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When Muhammad Ali told John Conteh to get out of his division

Muhammad Ali
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And why only 19,000, instead of 80,000, turned out to watch Muhammad Ali at Croke Park

It was July 1972 and only John Conteh’s 11th pro contest. He was then a heavyweight.

The show took place at Croke Park, Dublin. The headline match featured Muhammad Ali and Alvin “Blue” Lewis. It was Ali’s only bout on Irish soil. An eccentric publican and ex-circus strongman called Michael “Butty” Sugrue had lured him there to face Lewis, a fearsome ex-convict who had apparently given Muhammad many hard spars. But Butty had only dabbled in boxing promoting and the fight was a financial flop. Fewer than 19,000 showed up at the 82,000-capacity Croke Park, and thousands without tickets clambered into the arena for free. The show’s organisation was so poor that boxing gloves had to be flown in at the last minute. Apparently, no one had thought to supply them.

Conteh, who had sparred with Ali while in Dublin, had his own problems. In his dressing room, an official tried to force both of Conteh’s hands into left-handed gloves, despite his protests. By the time the situation was resolved, the bout was running late. But the crowd, including film director John Huston and former world light-heavy champs Billy Conn and Jose Torres, certainly got their money’s worth from round one.

In the heat of battle, time can appear to travel differently, but for Conteh and his opponent, Chicago’s Johnny Mac, that opening round seemed to last forever. The Liverpudlian had the Chicago boxer in trouble almost from the off. A right to the jaw made Mac cling on, and as Conteh ripped in shots blood streamed from the American’s nose.

Suddenly, matchmaker Mickey Duff began screaming at the timekeeper. It turned out that more than three minutes had passed, but the timekeeper hadn’t realised it as both his clocks had stopped! Conteh closed the show in the delayed second round, flooring Mac twice to cause the ref to step in.

Graham Houston, reporting for Boxing News, wrote of Conteh: “He is a colourful and attractive fighter, but a lack of body weight could still be his biggest problem. There are those who feel Conteh would do better to trim down to light-heavy.”

At the time there was no cruiserweight division, but the suggestion to trim down to 175lbs was a good one. Finally, after Ali told him, “Get out of my division. You’re not big enough!” John took the advice. In March 1973, he took the European light-heavy crown from Rudiger Schmidtke, and in May 1973 captured the British and Commonwealth titles from Chris Finnegan.

Conteh won the vacant WBC crown, beating Jorge Ahumada in one-sided fashion in October 1974. Three successful defences followed before the WBC stripped John of his belt after a dispute. I once asked the late veteran referee Sid Nathan who he felt was the best boxer Britain has produced. “I think John Conteh was the best British boxer since World War II,” he declared. Sid, who refereed several Conteh fights, was well placed to judge.

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