Former WBC light-heavyweight champion John Conteh celebrates his 70th birthday today. The ever-popular scouser enjoyed a fine career, at both amateur and pro level, and Conteh faced plenty of big names.
At age 19, Conteh won Commonwealth gold at middleweight, this in 1970. Going pro in October of the following year, as a heavyweight, the tall, athletic and gifted fighter won his first 11 bouts, before he lost a decision to Eddie Duncan in September of 1972.
After that minor setback, Conteh went unbeaten in his next 20 fights. In February of 1973, Conteh fought on the Muhammad Ali-Joe Bugner card in Las Vegas, stopping Terry Daniels in the seventh round.
Ali joked how Conteh was better looking than he was. In his next fight, Conteh dropped down to light-heavyweight and he won the European light-heavyweight title with a 12th round stoppage of Rudiger Schmidtke, this at the age of just 21.
Next up, in a grueling 15 round battle with Chris Finnegan, Conteh retained the European crown and won the British and Commonwealth titles. Conteh had achieved plenty after just 20 pro fights.
Stoppage wins over Vicente Rondon and Tom Boggs followed, as did a rematch win over Finnegan, with Conteh this time getting the win inside six rounds. And then, in October of 1974, Conteh defeated Jorge Ahumada of Argentina to win the vacant WBC light-heavyweight championship. It was a great night at Wembley in London.
Retentions followed, over Lonnie Bennett (TKO5), Yaqui Lopez (WU15) and Len Hutchins (TKO3). Following the win over Hutchins, Conteh was ordered to defend against Miguel Angel Cuello of Argentina, but he refused and was stripped of the title.
Conteh made three attempts to regain the WBC strap. In his first attempt, in June of 1978, Conteh lost a split decision to Mate Parlov in Yugoslavia. Then, in August of 1979 in a fight that took place in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Conteh fell victim to even harsher bad luck. And to cheating.
Facing legendary warrior Matthew Saad Muhammad, Conteh opened a nasty cut over Muhammad’s eye in the fifth round. The blood was pouring, the fight could have been stopped – should have been stopped – yet the champion’s cutman used an illegal coagulant to stem the flow.
The fight raged on, and it was a close fight, but Conteh was winning. Then Muhammad scored two knockdowns in round 14. Conteh lost a decision.
In the return, a faded Conteh was hammered to fourth-round defeat, the challenger going down some five times in the rematch that took place at the same venue. Conteh had one last fight, a win over James Dixon at the Liverpool Stadium, and then his career was over, this at the age of just 29.
Conteh could have been a two-time WBC light-heavyweight champion – in fact, he would have been a two-time WBC light-heavyweight champion had Muhammad’s cutman not gotten away with illegal methods – and we must remember this when evaluating his career. You could perhaps rank Conteh as a near-great.
Today, John Conteh is recognized as one of British boxing’s best.
Final ring record: 34-4-1(24). WBC light-heavyweight champion 1974 to 1977.