Ken Buchanan: Owen Smith remembers best friend and Edinburgh boxing legend
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Children often dream of meeting their idols. But for Owen Smith, who started training at the Sparta Boxing Club on McDonald Road in the late 1970s, he had no way of knowing that the gym’s greatest export, Ken Buchanan, would become his sparring partner, mentor, manager and lifelong friend.
In a friendship that spanned over 46 years, Owen, who had power of attorney for the boxing great, spoke to the Evening News after his dear friend passed away in his sleep on April 1.
“He was my best pal. I’ll miss him a lot", The 59-year-old said. “I didn’t realise how much it hurt until a few days afterwards – it didn’t half sink in. Ken is the closest person I’ve ever lost. I really thought Kenny would be here a lot longer.”
Pictures of Ken and Owen decorate the living room walls along with boxing trophies Owen won during his boxing days. One trophy takes pride of place. The fighter of night award from the Sparta Club – the boxing gym where an eight-year-old Buchanan first attended in 1953. The very same trophy was initially won by Buchanan decade earlier.
Weeks ago Buchanan had attended hospital to have his medication for dementia reassessed and Owen was shocked when he received devastating news from the hospital. This month has seen his weekly visits with Ken replaced with funeral arrangements and countless calls from journalists. But for the man who knew the Fighting Carpenter better than anyone, he takes comfort from the fact that his dear friend often told him he was felt fulfilled with what he achieved. “He’d always tell me ‘I’ve done everything I wanted to do in my life.”
Owen remembers his first introduction to the legendary boxer: “Kenny was making a come back then, and his dad Tommy picked me and a few other lads to go in and chase Kenny around the ring. It was getting him moving, you could hit him and it wouldn’t bother him, but you could hardly hit him anyway he was that fast and clever. It was very daunting going in with the former undisputed world champion but he was easy to talk to and he wanted to make you feel like you were special. When you went into amateur fights afterwards they were easy because I’d been trained by the best.”
Buchanan would later train and manage Owen for his professional fights, with the generous pugilist buying Owen new boxing boots for his professional debut in 1986. Owen said: “He never took a penny off you as a manager. I thought how are you going to make a living off of this but that’s the type of man he was, he just wanted to help you on.”
Owen recalled a time when Ken asked him to join him in the corner for his fight against Najib Daho in London. “Kenny was saying to him ‘keep your hands up’ all the way through. The referee gave Kenny a warning for coaching whilst fighting. He said ‘you cannae be doing that Kenny, that’s no right.’ He was a funny man, I had such great times with. One night coming home he got the entire bus singing Neil Diamond songs, jumping up with his hands up in a boxing stance every time the bell sounded on the bus.”
Despite Buchanan’s legacy as undisputed lightweight champion, it would not be until 2016 that his home city recognised his achievements, presenting him with an Edinburgh Award and civic reception. Owen said: “It always hurt him until he got the recognition he deserved. It gave him a new lease of life and brought him back into people’s lives.” In the same year Owen, along with five other friends, launched the Ken Buchanan Foundation to raise money to get bronze statue erected in Buchanan’s honour. The statue that looks down Leith Walk was unveiled last August.
Owen said: “I was so pleased for Ken to see his statue unveiled and very proud to have been a cog in the machinery of it. The statue came from the people, that shows you how loved he was. When your hero becomes one of you best friends it doesn’t get any better than that. I used to tell him I love him and he’d say I love you too pal. I’ll really miss him.”