By Steve Bunce
THERE is a buzz about the new year, but just how good will 2024 be and how will it compare with 1974, 1984, 1994, 2004 and 2014?
In 1974, John Conteh won a world title at Wembley when he beat Jorge Ahumada for the vacant WBC light-heavyweight crown. And it was a crown back then; John was the first British world champion since Ken Buchanan lost to Roberto Duran in 1972.
Conteh had a fridge in the back of his Toyota, packed with one bottle of champagne to celebrate. Conteh trained with the master, George Francis, in north London and took a frosty dip in the ponds at Parliament Hill each day.
Right now, as a contrast, Tyson Fury has a Bedouin training palace under construction in Saudi Arabia for his fight in February; they might just share the same ancient Toyota. Conteh was just 23 that night and there are those in the Conteh business who say he was never the same again. He was a boxing God that night.
Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in the Rumble, Foreman had destroyed Ken Norton in Caracas. That is an untouchable double. At the end of the year, Conteh, Ali, Carlos Monzon, Duran, Jose Napoles, Antonio Cervantes and just 13 others held world titles.
In 1984, Frank Bruno was just 22 when he was stopped by Bonecrusher Smith at Wembley. Bruno was unbeaten in 21, Bonecrsuher had not lost in 13; Bruno was miles in front in the 10th and last round when he was caught, hurt, froze and dropped. He was trying to get up when the count reached 10. It is a forgotten fight in many ways – Bruno was brave that night.
“The Bruno story is virtually over,” announced Harry Carpenter, which is harsh.
Lennox Lewis fought in Britain for the first time when he stopped Bobby Wells in Bletchley in the England v Canada match.
The heavyweight scene was deep in the middle of the Lost Generation, and it is too easy to forget how uninspiring it was. They were good fighters, but they were, as Tim Witherspoon said, just ‘lost.’ Pinklon Thomas beat Spoon, Page lost to Spoon and Page beat Gerrie Coetzee in Sun City. All four, with the right heads on, would be a problem in any decade.
Chris Eubank defended his WBO super-middleweight title six times in 1994. Steve Robinson kept winning, Nicky Piper and Floyd Havard suffered shattering losses in world title fights, Chris Pyatt lost his WBO middleweight title to Steve Collins at a leisure centre in Sheffield. On the same bill, Naseem Hamed delivered his first masterclass to win the European bantamweight title against Vincenzo Belcastro. It was stunning and it was dismissed because of a bit of showboating. “Sugar Ray Leonard does it and he is a genius, the Naz fella does it and he is a flash bastard,” said Brendan Ingle. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” said Reg Gutteridge on ITV that night.
The heavyweight world championship was all over the place and that is being kind: Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer, Herbie Hide beat Michael Bentt, Lewis beat Phil Jackson and was then stopped by Oliver McCall. On the night that McCall beat Lewis, Frank Maloney, now known as Kellie, was screaming for justice. That is a fun set of fights, but chaotic at the same time. The Lewis finish was truly a shock.
In 2004, the heavyweight scene remained a very mixed place. Lewis officially retired, Vitali Klitschko stopped Corrie Sanders and Danny Williams. Chris Byrd beat Jameel McCline on a split and drew with Andrew Golota for the IBF bauble. And Big Audley Harrison won the WBF heavyweight title when he beat Dutchman, Sugar Richel Hersisia in the fourth round.
There is more mayhem: Lamon Brewster won a split over Kali Meehan, but, stopped Wladimir Klitschko in WBO title fights; John Ruiz beat Andrew Golota and Fres Oquendo in WBA defences. Martin Bakole, Daniel Dubois and Big Francis Ngannou would fit right in.
In the very real boxing world, a 17-year-old Amir Khan won a silver at the Athens Olympics. It was also the year that Danny Williams beat Mike Tyson in probably the heavyweight fight and event of the year.
A decade ago, there were a lot of crazy storylines and not all of them were good. Some were unbelievable. Kellie Maloney appeared, Kell Brook survived a machete attack, Jamie Moore survived being shot and Ant Crolla survived having a concrete slab dropped on his head.
A kid called Terence Crawford beat Ricky Burns in Glasgow for the WBO lightweight title, Billy Joe Saunders beat Chris Eubank Jr and Tyson Fury stopped Dereck Chisora. “No more, it’s over,” Don Charles told Del Boy at the end of the tenth. That message was, sadly, only for the night.
At Wembley Stadium, 80,000 watched Carl Froch beat George Groves; it was the start of our run of British super-fights in outdoor venues.
The heavyweights were, once again, a mixed offering. Wladimir Klitschko defended three belts against Alex Leapai and Kubrat Pulev and Bermane Stiverne beat Chris Arreola. I’m not sure all of those fights would have made the serious part of the Day of Reckoning.
The list of world champions in 1974 will possibly never be better. The other facts and figures, shocks, highlights and poor fights can all be improved in 2024. I will carry the image of a bottle of Moet in a fridge in the back of Conteh’s Toyota for a long time. The excesses of our modern, billion-dollar business make that little act seem like it took place in 1904. What a business.