Where Does Ricky Burns Rank Among the Best Scottish Fighters Ever?

James GarnerContributor IFebruary 26, 2014

Where Does Ricky Burns Rank Among the Best Scottish Fighters Ever?

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    Scott Heavey/Getty Images

    Last year, promoter Eddie Hearn suggested that Ricky Burns could be compared to his country's most illustrious names. "The run of fights he's had and the string of defences puts him up there as the greatest Scottish fighter of all time," claimed the Matchroom honcho.

    Certainly if Burns can defeat Terence Crawford on Saturday night that will increase his standing in the all-time ranks, but he is still some way from validating Hearn's lofty words. Still, it is a promoter's job to promote and by putting Burns into the conversation when it comes to historical greatness, Hearn has undoubtedly succeeded.

    Scotland's boxing history is richest in the lower divisions and none of the absolute best Scottish fighters fought above Burns' current lightweight division.

    Chic Calderwood, a British light-heavyweight champion who recorded a win over future world champion Willie Pastrano in 1960, was probably Scotland's best fighter at the higher weights. Murray Sutherland was the first IBF super-middleweight champion in 1984 but lost his first defence before the title had much credibility.

    Tommy Milligan held the British, Commonwealth and European titles at both welterweight and middleweight, recording a win over faded great Ted 'Kid' Lewis in 1924 before losing a middleweight world title shot against Mickey Walker in 1927.

    Also just missing the cut are Jim Brady, who fought at a high level from bantamweight to lightweight in the early 1940s without getting a major title shot, and three flyweights—that being by far Scotland's strongest division—Tancy Lee, Elky Clark and Johnny Hill.

    Lee was the first man to beat the legendary (but pre-prime) Jimmy Wilde in 1915 and he held the British title at both flyweight and featherweight. Clark was the European champion who lost a world title challenge to Fidel LaBarba in his final fight in 1927.  Most unfortunate of all was Hill, who, on the brink of being recognised as the world flyweight champion in 1929, tragically died aged 23 from pneumonia.

    With those distinguished names having been duly recognised, here are Scotland's eight finest fighters.

8. Peter Keenan

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    Years Active: 1948-1959

    Best Division: Bantamweight

    Record: 54-11-1 with 23 KOs

    Peter Keenan dominated the British bantamweight scene from 1951 until 1959 and in that time became the only Scottish fighter to win two Lonsdale belts outright (i.e. he twice made three defences of the domestic title). He would also hold the European and Commonwealth belts.

    Keenan makes the cut at the best Scot never to win a world title. His first defeat came when he faced the unbeaten South African world champion Vic Toweel in Johannesburg. As his Guardian obituary reports, "Although Keenan was adjudged to have lost on points, his narrow defeat possibly had as much to do with the unfamiliar effects of high altitude as Toweel's performance."

    Despite boxing at a high level from that defeat in 1952 until his retirement seven years later, Keenan never got another chance at the world crown. Many of his biggest fights came away from home as he lost his British title to John Kelly in Belfast before losing on points to future world champion Alphonse Halimi in France.

    That he beat Kelly in the return in Paisley shows how large home advantage can be in boxing and hints at what might have been had Keenan ever managed to lure a world champion to Scottish shores.

7. Scott Harrison

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    Years Active: 1996-2005, 2012-2013

    Best Division: Featherweight

    Record: 27-3-2 with 15 KOs

    Scott Harrison is a case of what might have been. He won eight world title fights between 2002 and 2005, albeit for the not fully credible WBO belt. Harrison did not lose that title in the ring but because of personal problems that kept him out of the sport for seven years before an unsuccessful comeback aged 34.

    Boxing purists might carp at Harrison making the cut and there's no doubt it is much easier to hold a world title when four are knocking around as opposed to the historical one. However, that Harrison was the Ring Magazine third-ranked featherweight at his peak in 2004 tells you how good he was, especially when you realise that the only men ahead of him were Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez.

    Harrison's best wins came against Julio Pablo Chacon in 2002 and when he avenged a split-decision defeat to Manuel Medina in 2003, winning by 11th-round stoppage.

6. Ricky Burns

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    Years Active: 2001-

    Best Division: Lightweight

    Record: 36-2-1 with 11 KOs

    Ricky Burns is Scotland's only two-weight world champion, albeit again for the WBO title. Burns is a ferocious over-achiever, having lost to Alex Arthur and Carl Johanneson in British title fights early in his career.

    Frank Warren pulled a masterstroke by bringing super-featherweight champion Roman Martinez to Glasgow where Burns, a betting underdog, pulled the upset despite going down in the first round.

    Burns moved up to lightweight before defending his super-featherweight belt against anyone notable, outpointing a faded Michael Katsidis at the higher weight in 2011. His best win at lightweight was his fourth-round demolition of Kevin Mitchell in 2012, but his two most recent performances against Jose Gonzalez and Raymundo Beltran have been disappointing.

    A win against Crawford would let those recent nights be dismissed as a blip, but a defeat will ask questions as to whether he was ever really world-class.

5. Walter McGowan

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    Years Active: 1961-1969

    Best Division: Flyweight

    Record: 32-7-1 with 14 KOs

    If you include all reasonable claims, Walter McGowan was Scotland's fourth flyweight world champion, an incredible record for such a small country. His night of glory came at London's Empire Pool in 1966 when he outpointed Salvatore Burruni over 15 rounds for the WBC belt.

    McGowan lost the title in his first defence to the legendary Thai boxer Chartchai Chionoi when the fight was stopped on cuts. He was winning a rematch back in London when he fell victim to the same problem and then never boxed for global honours again.

    For the time he boxed McGowan had a fairly short career of only 40 fights, but he made a quick charge through the ranks, winning the British and Commonwealth belts in only his 10th outing before contesting the European title only five fights later.

    Domestically, McGowan's greatest rival was Alan Rudkin, and they each scored one 15-round decision win over the other in British title fights.

4. Jim Watt

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    Years Active: 1968-1981

    Best Division: Lightweight

    Record: 38-8 with 27 KOs

    Jim Watt is known to generations of British fight fans due to his long tenure as Sky Sports' colour commentator. Unlike some ex-pros, Watt is a modest man behind the microphone and it may surprise some younger viewers to learn that Watt has five WBC title fight wins to his name.

    At his peak, Watt was Ring Magazine's lightweight champion, one of only five Scots to be recognised as world champion by the long-running American publication. Watt won the vacant WBC title against Alfredo Pitalua in 1979 in Glasgow but his signature win came the next year.

    Howard Davis Jr. was the standout boxer from the 1976 Olympic Games, winning both a gold medal and the Val Barker Trophy as the top fighter across all divisions, chosen ahead of Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael Spinks. But over 15 tough rounds at Ibrox, Watt ground down the faster, younger man and upset the betting odds.

    Watt would lose his belt the next year to the immortal Alexis Arguello and then immediately retired. Earlier in his career, he also recorded four European title wins to fill out an impressive resume.

3. Benny Lynch

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    Years Active: 1931-1938

    Best Division: Flyweight

    Record: 88-14-17 with 34 KOs

    Benny Lynch is often considered Scotland's greatest fighter and, in terms of pure talent and potential, he probably was. However, he didn't achieve all he could have in the sport because of the alcoholism that would contribute to his early death in 1946, aged just 33.

    Lynch was an incredibly prolific fighter, fighting more than once a month on average over his eight-year career. Against a fiercely competitive domestic division, Lynch became British and European champion by besting Jackie Brown and Pat Palmer.

    He challenged for the undisputed world title for the first time in 1937 against the undefeated Liverpool fighter Peter Kane, who was then 42-0. Lynch won the fight by 13th-round stoppage in front of 40,000 people in Glasgow. He was 24 years old and yet, incredibly, his career would be over in just 12 months time.

    Lynch failed to make weight for title defences against Kane and the American Jackie Jurich, and consequently he was stripped of his belt. He was then unable to pass the British Board of Boxing Control's fitness test and did not fight at the age of 25, a precursor to his sad demise.

2. Jackie Paterson

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    Years Active: 1938-1951

    Best Division: Flyweight

    Record: 63-25-3 with 39 KOs

    Although the romantic appeal of Lynch means that he is usually picked to beat Jackie Paterson on a head-to-head basis, it is impossible to split them based on actual in-ring achievements.

    After Lynch forfeited the world title, Peter Kane beat Jackie Jurich to reclaim it in 1938. Partially due to the war, Kane managed to go nearly five years before defending it. Whilst the champion was probably past his best by 1943, the manner of Paterson's victory was still stunning—a first-round KO.

    Paterson himself wouldn't defend until 1946, adding the Commonwealth and European bantamweight titles to his ledger by beating fellow Scot Jim Brady and then Theo Medina. Paterson did something Lynch couldn't by successfully defending the flyweight title against Joe Curran.

    In 1948, Paterson lost his world crown to the Northern Irish boxer Rinty Monaghan, but by then he was barely able to make the weight, having famously collapsed at a weigh-in the previous year.

1. Ken Buchanan

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    Years Active: 1965-1975, 1979-1982

    Best Division: Lightweight

    Record: 61-8 with 27 KOs

    Whilst it is hard to split the top three, the glamour of the lightweight division as opposed to the flyweights propels Ken Buchanan into the top spot. In the era of splintered world titles, Ken Buchanan is the only Scottish fighter to unify a division, holding the WBA and WBC titles in 1971.

    Buchanan won the WBA belt by outpointing Ismael Laguna in the hostile territory of Puerto Rico in 1970 before traveling again, this time to California, to add the WBC strap by beating Ruben Navarro over 15 rounds.

    For nearly two years, Buchanan was the Ring Magazine champion, eclipsing Jim Watt's reign, a fighter he beat early in the younger man's career.

    Buchanan added a more comprehensive win over Laguna to his record at Madison Square Garden in New York, before facing the undefeated Roberto Duran at the same venue in 1972. Duran was too much for Buchanan but there remains an asterisk—the blow that ended the fight was low and as reported in The Ring, "burst a vein in Buchanan’s right testicle."

    Despite this controversy, Buchanan never got a chance to rematch Duran. He did fight for the title again in 1975, fighting Guts Ishimatsu in his native Tokyo but the Scot was past his best and lost a points decision.