Whenever the Olympics roll around, Clinton McKenzie’s pulse quickens.
“Every Olympic year, I get excited,” the 65-year-old – an Olympian for Great Britain back in 1976 – tells Boxing Social.
“It really stirs memories for me, absolutely! The Olympics was a great moment of my life. Such an exciting time! And as time goes on those memories become even more special.”
McKenzie knows just how the boxers currently in Tokyo will be feeling right now as their first bouts approach. “They’ll be getting their minds tuned in and hyped up for the big occasion. All you think about is winning. You just have to think about your fight, that medal and doing your best.”
Jamaica-born and South London raised, McKenzie had a long and proud pro career. He remains part of an exclusive group of just seven British boxers to have won two or more Lonsdale Belts, for example.
But it was the Montreal Olympics which really – in his own words – “launched his career”.
“My dream as a kid was to fight in the Olympics and I did it,” he says with satisfaction.
Few remember now but McKenzie’s Olympic dream was nearly thwarted by sporting politics. As reigning ABA champion, he was convinced he had booked his flight to Montreal.
“I remember thinking: ‘I’ve fought the best in England, now I can go to the Olympics,’” McKenzie recalls. “I also got called up to box for England against America, won that bout against Ronnie Shields and thought that was my selection sealed.
“Then I got a bombshell – the Olympics team was announced and I wasn’t in! It was totally impossible! I’d done everything! I’d won everything, so why wasn’t I chosen?”
Scandalously, Welsh youngster Chris Davies, whose form and pedigree were inferior, was selected in McKenzie’s place. But Davies’ father just happened to manage the Britain team.
“It caused uproar!” McKenzie remembers. “I thought my dreams had been shattered. The Jamaican embassy even rang up, asking if I wanted to fight for them!”
Eventually, in McKenzie’s words, “justice was done”. After discussions involving the Minister for Sport and the British Amateur Boxing Association, Davies’ selection was revoked and McKenzie was rightfully installed instead.
“I have a lot of respect for the Great Britain coach Kevin Hickey,” McKenzie emphasises. “He said if I was not picked he would quit. He really put his neck on the block.”
McKenzie can still recall the moment when the news of his eventual inclusion broke. “I remember exactly where I was,” he says with a smile. “I was doing an apprenticeship at the time in painting and decorating. I had the radio on and the news came through. I jumped for joy and that’s the last day I ever worked [outside of boxing].”
McKenzie was part of a seven-man British boxing team full of youthful talent and pedigree, including Charlie Magri, Pat Cowdell, Sylvester Mittee and Colin Jones.
“Quite a few of those lads did well as pros,” McKenzie points out. “Being with them was fantastic. Boxing’s an individual sport, but in that team we all came together. That was special.”
Once in Montreal, McKenzie won two bouts in excellent style to reach the last 16, where a certain Sugar Ray Leonard lay in wait.
“The whole experience was a dream come true even though I didn’t win the gold. But then I met a great guy! I knew it was on the cards that I was going to meet Sugar Ray. You couldn’t not know about him. There were whispers going around the village about this fantastic boxer.”
McKenzie lost on points but remains proud of his performance against the eventual gold medallist and future five-weight world title holder.
“I should have attacked him more, I shouldn’t have tried to box him, but I felt I put up a good performance,” McKenzie reflects. “I knew he’d won, but what an amazing experience to fight one of the greatest boxers who ever lived.
“We’ve met up since and talked about the fight. Sugar Ray actually said to me: ‘If you’d believed in yourself more, things might have been different’. That was quite a compliment! So I must have made an impression on him.
“Even back then I knew he was special. His self-belief was immense. And he had the quickest hands I ever saw, by far. His speed was like nothing on earth. I was fast but he was quicker than me – I couldn’t believe that. What a fighter. He could box, he could fight, he could do everything. It was a dream to even watch him shadow box. Pure poetry in motion.”
Back in the 70s, the Great Britain team set-up was very different to today’s modern, hi-tech set-up, as McKenzie freely admits. But he has no regrets and wouldn’t ever want to swap places with any of his modern day Team GB counterparts.
“In our day, we just had a training camp at Crystal Palace. We went down there and trained for three or four weeks. We never got the treatment that fighters get today. We were looked after but not to the extent they are today!
“But it is what it is. I wouldn’t change a thing. I got to fight one of the greatest fighters ever and have so many beautiful moments that I will never forget. The Olympics is a once in a lifetime journey. You just have to enjoy the moment.”
For more on Clinton McKenzie and his boxing classes please visit: https://www.clintonmckenzie.com/
Main image: Clinton McKenzie outpoints Puerto Rican Ismael Martinez at the Montreal 1976 Olympics. Photo: PA Images/Alamy.