The passing of Johnny Clark prompts Steve Bunce to recall a champion who deserves a much higher position in our boxing conscience, and his own prized autograph book
AT some point in the winter of 1973, I jumped out of a car at a set of traffic lights in Camberwell Green in south London and stopped a skinny man in a hooded tracksuit from doing his run. The man was Johnny Clark and he was training for a British bantamweight title fight against Paddy Maguire at the Royal Albert Hall. Clark won; the fight is acknowledged as a classic. Little Johnny, the darling of the Royal Albert Hall.
I got Clark’s autograph that day on a piece of paper, a page from a school exercise book it looks like. I cut it out and stuck it in my green autograph book and I have no idea, after a dozen or more moves and over forty years, how that book is still in my possession.
Johnny Clark – the breathless runner and one of my old heroes – died at the end of December. He was 73. That night against Maguire was his greatest night in the ring, but his career finished just six fights and 15 months later. It was eye damage, it so often was, a detached retina in his right eye. And, it was also the money on the table to defend his British and European bantamweight titles. It was an insult and Clark was just 26 when he walked away.
Clark, like too many modern British champions from the Seventies and Eighties, deserves a much higher position in our boxing conscience. They were men who took huge risks in big, big fights for peanuts, travelling to truly hostile foreign lands, and they knew that a world title was never going to happen. Clark was lucky in many ways, had his European chance at home, and fought 27 of his 43 fights at the Royal Albert Hall. It is certainly a modern record.
Clark had lost two British title fights to Alan Rudkin at the RAH before beating Maguire, both gruelling fights; the first ended in the 12th when Clark ran out of steam, the second a tight, tight 15-rounder. Rudkin, incidentally, had to overcome indecent obstacles in his world title challenges, travelling to exotic places to meet great champions.
The two-inch signature in my green book is just part of Clark’s memory; I also have Maguire’s autograph, scrawled in red pen on the same page as Frankie Lucas, which might just be the craziest juxtaposition of boxing autographs in British history. On the opposite page, written on blank pieces of paper, which look like a fight programme, I have Terry Spinks and Nevell Cole. In the weeks before the Sydney Olympics I went to interview Spinks and took the autograph to show him.
The Cole autograph is from an amateur show at Manor Place Baths, probably in 1972 after his appearance at the Munich Olympics. I remember it clearly; he was outside standing on the steps. The coolest man in south London. It is significant to me (Cole won three ABA titles and is still considered one of the finest British amateur boxers to never turn professional) because it provides definitive proof of how to spell his name. Well, how it was then. When my Big Fat book came out a few years ago, I had a call from Richie Davies, the referee. “Buncey, I found a mistake. You got a name wrong, wrong spelling.” I knew who he meant, knew he had been friends with Cole and I told him the story of the autograph. Nevell was Nevell, the autograph never lies.
However, it seems the old-fashioned collection of autographs has died, replaced by selfies and fancy gloves and shorts, all signed and selling for hundreds in glass cases.
“I have some posters signed,” admitted Ellie Scotney, unbeaten in one as a pro. “I guess I just skimmed that generation.” Maybe, but Five Live’s Mike Costello never got autographs, he just collected programmes from the time. Gary Logan was happy just to meet his idols: “I have been fortunate enough to be around legends, but I never asked.” I did ask; John Conteh, John H. Stracey, Joe Bugner, Henry Cooper, Bunny Johnson, Alan Minter, Chris Finnegan, Maurice Hope, Nosher Powell, Vernon Sollas and dozens of others are all in my book from the Seventies.
“I got Michael Nunn to sign the back of an envelope at the Midland Hotel [Manchester] after I weighed in for Benn v Eubank II,” Barry Jones told me. He opened the boxing that night at the Theatre of Dreams and Nunn was there with Don King. Jones also has a Welsh tracksuit signed by both Colin Jones and a very stoned Kirkland Laing. It was signed at the Golden Gloves – surely an event worth bringing back – one night at York Hall. An autograph from your idol on the back of an envelope is holy grail material, as far as I’m concerned.
Nigel Travis was just 14 when he got Terry Marsh’s autograph at Wembley during the ABA finals in 1987; Marsh had won the IBF light-welterweight title six weeks earlier. Young Nigel was at Wembley to watch Peter English beat Colin McMillan in the featherweight final. You see, detail, detail, detail.
Paddy Barnes was the same age when he got the Cuban and USA teams autographs at the World championships in Belfast in 2001. “I lost them,” he added. “I have got a signed picture of Michael Conlan winning the world amateur title in 2015.”
Others in the business looked at me like I was crazy when I asked them if they had autographs. I get it, selfies are easier and large framed gloves look impressive. However, is there anything more magical than a real autograph, scrawled in your presence, possibly even made out to you?
I have, in the last 30 years, sat with giants, fighters like Jake LaMotta, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton in intimate surroundings and not asked for an autograph. I regret that now that they are dead, I really do. My version of getting autographs had nothing to do with the registered trade in signatures, the business of fakes and treachery attached to peddling the signatures of dead and some living legends. I sat next to Marvin Hagler once when he was presented with a glove he was meant to have signed. “That’s a joke, man,” he said. And it was, but some mug had paid 400 quid for it.
Back in 1974 Clark walked away with his vision, with 39 wins in 43 fights, as the British and European champion at bantamweight and with a reputation that lived. He could really fight. He also left behind a neat little autograph in my tiny book and for that I thank him.