Howard Winstone (1939-2000) ended Wales’ 45-year wait for a world champion to succeed Jimmy Wilde, but his road to that moment of glory was epic and heartbreaking.
The Merthyr featherweight took to the sport from a young age with Dowlais ABC, and would go on to enjoy a famous, long-lasting partnership with trainer Eddie Thomas at his Penydarren gym.
The older Winstone would barely have recognised his young fighting self, though. He had been something of a brawler in the ring, but he lost the tips of three fingers on his right hand in an industrial accident when working in a toy factory.
Having lost much of his knock-out power, the valleys boy worked on developing one of the fastest and sweetest left hand jabs in the game.
‘Howard Winstone, left like a piston’ was a common description, while the great trainer Angelo Dundee said that he was “the nearest I have ever seen to the great Willie Pep”.
After seeing the Welshman run rings around his fighter Baby Luis in 1964, Dundee opined: “If I could find a boxer as good as Howard Winstone I would make millions.”
As a highly skilled amateur Winstone won 83 of his 86 bouts, including – famously – a gold-medal bout at the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff.
With a young family to look after, he turned down the chance to go to the 1960 Olympics in order to turn professional.
An impressive two-year winning run took him into a huge England-Wales showdown with Terry Spinks for the British featherweight belt.
Winstone outclassed the 1956 Olympic gold medallist in front of a raucous crowd at Wembley’s Empire Pool, stopping the champion in the 10th to take his crown.
The winning run continued, and when Winstone stopped Ray Carroll after six rounds of a 1962 defence he became the first Welsh boxer in 40 years to win a Lonsdale belt.
Five fights later – in Winstone’s 35th professional outing – he met his first reverse when he ran into big-hitting American Leroy Jeffery, Winstone knocked over three times before the bout was ended in the second.
He would later claim that the defeat was positive for his career, though.
Soon afterwards, the Welshman fought on the same card as Sugar Ray Robinson who told Winstone how he had overcome his first loss to emerge stronger.
Winstone took the advice on board, and took his career to the next stage with a 1963 European title win over Alberto Serti in front of 10,000 fans at Cardiff’s Maindy Stadium.
The world crown was the next target, but splits began to grow with manager Thomas who was reluctant to risk his man against feared champion Sugar Ramos. The Cuban had killed two men in the ring – including former champion Davey Moore – but there was a feeling that he was now past his best.
Vicente Saldivar won the race to take Ramos’s title, stopping the champion in 12 rounds in Mexico City in 1964. The great Mexican fighter’s name will forever be linked with Winstone’s as the pair went on to compete in three epic bouts.
The first was at Earls Court in 1965, where 12,000 travelling Welshmen saw their hero lose a narrow points decision to the hard-hitting southpaw.
The fight followed a pattern that would become familiar, Winstone using his skills to build up a big points lead, but being worn down by the champion’s relentless stalking and strength.
Winstone kept winning on the domestic and European stage – including a memorable showdown with fellow Welshman Lennie ‘the Lion’ Williams in Port Talbot – as a rematch with Saldivar was arranged at Cardiff’s Ninian Park in June 1967.
The challenger’s weight problems contributed to the opinion that made him a big underdog, but he fought superbly and seemed a comfortable winner of the first 10 rounds.
Saldivar came on strong late on and dropped Winstone in the 14th, but he recovered and most felt they were about to see the crowning of a new champion at the end.
Referee Wally Thom – an old, unloved ring opponent of Eddie Thomas – raised the Mexican’s hand in triumph, though, much to the outrage of the partisan 25,000 home crowd.
“On points I felt I couldn’t lose,” said Winstone. “But I lost anyway. I’m not bitter. Even if I was, it wouldn’t change the decision.” Thomas was less diplomatic, calling it the “most diabolical” decision he had ever seen.
Saldivar and Winstone would fight one more time, this time on the champion’s home turf, at altitude in the Azteca Stadium, Mexico City.
Winstone’s weight problems were less of an issue in the build-up than his domestic troubles that culminated when his wife Benita stabbed him in the arm.
Yet again he controlled the early rounds of the fight, but this time he had less stamina and Saldivar caught up with him and stopped him in the 12th.
Then two men would never meet in the ring again, but the bonds forged between them proved unbreakable and they became close friends.
While Winstone could never overcome Saldivar in the ring, he got another shot at the belt when Saldivar retired and it was agreed that the Welshman would face Japanese veteran Mitsunori Seki.
The January 1968 clash at the Royal Albert Hall was far from a classic, but Winstone was well in control before Seki was stopped because of a cut eye in the ninth.
Winstone thus became the first Welshman to hold a world crown since Jimmy Wilde was dethroned by Pancho Villa in 1923, sparking wild celebrations by the Welshmen in Kensington – excesses that were easily outdone in Merthyr when the new champion returned home.
While no-one would begrudge Winstone his moment of triumph, it was clear that he was already past his best, his speed and reaction going.
He reigned for six months before his first defence, planned as a triumphant homecoming at Porthcawl’s Coney Beach Arena.
It was a different story this time, though, as the champion was floored twice in the opening round, the punches bringing up a grotesque swelling around his left eye that meant the fight was stopped in the fifth.
Winstone retired after the fight – his 67th, of which he had won 61 – and spent his remaining years in Merthyr where he managed a cafe then a pub.
Neither proved a financial success and he would end up working as a hospital porter. He remained a hugely popular, admired and respected figure and was awarded the MBE in 1968. He died of kidney problems in 2000 at the age of 61.
- Brian Hughes, “Reaching for the Stars: The Howard Winstone Phenomenon” (Collyhurst and Moston Lads Club, 2005)
- Gareth Jones, “The Boxers of Wales: Volume Two, Merthyr, Aberdare and Pontypridd” (Cardiff, 2011)