Ken Buchanan can dig deep to beat alcoholism

Ken Buchanan at Lochend in recent times. Picture: Greg Macvean
Ken Buchanan at Lochend in recent times. Picture: Greg Macvean
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It was the 13th round of what had been a blistering bout. The bell had gone but that didn’t stop Roberto ‘Hands of Steel’ Duran.

A cruel right-hander below the belt and one of the greatest boxers Scotland has ever produced crumpled.

The controversial moment brought to a crunching end Ken Buchanan’s glorious 16-month reign as world champ. Other bouts would follow but perhaps a combination of the injury he sustained and a roll of rotten luck and the Fighting Carpenter – fast and wiry with a powerful punch that would bring most men to their knees – was never quite the same.

It was the fight of his life. Until, that is, today.

In a ward within the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, the brightest star of Scottish boxing is in the grip of another desperate bout, the fight that none of his legions of fans ever wanted him to face and a challenge that the 69-year-old hero of the ring simply must win.

His opponent is vicious, cruel and ruthless, with the potential to cause horrific, indeed, life threatening damage.

And right now the legendary and incomparable Ken Buchanan is, sadly, on the ropes.

It emerged yesterday that the former world champion has been admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for treatment after being found slumped on a park bench.

His weight – his lean, superfit fighting weight was just under nine and a half stone – is now said to have shrunk to around eight.

And, tragically, he is reported to have suffered bouts of memory loss.

Buchanan has confronted his relationship with the bottle in the past – in 2009 he confirmed he had tried to defeat his demons by joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

Now, sadly, it seems the Boxing Hall of Fame hero is once again having to dig deep to find the same fighting spirit that carried him through 15 rounds against Ruben Navarro in Los Angeles in 1971 to earn him the WBA and WBC titles.

And this time the stakes are much higher.

News the living legend is receiving treatment in a specialist alcohol addiction unit travelled around the world, prompting support and get well messages.

From New York, Aris Pina, the youngest voting member of the International boxing Hall of Fame, summed up what many were thinking when he tweeted: “Prayers to former lightweight great Ken Buchanan, great guy who I met a few times years back. You beat your demons once, you can do it again.”

Boxing fans shared the news and recorded their support on Twitter and Facebook, among them former Eastenders actor Shaun Williamson who wrote: “Get well soon Ken Buchanan, not a household name any more but undoubtedly one of our greatest ever boxers.”

While this is certainly the toughest battle of his life, there’s no doubt the supremely tough and courageous Edinburgh boxer has it within him to win – just as other sporting heroes, such as footballers Tony Adams and Paul Merson who have battled the bottle have done before him.

According to Peter McCann, chairman at West Linton drug and alcohol rehab clinic Castle Craig, boxers, footballers and rugby players can find themselves at particular risk of addiction.

“Sportsmen have particular problems – especially boxers,” he says. “Quite often they suffer damage as a result of their sport. Cognitive impairment compounds the problem if they become alcohol dependent.

“It’s the same for soccer players and rugby players – heading balls and head knocks can cause damage to the brain which is compounded by toxic substances like drugs and alcohol.”

The clinic, which in the past has treated artist Peter Howson and former Hibs striker Barry Lavety, has dealt with 8000 patients since it opened in 1988. Unfortunately, according to Mr McCann, the numbers are increasing all the time, mainly among young drinkers and, in particular, women.

Matters often come to a head or reach a crisis point before someone reaches the stage of accepting the need for treatment, he adds. “Low level dependency and binge drinking can be treated within the community but when a person becomes more dependent on alcohol they need residential treatment.

“People come here and go through a detox first when they withdraw from alcohol followed by intensive psychotherapy which can last four to six weeks.

“However for a patient with cognitive impairment it can go on much longer and be more intense.

“It all depends on the commitment of the person, their age, if they have the support of family and a job to go back to.”

Buchanan, who was taken to accident and emergency after being found in Keddie Park, Leith in August before being admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, has long term partner Carol-Ann Wilkie, 68, by his side, along with his son Raymond, 48.

And he has the support of the global boxing community which has always regarded him as one of the greats.

Buchanan – who won 61 out of his 69 fights – has had a long battle with the bottle down the years, sad episodes which sometimes threatened to overshadow a brilliant career in the ring.

But more recently the fighter, who is the only British boxer to have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was joining in training sessions at Lochend Amateur Boxing Club in Sleigh Drive, passing on tips to the next generation of fighting stars.

According to recovering alcoholic John Walker, 38, from Leith, beating the bottle is more than worth the fight.

He says: “I have achieved more in sobriety in the past 18 months than in my whole life. Recovery is my second chance at life.

“I’ve had to retrain my brain and I know I will never be safe – I can’t drink again. I have accepted that and I believe I’m now in a fortunate place.”

At his lowest ebb, John – who had his first drink aged just 13 – was drinking eight litres of wine every day to blot out the anguish of losing his partner Joyce to a blood clot when she was four months pregnant with their child.

He hit rock bottom after having lost his job and his home, with a criminal record for stealing beer and a string health problems.

“I knew I had a drink problem but I wouldn’t admit I was an alcoholic – I was scared of not having alcohol,” he adds.

Eventually he was referred to Lothians & Edinburgh Abstinence Programme (LEAP), which offers clinical, medical and therapeutic help to those who want to get clean. Today he is passing on his experiences to new patients as a peer supporter.

“I used to think my behaviour was normal, that everyone did what I did,” adds John, of Leith. “If I was upset, alcohol was there, if I was angry it was there. At weddings and funerals, it was there.

“I was constantly obsessing about alcohol. But now I have achieved sobriety, my whole life is unbelievable.”

Meanwhile, in a hospital bed at the Royal Edinburgh, Ken Buchanan MBE fights on, perhaps his own words inspiration enough to keep him going.

“We’re all fighters, every single one of us. Fighting is the first sport of every man and woman,” he once said.

“From the minute we’re born, we’re fighting to breathe, to open our eyes. We’re fighting to walk and we’re fighting to talk.

“You can’t get rid of the desire to fight when it’s your very first lesson in life.”

Inspired to enter the ring after watching movie

KEN Buchanan was inspired to enter the ring after watching a movie at Leith’s Palace Picture House when he was eight years old.

The film, The Brown Bomber, told the story of American boxer Joe Louis, the world heavyweight champion from 1937 until 1949 and one of the sport’s all-time greats.

The young Ken pestered his father, Tommy, for boxing lessons at Sparta Club in McDonald Road. Almost instantly he caught the eye of trainer George Shaw.

He won his first title within weeks, weighing in at only 3st 2lbs.

Later he combined boxing with an apprenticeship as a joiner with Grieves of Dalry Road – earning himself the nickname the Fighting Carpenter.

He became ABA featherweight champion in 1965 and turned professional, travelling to Wales to train with legendary Eddie Thomas.

He beat Ismael Laguna in a blistering hot Puerto Rico in September 1970 to become WBA lightweight champion. And he defeated Ruben Navarro in Los Angeles in February 1971 for the WBC title.

He later successfully defended his title against Laguna but his next defence in June 1972 against Roberto Duran ended controversially with the ‘below the belt’ punch. It led to Buchanan requiring surgery and suffering implications from the injury throughout his life.

In 1973, he beat future world lightweight champion Jim Watt in Glasgow to regain the British lightweight title. He retired in 1983.