Premium Feature Issue

MENTAL WARFARE: John Conteh’s toughest fight took place outside the ring

Muhammad Ali
Evening Standard/Getty Images
John Conteh, one of the best boxers Britain has ever produced, tells Paul Wheeler how the toughest fight of his life took place outside of the ring

I WAS born in Liverpool on May 27, 1951. My father was from Sierra Leone and my mother was English. My family was a big one – I grew up with seven brothers and two sisters. My father wasn’t a boxer himself, but he showed me a few moves when I was a kid. After doing that for about six months, he took me to Kirkby Amateur Boxing Club. I was 11 years old at the time. I used to play a bit of football and do a bit of athletics too, but somewhere along the line I made the decision that boxing was going to be my way out.

I’ve seen my amateur record listed as 46-4. I’ve never gone back and checked it, but that sounds about right. I won the ABAs at middleweight in 1970 and at light-heavyweight in 1971, but the highlight of my amateur career was winning the middleweight gold medal at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

The Munich Olympics were in 1972, but I was getting offered a lot of money to go pro, so I turned over in 1971. George Francis down in London had the backing of a businessman. This guy drove up to Kirkby in his Rolls-Royce and offered me the money, so I took it instead of waiting for another year. I’d had talks with a few managers and trainers, but I hit it off with George the most. He was a fit lad himself, so that gave me confidence in his training abilities. I moved to Highgate in North London to begin my pro journey.

Within the first 16 months of my professional career, I fought on Muhammad Ali undercards in Dublin and Las Vegas. I was never really a heavyweight, but at the time I’d primarily been fighting above the light-heavyweight limit in the pros. I didn’t have the punching power of a heavyweight and there was no cruiserweight division back then. But I just did what my team told me to do. If they’d told me to jump off a cliff, I would’ve done it. I was glad when they dropped me down to light-heavyweight. My last fight before this was on the undercard of Ali against Joe Bugner in 1973 in Vegas. Joe Louis was my idol but I looked up to Ali – he was inspirational. In the lead-up to the show I said to him, ‘Muhammad, can you give me some advice, please?’ He replied, ‘Yeah, get out of my division!’ So I did!

In my first fight after coming back from Vegas, I stopped Rudiger Schmidtke in the 12th round to become the European light-heavyweight champion. Rudy was a stand-up boxer – the same as me, really – and fighting someone with that style suited me. It’s all about styles. For example, he beat Chris Finnegan the previous year to win the European title and he didn’t have any problems with Chris’ southpaw style. Whereas Chris gave me a lot of problems. I fought him in the first defence of my European title when he was the British and Commonwealth champion. It was a huge fight because he’d previously challenged Bob Foster for the world championship. I beat Chris for the three titles over 15 rounds and then I retained them in the return the following year in 1974. That one finished in six rounds on cuts.

As well as winning the three titles in 1973, that was also the year that I featured on the cover of the Wings album, Band on the Run. I later saw Paul McCartney on the tele and he was asked why he chose me to be on the cover. He said it was basically because I was a Liverpool lad like him and I was doing well in my boxing career. It’s as simple as that. He used to come to a few of my fights with his wife Linda, too.

After beating Finnegan the second time, I got a shot at the vacant WBC title against Jorge Ahumada. He had drawn with Foster earlier in the year, who had gone on to announce his retirement soon after. Because my team had put me forward for the fight, I didn’t have any doubts about being ready for world level. I never entertained any doubts. When I won the title over 15 rounds, it was a super feeling because it was everything that I’d trained for. I’d only made my pro debut three years earlier, but as an amateur I’d sparred top professionals like Harry Scott and Les McAteer. Being in the ring with gorillas like that brought me on and gave me confidence.

A couple of months after I became WBC champion, Victor Galindez won the vacant WBA title. There was talk of us fighting each other in a unification, but for some reason or another it never came off. There’s lots of things in boxing and in life that I regret, and missing out on that fight is one of them. Regret’s a normal part of life, so there’s no point trying to fight it or deny it. You just have to put things into perspective and remember that nothing’s perfect. Perfection isn’t possible. It’s better to focus on the positives rather than the regrets.

I made the first defence of my title in 1975 and I followed this up with my second defence in 1976. That was against Yaqui Lopez in Denmark. I suspected beforehand that it was going to go the full 15 rounds, and I was right. He was a typically tough and rugged Mexican lad. I retained for the third time the following year but was then stripped of my title by the WBC for failing to fight my mandatory. It all came down to money. The bottom line of it was that I wasn’t going to get the money I wanted by fighting my mandatory. Looking back, maybe I could’ve made a different choice, but you don’t have the benefit of hindsight at the time.

By 1978, Mate Parlov – the 1972 Olympic champion – had my old title. I tried to regain the belt when I fought him in Serbia, but with it being away from home, everything was against me. I’d brought some good support over with me from Britain, but once that bell goes, the supporters can’t get in the ring with you. I thought I won the fight anyway, but they gave the decision to him. If it’d been in Britain, I certainly would’ve got it.

I had two more attempts at winning back the title – in 1979 and 1980 against Matthew Saad Muhammad in Atlantic City. He won on points in the first fight but his cornermen used an illegal substance to stop the flow of blood from his cut. If they hadn’t have done that, it’s likely that the fight would’ve had to be stopped because of the cut. I gave it everything I could in that fight. Because of the illegality of what they did, I got the return, but he stopped me in the fourth round. I did all the same training for the second fight as I did for the first, but I just felt that the hunger wasn’t there anymore. The booze came into it, but the booze was always there, from way back when I was a teenager.

Following the two fights with Muhammad, I went out with a win in a 10-rounder in Liverpool. It was after that final fight that I really got stuck into the drinking. I retired in 1980 and went into the Charter Clinic in Chelsea to be treated for alcoholism in 1981 or 1982. I remember during one of my sessions with the psychiatrist, I asked him, ‘Am I an alcoholic?’ Of course, he just looked at me and said yes. I came out of there a few weeks later and had a drink to get over it. Once I started drinking I couldn’t stop.

I eventually found a solution to my problems through an organisation that sorted me out. I first started on this programme in 1983 or 1984. It took me years to sort myself out – I went two-and-a-half years without having a drink at one point – but I eventually got there for good in 1989. It was just after Christmas and I’d been on the drink for 24 hours. I was certain I was going to die but that’s when I finally got it. I understood at last that I was powerless over alcohol. I’d warped my mind into such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of providence could relieve it. I’ve been sober ever since – over 30 years. To overcome the addiction I had to use all of the same forces in my head that I’d used to win a world title back when I was boxing.

My life now is terrific. I live in Northwood, not far from Watford. I’ve been down this way for the last 43 years. I’ve stayed very much involved in the sport throughout the years. I’m involved with the London Ex-Boxers Association and a few amateur boxing clubs. I attend amateur shows and occasionally pro shows. Very occasionally I do a bit of commentary. Receiving an MBE in 2017 for services to boxing was fantastic. I was very, very proud to meet the Queen and be recognised in that way, especially as my family were there to witness it at Windsor Castle. After everything I’d overcome, it was an honour and a privilege. It just goes to show that God helps those who help themselves.

Interview by Paul Wheeler

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Boxing news – Newsletter

Current Issue