Howard Winstone: Idol of Merthyr

By Ted Spoon on March 28, 2014
Howard Winstone: Idol of Merthyr
Howard really had outdone himself. The word “gallant” was emphasized in every column.

A stoppage is quite different to a points’ loss. One says you can be beaten, the other says you can be conquered, and the latter can change a fighter…

“Courage is grace under pressure.”—Ernest Hemingway

It’s just another day at work for little Howard Winstone. In the Welsh town of Merthyr, inside a large toy store, this shaggy-haired youth is assembling Christmas classics, working out of necessity. The unavoidably tedious nature of the job encourages minds to drift once you’ve got a week or two under your belt. Most employees are half awake, their actions now extensions of their person. Howard too is gazing off into somewhere far away which (judging by his expression), isn’t somewhere he longs for. And then, like the most unexpected of pay rises, his most prized thought returns.

“That’s right!” recalls the young employee, “I’m school boy champion!”

Brought up in a time and place when working hard was the rule (not the boast), knowing how to take care of yourself was sensible. Years ago father had chucked a pair of gloves at the wee lad, sunk to his knees and ordered him to “put ‘em up.” There was plenty of spirit and even a pinch of method in those juvenile moves, but the overall grade was below par, and he told little Howard as much. At first stung, this remark lit a fire within.

With all the drive in the world, Howard begins working his power-press machine with that ‘employee of the month’ vigor. Good times are coming, though as he brings the device into action again he has not checked the distance of his right hand. Down goes the press, off comes the tips of his three middle fingers. Pissing blood and pale with shock; it really has turned into an awful day. That this injury would in fact aid his career as a boxer must have been the furthest of thoughts as he’s removed from the workplace.

You can strengthen a fighter’s arm by tying the other to his body. It’s a well-known method, an evil one. Hundreds to thousands of hours will eventually correct the fighter. Unable to curl his fist like he used to, Howard decided to make the left his key weapon. It wasn’t a thudding jab or the quickest, but its rate of fire made it seem like a combination. Very rarely do you have to seek shelter from boxing’s most basic punch. In turn, not only did this improve Winstone’s posture but it made the right hand an unsuspecting blow. Early sparring suggested a brawler. An amateur record of 83 wins out of 86 suggested a boxer.

An aggressive boxer.

You don’t need a big punch to hurt somebody. Quite a handful didn’t hear the final bell simply through the endless peppering. As fatigue set in it felt more like you were being tenderized. 1961 saw London’s clever Terry Spinks get punched to exhaustion. Howard had secured the British featherweight title. Next year Derry Treanor took him 14 rounds before sinking, and then Harry Carroll failed. Plenty of non-title fights were part of this schedule, and an American called Leroy Jeffrey was ready to crack an unbeaten record.

One-time boxer, Eddie Thomas (Howard’s manager) watched on as his protégé hit the deck in round two. Now with a very worried face, he watched him get dropped again, this time near his corner. In a desperate act he seized one of Howard’s ankles, pleading with him to take his time. As Howard recalled, “He grabbed my foot and I kicked him away.” However, aggression was to do him few favors here. Referee Jack Lord chose to step in as another battering awaited the Welshman. There was no complaining from the loser. Neither was there any loss of ambition.

A stoppage is quite different to a points’ loss. One says you can be beaten, the other says you can be conquered, and the latter can change a fighter. Blackpool’s Brian Rose recently sought counselling after Max Maxwell stopped him in 2010. Willing to go on but undisturbed by the prospect of defeat, Winstone was already focused on his next fight. 

This was a very down to earth customer. Just “one of the boys” is how Winstone described himself. Afternoon trips to the pub were a favorite. Snooker with the oldies, bingo with the wife, and on special occasions he’d treat his merry fan club to a song. Dressed almost identically to everyone else, there was no heightened sense of self. The occupational tell was a bit cauliflower on his left ear; old cats got thinking Jim Driscoll. When the jokes dried up and folks started yawning, it was time to go home. It was time for Howard to prepare for tomorrow.

Twenty-three and gleaming, the bumpy ride against Leroy helped sharpen an already proficient set of tools. Keeping that right stuck to his chin, moving freely and pumping that left, Winstone won and then defended the European title four times. Don Johnson, a Los Angeles resident, snatched a ten-rounder. A rematch corrected that, edging Howard closer to his most revered dance partner.

Vincente Saldivar is a good pick to lead the age-old argument that fighters are born. At twenty-two he was world champion and had already defended that honor. Born into poverty, he took that desperation with him into the ring, fighting like man who would be denied food if hissing reached a certain level. Strength and stamina were big weapons. Confidence was another as he travelled to London for Howard’s big chance. 

As usual the Welshman started quickly. He jabbed, moved and stood his ground in that dogged British manner. Fifteen thousand were delighted with the showing but after a few rounds Saldivar bulldozed his way inside and scooped up (to a British reporter’s liking) 9 of the 15 rounds. 

Howard really had outdone himself. The word “gallant” was emphasized in every column, taking attention away from the decisive loss. Few in the know really gave him a chance. Howard and his unbowed countrymen kept the faith. From ‘65-‘67 he stayed active, guarding that European belt, and then he geared up for the most strenuous training camp of his career. Saldivar had agreed to a rematch, in Cardiff.

Bare-knuckle fighter Ned Painter had trained in the Welsh valleys, and 200 years later Joe Calzaghe benefited from those same rural conditions. In Llanarth, Cardiganshire, Howard put his surroundings to good use, running far, uphill, and in all weather. Returning to Penydarren Gym, known as the “House of Pain,” it was non-stop. Medicine balls, skipping, sparring; Howard raced through the daily grind. A treasured memory to all who bared witness, a promising Scotsman by the name of Ken Buchanan slipped on his head guard and went a few rounds with the Idol of Merthyr…pugilism at its finest.

This time 25,000 were spread over Ninian Park. The noise was superb and police had been forced to wrestle away a few wild ones. To be sure, everything Howard would do they would cheer, but they were to be spoilt for choice. The familiar voice of Harry Carpenter took the nation through the special broadcast. Whether it was down the boozer or at home, everyone was perched on their seats. 

“The light beginning to fail, but the night charged with emotion” observed Harry.

It was an assertive start. Sharp jabs and clever movement shaped the first three rounds. Calmly trying to parry from his southpaw stance, Saldivar launched himself into Howard. The Mexican worked both hands. His first good spell was then overcome by Winstone’s fine boxing; the right hand even had a bit of pop behind it! The left was sometimes tripled before bending at the waist, causing Saldivar’s left to overshoot its mark. The crowd loved it. Winstone had this beautiful manner of jabbing, pulling back, and then jabbing again, not unlike Floyd Mayweather. The pace was fast, the punches were flying. The Welshman was ahead.

A pool of blood had formed on Howard’s chest. Saldivar was unmarked until the tenth when some swelling appeared, spurring the challenger on. He was never flustered. The champion’s high guard resembled a steel cage detaining a hungry tiger. When he lowered it in the eleventh it was the most vicious outburst yet. Sharp right hooks and looping lefts made Winstone’s head bobble. The twelfth and thirteenth were rough ones. Howard was fighting wonderfully, but Saldivar looked unstoppable. Then came the fourteenth; a real battering. Clubbed onto one knee, the brave Welshman listened to Eddie Thomas on this occasion. Rising after a pause, he not only got to his feet but survived the next minute.

“I don’t know how he survived that fourteenth round” said the champion later on.

The crowd would never forget what they saw next.

The customary touch of gloves was quick. Surely, Howard was done. Nope. Back came the jab, and his composure. Heavy lefts got him fumbling about the ring but a great boxing brain ordered his limbs back into stance. Would you believe it, Saldivar started to eat the jab again. Dips to the side caused the champion to make near misses like a speeding car. If Mr. Driscoll had been there he would have applauded, I’m sure; even through those black n’ white pictures The Noble Art is bright as day.

When the bell sent them back to their corners referee Wally Thom went over to grab and then raise Saldivar’s arm. Boos flooded in. Officially he had won by half a point. Howard thought he had done enough to win, and he had every right to. The end had not justified the means, but it made for the king of all stories when it was back to the pub. Later with Harry the beaten man said, “I threw everything at him,” speaking in earnest, “…anyway, that’s the way it goes”.

The decision to fight the Mexican thrice ended before fifteen. Over in Mexico City, a less inspired Howard was eaten up by both Saldivar and his savagely-inclined audience. Saldivar then retired, vacating the throne. The world title would come back to Wales, to Merthyr.

Former Saldivar victim, Mitsunori Seki stood in the way of glory. Arguably made for the Welshman, and far less ferocious than Vincente, Winstone finally captured that moment he had once dreamt of as a kid when the fight was stopped in the ninth due to Seki’s right eye. Vicente was there to raise Howard’s arm; pseudo closure to their rivalry.

Pushing thirty and already a veteran of 64 bouts, stable fans knew Howard was slowing down. A rapidly improving Jose Legra was a dangerous first defense. Colin Jones, former boxer and friend explained, “If it was down to Eddie Thomas making that match, it wouldn’t have come about,” but back when skating around your most deserving contenders wasn’t an option, Howard had to defend his property.

Five rounds in and he was a title light. Floored in the first with a big swing, Howard’s right eye gradually closed shut, forcing the referee’s hand. A little time was needed to decide on retirement but at twenty-nine the sober Welshman did as he fought and made the right move. With his wife by his side, and his beloved little town, Howard lived out the rest of his days in working-class bliss. 

Outside of the aging collection who knew him, Winstone’s spirit is captured in bronze. Take a stroll down St Tydfil’s Shopping Centre and you’ll see an uneasy figure, ready for Eddie’s signal. His expression is tense. Below are hands curling into fists. That familiar fire, something which compels unassuming men to throw down, flickers beneath the surface. Tourists won’t know who this boxer was but their attention is complete, if only for a moment.

On September 30, 2000, that fire officially burned out. 

A bygone generation, now making full use of their seats, may never adjust to the dark.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Vicente Saldivar - Howard Winstone I

Welsh Greats: Howard Winstone

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II pre-fight footage

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II rounds 1+2

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II rounds 3+4

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II rounds 5+6

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II rounds 7+8

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II rounds 9+10

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II rounds 11+12

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II rounds 13+14

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar II round 15+post-fight

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar III full fight rounds 1,2,3

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar III full fight rounds 4,5,6

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar III full fight rounds 7,8,9

Howard Winstone Vs Vincente Saldivar III full fight rounds10,11,12

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  1. Mike Silver 07:04pm, 03/29/2014

    Fine tribute to a dandy fighter. Shows the value of a terrific left jab and footwork. I am so grateful I had the pleasure of meeting this classy and intelligent gentleman in 1998.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:09pm, 03/29/2014

    A quarter of a point! Kiss my ass! Who were these judges who were so much like the officials who shafted Bronko McKart in his first fight with Winky Wright in his hometown with his high school band playing for Christ’s sake! Bollix on this “what, what fair play and all that, Old Chap”....fair play my scrotum…more like a sign of weakness and white guilt even in those long ago years. The hometown guy get’s the close decision ....period! Saldivar would have survived and Howard more than likely wouldn’t have traveled to Mexico City for that totally unnecessary beating.

  3. Lindy Lindell 09:02am, 03/29/2014

    I would like to call attention to readers that my good friend Brian Hughes published a book on Winstone in 2005 entitled REACHING FOR THE STARS.

  4. peter 05:35am, 03/29/2014

    Thank you for this excellent article about a much forgotten champion.

  5. The Tache 03:28pm, 03/28/2014

    Funnily enough I saw a film recently about Howard Winstone, who I must admit I hadn’t heard of before. To be honest the film wasn’t as good as this article in describing his career but it did have Eric Morales playing (I think), Salvidar. In the film I seem to remember that his wife told him she was having an affair or leaving him on the eve of one of Salvidar fights. I don’t know if this was artistic licence but it can’t of helped if true!!
    Either way, there won’t be many boxers who captured a title after losing some fingers.


  6. Ted Spoon 12:52pm, 03/28/2014

    Cheers, Mike. In today’s fussy climate we probably would have been denied the magic of those final two rounds in the rematch. To see a man teeter on the edge of defeat, fight through the fog, and then start to cause trouble again is something totally unique to boxing. Here’s hoping Froch-Groves 2 can produce something nearly as dramatic.

  7. Mike Casey 06:22am, 03/28/2014

    Very enjoyable article, Ted, and just praise for a wonderful boxer in Howard Winstone. He was so unlucky to inhabit the same little pocket of time as the great Saldivar - and Saldivar WAS great. I listened to the first of their trilogy on the radio as a boy and the over-enthusiastic commentator led me to believe that Howard had pinched it on points when the final bell rang. What a disappointment!

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