Glory, rivalry, war: Clinton McKenzie interview
Luke G. Williams
Every fight was a battle, Clinton McKenzie tells Luke G. Williams, but the former British 140lbs champ has no regrets as he looks back on a distinguished career...
Clinton McKenzie leans towards me with a twinkle in his eye and imparts some words of wisdom - words that carry the weight and experience of 50 years spent in boxing.
“The determination to survive until the end - that’s what boxing’s about and that’s life as well,” he declares. “You get rough times and sometimes you want to give up, but you have to go on until you get where you want to get.”
The analogy is particularly apt as McKenzie admits he struggled for a few years after retiring from the ring in 1989. “It was hard,” he tells me, with characteristic honesty. “I tried everything. I had businesses, I had this, I had that. But when you haven’t had any education in business, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Reconnecting with boxing gave McKenzie a new lease of life. He started three gyms in south London. First McKenzie opened a gym in Herne Hill in 1994 before moving his business to Tulse Hill in 2008 and then — three years ago — on to Dulwich Hamlet FC’s stadium, where he now runs McKenzie’s Boxing, a boxing fitness gym (“Get fit, without getting hit!”).
“I wish I’d done this from the beginning,” he tells me. “Boxing is what I know, what I’ve been brought up with. It’s what I do.”
It’s clear from our near two-hour conversation that McKenzie is at peace with himself and the choices he has made. He’s also a marvellous storyteller. He entertains me with tales of glorious nights, fierce rivalries and unforgettable 15-round wars of attrition.
Indeed, the 62-year-old — who looks remarkably young for his age — admits with a chuckle that he “could talk all day” about boxing.
There’s a lot to talk about. McKenzie’s glittering amateur career culminated in the 1976 Olympics and he reigned three times as British light-welterweight champion (as the division was then known), won two Lonsdale belts outright and also captured the European title during a 36-14 pro career that began in 1976 and ended in 1989.
In fact, the well-schooled southpaw saw and did pretty much everything except fight for a world title.
“My career? I loved it,” he enthuses. “Every fight was a battle, every fight was a war. But no real regrets. OK, I wish I’d made a bit more money and fought for the world title, but I just loved boxing — the glamour, the stage, the atmosphere.”
It’s fair to say that glamorous nights at venues such as the Royal Albert Hall were probably unimaginable the day the seven-year-old McKenzie arrived in England from Jamaica — to be greeted by a flurry of snow. “I’d never seen snow before,” he laughs. “My dad picked me up from the airport and had to reassure me everything was all right!”
His father’s work ethic and love for boxing were the formative influences that eventually steered Clinton, as well as Winston and Duke — two of his six siblings — into professional boxing. Clinton first boxed at the age of 11 at an amateur club in Addiscombe, south London, and by 1976 he was ABA champion and seemingly headed for the Olympics.
“I thought: ‘I’ve fought the best in England, now I can go to the Olympic Games.’ I also got called up to box for England against America, won that [bout] against Ronnie Shields and thought that was my selection [sealed].
“Then I got a bombshell — the Olympics team was announced and I wasn’t in. It was totally impossible. I’d done everything. I’d won everything. So why wasn’t I chosen?”
In McKenzie’s place was Welsh youngster Chris Davies, whose form and international pedigree were inferior, but whose father John was manager of the Great Britain team.
A media firestorm ensued.
“It caused uproar,” McKenzie recalls. “I thought my dreams had been shattered. The Jamaican embassy even rang up, asking if I wanted to fight for [Jamaica].”
Eventually, after interventions and discussions involving the Minister for Sport and the British Amateur Boxing Association, Davies’ selection was rescinded and McKenzie was rightfully installed in his place.
“Justice was done,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for the Great Britain coach Kevin Hickey — he put his neck on the block for me. He said if I was not picked he would quit.”
McKenzie was part of a seven-man British boxing team full of youthful talent, including Charlie Magri, Pat Cowdell, Sylvester Mittee and Colin Jones.
“It was great being part of that team,” McKenzie says. “We had a great laugh. We were all funny guys. It was laugh a minute, lots of banter. [Light-middleweight], Robbie Davies, God bless him [Davies died on 4 August] was probably the funniest. We were serious fighters but we had a great laugh.”
In Montreal, McKenzie won two bouts in impressive style to reach the last 16, where Sugar Ray Leonard lay in wait.
“I knew it was on the cards that I was going to meet Sugar Ray,” McKenzie says. “You couldn’t not know about him. There were whispers going around the village about this fantastic boxer.”
McKenzie lost on points but remains proud of his performance against the eventual gold medallist and future five-weight world champion. “[With hindsight] I’d have attacked him more, I wouldn’t have tried to box him, but I felt I put up a good performance.
“I knew he’d won, but what an amazing experience to fight one of the greatest boxers who ever lived. We’ve met up since and Sugar Ray actually said to me: ‘If you’d believed a bit more in yourself you might have beaten me.’ That was quite a compliment.
“Even then I knew he was special. His self-belief was immense. And he had the quickest hands I ever saw, by far. His speed was like nothing on this earth.”
After the Olympics, McKenzie turned pro and — unlike many of today’s heavily protected prospects — was matched tough from the start. In just his fifth pro bout in March 1977 he was KO’d by Paddington’s Colin Powers in the first showdown of what grew into a fierce trilogy.
““Powers!” McKenzie winces with a chuckle. “That rivalry went back to when he beat my brother Winston [in December 1975]. He didn’t like the McKenzies and we didn’t like him!
“The three fights I had with him were unbelievable. The first one, he caught me cold. It was only my fifth fight and he’d had about 10 [actually 15] so he was very experienced. He caught me with a beautiful left hook. I don’t remember much, except getting up, the referee counting me out and [me] thinking: ‘I’m gonna get him for that!’”
Before facing Powers again, McKenzie travelled to Belfast to face reigning British champion Jim Montague in October 1978, relieving him of the belt by way of 10th-round TKO.
“I was very confident I’d beat Jim,” he says. “It was a great night in Belfast. I slept with the belt that night. I’d always dreamt of winning the British title. Jim was a very nice guy. There was no animosity between us. We were both very professional.”
A rematch with Powers followed in February 1979 at Wembley Conference Centre and McKenzie was left smarting after dropping a 15-round decision.
“I thought I’d won it by two rounds,” he argues. Referee Harry Gibbs scored in favour of Powers, though (148-147). “I was gutted, but it was so close the Board ordered a return.
“Before that, though, you won’t believe this, they shifted me off to Las Vegas [later that month] to fight Don Curry’s brother Bruce in a 10-rounder! They matched me tough — but I’d fight anyone in those days.
“I lost on points. Curry was a good fighter. He’d just knocked [Wilfred] Benitez down three times [actually 15 months before meeting McKenzie]. I went the full 10 rounds and at one point he caught me with this body shot. Even today I can still feel it. God, that bloody hurt!”
When McKenzie met Powers for a third time in September, he finally bested his bitter rival. “Powers had this beautiful jab,” McKenzie recalls. “I couldn’t get away from it, so I had to get in close and throw three and four-punch combinations to outscore him.
“My right eye almost closed in the 14th. I could just about see out of it. At the beginning of the 15th the referee said: ‘You’re lucky — one more round, I’d have to stop you!’ I went out, gave it my all and won. And that was it — I stayed British champion [until 1984].”
Throughout his spell as Britain’s premier 140lbs boxer, McKenzie gained a reputation for durability and determination, and engaged in some memorable domestic rivalries.
One of his fiercest battles was a January 1981 British title defence against Des Morrison, which earned him the first of two outright Lonsdale belts.
“That was a 14-round war,” he says. “Me and Dessie went for each other. I fought him twice and he gave me hard fights both times, but that championship fight was probably the hardest. It was toe to toe and there were times — for example in the seventh round — when I thought I was gonna lose it.
“I was swaying. I was almost out. I was cut. I was on the ropes, feeling sorry for myself. But somehow I found it in me to come back and stop him in the 14th.”
Never one to take the easy route, less than three months later McKenzie put his British title on the line yet again, this time when he came up against the KO power of Olympics team-mate Sylvester Mittee.
“Mittee was the most dangerous puncher in the division. He knocked everybody out. People were saying: ‘McKenzie’s had it! Mittee’s gonna do him!’ I thought: ‘Let’s see!’ It was a hard fight, 15 rounds again, fight of the year again, but I beat him.”
It wasn’t until 1984 - by which time he had won a second Lonsdale Belt outright - that McKenzie’s grip on the British title was finally broken when he lost a 12-round decision to future IBF champ Terry Marsh.
“Another fight of the year thriller! A fantastic fight. It was in a circus tent with no air conditioning, so I felt like my whole body was on fire. I gave it my all but I just didn’t quite have that sparkle any more.
“Marsh was just that little bit younger and fresher and was much tougher than I thought he’d be. He had a very good jab and boxed a clever fight. He stayed away from me and picked the points up.
“Towards the end I came on strong and he started to fade. In the 12th he was out on his feet. No doubt about it, had it been 15 rounds I would have kept my title. Everyone said that. I give it to Terry, though, he won. He was a very good boxer, but whether he would have stood up to me at my very best, I doubt very much.”
McKenzie’s career would last another five years, and included a remarkable last hurrah - a heady night in January 1989 when he regained his British title courtesy of a points victory against Lloyd Christie, with young son Leon watching from ringside.
“That’s a moment I’ll never forget,” he smiles. “I’m in the changing room, feeling a bit sorry for myself. I look up and Leon is there. I didn’t expect it. I’d just got divorced from his mum. It was such a surprise. I won the fight and he jumped in the ring, shouting: ‘Dad!’ That was very special.”
However, despite domestic supremacy McKenzie never landed a world title fight. “I just couldn’t get a shot,” he shrugs philosophically. “The Americans didn’t want to know me because I was a southpaw. There were only two versions of the world title at that time and it was very hard to get a world title fight. It was very unfortunate.
“The closest I got was in 1984 — I was supposed to fight [then WBA junior welterweight champion] Johnny Bumphus. Then he decided he would make a voluntary defence against Gene Hatcher. Hatcher knocked him out and my title shot went down the drain. Hatcher didn’t want to fight me. And that was it.”
McKenzie speculates that his relationship with Mickey Duff, who promoted him for the majority of his career, may not have helped his cause.
“He managed my brother [three-time world titlist Duke] supremely well but Duff and I didn’t really see eye to eye. I spoke my mind and he didn’t like that. Maybe that’s why he gave me such hard fights! I didn’t really get his full attention [laughs].
“Having said that, Duff didn’t hide anything. If he was going to rob you, he’d tell you! He’d say: ‘Look, this is what you’re getting, I’m getting this — take it or leave it!’ And you had to take it because he controlled it all. If you weren’t fighting for him you weren’t fighting for no one! He had it sewn up.
“At one point I was going to take him to court for not getting a share of any TV money, but in the end I thought: ‘Nah it ain’t worth it.’ Anyway, it’s history now.”
And with that McKenzie sweeps aside any negativity, leans forward and adds, with a nostalgic smile: “I’ve enjoyed talking to you, because it’s brought back all these great memories.
“Boxing taught me a lot of things about life. It was a great education for me. It gave me confidence, it gave me knowledge — it gave me everything I could ever ask for.”
Find out more about Clinton McKenzie's gym and its range of boxing classes by visiting: https://www.clintonmckenzie.com/