For those of you with short memories, or born after us fogies (as you’d probably refer to us!), the British heavyweight scene used to be a thing of embarrassment, desperation, and total humiliation. Despair and shame were the order of the day, as British heavyweights seemed to spend more time flat on their backs than a hotel full of hookers, so feeble were they on the world scene. Openly laughed at and derided as bums, the failures of Britain’s heavies cast a long shadow over the game in Britain in general, all British fighters were seen as a soft touch by the Americans, an unfair assumption maybe, but one British boxers were having a hard time dispelling.
Of course these days, Lennox Lewis has done much to restore the reputation of the British heavy, although some prejudiced and uncharitable minds might say that he wasn’t a true Brit, and that he learned his trade in Canada. If we were to take this view on board, we would arrive at the staggering conclusion that the last British heavy to be undisputed champ was ‘Lanky’ Bob Fitzsimmons back in the heady days of 1897. Actually he doesn’t really count to some people either, he may have been born in Cornwall, but he then left these shores for New Zealand while only nine years old and never returned. So if you want to be really picky you could say the Britain has NEVER produced a totally home-grown undisputed World Heavyweight Champion in the modern era!
Was it really that bleak in the 20th century? Join me if you will, in a look back at the glorious failures of British heavyweights on the world scene, and their challenges for the Championship of the World.
First up is a man who never fought for the title, but was notorious nonetheless. ‘Phainting’ Phil Scott was a notorious 1920’s British heavy who used to like to collapse when hit, claiming a low blow. His favoured tactic was to leap into the air when a body punch was thrown, thus making the punch land low, and then laying on the canvas writhing in such agony that any leading thespians of the day would have been proud of his display of acting! He won an amazing SIX fights by disqualification, but finally came up short up against future World Champion Jack Sharkey. Scott did his usual dying swan act in the third round, but he’d cried foul once too often, Sharkey was awarded the win on a TKO, and Scott went on to be KO’d in his last two fights, both in the second round.
Some time passed before the then reigning titleholder, Joe Louis, selected the Welshman Tommy Farr as his opponent for the first defence of his recently acquired championship.
Farr was magnificent that night, taking Louis the full fifteen rounds, indeed he became the first man to do so. He was never off his feet and as Louis subsequently admitted, Farr managed to hurt Joe a couple of times during the fight. Louis was awarded a unanimous decision, which although deserved, proved unpopular with some sections of the crowd, such was the performance Farr displayed in battling Louis right down to the wire.
Next up for Britain was Battersea’s very own Don Cockell, a man KO’d by Randolph Turpin earlier in his career! His opponent in his fight for the title? The feared, savage and unbeaten Rocky Marciano!
Cockell was given absolutely no chance, even though he was unbeaten as a heavy, with wins over an old Tommy Farr and a great performance in out pointing the talented contender Roland LaStarza. The fight hacks in the States were scathing, saying that this was a mismatch to end all mismatches, infact attendance at the fight was poor, many people simply thought this a fight so one sided it was not worth watching.
The fight itself was a savage street brawl, and Cockell took ferocious punishment before being stopped in the ninth. Marciano was a class above poor Don, and his frequent use of every foul in the book was ignored by the referee. Indeed had the fight taken place on these shores, Rocky would have lost his title on a disqualification. His fouls were so plentiful that even the American press turned on Rocky the next day, headlines were full of disgust for Marciano’s rough-house fouling tactics. To his credit, Cockell never once complained and came away from the US with a new-found respect for his resilience and willingness to engage Marciano in a tough fight, even though he was completely outgunned.
Brian London was the next British heavyweight to challenge for world honours, in fact he did so twice. First up was Floyd Patterson who KO’d London in the eleventh round, while Muhammad Ali did him inside three. Brian’s record as a world title challenger was therefore 0-2, and in being KO’d twice he managed to make British heavies look decidedly chinny.
The hard hitting, left hook specialist Henry Cooper also fought Ali for the title, three months before Brian London, and put up a sterling challenge.
Having famously floored Ali, (or Clay as he then was), in their first fight, hopes were high that he might do it again, this time for the full count. It was not to be however. Cooper had a tendency to cut badly and this caused the fight to be stopped in the sixth. He lasted just one round longer than his previous fight with Ali. Henry did his best, and even though he tried and tried to floor Ali again, he just couldn’t manage it. His face was a hideous mask of blood when the ref finally stopped the fight, but at least Henry had managed to stay on his feet.
Joe ‘The Fighting Pacifist’ Bugner was the next man to challenge for the title for Britain. Although originally born in Hungary, and later to become an Aussie, he challenged Ali for the world championship in Kuala Lumpor. This fight has the dubious distinction as having been described as one of the most boring ‘fights’ ever!
Ali won a lop-sided decision over fifteen rounds, Bugner having kept an exceptionally defensive stance throughout the whole fight, as a result of which, he was widely scorned by everyone concerned. Audley Harrison’s ring hero maybe?!?
Ali screwed another nail into the coffin of the china-chinned British Heavy with a demolition of the game but out-gunned Richard Dunn the following year, stopping him in five. When would the all-conquering British hero be found?
Entering the 1980’s Britain had a new and exciting talent emerging, his name was Frank Bruno and he possessed an extremely hard punch in his right hand.
Bruno went 21-0 with 21 KO’s before losing his first contest to future champion James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith. Frank only had to see out the tenth and final round to take a decision, but Smith landed with hard punches and battered Frank to a heartbreaking defeat.
In a previous bout with ‘Jumbo’ Cummings, Bruno had shown a tendency to freeze when hit by a big one. He wouldn’t go down, instead his whole body would react as if hit with an electric shock. In fact he did a rather curious rendition of a tap dancer when caught at the end of the first round by Cummings. Somehow Bruno survived the second round and eventually stopped Jumbo, but this combined with the Smith defeat was doing him no favours in his quest to bring some respect back to the British heavyweight scene.
Bruno finally got his first of four shots at the title, facing the WBA Champion, ‘Terrible’ Tim Witherspoon, having KO’d former champ Gerrie Coetzee in one round. There were rumours that the South African had infact thrown his fight with Bruno, but this has never been proved. The British press were way over the top in their predictions, many people thought Frank could win inside a round. Hardened boxing experts knew better, Witherspoon had only lost twice, on a controversial decision to Larry Holmes, and another decision to Pinklon Thomas. He was a durable fighter who knew how to go the distance, and was coming off a win over the previously unbeaten Tony ‘TNT’ Tubbs.
Big Frank put up a valiant challenge for the title, but after starting strongly he faded down the stretch, and was stopped in the eleventh round. This was the furthest Frank had gone in a pro fight, and questions were being asked of his lack of stamina as well as his chin.
Bruno picked himself up and established himself as a contender once again, but there was one problem. Instead of having three champions to choose from, there was now only one. The fearsome and devastating ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson had burst onto the heavyweight scene, gate-crashing the tournament to find the undisputed champion, and hammered his way to all three title belts.
Iron Mike had then polished off the hitherto unbeaten and never-been-down Michael ‘Jinx’ Spinks in just ninety-one seconds to claim the lineal belt, he looked unstoppable and was unbeaten. Indeed only four men had heard the final bell thus far, the timekeeper having been a very busy member of the officials in Tyson’s fights up to that point.
Coming into the fight with Tyson, the American press were openly ridiculing Bruno and his supposed glass jaw. After all, Frank had been KO’d by Witherspoon, Bonecrusher Smith and had been very badly staggered by the journeyman ‘Jumbo’ Cummings. Big Frank was seen as the archetypical horizontal British heavyweight, the epitome of gallant failure, and the British press were none too keen on his chances either.
Betting patterns for the fight were unusual too. Normally you’d get bets on either fighter winning, whether by points or KO, or maybe even on what round the fight would finish. In poor Bruno’s case the serious betting money was going on whether or not he could even last past the first round, some were even betting on Frank being KO’d inside the first minute. Would this be the shortest fight in World Championship history in the heavyweight division? It was a serious prospect for many at ringside and those watching on TV too. Larry Merchant on HBO even went so far as to remind the watching public of the fastest finish in heavyweight title history! It was thought that Tyson would merely have to breathe in Bruno’s general direction and he’d fall, like a mighty oak tree crashing spectacularly to the ground.
The bell went and inside twenty seconds Bruno was on the floor! It looked a hopeless case, and you almost hear the laughter from the Americans from across the pond. Bruno got up and referee Steele counted the decking as a knockdown, even though Frank had slipped as Tyson threw a punch. Richard Steele was on Frank’s case the whole time, deducting a point for rabbit punching and continually warning Bruno for holding. Any infringements of the Queensbury rules on Tyson’s part were conveniently ignored by Steele, poor Frank had the ref on his back as well as having to cope with Tyson.
Having got past the first minute of the round, and even all the way into the second minute, Frank let go with a beautiful short left hook, the effect of which had Tyson’s legs all a quiver. Sensation! Tyson was hurt like never before and Bruno steamed in for the kill catching Mike with another left and right on the ropes. Tyson survived the onslaught, but was more circumspect about wading in. A huge roar went up at the end of the opening round, the American fans were amazed at the fight Bruno was putting up.
Frank had some success in the second round but was gradually worn down and stopped by Tyson in the fifth. It was a valiant display by Bruno who finished the fight on his feet, but again a Briton had come up short in their quest for the richest prize in sport.
Although the Americans were surprised and gave credit to Bruno for more resilience than they had previously thought, the outlook was at the time, very bleak. Frank had lost, Tyson was still looking unbeatable, and the man who would change things forever with regard to horizontal British heavyweights, Lennox Lewis, had yet to turn professional.
Eventually of course, Bruno won the WBC belt at the fourth time of asking, but for most of the 20th century British heavyweights were seen as a joke, a division of shame and a bunch of no-hopers. It was no fun following the division at times, luckily that sorry situation has now changed. One thing that could be said though was that the Britons that failed to win the title always gave their all, and in most cases put up harder fights than many had thought possible.