SI Vault
Hugh McIlvanney
February 08, 1971
Slickest boxer since Sugar Ray, Lightweight Champion Kenny Buchanan does his roadwork on the Firth of Forth Bridge as he prepares for his title defense next week in Los Angeles
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February 08, 1971

Fighting Carpenter From Scotland

Slickest boxer since Sugar Ray, Lightweight Champion Kenny Buchanan does his roadwork on the Firth of Forth Bridge as he prepares for his title defense next week in Los Angeles

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Anyone who suggests that the Scots are infatuated with their own image as fighting men has failed to distinguish between infatuation and the real thing. On the corner of any one of a thousand gray streets from Wick to Berwick-upon-Tweed you are in danger of finding people who will earnestly ponder the question of whether it would take one or two Scottish regiments to cope with the Red Army and who will argue persuasively that Benny Lynch, if caught on a sober night, would have floored Muhammad Ali in mid-shuffle.

The fact that Lynch did his deeds as a flyweight is scarcely relevant. An advantage in weight did not help the late Sonny Liston when Peter Keenan, an archetypal Glaswegian who once held the bantamweight championship of Britain, the British Empire and Europe, brought him to order at a party given to offer a Clydeside welcome to the then-heavyweight champion of the world. Liston, in one of his less congenial moods, had knocked a cigar from a fellow guest's mouth and demanded rather loudly that Keenan, too, should refrain from smoking in his presence.

"Listen," said Keenan, glaring up from the level of Sonny's chest. "You may be the heavyweight champion, but I have never lost a fight in the street in my life. If anything is going out it's not the cigar. It's you."

"Aye," said a voice from the bristling group at Keenan's elbow. "And not by the door—by the windie."

Sonny, who was aware that the party was being held 10 stories up, cooled abruptly. Keenan then sat down on Liston's knee like a ventriloquist's doll. He called for action from the band, and a fairly conventional Glasgow party was under way again.

Most explanations of the Scottish capacity for personalized aggression embrace ethnic, religious, environmental and economic factors. The population of the country is an amalgam of wild races—Picts, Irish Celts, Norsemen, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and a few other interlopers—set down in wild terrain, plagued but never overcome by invaders, scarred by the trauma of the Reformation and subjected to the extremes, first of agrarian poverty and—more recently—of the industrial version. Whatever emphasis should be put on these influences individually, there is no doubt that their combined effect is to produce an identifiable paranoia. To most Scots, especially to those who inhabit the urban areas of the central Lowlands, turning the other cheek is the ultimate heresy. They are a small race (also, there has never been a Scottish heavyweight boxer who could be guaranteed to hit a door if he held it by the handle), but their violence is not a petulant expression of frustration. Their problem is less a suspicion of inferiority than a conviction that the world is conspiring to conceal how remarkable they are.

This convoluted mentality does different things to different people. To Ken Buchanan, a 25-year-old carpenter from Edinburgh, it has brought the lightweight championship of the world and an overnight reputation among American boxing followers as one of the most impressive European fighters ever to cross the Atlantic.

In Madison Square Garden last December, Buchanan and Donato Paduano were put in the ring together as an expensive diversion for a crowd waiting restlessly to see if Ali and Oscar Bonavena would fight as bitterly as they had talked. Paduano, an undefeated Canadian welterweight previously applauded by Garden audiences as a practitioner of unusual refinement, came off his stool confidently with his shoulders hunched, feinting in close, short arm patterns. The left hand that jumped into his face was as sudden and unnerving as a water cannon. Paduano tried to regroup his thoughts and sneak a way past or under the hazard. But wherever he went he was met by that sickening jab. It came at him in singles, doubles and trebles, jolting his head so violently that his skull seemed likely to bruise his backbone. All too often for his comfort the straight lefts were reinforced by sharp hooks with the same hand or swift right crosses. Buchanan, bouncing round the ring with an upright, slightly stiff-kneed action, was invariably where Paduano did not want him to be. The Canadian was 10 pounds heavier, but it was clear that this would only compound his embarrassment. By the end of three minutes Paduano's face had reddened painfully, his mouth sagged open and his expression was that of a man who has sucked casually on an exploding cigar. He did no better in the five or six rounds that followed and, though Buchanan tired quite badly toward the finish of the 10-round fight ("I had a cold, and breathing got harder"), all three score-cards made him a runaway winner.

Long before midpoint, American boxing writers, most of whom had remained unconvinced when this Limey had taken one version of the lightweight title from Ismael Laguna in San Juan a few months earlier, were turning in the direction of a Scottish writer at ringside with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. "You told us the kid was good," they said. "But he's better than that." The writer's accent broadened perceptibly as he proffered suitably modest responses. In the elevator that took them all down to the street after the Ali-Bonavena fight, a hard New York voice kept asking: "How about that lightweight? How about that? For boxing like that you gotta go back to Robinson."

When news of the extraordinary success reached Edinburgh a lot of people began to dredge their memories of Kenny Buchanan. What many could not realize was that Buchanan, brooding in the shadowed interior of his own personality high above the Atlantic, was sorting out his memories of them. From his early boyhood he had harbored a deep sense of persecution, a resentful belief that the other children in his working-class district—and their parents, too—were determined to leave him in despised isolation. Now he saw his triumphs less as a key to popularity than as a bludgeon to put down those who had denied it to him in the past.

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