In the roll call of British sporting greats John Conteh resides in the space earmarked for Liverpool’s finest sons. Few boxing personalities have been able to rise above their notoriety from the fighting game into popular culture; requiring idolization and controversy in equal measures, an athlete can find the chasm between sport and mainstream celebrity status notoriously wide. Nonetheless, by the time that Conteh appeared on the cover of Paul McCartney’s ‘Band on the Run’ album in 1973, he had spanned that chasm mainly thanks to his sporting ability, good looks and charismatic personality, all wrapped up in a quick-fire Liverpudlian wit.
Born on 27th May 1951 to an Irish mother and Sierra Leonean father, John and his nine siblings, were raised in a rough neighbourhood. His father, a Merchant Seaman, in an effort to stop them from becoming involved with local gangs, took John and his brothers along to Kirby Atheltic Club where he taught them to box. The club, which was a training ground for some of the best amateur boxers, such as Joey Singleton, Tucker Hetherington, and Stuart Morton, was run by Charles Atkinson Sr., whose son Charles Jr. had made a name for himself training fighters in the Orient. Atkinson soon noticed Conteh and although John himself admitted he was not so good at Schoolboy level and “failed miserably in the Juniors…due to outside interests and such” He “knuckled down” when he entered the Senior ranks, trained hard, and won the 1970 ABA middleweight title, the 1971 light-heavyweight title and the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games middleweight gold.
This early promise as an amateur flourished and developed into a prolific career as a professional. On turning pro in October 1971 John candidly said that having been offered a lot of money he thought of his family and “probably myself as well… I cannot identify the reasons for my decisions” adding with a smile “if I could, I’d have been an academic and not a fighter.” He recalled his first pro fight which was held in Liverpool; “I knocked out Okacha Boubekeur in one round. George Francis was my manager and Jack Sullivan was my promoter. I had about three fights with Jack and then signed with a bigger syndicate.” He went on to defeat the finest in the world at light-heavyweight, British, European and Commonwealth and in February 1973 he left the comforts of home to fighting Terry Daniels on the undercard of the first Ali-Bugner fight in Las Vagas. Conteh’s first shot at a world title came in October 1974 in the form of tough Argentinian Jorge Ahumada for the vacant WBA title. A hard fight, Conteh won on a unanimous decision at Wembley in front of all his fans, a night which he still considers to be the highlight of his professional career.
After successfully defending his world title three times in the next three years he eventually lost it in 1977. During that time, although rightly hailed as the most talented British boxer for years, persistent hand injuries, unsettling relationships with various managers and arguments over TV rights, money and contracts meant that cracks began to appear. Embroiled as he was in the game’s political machinations he was dethroned by the WBC for refusing to go ahead with a defence of his title against Miguel Angel Cuello in Monte Carlo. Conteh remained unrepentant over his decision stating at the time; “If I have been stripped of my title, then I shall make a comeback, but not as a challenger – I am the Champion of the world”. In later years he has said that although his mind wasn’t completely together after the management split and he couldn’t focus, it was more about the contracts, the TV rights and the money – “it was all about the money.” He never regained the title; failing in his three attempts to do so, his final fight in 1980 resulted in a failed brain scan post-match. A slight stain on the stem of his brain was detected and his boxing licence was revoked. A comeback a year later never really materialised as his heart wasn’t in it and thus his boxing career was unceremoniously curtailed.
The superstar of the ring, whose engaging figure enjoyed the trappings of fame, seemed poised for a prosperous retirement with acting and advertising opportunities beckoning. What fans failed to realise at the time was that their Kirby hero was engaged in an even greater fight outside the ring. And to certain degrees still is. It would be a mistake to think that the drinking started when the boxing finished and that his retirement was the trigger, but rather it meant there was no obligation to limit it any longer. “I was drinking at 16 and 17, in Liverpool, but I could control it then,” he explains. “But the fact is, it’s an illness and a cross-section of society suffer from it. If you cross the line then it goes into active alcoholism and it becomes a mental and physical obsession. The boxing curtailed it because of the discipline it required. You couldn’t be boxing, and hungry and dedicated to success, and still drinking to excess.” His turning point came when he began to come to terms with his situation.
The one question guaranteed to make every professional sportsperson shake to the very core is what they will do with themselves when it all finishes. As a boxer John thought he had the answer in the mental discipline developed from hours of training, sparring and fighting but paradoxically that didn’t work. The discipline he learnt in the ring was lost in translation to life in the public eye as a celebrity and reflecting on the slog against his addiction away from the canvas, Conteh found himself powerless. Once out of this disciplined routine, all of a sudden he didn’t know what to do as his antics increasingly appeared as front page headlines rather than back page reports. Whilst classic battles in the ring will live long in the recollection of the British boxing fan, it is his successful ‘bout’ with alcoholism that will stick in Conteh’s mind for the rest of his life. “You can go the right way, you can go the wrong way, I went the wrong way and got myself back on track.”
He admits that he hit rock bottom in 1989, but since then has been clean and sober and in 1990 found himself a new niche, as a much in demand after dinner speaker. It would seem a strange juxtaposition, career wise, for a person battling alcoholism to find sanctuary in the well-oiled environment of a sportsmen’s dinner. But he is happy and swears he remains unaffected by the conduct of others while he relates, with his own distinctive Scouse humour, a wealth of boxing yarns. Should the bookings dry up the 66 year old has another feather in his cap: as an actor, unpretentiously referring to himself as a learner of the art rather than a pro. His credits, if few, are nevertheless impressive and include Jimmy McGovern’s 1990 TV drama Needle and a spell in the theatre in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. He has also appeared in films such as Man at the Top (1973), The Stud (1978) and Tank Malling (1989), and made a starring appearance in the television show Boon in 1989, as a washed-up boxer. He more recently appeared on a boxing special of The Weakest Link in 2009, where he finished in third place. His most recent TV acting appearance was in the BBC crime drama Justice, in which he again played an ex-boxer. Conteh likens learning lines and taking direction to boxing, going back to the corner, being told what you are doing right, what’s going wrong and what you need to do about it.
John now lives in London, but regularly visits his home town, often to experience the thrill of a big fight, albeit from the other side of the ropes. His son James is a pro- golfer and John is involved in lot of charities, mostly related to golf, he is no slouch at the game himself, playing off a handicap of eight. He and his wife Veroncia also have a daughter, Joanna, who after graduating with a degree in Finance is now a Financial Advisor. “I think God was having a go at me by giving me a child that tells me what I did wrong” he said. Asked whether he has any regrets over his boxing career he thinks not, he liked to keep busy, keep fighting, keep learning. The only negative he could site was the fact that he never won the title from the champion, it was a vacant title “I never rode off into the sunset, it didn’t happen that way for me. It doesn’t happen that way for a lot of people. You do the best you can…”
John Conteh has no reservations talking about his life in and out of the ring and his inner demons, reflecting that “…if you’re still breathing and living at the end, then it’s a good day.” Tee-total for over 20 years he is a man unquestionably worthy of boxing legend status – that is the majority verdict of those who have chanced upon Conteh, during and after his illustrious career.
Article © Margaret Roberts