Ken Buchanan on Hibs, Josh Taylor, going full circle in Leith, getting a statue of himself and standing on Princess Anne’s toes
Aiden Smith speaks with local hero Ken Buchanan...
He walked into the party like he was walking on to a yacht. And that night Warren Beatty really did. Whether or not Carly Simon’s song You’re So Vain was inspired by Hollywood’s great lothario – and the debate rages to this day – the actor sashayed into the Tinseltown gathering and everyone swooned.
Beautiful women fell at his feet. “Like flies round you-know-what,” laughs Ken Buchanan.
But our man walked into the party like he was daunering down Leith Walk. The heat in the room dramatically shifted. Suddenly the entire assembly wanted to know the young boxing sensation. Beatty, unused to this unmolested state, thought he’d better find out who all the fuss was about. By the time he fought his way to the front of the queue he’d been brought up to speed about the champ’s deeds in the ring. “He asked me for my autograph. Warren Beatty did. ‘Best wishes to … ?’ I said. I had no bloody idea who he was!
I have daunered down Leith Walk to meet this local hero. From the top, a churned-up mess under redevelopment, right past famous emporia such as “Borlands – Darts, Television”, and all the way almost to the bottom where Queen Victoria squats unamused.
But Edinburgh’s finest thoroughfare – how does the Walk not beat Princes Street now that Jenners is going? – may soon have a new landmark: a statue of Scotland’s greatest boxer. The likeness, in bronze, is definitely coming; it’s just the location that’s to be finalised. Buchanan thinks it might be the top, which would be fine. I mention Bobby Lennox’s self-consciousness regarding his statue – “I’m not sure I want to bump into myself every day” – and he smiles. “I’m rarely up there. My wee world is down here. I know what Bobby means. Gawping at the thing the whole time, I might get pissed off.”
Don’t get him wrong, though. He’s deeply touched by the honour. It regularly gets him emotional, and will again today. The Ken Buchanan Foundation was formed four years ago to right a wrong and campaign for recognition in a home city which seemed to forget about him. Buchanan is just back from the studio of the sculptor, Alan Herriot, and a slightly surreal meeting with himself.
“I saw me in clay. It’s a good likeness, I think. I’m pleased with the hair. It’s the style I had at the time of my world title fights and I liked it a lot. I saw that cut on a singer – cannae remember which one – and thought: ‘That’s for me.’” Then he stops. Talking about an artist’s impression of yourself is not a very Leith thing to do.
But he repeats: the statue is a fabulous gesture. After all his bumps and scrapes – not the blows from 69 professional fights but the more recent dramas of losing his house, a drink problem, hospitalisation – the work-in-progress has revived his spirits. “No doubt about it, it’s been a blessing. It’s kept me going.”
Buchanan is 74 and still whip-thin. Fighting weight: 9st 8lbs. Daunering weight: 9st 12lbs. For the last four years he’s lived in sheltered housing just off the Walk. The last time we talked, in 2012, he’d hooked up with a blast from the past. She made a mean rhubarb tart, I say. “Aye well,” he says. Single again, he jokes that the only drawback with his current address is that all the women in the complex are “auld birds”. Just like him, I say. “Aye you’re right. And one of these lovely ladies does my washing for me for a fiver every week.”
This corner of Leith has just fought and won a fine battle against gentrification, sending the developers packing. Who here knows they’ve got a bona fide world-beating pugilist residing in their midst? Oh, just about everyone, I reckon.
Buchanan completes a tour of duty most days, visiting favourite haunts like the Central Bar, but his intake is strictly controlled with barmen asked to only serve him half-pint shandies and no whisky.
The Central is semi-legendary. A younger crowd know it from having featured in Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s descent into the heart of Leith darkness. Older port-dwellers who love the fight game know of its associations with Tancy Lee, a world champ at three weights way back in 1915.
Today on his rounds Buchanan was gifted a lavish Frank Sinatra picture-book by a punter, this after mentioning on a previous pub-crawl that he’d once met the crooner. Like the encounter with Beatty, the exact year and location have been forgotten, but not what Ol’ Blue Eyes said to him. “I was leaving to go to the stadium to box – top of the bill, like – and Frank said: ‘Kenny, get in there and do it your way.’ A short while later the song came out and, aye, it was a big hit.”
Regulars at the Central and other watering holes like the Gladstone – where Buchanan’s winners’ belts are displayed – can’t get enough of such tales. “I bore myself answering questions about great fights, big punches and ‘Was it really sair?’ But these guys seem to want to listen.”
Really, Buchanan has returned to where it all began. The sheltered housing is right across the road from a bingo hall which used to be a picturehouse where, as an eight-year-old, he was sneaked underage into the Joe Louis biopic The Brown Bomber by his father Tommy.
At this moment, in the lounge of the complex, Christmas choons chiming, we’re politely interrupted by a fellow resident who introduces himself as “Brains” and flourishes a Buchanan biography. “I heard you talking to this man,” he says. “Do you know that he saw that film and decided: ‘I want to be a world champion’? Look, Ken gave me this … ” It’s a signed print of the boxer in classic pose. “Do well today and you might get one, too. Then you can nip round to Leith Kirkgate for a nice frame for it, just £1.49.”
“Brains is right,” continues Buchanan. The movie was exciting and boxing was for me. I joined Sparta [famous boxing club, halfway up the Walk, now gone] and, not quite nine, was put in for the 3st 8lbs championship. That was 1953, the war had not long ended and mine was just beginning. I took to boxing right away. I thought: ‘This guy’s going to get hammered.’ I had to fight twice in the same night but won both bouts. My first title!”
Buchanan’s father worked at the capital’s dental hospital where they fixed teeth which, when you think about it, was the opposite of his laddie’s chosen profession, much more concerned with loosening them. So what did his mother Catherine say when he announced he was going to be a boxer – wasn’t she worried? “At the start she wasn’t keen but my outstanding memory of my mum came at the Leith Victoria club, just round the corner from where we’re sitting. It was the second round of my fight and I was doing okay when I heard her voice: ‘Ken, use that left jab!’ Then from across the hall this other voice piped up: ‘Now Ken, dae what yer ma’ tells ye!’”
If he felt the heat that night it was nothing compared to the 125 degrees beating down on him in San Juan, Puerto Rico in September, 1970 as he stunned the boxing world to win the WBA lightweight title – not least his opponent, the great Panamanian, Ismael Laguna, who’d made sure the pale-faced Scot was baked by the afternoon sun in the only corner not in the shade.
Buchanan claimed the WBC title to become undisputed champ at lightweight only to be stripped of it later over a contractual dispute. He would later lose the hotel bearing his name and suffer two divorces as everything crashed to the canvas but in September, 1971, a star at Madison Square Garden and loved by New York’s boxing aficionados, he was invincible. When Laguna came back for more, Buchanan won again.
Nine days after that triumph, Buchanan was in the centre circle at Easter Road before a Hibernian-Falkirk League Cup quarter-final, milking the acclaim of the crowd. I tell him I was in the Cowshed that night, singing “There’s only one Ken Buchanan” with everyone else. “Thanks, big yin,” he says. “How many folk were there that night?” I tell him the attendance was 27,041 and he bursts into tears.
You see, Buchanan never got the chance to fight professionally in Edinburgh so this would have been the largest gathering to greet him in the city of his birth. I mention that Josh Taylor, a fellow Hibs fan, will be guest of honour at today’s game at the stadium against Kilmarnock after becoming unified world champ at super-lightweight and he says: “Good for Josh, he’s a good laddie and a great fighter, and I hope he enjoys going on the pitch as much as I did. It was brilliant.”
Memories of that cup-tie come flooding back. “Alex Ferguson was playing for Falkirk, wasn’t he? There was a guy who could handle himself. I went to the game with my dad and afterwards [Hibs lost on aggregate] we were walking behind a lad of about 12 who was crying. He was really greetin’ so I asked his old man what was wrong. ‘He just loves the Hibs,’ the dad said. I said: ‘Do you really, son?’ He nodded so I said: ‘Here, you have my season ticket for the Centre Stand. I cannae make all the matches so you give them a cheer for me.’”
Taylor has been expressing the hope he might one day get to fight at Easter Road or Edinburgh Castle. Buchanan wishes him good luck with that after trying and failing to have one of his own contests staged on home turf. “We asked everywhere, and seemed to have a breakthrough at Murrayfield Ice Rink after convincing the manager the fight would make him a killing at his bars. He said Fridays and Saturdays were dead popular with the skaters so we said: ‘Just give us a gash Tuesday, then.’ I can still see the guy sucking in his cheeks and shaking his heid: ‘Ach that’s my curlers’ night. I really don’t want to be upsetting them … ’”
You wonder what Muhammad Ali would have thought of that. Buchanan is the only Brit to ever have his name appear on a bill before “The Greatest”. That was Madison Square Garden again when Ali didn’t even have a dressing-room. His trainer Angelo Dundee asked if they could share so, as everyone in the Central Bar knows, Buchanan grabbed a piece of chalk and drew a line on the floor. “Muhammad said: ‘What you doin’, Kenny?’ I said: ‘Just so we don’t get confused, Muhammad, this area is mine and that much smaller bit is yours. Step over the line and you’re for it!’ He just laughed.”
Taylor has been overlooked for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, which has upset the boxing fraternity including Barry McGuigan, a rare winner from the sport. I ask Buchanan how he felt about missing out on the prize and he says: “Did I? I thought I was top man in ’71 and Princess Anne was top woman.” He’s right about HRH; she was the sole Personality that year, the prize not differentiating between the sexes. But she and Buchanan did share the winners’ podium for the British Sportswriters’ Association.
“Well, there’s a funny story about that night. We had to lead the dancing at the end. ‘Come on, Kenny,’ she said. ‘Sure thing, Ma’am,’ I said, ‘it’s in my blood – my father’s a ballroom instructor.’ We waltzed but I kept standing on her toes. What a nightmare. She said: ‘In your blood it may be, Kenny, but it’s still to reach your feet!’”
With that, Scotland’s king of the ring clangs the bell to end another afternoon of heavyweight reminiscing, but he’s just had an idea: “I know who I want to unveil my statue – my old dancing partner!”