Merthyr Tydfil, the small town approximately 23 miles north of the Welsh capital Cardiff is famous for historically punching well above its weight. The town’s DNA, characterised by its industrial heritage of steel and ironworks – coursed through the veins of it’s men, producing a teak-tough conveyor belt of boxing champions, both domestically and internationally. One such fighting man would overcome adversity to become the best featherweight in the world, the supremely gifted ‘Welsh Wizard’ Howard Winstone. Not since Merthyr’s own Jimmy Wilde, former world flyweight champion, considered by many the greatest flyweight of all time (reigning from 1916-1923) had Wales produced a world champion.
The setting was the Royal Albert Hall 1968, and although considered past his best, with three, brutal, agonising, failed bids to land the crown, Howard produced one last gasp performance to win the vacant WBC world featherweight title by a ninth-round stoppage of Japan’s Mitsunori Seki, cementing his legendary status in the corridors of British boxing heritage.
Born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1939, Howard’s father, a rag and bone man by trade, had him pounding the pads by the age of six – transferable skills he took into fist fights on the roughshod streets of his home town. Aged eleven he began his education of the Queensberry Rules at the local Amateur boxing club. By 14, showing early promise he became the Welsh schoolboy champion in only his 3rd fight, dreaming of emulating the heroes that had come before.
Everything appeared to be going according to plan, until fate presented its own agenda - his journey to triumph would transpire to become the unlikeliest of them all. Now 15 and working in the local toy factory Howard tragically lost the tips of three fingers on his right hand, sheared off while operating a power-press – and with them, by any stretch of the imagination any hopes of a boxing career. A period of soul searching followed, during which time he met Benita Howells, who he married 2 years later.
Refusing to accept that all was lost, his father engineered a plan of action, to craft Howard’s left hand into his main asset. Day after day they drilled a makeshift heavy-bag, conditioning the fast-twitch fibres of his left arm into a piston-like weapon. Ready to resume his dream he sought the guidance of Merthyr’s top trainer Eddie Thomas, himself a legend of the town, picking up European honours at welterweight in 1951. Eddie alerted to Howard’s reputation as a brawler set about teaching him the virtues of ring-craft; classic boxing technique, footwork, speed and precision punching – gradually moulding him into a perfectly balanced fighter. A sterling Amateur career of 83 wins from 86 contests culminated in Howard winning gold at the 1958 British Empire Games in Cardiff, the only Welsh gold of the games, propelling his stock and announcing his arrival as genuine talent.
Now married and needing money he abandoned his dream of competing at the 1960 Olympics and turned professional under Eddie Thomas in 1959 aged 20. Together they amassed 24 professional wins, with a combination of exquisite ring generalship and immaculate technical skills before challenging the other ‘golden boy’ of British boxing, Londoner Terry Spinks for the British featherweight title in May 1961. Spinks had won gold at flyweight at the 1956 Olympics and was now campaigning at featherweight in the pro-ranks, winning the British title in 1960 and now defending his title against Howard in his second defence. Not known as a power-puncher, Howard would use his guile, strength, sublime skill and work-rate to overcome his adversaries, breaking their spirit bit-by-bit; some would fall, others overwhelmed, some would simply quit – as was the case with Spinks, failing to emerge for the 11th round after a volley of ferocious body-punching, handing Howard a 10th round TKO and the British title. A heroes welcome and Police escort awaited him on his return to Merthyr, the streets swollen to capacity to glimpse their new boxing hero.
Howard’s unbeaten streak of 34 fights would be abruptly interrupted by American Leroy Jeffrey with a second round stoppage. Manager Eddie Jones would cannily step in and marshal his charge, quickly rebuilding his confidence with a series of British title defences before dismantling Italian Alberto Serti for the European title at the Maindy stadium, Cardiff, July 1963 with at 14th round TKO.
He would retain his European strap against Frenchman Yves Desmarts in Rome 1965 before challenging the Mexican Vicente Saldivar for the WBC and WBA featherweight world titles.
Saldivar, a product of the slums of Mexico, was a heavy-handed KO specialist, combining power and finesse, compacted into a 5’3 frame. His complete skill set was unequalled in versatility and ferocity having dispatched 21 of 26 opponents and the Mexican was in no mood to relinquish his newly acquired crown.
The fight would take place at Earls Court Arena, London, 7th September 1965. True to form Howard employed his ‘science over slugging’ putting on arguably a career best performance in front of a partisan crowd; coach loads of Welsh supporters having made the journey down. What looked like certain victory was stolen at the last by a spirited final three rounds by the champion, taking a narrow points win.
After the loss Howard would comment ‘It wasn’t like fighting one man, it was like taking on a gang!’ He would defend his European title 3 more times before facing Saldivar a second time in June 1967 – this time in Cardiff, Wales.
The second was as good if not better than their first, a fascinating clash of styles, in Howard, technical poise and precision boxing versus the brute strength of Saldivar. Going into the 14th most had Howard ahead on points before Saldivar battered and mauled Howard to the canvas. Showing remarkable powers of recovery Howard survived until the final bell in the 15th. Most observers gave the fight to Howard, yet agonisingly the decision went again with the champion. Howard remained philosophical in defeat and pressed for an immediate rematch.
Four months later, and the trilogy was on, this time in Mexico. Howard’s preparation couldn’t have been worse, his wife Benita revealing she’d been having an affair, sending Howard spiralling the night before the fight, not the ideal preparation let a lone a world title fight. So it proved, the next day he took a savage beating at the hands of Saldivar and seemingly his last chance for a world title ebbed away as he was pounded to a standstill in the 12th round; his eye cut, blood streaming from his nose. Southpaw Saldivar's left cross had downed him earlier in round and he'd been in survival mode ever since, unable to respond to an avalanche of blows. Eddie Thomas mercifully threw in the towel. ⠀
On his return, Benita abdicated, leaving Howard with the kids. A crushing blow compounded by his loss to Saldivar. A career that had promised so much, appeared over; legendary trainer Angelo Dundee once remarked "If I could find a boxer as good as Howard Winstone I would make millions," after Winstone outclassed his Cuban fighter Baby Louis in 1964. "He's the nearest I have ever seen to the great Willie Pep." Not bad from a man who had trained Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Jimmy Ellis and many more great fighters. But there would be one last twist in the story, fate once again had a plan.⠀
Saldivar would retire, leaving the title vacant, opening the door for a final 4th attempt to land the elusive prize. The final encounter with Saldivar had taken its toll on Howard's body, yet he still finally won the title he so craved beating Mitsunori Seki in Jan 1968. Methyr Tydfil ground to a standstill, their favourite son had graduated into a legend. Howard truly was the people's champion, one of them, an everyday champion. He would lose the title in his first defence in July of 1968 against Jose Legra, a man he'd defeated twice before. Retirement followed at just 29 years old.⠀
A string of failed financial adventures and ill health plagued Howard until his death aged 61. He remained loved, respected and idolised throughout.⠀
In the words of Harry Mullan "If you judge a man's worth by the number of his friends & admirers rather than his bank balance, Winstone was a millionaire."⠀