By Glynn Evans
Rewind to late 1988 and Cardiff craftsman Winston Burnett was on the brink of becoming the first British boxer to achieve the distinction of competing in 100 professional fights since South London welter Ray Fallone reached the milestone in November 1975.
Then 29, wily Winston averaged almost a fight a month against the cream of the nation’s middle-cum-light-heavies, including Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, since debuting in February 1980. Though his CV listed just 19 wins and two draws, he featured just once in his home city and 38 of his opponents were undefeated when Winston accommodated them.
However, with a night of celebration for his service scheduled, fate dealt a blow far harder than he’d ever received between the ropes
“BARRY HEARN wanted to do my hundredth fight in Wales, was gonna wrap the show around me, top of the bill for once in my life, fighting for the Welsh light-heavyweight title. People would have come out to support me. UK boxing fans appreciated what I did. There hadn’t been a centurion for a long, long time and I was so looking forward to it.
But I started to get floaties in my left eye following a car accident. My family wouldn’t let me fight and persuaded me to see an eye specialist who diagnosed a detached retina.
I was honest with The Board, instructed them that I was getting the op done, even though medics warned it would be painful. The surgeons take your eye out and rest it on your cheek, then do what they gotta do. Later, washing my face, a sprinkle got in my eye. I’ve never had pain like that.
Afterwards, I did everything the medics advised me and didn’t incur any problems. Four British eye specialists cleared me to box, but the Board revoked my licence. Dr Whiteson, their Chief Medical Officer, was only a GP and didn’t cut it with me. I called him everything. All that glory and they ruined it.
What really annoyed me was Frank Bruno (prior to debuting in 1982) had a far worse eye problem than mine yet they let him fight. Frank had his op over in Columbia. I had mine done by the best people in the UK, under their doorstep but they never gave me any credit for that.
The Board even threatened they’d stop me boxing elsewhere but the Indianapolis Board said don’t tell us who we can have boxing here. They licenced me.
Two years later, my hundredth fight finally took place in Chicago. I got wind that Dean Bramhald was going to break the draught and have his hundredth fight in his hometown of Doncaster the same day but just hours before me, due to the time difference. That was sad. Dean hadn’t fought the calibre I had. He got my glory.
For me, there was probably two thousand rammed into a huge school gymnasium. The emcee announced it was my 100th fight and the fans clapped me in and out of the ring. I knew with my knowledge I could outclass the guy (Wisconsin’s Carl ‘Little Truth’ Williams). When the decision went the other way, the crowd were all booing. Afterwards, I was taken to a jazz bar by (matchmaker) Pete Susens. I was very proud of myself.
I carried on for a couple more years and actually had 146, all told (Boxrec lists just 121). I’ve kept a book with the names of all the opponents, where I fought them but a few were under the name of my brother Keith St Clair. There were a couple of shady ones but a lot of US trainers respected me. I beat Tommy Morrison’s brother, Tim (pts 8). I actually had my last one, aged 35.
I was born in Jamaica but, from the age of four, grew up in Cathays, Cardiff, youngest of seven. I had five older sisters who used to batter me but had a fabulous childhood with my male cousins. I had a little bit of racism cos we were one of the few black families at Cathays High School but nothing a few punches couldn’t sort out! Anyone wanting to fight one, had to fight all of us.
I played in all the school teams, was good at javelin and loved rugby. Around 16, I followed a few of the rugby lads to the St Joseph’s boxing gym (Cardiff), one of the most powerful in the UK. There were the McKenzie brothers, Horace, Errol, and Bonnie. Kevin Hayde, David Southwell, Michael and John Taylor. It was a pleasure to be alongside them.
It took me a couple of fights to get punchworthy but I probably had about 40 amateur fights and just about won more than I lost. They had me in as a heavyweight and I won a Welsh Youth title. I boxed for Welsh Select against the Bristol District but missed the big internationals.
At 20, I decided to have a go as a pro and went with Clive Hall from Kettering, a nice guy, who looked after me well, matched me right.
Clive also managed Pat Thomas, a sweet fighter, who was already British welterweight champion. It was such a pleasure to watch Pat move, manoeuvre himself into position. Intoxicating. We’d run with his brother Carl at four or five every morning around Roath Park Lake. Pat taught me a hell of a lot, especially defence. Through him, I very rarely got caught squarely with a full-blown punch on my chin.
It soon dawned I wasn’t going to become a champion because I just got the late notice jobs against guys the promoter wanted to build up. Whereas others needed to fight, I earned good money as a welding engineer down the Docks, so went in with the mindset of not getting knocked around. I enjoyed the thrill of being in the ring and showing myself. Often, if my fight was midweek, I’d be back in work next morning.
I had some laughs. Harry Carroll (a British featherweight challenger in the 1960s), who took the piss out of everybody, often worked my corner. A real good boxing guy. One fight my hair was going down in front of my eyes, so Harry cut it off, mid fight. The crowd started laughing so he began cutting off more and more.
Another time, I went to Serbia to fight Ratko Draskovic (then unbeaten in 12). I was listed as coming from America and they threw cans and bottles at me during my ring walk. Harry was talking about finding a baseball bat and sorting a few of them out. I miss him.
In different circumstances, I think I could’ve got to British title level because I fought all the champions and they weren’t that far above me. I’d have liked the opportunity of fighting for a Welsh title because I was just as good quality as those who did from middle to light-heavy and the promoters knew this.
I never dropped weight so routinely conceded a lot of natural weight. But I was constantly in shape to accept the short notice fights. I got fit doing bag work, sparring, lots and lots of running. I did hardly any weights but was naturally strong. More muscular guys tend to be slower movers.
I could make good fighters look stupid. My era was a lot better. I was in proper fights against top prospects but knew they only had two eyes, two arms, two hands, two legs, exactly the same as me. I’d go out and do my best. I’d regularly take fights on a couple of hours. I got a few quid more for those.
Plenty of times I was robbed blind, on the road. Some referees should be ashamed of verdicts they gave to other fighters that should have gone to me. The first fight with (future British and Commonwealth middleweight) Mark Kaylor, his manager Terry Lawless was screaming ‘Stay away from him,’ because I was giving it bad to him. Mark couldn’t put me in one spot and hit me. I shocked him. He was hurt and Terry was panicking.
There were several highlights. In 1985, I went over to Cork to box a huge Canadian (gridiron) football player called Tony Morrison who was handled by Sugar Ray Leonard. Beforehand, Sugar Ray shook my hand. His kid shook me early. Either he or Tom Collins hit me hardest. But I went back at him, outpunched him and they gave me the fight (PTS6). Afterwards Sugar Ray told me it was great. You respect any trainer who compliments you… but Sugar Ray Leonard?
I went up against three ‘world’ champions. Frank Tate was the most skilful and a real gentleman, classy in and out of the ring. What a truly beautiful boxer. We did eight rounds (l rsf 8), toe-to-toe and he gave me accolades about my footwork. That was my favourite fight. Frank couldn’t destroy me, couldn’t make me look an idiot yet seven months after, he won the IBF title. It was a pleasure to know that I could compete with someone who was world quality.
I shared seven rounds with Nigel Benn and took Chris Eubank the distance in Hove (l pts 6) but neither could touch Tate. Nigel was very vicious in the ring but a gentleman outside. I’d happily have fought him a third time. Eubank? All that posing and stupidness? That’s not boxing to me. During the instructions he was sticking his face into me so I blew a kiss at him. He wasn’t as good as he thought he was.
After boxing, I served in Cardiff’s probation service for three years but some of the kids were nuts and I won’t take crap from anybody. They’ve got to deal with me, then. I’ve been with my wife 35 years. High School sweethearts, four kids. Her family were over in New Jersey so I went there and did some engineer work, business development executive roles. I also taught rich kids at summer camps.
I took out an agent’s licence in New Jersey and looked after a few fighters from Nigeria, Canada and Congo but they were crazy, shooting each other. It was never my main source of income but if I can help kids out, I’ll do so.
After 22 years, I finally came back to Cardiff earlier this year. Today, I help women to keep fit and teach them to look after themselves at the Apollo gym. I’d like to fully get back into professional boxing as a manager, take a raw amateur fighter, smooth off the edges and say: ‘Lets go get ‘em.’ I’d like to produce fighters like myself who could compete against anybody.
Boxing gave me discipline, thrills and the solidity of thoughts that I could achieve in all aspects of my life. I’ve had glory off it.
But, reflecting, I am a little resentful with Great Britain for not giving me my bit of sunshine. The British Boxing Board swept it away from under my feet and pissed all over me. They had no right. I showed them up and came out of it with my health 100 per cent intact. (In his 22 additional listed fights overseas, he was stopped just twice and extended French world title challengers Patrice Aouissi and Christophe Girard the eight-round course).
In 2021, I was inducted into the British Ex-Boxers Hall of Fame in the 100 Plus category but was stranded in the US due to Covid and couldn’t attend the function in Cardiff. I was very proud but sad my mother wasn’t alive to see it. She passed away six years ago.
I’d be nice to receive recognition from the Board of Control to say thank you, give me the accolade for being the first British centurion for a long, long, time. They owe me that. It didn’t happen every day, not back then.
I should be known in Wales and Great Britain as a fighter who fought the best from each country, each continent and was never rude or nasty to anybody. I was a blueprint for what I professional boxer should be.