LAST month marked 50 years since I purchased my first copy of Boxing News, and I have bought it ever since. The front cover featured a photograph of Ralph Charles that marked his official retirement, and another of Danny McAlinden, then the British heavyweight champion, celebrating his return from an arm injury suffered whilst training in Kingston, Jamaica. He was matched against an unheralded American, Morrie Jackson, and that contest was to prove disastrous for the Irishman, as many will remember. BN also mourned the passing of Ace Hudkins, a top-class US scrapper from the 1920s and 30s who fought them all at many weights. The real talking point at the time though, was the upcoming ‘superfight’ between Chris Finnegan, the 1968 Olympic middleweight gold medalist, and 21-year-old John Conteh, the rising star of British boxing.
The two men were matched to fight for Finnegan’s British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight titles and Conteh’s European title at the Empire Pool, Wembley, on May 22, 1973. For boxing purists this was a contest to savour, one that had everything. North versus South, promising youngster versus proven champion and boxer versus puncher.
As a 15-year-old fan and very new to the game, I was almost beside myself with anticipation at the thought of this contest. I had recent memories of watching George Foreman demolishing Joe Frazier, and Ken Norton causing a huge upset with his points victory over Muhammad Ali, but this was the first time I had taken a keen interest in a domestic match-up and I think that the fight still stands the test of time as one of the great post-war match-ups between British boxers. It is, in my opinion, right up there with Benn-Eubank and Froch-Groves.
I used to write regularly to an old man named Arthur Rudkin, now long dead, who regularly had his letters published in BN, and Arthur promised me that he would send me a programme for the contest as he was travelling from Nottinghamshire to Wembley to witness it. He kept his promise, and it arrived in the post the following week. Remarkably, it cost only 15p – those were the days! Fight programmes are rarely produced at all these days and that is a shame, for they make marvellous mementoes.
BN had originally announced the bout in late March and, as it involved two terrific fighters at a very high-level, it excited everyone within the game. In the preview for the bout BN stated that “Conteh’s power should sway it, but Finnegan will fight to the limit.” This prediction was bang-on, for it was a tremendous contest that went the full 15 rounds with the action ebbing and flowing as first one, and then the other, held sway. Graham Houston, BN editor at the time, reported that “Conteh and Finnegan provided one of the greatest light-heavyweight battles in years at the Empire Pool. Conteh won beyond doubt after 15 memorable rounds, but Finnegan stayed with him to the end, and as predicted, forced Conteh to dredge up his final reserves of stamina and courage. Conteh showed classy shifts and punch-picking that reminded some ringsiders of [Ray] Robinson and [Jose] Napoles.” High praise indeed.
Conteh, of course, went on to win the WBC title back when only two world belts were available, and he defended it against some class men. But before doing so he had to punch his way past Chris Finnegan again, as the rematch was a natural. This time John won more decisively, beating Chris by sixth-round stoppage at the Royal Albert Hall, almost exactly a year later.
Finnegan retired the following year after winning the Lonsdale Belt outright and what a fighter he was. He only really lacked a big punch as he had everything else, guts, skill, determination, and stamina. John is very much still with us as, I am pleased to say, is my commemorative programme.