In September of 1970, Scotland’s Ken Buchanan won the WBA version of the world lightweight championship by close fifteen round decision over Panamanian Ismael Laguna. He would defend his title twice before taking on red-hot top contender Roberto Duran, also a Panamanian, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Duran vs Buchanan ended after thirteen rounds, most of them clearly won by the challenger, with the popular Duran declared the winner and new champion; yet this fight, without question, stands as one of the most unfortunate debacles in ring history.
The action ended with Buchanan writhing in agony on the canvas, clutching his groin, his face a contorted mask of anguish. Such was his pain he could barely stand and had to be half-carried back to his corner. Moments later referee Johnny LoBianco made a snap decision to end the bout, ruling the champion unfit to continue. For reasons unknown, LoBianco proved completely unsympathetic to Buchanan’s assertions he had been fouled.
Some at ringside had seen the crippling low blow which eventually sent the Scotsman to the hospital, but the referee did not. And for years, despite the fact a medical examination revealed serious injury to Buchanan’s testicles, many rabid Duran fans have maintained the foul did not determine the outcome. Some even contend no foul occurred. Or that it was the champion’s fault if one did, since he dared to trade punches after the bell with the great “Manos de Piedra.” Or that the Scotsman was pretending, putting on an Academy Award-worthy performance in an attempt to get the challenger disqualified.
What did in fact take place was the following. As the final seconds of round thirteen ticked away, the two boxers engaged in a lively exchange. Moments before, Duran had almost sent Buchanan through the ropes with a pair of right hands, but the champion returned fire with four big rights of his own and a left hook at the bell. Roberto attempted to counter and, after the bell rang, LoBianco pounced on him from behind just as he drove a right uppercut into Buchanan’s groin. The referee pulled Duran away; Buchanan fell back into the ropes and then sank to the canvas.
There can be no doubt: Buchanan was fouled and badly hurt. There was no acting involved. He was punched in the privates, simple as that, and after the bell to boot.
That the challenger was, up to the point at which he landed that low blow, clearly the better man on the night, there can also be no doubt. A veritable buzzsaw, Duran had dominated the action, scoring a knockdown in the opening seconds and keeping Buchanan on the defensive in almost every round. Roberto set a savage pace, showing no respect for the champion, striking repeatedly with heavy right hands and dealing out alarming beatings in both the fifth and the twelfth. On the judges’ scorecards he took a minimum of eight rounds and as the fateful thirteenth began, it was clear Buchanan needed a knockout to win, a most unlikely prospect.
But that said, there can also be no doubt that Buchanan was the victim of a gross injustice. Punches below the belt are not allowed. Punches after a round-ending bell are not allowed. Further, it’s a shame that a 22-year-old Duran, who would go on to establish himself as a true all-time great, had to win his first world title under such regrettable circumstances. Buchanan was one of the best boxers in the game at the time, slick and tough, with excellent stamina and a brilliant jab. The young Duran’s domination of such a capable champion should stand as one of his greatest triumphs; instead the match will forever be remembered for its sordid conclusion.
Was the foul intentional? It’s impossible to say, but there is no question Roberto had taken liberties throughout the contest, primarily in the form of head butts and low blows. A fired-up Duran dominated primarily due to his ferocity, power and the sheer volume of punches he threw, but on this, the biggest and most crucial night of his career thus far, Duran was Harry Greb, Jake LaMotta and Fritzie Zivic all rolled into one. Afterwards, most agreed: had the bout been held on Buchanan’s home turf in the UK, Duran would have been disqualified long before the bell to start round thirteen had sounded. Incredibly, he received only a single warning from referee LoBianco, ironically for punching low in that fateful final round.
The performance of LoBianco became the focus of much criticism afterwards and deservedly so. Firstly, he lost control of the Panamanian and turned a blind eye to his rough-house tactics, allowing far too much holding and wrestling, Duran repeatedly grinding his head into the champion’s face. Buchanan, a stand-up boxer who worked to keep the challenger at the end of his punches, pointed out afterwards that LoBianco’s hands-off approach effectively rewarded Roberto for fouling and mauling.
“He never once protected me,” said the battered ex-champion at the post-fight press conference. “Even when we clinched and I was in the corner he allowed [Duran] to keep me there. That’s diabolical.”
But more to the point, LoBianco’s decisions at the conclusion of the match were regrettable, to say the least. The simple fact is he did not see the foul, but no referee sees every punch thrown in a fight and in this case it was impossible since he was standing directly behind Duran. Attempting to break up the action as the bell sounded, LoBianco got to the challenger just as the low shot connected. But instead of consulting with others at ringside, an action taken by referees in similar circumstances in the past, LoBianco simply ignored the protests of Buchanan and his corner and halted the contest.
Afterwards, the New York State Athletic Commission failed Buchanan as well. Once it was possible to look at a film of the bout, and all could clearly see that Buchanan had in fact been fouled, they should have nullified LoBianco’s ruling and ordered an immediate rematch. Why did this not happen? Various theories have been floated and one can only speculate. But the undeniable fact is that Buchanan beat a Panamanian for the World Boxing Association title; Duran was Panamanian, and the WBA was an organization dominated by Latin-American officials. By 1975, its world headquarters were in fact moved from the United States to Panama City. Did the WBA pressure the NYSAC to go along with LoBianco’s hasty and misinformed ruling? Who can say?
At the very least a second Duran vs Buchanan duel should have been mandated, and no one can deny that boxers have been compelled to compete again following an unsatisfactory result. For example, consider Abner Mares vs Joseph Agbeko in 2011. After a pathetic officiating performance by the referee which saw Mares land countless low blows without any points being deducted, a rematch was ordered. There was nothing preventing the NYSAC or the WBA from doing the same back in 1972.
A return never happened. Roberto would go on to dominate the lightweight division for the next seven years, establishing himself as one of the best 135 pounders in boxing history; some regard him as the greatest ever. Buchanan posted victories over past and future champions Carlos Ortiz and Jim Watt and even challenged for a world title again in 1975, dropping a decision to Guts Ishimatsu. But the defeat to “Hands of Stone” haunted him. In interviews over the years he complained bitterly of the circumstances surrounding the loss and the fact he could never secure a rematch.
“Every time I think of Duran,” he told one interviewer, “my balls hurt.”
Buchanan’s inability to put that painful night behind him led to a bizarre episode in August of 1995. His ring earnings long gone, the former champion was working at the time as a construction tradesman in Edinburgh, Scotland. One afternoon he abruptly threw down his tools, stalked off the site, and boarded a flight for New York City where, Buchanan understood, Duran was in training.
“I got off the plane half-pissed and somehow ended up in Harlem,” he later recalled. “I found myself in a bar with all these black guys wanting to know if I’d heard of this Scottish fighter called Ken Buchanan. I said I knew him pretty well.”
He never did track down Roberto, but he later claimed the Quixotic trip helped him to overcome his bitterness.
But the demons were truly slain once and for all when Duran and Buchanan finally confronted one another, three decades after that pivotal night in Madison Square Garden. In March of 2002 Duran journeyed to England for an emotional reunion, the two men embracing and weeping at a public event attended by numerous fans, as well as younger British boxers such as Michael Gomez and Ricky Hatton. Later, in private, Duran finally acknowledged the low blow and apologized to the Scotsman.
“As soon as I heard that, I felt a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” said Buchanan.
It wasn’t justice and it wasn’t a rematch, but at least Duran did the honorable thing. Even if it was three decades too late. – Michael Carbert