Sporting Nation: 'Ken Buchanan's win over Laguna the greatest by a Briton'

By Mike CostelloBBC Boxing Correspondent

Throughout July, BBC Scotland's Sporting Nation series is reflecting on some of the greatest feats and personalities from Scottish sporting history. Here we look back on the finest hour in the career of Scottish boxer Ken Buchanan, his 1970 victory over the Panamanian Ismael Laguna in Puerto Rico.

Ken Buchanan
After his victory over Laguna, Ken Buchanan beat Ruben Navarro become undisputed world lightweight champion

"Absolutely beautiful boxer. Everything off a left jab, hit you with combinations, tremendous technique."

Barry McGuigan's description of Ken Buchanan from their sparring sessions back in the day has been echoed by many.

He was talking in general but the words also fit perfectly as a review of Buchanan's greatest success, the day he became world lightweight champion in September 1970.

The venue, the conditions, the quality of opposition and the circumstances around the contest persuade me to rank Buchanan's win against the Panamanian Ismael Laguna as the best by a British boxer in my lifetime.

Buchanan had retired the previous year, aged just 24, in frustration at the lack of opportunities coming his way. "I was down to my last few pounds in the bank," he says in his autobiography High Life And Hard Times, published in the mid-1980s. He returned to work as a joiner, earning more than he pocketed in the ring at the time.

Later in 1969, Buchanan's mother died and it was at her funeral that his father reminded him how she was convinced "it was in your heart to be somebody in boxing".

Ken laced up the gloves again, only to lose for the first time in his professional career when outpointed by Spaniard Miguel Velazquez in a fight for the European title in January 1970 in Madrid.

The verdict was hotly disputed - and expected. Madrid, according to Hugh McIlvanney in the Observer newspaper, was a city "where a foreign boxer needs an opponent's death certificate to win a decision".

In the perverse way boxing sometimes unfolds, Buchanan's defeat worked in his favour. Connections of the world champion Laguna were looking for a routine title defence and the Scot's promoter Jack Solomons exploited the gap in the market.

Laguna was the heavy favourite, quoted at odds of 2/5, for a fight taking place in the Puerto Rican capital San Juan at 2pm in furnace-like temperatures.

Solomons borrowed a parasol from a woman sat at ringside to use as a shield for Buchanan in the corner between rounds. Laguna's camp had chosen the corner blessed with shade, clearly visible in the grainy black-and-white recording of the fight which has surfaced online in recent months.

The film is a treasure, accompanied by a frazzled mix of English and Spanish commentary and with the Hiram Bithorn Stadium - named after the first Puerto Rican to play Major League baseball - providing the backdrop.

In an era of 15-round world title fights, Buchanan gets to work behind the left jab from the opening bell, with a fluency and confidence that suggest he is back at home in Edinburgh.

Time and again, he slips beneath Laguna's left jab and fires in a right hand to the body as a counter - elegant examples in elite company of the basic philosophy of "make 'em miss and make 'em pay". It takes a special character to impose this authority so soon in such circumstances.

But there were rough times, too. Buchanan was cut near both eyes and took some heavy punches in a contest that looked to be going against him in the middle rounds.

Never mind the cheesy line you often hear in boxers' interviews, it takes much more than skills to pay the bills. Buchanan's rally in the later stages revealed the size of the heart that pumped beneath his sunburnt skin and was vital in earning him a split decision. The margin was a single round on all three judges' scorecards.

It had been half a century since a British boxer lifted a world title overseas and Buchanan laments in his book how there were barely half-a-dozen people waiting to greet him on his return to Edinburgh Airport.

Conversely, the acclaim from afar was overwhelming. He was voted 'Boxer of the Year' for 1970 by the American Boxing Writers' Association, with Joe Frazier in second place and Muhammad Ali third.

Later, Buchanan would be honoured as the first living Briton to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. That night against Laguna 50 years ago nudged open the door.

Top Stories

Around Scottish sport