dennie Mancini, however, would not hear of him facing McCluskey over 10. Eventually, they found a compromise. They would meet over nine rounds.
Clark, who fought out of Walworth in south London, was the bookies’ favourite. A hard-hitting box-fighter, he’d stopped six opponents to become 1966 ABA bantamweight titlist, and since turning over had won 16 and drawn one of 17 bouts, with 14 wins inside time. The 21-year-old was Britain’s most promising bantam prospect. The smaller, 24-year-old McCluskey, on the other hand, had already suffered two reverses to Italy’s European flyweight boss Fernando Atzori. Boxing News picked Clark to win, declaring: “He looks better each time out and must be a future champion.”
Come the fight, McCluskey opted to jab and move, using the full ring circumference to avoid going toe to toe with his heavier-fisted foe. Clark patiently stalked, punishing the champion with hard hooks when he got in close. McCluskey, a perpetually moving target, proved hard to tag early on, earning applause for his clever evasive work and shows of superior speed. The key question was: could he keep it up?
By the halfway stage Clark was getting on top, finding the target more frequently and forcing McCluskey to stand and trade. The Scotsman’s ringcraft and deft footwork kept the fight competitive and saved him from becoming another Clark KO victim. However, referee Harry Gibbs’s decision in favour of future British and European titlist Clark was the right one.
In his BBC Grandstand commentary, esteemed broadcaster Harry Carpenter said he knew of no other contracted nine-round bout. But there were others three decades before. In 1936, the BBBofC ruled that no boxer should take part in two contests of 30 minutes’ duration within four days of each other. At a time when British boxers fought with astonishing frequency, this posed a problem. To overcome it, some promoters staged nine-rounders, including one between reigning world flyweight king Benny Lynch and Welshman Pat Warburton in May 1936. My co-columnist, ring historian and statistician Miles Templeton, has traced nine-round fights until the outbreak of war in 1939, after which the BBBofC rule seems to have been ignored.
Miles’ extensive fight database reveals there was another nine-rounder in December 1976. On that occasion, the reigning British bantamweight champ Paddy Maguire faced Scottish titlist John Kellie at the Anglo-American Sporting Club in Mayfair’s Hilton hotel. “Kellie wanted the fight over eight rounds, and I wanted 10,” explained matchmaker Mickey Duff, “so we agreed to split the difference.” As it turned out, only five rounds were needed. In a disjointed scrap marred by holding and fouling, Maguire cut down Kellie with a left to the body. It was the only KO loss of John’s pro career.