When Ken Buchanan was King of Madison Square Garden
Not many fighters can claim to have held the unofficial title of King of Madison Square Garden during their careers. The acknowledged Mecca of boxing, New York’s Madison Square Garden in its heyday was an arena where even the most accomplished of champions and contenders were liable to be overwhelmed by the pressure of occupying its hallowed terrain. And many found themselves leaving the ring to a chorus of boos from the most hard-to-please-fans in the world in response to a lacklustre performance.
Madison Square Garden became synonymous with boxing in the over 100 years and four different locations in which it has hosted some of the most epic contests in the history of the fight game, involving the likes of John L Sullivan, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake La Motta, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, Joe Frazier, Roberto Duran, and Sugar Ray Leonard.
But of all the legends who’ve garnered a place in The Garden’s illustrious history, Scotland’s Ken Buchanan deserves a special mention having topped the bill there not once, not twice, but a remarkable five times.
During the early 1970s, the Scottish lightweight brought to the ring the elegance of a ballerina and the heart of a pitbull. A piston jab so accurate it could have been the prototype upon which precision guided missiles were based was complemented by the contortions of an escape artist in the way he could frustrate even the most skilled attempts to lay a glove on him. It was a combination that saw him win the world title from Panama’s Ismael Laguna in 1970 over fifteen brutal rounds in the murderous heat of an outdoor arena in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In a display of guts and tenacity that even today still ranks as one of the most outstanding in the history of the ring, Buchanan announced his arrival onto the world stage.
His first appearance at The Garden in his trademark tartan shorts came just three months later in December of the same year, when the newly crowned champion fought Canadian welterweight contender Donato Paduano in a ten round non-title fight. Giving away ten pounds in bodyweight to his heavier opponent, the Scot lit up the crowd to such an extent that it rose more than once in a standing ovation in appreciation of the wonderful artistry he displayed in the process of taking his opponent to school. Watching the fight today, Buchanan ducking and weaving to avoid Paduano’s punches, at times it almost appears his upper body is attached to his legs by a ball and socket instead of flesh and bone. Indeed at points during the contest he dips his head so low he could untie the laces on the Canadian’s boots. In the end Buchanan emerged a comfortable winner with a unanimous decision.
His next outing at The Garden came almost exactly a year after wresting the title from Laguna, when the two met for a widely anticipated rematch. Buchanan had already defended his title twice in the interim, and by the time he stepped into the ring to meet his old rival he’d established himself as the undisputed champion. It was a contest that took on the same pattern as the first fight, with the Scotsman keeping his jab in the Panamanian’s face for fifteen rounds to win yet another unanimous decision in front of a full house.
Another Panamanian in the shape of a young Roberto Duran was Buchanan’s next challenger. Duran may have only been emerging as the legend he was to become, but already he possessed a reputation for destroying his opponents with a relentless come-forward style, throwing bombs.
The Panamanian’s fight against Ken Buchanan on June 26, 1972, remains one of the most controversial The Garden has ever hosted. It began at a blistering pace, when from the opening bell Duran jumped on the Scotsman with the objective of denying him the use of a jab that by then was considered the best in the business. Duran’s gameplan paid off, as within a minute of the fight Buchanan was forced to touch the canvas at the end of a right hook to take a standing eight count. If he didn’t know it already, the world champion knew now he was in for a long night.
Back he came though, trading combinations with the challenger in an attempt to keep him at bay. It was in this fashion the contest continued over thirteen bruising rounds in which Duran’s head rarely left the champion’s chest, so intent was he on fighting on the inside. The low blow that concluded proceedings came after the bell rang at the end of the thirteenth. The resulting controversy continues to be the subject of debate among boxing fans to this day. More importantly, it still rankles with Buchanan himself, who’s revealed more than once in interviews that he’s still reminded of it by an occasional shooting pain through the groin.
Ken Buchanan fought twice more at The Garden, recording victories against former three time world champion Carlos Ortiz and then South Korea’s Chang-Kil Lee.
His career thereafter followed the all too familiar pattern of slow but steady decline, until his eventual retirement in 1982. Nonetheless the former lightweight world champion will forever be remembered as a true ring legend and one of only a select few to ever hold the unofficial title of King of Madison Square Garden. It’s one title that no one can ever take away from him — not even with a low blow.
This article was originally published at This Boxing Game