IBHOF inductee Graham Houston pays tribute to the talented former British and European bantamweight champion Johnny Clark who passed away last week, recalling some of the South Londoner’s finest moments in a boxing ring.

Johnny Clark, the former British and European bantamweight champion who passed away on December 28 at the age of 73, was a skilled, courageous fighter from Walworth, south-east London whose career was cut short, at the age of 27, by a detached retina.

Clark is perhaps best remembered for two fights he didn’t win, gruelling contests against three-time world title challenger Alan Rudkin. “I remember those fights very well,” long-time boxing reporter Colin Hart said over the phone from his London home. “They were classic fights. I remember Johnny as being a quiet sort of guy who always had respect for opponents, which isn’t always the case today. He would have been a world champion had he been boxing today with all the weight divisions and titles available.”

Surprisingly, Clark, who was ABA (British amateur champion) when boxing for south London’s Robert Browning club, didn’t win his pro debut, being held to a six-round draw by the Scottish boxer Tommy Connor. In a rematch, Clark stopped Connor in the seventh round, and at one point in his career he had 12 successive stoppage wins.

I have many memories of Clark, having been on site for all of his major fights when I was a boxing reporter in London.

Clark figured in an unusual nine-round bout when outpointing Scotland’s John McCluskey, the British flyweight champion, in a non-title contest at the Empire Pool (as it was then known), Wembley. 

The more experienced McCluskey wanted 10 rounds, Clark’s manager, Dennie Mancini, wanted eight, so they split the difference. McCluskey was speedy and skilful but Clark in effect walked him down — too young, too big, too strong.

When the Scottish boxer John Kellie stopped Clark in the second round in 1971 it was a result that shocked London fight fans but there were extenuating circumstances. It later transpired that Clark had been suffering from a blood disorder. He stopped Kellie in the eighth round in a rematch.

Clark boxed in the era of 15-round title fights and his two British title bouts with Rudkin, both of which took place at the Royal Albert Hall, were examples of experience and craftsmanship overcoming youth and ambition.

In the first fight, in April 1970, Clark got off to a blazing start but was worn down by the more experienced Liverpool champion and stopped in the 12th round. I think Clark was simply too eager and burned up too much energy in the early rounds in that fight. 

“I made Rudkin win every round from the fifth to the finish,” Neil Allen reported in The Times. “Yet there had been some worrying moments for his supporters in the first third of the bout when Clark seemed the harder hitter and shook the champion with right crosses over the champion’s ever active left jab.”

Although Clark was unbeaten in 27 fights, the challenge against Rudkin came a little too soon. However, Rudkin admitted: “He gave me plenty of trouble”.

The rematch took place two years later. Clark paced himself much better this time but Rudkin knew a little too much for him and came on strongly in the last two rounds to win on points. At the time, a fractional scoring system was used in Britain, with the winner of a round getting five points and the loser 4¾ points (assuming no knockdowns), so referee Harry Gibbs’ score of 73½ to 73 would have worked out at eight rounds to six with one even.

Clark stalked Rudkin and seemed to wobble him in the fourth round, but as I remember the fight there were too many rounds when Clark was moving forward looking to land heavy punches while Rudkin scored with jabs and sharp counters.

“This was a marvellous battle between two brave warriors,” Donald Saunders reported in the Daily Telegraph

“Both of these mini-marvels can look back on last night’s contest with pride and satisfaction,” Colin Hart noted in The Sun.

Clark won the title vacated after Rudkin retired when he outpointed Belfast’s Paddy Maguire in still another superb 15-rounder at the Royal Albert Hall, in February 1973. The London-based Maguire was a relentless aggressor but Clark produced the superior boxing skills and came on to dominate the later rounds.

I would rate Clark’s win over Maguire as his finest performance. He boxed a controlled fight when under considerable pressure, piled up points with the jab and combinations and hurt Maguire to the body. But Maguire kept coming at him, slamming away, willing to take punches to land them. 

For the first 10 rounds, though, this was anyone’s fight. “When in your life did you ever see two men fight for a title like this?” a seemingly awestruck Harry Carpenter asked during the 10th round of the BBC TV commentary. “There hasn’t been a moment when either man has tried to coast — or in fact, been allowed to coast.”

But Clark, cut and swollen over the left eye, pulled away in the last five rounds as his sharper punches finally slowed Maguire down. A left hook to the body — it looked like a low blow to me at the time and the BBC replay confirmed it — had Maguire down right at the end of the 13th round and the count continued after the bell, but the brave Belfast battler was up at “five” and gritted his way through the last two rounds.

Amazingly (by today’s standards) Clark was back in the ring just two months after the punishing fight with Maguire, winning the vacant European bantamweight title with a unanimous 15-round decision over crafty Italian veteran Franco Zurlo, a former European champion, at the Royal Albert Hall. Clark forced the fight but Zurlo scored with sneaky counters. In the five-point scoring system used at the time for European title bouts, the referee from Holland and the judges from France and Belgium came up with 24 even rounds between them.

Clark had yet another tough 15-rounder when he retained the European title with a majority 15-round decision over a somewhat crude but strong and rugged Italian fighter, Salvatore Fabrizio, at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1974. 

By this time the European Boxing Union had introduced the 10-point “must” system (winner of a round getting 10 points, loser of the round nine points or less) and again there were a lot of even rounds on the judges’ cards. 

It basically came down to a one-point fight. Clark’s left eye was swollen and closing from above but he was the superior stylist. From my recollection, Clark finished strongly in the 15th and final round, which he needed to do considering the closeness of the judges’ cards. It had been a desperately hard fight, with Clark scoring with the classier, crisper punches but Fabrizio landing overhand rights.

Although Clark won two more bouts, the win over Fabrizio was his last big fight. He retired in August 1974 after a detached retina was diagnosed. 

Clark suffered bruised and swollen eyes in several of his bouts. Although an excellent technician he liked to press the action and was willing to go toe to toe, which made his fights exciting to watch but also meant he was in his share of wars. 

The two fights with Rudkin and the bouts with Maguire, Zurlo and Fabrizio were all tough, demanding contests in which Clark showed a huge heart.

Clark retired with a record of 39-3-1 (27 KOs). He was a fighter who gave everything he had each and every time he stepped between the ropes. Clark had the sort of fights that seared themselves into the viewer’s memory — I know they did mine.