Champions come in all shapes and sizes

I’m not much of a boxing fan; the thought of two athletes trying to knock each other out with blows to the head seems too extreme.  Mind you, I played rugby, and some might think that a bit brutal.  But I’ve had bad concussions, once from falling off a bike as a young kid and once from heading a ball on a freezing day in a football match.  The goalie kicked the old leather ball out, and I headed it on the halfway line.  It came at me from a great height like a guided ordinance.  Watching from the sidelines, my dad said it was like a sniper’s bullet had hit me.  I’m afraid my memory of the incident is lost. 

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that boxers are supreme athletes, agile, super fit, and brave.  Many would volunteer Muhammad Ali as the epitome of this vision of grace and beauty.  But for me, it is Ken Buchanan.  For Scots, he’s a household name, a humble working-class man from Edinburgh who conquered the globe. He travelled to win his belts, beating Ismael Laguna in Panama, Puerto Rico, on the 26th of September 1970 in a fifteen-round contest.  Then he defeated Ruben Navarro in Los Angeles on the 12th of February 1971 to become the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.  Ken Buchanan had unrivalled fitness, stamina, and a will to win.  Like many Scots of my generation, Buchanan was a hero and an example of what could be achieved with the combination of skill, hard work, and Scottish doggedness. 

Last week, Ken died aged 77.  He was diagnosed with dementia last year and he will be greatly missed but never forgotten.  I was lucky to meet my hero in March 1976 with my rugby teammates at his hotel, the Ken Buchanan Hotel on Ferry Road, Edinburgh.  He didn’t disappoint.  The occasion was a lunch on a Saturday to celebrate my school side winning the Portobello U14 sevens tournament.  My dad had to foot the bill, as he promised that if we won the final, he would treat us to T-bone steaks at Ken’s hotel.  There must have been over twenty of us in the dining hall, noisy, cheeky, and unruly.  The door opened, and Ken Buchanan walked in, looking dapper in a dark suit, wearing tinted glasses that gave him a scary and menacing look.  He spoke to a sudden hush, was charming and inspirational.  Some of those memories are vivid, and some are not. But I can recall being fixated on the size of his fists.

After lunch, the team walked down Ferry Road to Goldenacre to watch Heriot’s play a game of rugby.  It was a warm day, and the excitement of meeting Ken was bolstered further by going to watch Andy Irvine.  Sorry for the non-rugby readers and non-Scots, but for us, it was like seeing Joe Montana and the 49ers.  Andy Irvine is regularly voted as the greatest Scottish rugby player ever.  He played full-back, the position I played.  He was magnificent, fast, elusive, and with a competitive spirit that often won matches singlehandedly through his individual brilliance.  It was a memorable day, and as time rolls on, it can make me nostalgic for the past: youth, innocence, camaraderie, and a bond with fellow rugby players whom you trusted. Perhaps, a longing for a time gone by

The other memorable rugby match I remember fondly was when the All Blacks played the Barbarians in Cardiff on the 27th of January 1973.  For those that don’t know or understand rugby, watch the highlights as it shows how rugby should be played.  I watched it with my dad on TV screaming excitedly as the All Blacks were put to the sword.  The best rugby players in the world were on show, like the incomparable Gareth Edwards and Phill Bennett; I could name the whole team.  But three players left a lasting impression on my psyche.  Tom David, the Wales flanker, was just unbelievable that day, a huge man who ran around the pitch like a bullock with deft hands and pace.  The other was David Duckham, the English winger with dancing feet, a scorching pace, and the best sidestep ever.  He could change direction on a blade of grass, and I practiced my poor imitation in our back garden endlessly. He, too, died recently, aged 76.  It feels like a dark moment when heroes leave.

As to the third player, Irish openside flanker Fergus Slattery, what an athlete, ferocious, could run like a gazelle, pass like Barry John, and fight like, dare I say it, Ken Buchanan.  It is oft stated that we shouldn’t compare sportspeople from different eras.  But the world-class players of yesteryear would still be stars of today.  And this is particularly the case for Fergus Slattery.  He would have been the star of the professional era.  Therefore, it is sad to report that Fergus Slattery has been diagnosed with dementia. His wife said in the Times that it is likely due to injuries sustained when he played rugby. Time rolls, but the sense of despondency does not.

No matter how wistful I get about a knee injury ending my rugby playing prematurely, perhaps I’m fortunate not to be contending with head injuries sustained in the past threatening my future.  The memories that Ken, David, and Fergus have given sports are everlasting.

And to show that I haven’t slipped into old age, here’s the Stewart’s Melville C1’s and the U14 sevens team of 1976!

15.       John Campbell
14.       Murdo Mackenzie
13.       Angus Cummings
12.       Nick MacHugh
11.       Harry Lawrie
10.       David Thomson
9.         Julian Scott (Captain)
8.         Andrew Stevenson
7          Keith MacLaren
6          Simon Frame
5.         John Williamson
4.         Richard Galbraith
3          David Lawson
2.         Bob Bowie/John Heahpy
1.         Richard (Archie) Waterson

I’m unsure about the second rows, but corrections would be welcome.  We were a winning team coached by an Irish mastermind Bryan Lewis.

I think the U14 sevens winners were:

7.         Murdo Mackenzie
6          Nick MacHugh or Angus Cummings
5          John Campbell
4.         Julian Scott (Captain)
3.         Andrew Stevenson
2.         Simon Frame
1.         Keith Maclaren

I don’t have any photos of the winning team – there must be one somewhere. The best I can do is post the winners of the U18 team of 1980, with a few from 1976. I’m still in contact with some of the team, but I wonder where they are all now.