The End of The Line

It’s always sad to see a fine fighter come to the end of the line. To see him reach down and find what he once had isn’t there anymore. That was Carl Frampton on Saturday. He had one good round against Jamel Herring and that was it. When the Frampton corner signalled surrender in the sixth round it must have come as a relief to everyone watching. It did to me.

I was trying to think of a fight that reminded me of Frampton vs Herring, one in which a British great suffered a crushing stoppage defeat in what seemed to be an even-money championship fight.

The one that came to mind was Wales’ Howard Winstone losing in five rounds to Jose Legra, the Cuban who moved to Spain to pursue his boxing career. The fight, for Winstone’s WBC featherweight title, was outdoors at Coney Beach Arena in Porthcawl, Wales on July 24, 1968. British summer weather can be unpredictable but the rain mercifully stayed away.

Winstone was only 29 years old but in ring terms he was an old fighter. Three punishing battles with Mexico’s great Vicente Saldivar for the world title had taken a toll. 

Saldivar won the first two bouts on points, first in London, then on Winstone’s home ground in Cardiff. 

Some, such as Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror, believed Winstone had done enough to win the rematch. In front on points, Winstone was knocked down twice in the 14th round. Yet he came back to spear Saldivar with jabs in the final round. “One of the most stirring bouts I have ever covered — and the fight of his life by Winstone,” the late Neil Allen of The Times wrote in a farewell tribute after Winstone’s passing in 2000. 

Referee and sole arbiter Wally Thom, the former British welterweight champion, had Saldivar in front by just half a point under the fractional scoring system used in Britain at the time (a two-point margin under today’s scoring system). So, the 14th round battering cost Winstone the fight.

Saldivar stopped Winstone in the 12th round in their third meeting, in Mexico City, when the Welsh boxer’s trainer, Eddie Thomas, threw in the towel.

When Winstone won the title after Saldivar’s retirement, he was already past his best. His superb left jab brought him victory over Japan’s Mitsunori Seki, another old rival of Saldivar’s, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. To me, there was little in the fight up until about the eighth round, when Winstone started to pull ahead. 

Seki suffered what didn’t seem to be a terribly serious cut over the eye but referee Roland Dakin stopped the bout in the ninth round. Winstone was champion at last. (And, for me, Winstone’s fights with left-handers Saldivar and Seki were proof, if any was needed, that a left jab from an orthodox boxer can work very well indeed against a southpaw.)

In those days, it wasn’t unusual for world champions to appear in non-title bouts. Winstone had one of those just three months after beating Seki, when he outpointed the Londoner Jimmy Anderson, who held the British title in what was then known as the junior lightweight division. It was a 10-round bout, Anderson dropped Winstone with a right hand in the first round. Winstone came back to pile up points with the left jab but, as I recall that fight, the somewhat crude but heavy-handed Anderson hurt the superior craftsman in one of the later rounds.

The signs were there that Winstone was nearing the end. However, he had defeated Legra on points in a 10-round bout at Blackpool in the northwest of England three years earlier. It seemed entirely possible that what he had done before, he could do again.

However, Legra had improved and matured as a fighter.

Legra, although only 25 years old, had won 102 bouts, starting out as a 17-year-old in Havana, with just five losses and four draws. He had, and it seems unbelievable today, won 50 consecutive bouts after losing to Winstone.

There were some good names in there, too, fighters such as former world title challengers Rafiu King, the Paris-based Nigerian, and Ghana’s Love Allotey, and Don Johnson of the US, who had gone 1-2 in a three-bout series against Winstone.

Ominously for Winstone backers, Legra had run over Yves Desmarets in three rounds — just two years after the French fighter had been the full 15 rounds with Winstone in a European title bout.

The betting shops in London had Winstone vs Legra as a pick ’em fight. The odds were 5/6 for each man; take your pick. I remember this very well because I contemplated a wager on Legra. I stood and looked at the odds on the betting board for a long moment. In the end, I didn’t pull the trigger. 

Here was the problem for betting on the fight. Legra was younger, stronger. He was fast and flashy. But he tended to throw rather wide, winging punches. Winstone had beaten Legra in their initial meeting. And we just didn’t know how much Winstone had left. True, Jimmy Anderson had knocked him down in his last fight before the title defence against Legra. But Winstone had got up to win against a naturally bigger man. And he had boxed a technically solid fight in the title-winning bout against Japan’s Seki. 

Legra was on a winning run, but Winstone had often boxed brilliantly in his three fights with the great Vicente Saldivar and had come close to winning. Could Legra have fought Saldivar that close, that tough?

Even if Winstone wasn’t quite what he was, it seemed plausible that he might retain sufficient ring generalship and boxing acumen to turn back the younger man. And whereas Frampton fought Herring on neutral territory in Dubai, in virtually a TV studio setting, Winstone would be fighting on home turf, with a passionate Welsh crowd doing its best to will him to victory.

So, before the fight, this really did look the sort of contest that either man could win. (Shades of Frampton vs Herring.)

Of course, not betting on Legra was one of my coulda, shoulda, woulda moments, because it was obvious in the very first round that there was only going to be one winner. And this was also one of my most disappointing big-fight experiences, as in ever.

I was able to get press credentials as a newspaper reporter but a boxing-fan pal in London wanted to travel to Wales, too, to see the fight, and I decided it was only right and proper to keep him company as a paying customer.

We were eagerly anticipating a classic boxing match, a finely balanced 15-rounder of ebbs and flows. It was nothing like that at all, of course — all over in five rounds.

Watching the YouTube video of the fight this past weekend brought the memories flooding back. 

Legra, bouncing on the balls of his feet and bursting with energy, hurt Winstone with a right hand in the first minute. Worse, much worse, was to follow.

The opening round was a disaster for Winstone. Legra dropped him twice with right hands. In those days there was no mandatory eight count. Winstone was up quickly after each knockdown, and Legra was right on him again. And the Cuban challenger just couldn’t seem to miss Winstone with the right hand.

As if things weren’t bad enough, with the two knockdowns, Winstone’s left eye, in what seemed a matter of seconds, swelled shut from below. It looks ugly in the black-and-white images but from the ringside section it looked even worse, a swelling that writers back in the day might well have described as resembling an overripe plum. As Harry Carpenter noted in the BBC TV recording of the fight, the 11,000 crowd fell silent, as if they couldn’t believe what they were witnessing.

Although Winstone came back quite well in rounds two to four inclusive the left eye was looking a mess and referee Harry Gibbs visited the Welsh corner between rounds. And when Legra started to land flush right hands again in the fifth round, referee Gibbs decided enough was enough.

It was Winstone’s last fight, just as the Herring contest was to be Frampton’s exit from the ring. Not many would have realised it going into these fights, but in each instance, for both Winstone and Frampton, the well had run dry.

Feature image: D4G Promotions