Following a stellar amateur career, John Conteh left a trail of destruction behind him in the professional prize ring. He went on to rub shoulders with A-list celebrities, drink beyond the point of excess, fight on Muhammad Ali undercards, and, thirty-seven years after hanging up the gloves, receive an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from the Queen.
The son of a West African father and an Irish mother, Conteh explained how his father introduced him to the noble art. “My dad came over in 1942 from Sierra Leone and was a tough, strict merchant seaman who was about six feet tall. At around eleven years old, he started teaching me.”
One of ten children, the young Conteh wasn’t the only member of the family to lace the gloves. Far from it. “I had seven brothers and two sisters. They all done a bit, but I was the one who committed myself to it. I felt my brother Tony was a better boxer than me and would have at least been welterweight champion of Britain, but he didn’t stick with it.”
Boxing at the local amateur boxing club in Kirkby, a small town nestled into the northwest of England, Conteh clocked up an impressive forty-six wins in fifty fights. However, the Merseyside man was critical of his early bouts. “When I was seventeen, in 1968, I failed miserably in the Junior ABA [Amateur Boxing Association] championships in Basildon. I boxed a lad from Wolverhampton called Bobby Blower who had beaten Alan Minter in the morning; and then he stopped me in two rounds in the afternoon. Bobby went on to win the championships. I came back to Kirby and thought, ‘You’ve got to think seriously about this. Could you have done better?’
“Then that was it. Total commitment. I won the senior ABAs at middleweight in 1970, then the [middleweight] gold medal at the Commonwealth Games [same year, held in Edinburgh, Scotland], then in 1971 I won the ABAs again, but this time at light heavyweight.”
There was, however, one prestigious piece of silverware missing in Conteh’s cabinet. “I thought about it [competing in the 1972 Olympics in Munich], but I was getting offered so much money to turn professional. So I headed down to London and went from there.”
In the absence of super-middleweight and cruiserweight categories, Conteh explained how his journey in the pro ranks kicked off. “Light-heavy was my natural fighting weight. I would have certainly moved up to cruiserweight if it existed back then, but light-heavy was where I was at. Although I think my first twenty fights were actually billed as heavyweight contests.
“I boxed twice on Muhammad Ali cards as heavyweight. I was up against an American guy called Terry Daniels when [Ali] fought Joe Bugner [February 14, 1973, at the Convention Center, Las Vegas], and John H. Stracey was on the bill as well. The other time was the year before [against Chicago’s Johnny Mac] when Ali fought Al ‘Blue’ Lewis [July 19, 1972 at Croke Park, Dublin]. I would always say, as a gag, when I was speaking to Muhammad Ali in Vegas, ‘Muhammad, can you give me some advice please?’ and he’d said, ‘Yeah, get out of my division!’ I dropped down to light heavyweight in 1973 [after the Daniels bout], and my first fight at that weight was for the European title.”
Conteh turned professional at twenty and, after only seventeen months, boasted a record of 17-1. His fight against the defending European light-heavyweight champion from Germany, Rudiger Schmidtke, on 13 March 1973 was a stiff test. Schmidtke had stopped Chris Finnegan for the title in the twelfth round, four months prior, and had even managed to squeeze in a further three successful fights before locking horns with Conteh.
Having beaten Finnegan in his own backyard at the Empire Pool, Wembley, UK, the Frankfurt fighter was adamant he could repeat the performance against Conteh. “Going into this one, I was just as confident as all the other fights before it,” Conteh recalled. “I trusted George Francis, who was my manager when I turned pro, and if he asked you to jump into a freezing pond, you’d do it. Which we did! We used to break the ice, jump in and out, just as an exercise, which was great because it trained you to win and have that champion’s mentality.
“Going into this fight, I drew confidence from George, and all the team had confidence in me. God helps those who help themselves, and that’s what I did. All my anxiety and fears disappeared. Fighting was my natural response.”
While Conteh won European honors stopping Schmidtke in the twelfth round, Chris Finnegan, who fought on the undercard the same evening, beat Roy John to become the British and Commonwealth champion. With three belts between them, a domestic dust-up was inevitable.
Finnegan had been in with better opposition at this point, having unsuccessfully challenged Hall-of-Famer Bob Foster eight months earlier (the Buckinghamshire born fighter had famously won the gold medal at middleweight in the 1968 Mexico Games). As Conteh reminisced about the fight on May 22, 1973, his hands instinctively came up, fists clenched, elbows tucked in, chin down, his teeth gritting as if biting on his mouthpiece.
“It was the same for the Schmidtke fight. I let my natural responses take over. It wasn’t about what they’d achieved as great fighters and what they were going to do; it was all about my reaction to them. ‘What do you have to respond to that?’ is what I’d always think. That was always my thought on the training ground, which is why I was always pushing myself. Endurance was my fuel, and I always wanted to make sure it was full up to the top of the tank. Train, fill it up to the top, train, fill it up to the top, so it wouldn’t let me down.”
Conteh went on to win a gritty fifteen-round decision against the tough Londoner, adding the British and Commonwealth straps to his European title.
With his model looks it was no surprise Conteh regularly appeared on magazine covers. But how did he make the front cover of the Wings album, Band on the Run in 1973, alongside Christopher Lee, Michael Parkinson, Kenny Lynch, and James Coburn? “Paul [McCartney] used to come round with his wife, Linda, to the fights and support me because I was a Liverpool lad, too. Next thing I’m getting an invite to go on the front cover of Band on the Run, which was fantastic. Amazing even. I read something where he [McCartney] said, ‘He’s a Liverpool lad, he’s doing well. Let’s get him on the album.’ Simple as that.”
Conteh went on to have a string of successful defenses of his titles, moving up to 25-1 and earning the opportunity to fight for the vacant WBC world title, against rough Argentine Jorge Victor Ahumada on October 1, 1974. “After the British, Commonwealth, and European, the next one had to be the world title. That was the one me and George were aiming for.”
Conteh recalled candidly the night he became champion of the world. “He was a really hard, rugged lad. I knew I wasn’t going to turn him over because stronger, bigger punchers than me hadn’t turned him over, so I knew it was going to go fifteen rounds. That’s what I was prepared for.” As predicted, the contest went the distance at the Empire Pool, Wembley, and Conteh won a lopsided decision.
If winning the world title in 1974 wasn’t enough, Conteh also picked up the accolade of Superstars champion, as he pitted himself against elite sportsmen across several physical tests. Conteh recalled his time on the extremely popular TV show. “That was fun! I was up against the likes of Kevin Keegan, Colin Bell and Stan Bowles [all famous British soccer players]. What a great guy Stan was. The army guys from Aldershot showed us how to use the guns, breath, gun up, gun down, and all that. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying, but Stan missed the target and shot the table. Twice, I think!”
Conteh’s first two defenses of his title were against American Lonnie Bennett (23-2) and Mexican Yaqui Lopez. Kirkby’s golden boy stopped Bennett in five rounds and took a comfortable points decision over fifteen rounds with Lopez. “They were tough fights. The Lopez one was in Copenhagen, Denmark and was a hard, hard fight.”
Five months after Lopez, on March 5, 1977, he defended his strap against former world-title challenger Len Hutchins. It was to be a memorable homecoming. “John Moores had the Littlewoods Pools Stadium, as it was back then, done up for us. It was great defending the world title in Liverpool. It’s what every fighter dreams of. As far as the fight goes, there was a head clash in the first round. Hutchins got cut and then I stopped him in the third.”
Unfortunately, that would be Conteh’s last fight as world champion. Later that year he was stripped of the title for not going through with a mandatory defense. “The money they’d offered me for the fight wasn’t there, so I thought, right, I’m not doing it. I regret it, of course. There’s nothing wrong with having regret, though, as long as you learn from it. It’s in the past, and the past is gone. At the time, you make decisions based on the context, and that’s it. No point in beating myself up.”
On June 17, 1978, Conteh attempted to win back his WBC title against Croatian Mate Parlov in Belgrade, losing a debatable split decision. “He was a great champion. A former [light-heavyweight] Olympic gold medalist in 1972, European and now defending world champion. I thought I did really well against him and had done enough to win the fight, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy fighting in his backyard. I shared the ring with a great fighter, did the best I could, and perhaps if the fight was over here [in the UK], I might have got the decision.”
By August 18, 1979, the WBC title had exchanged hands a few times, and Conteh challenged Philly’s Matthew Saad Muhammad to try to regain the world title. “Again, I trained as hard as I could for the first fight, and it went the full fifteen rounds. He had a cut eye and used illegal substances on it—two parts of sand and one of cement. I used to be a hod carrier, so I know how to make the mix!”
Conteh earned himself the rematch seven months later back in Atlantic City but was stopped in the fourth round. He hit the headlines the day after, but for the wrong reasons after wrecking his hotel room. “I was fighting emotions at that point. To retain and regain ground I’d lost. Trying to get back to where I was when I was twenty and giving it everything I had, but I didn’t have it anymore. My external life, with the drink, was catching up on me. I was an alcoholic. It was either one was too many, or a hundred wasn’t enough. Everything had taken its toll, mentally and physically.” While sipping on his double espresso and not looking far off the light-heavyweight limit, Conteh was proud to say, ‘I’ve been sober for over thirty years.’”
After a fifth-round stoppage of James Dixon two months later, on May 31, 1980, Conteh hung up the gloves with a record of 34-4-1. A very special award would come many years later, in 2017. “I received a phone call and a letter preparing me and also telling me not to tell the press. I was over the moon when I found out [about the MBE for services to boxing]. I was proud for my family, and it was great to meet the Queen also. In fact, we didn’t know about until half an hour before on the day that it would be her doing the presentation. We went into this room at Windsor Castle, waiting to go in but didn’t know who was going to present it. There was this young lad near me, one of the other recipients who said, ‘Isn’t it great that the queen is going to present this to us?’ That’s when we found out. It was an incredible day. Terrific.”
So, how satisfied is Conteh with what he’s achieved in boxing? “I didn’t win the WBA world title, but I won the rest. We talked about the Olympics earlier. Yes, that’s maybe a regret. Perhaps I should have fought in Munich and then turned pro, but I’ve learnt to deal with the discontent and am very happy with what I’ve achieved through boxing.”