Boxing: Britain’s world heavyweight title hopefuls over history
- Credit: PA
Britain is blessed, at present, in terms of current world heavyweight champions with Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury holding a plethora of titles between them.
But it has not always been the case, since the days of Welshman Tommy Farr in 1937.
This seems to be a fairly modern and convenient date to start an examination of the British heavyweights who fought for but failed to win the richest prize in sport.
Many have tried and not succeeded, with Farr perhaps having one of the hardest tasks of any of our challengers – as none other than the legendary Joe Louis was in the opposite corner.
Farr, arguably, gave Louis one of his more difficult nights as heavyweight world champion and although he lost the decision, he gained the credit and respect from boxing fans on both sides of the pond.
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Louis and Farr met on August 30, 1937 at Yankee Stadium in New York City, two months after Louis had knocked out Jim Braddock in eight rounds to win the world heavyweight title.
Farr was his first defence and Louis won by unanimous decision, with scores of 13-1 from the referee and 9-6 and 8-5 from the judges, which seemed more realistic.
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The Welshman exceeded all expectations, boxed so well and gave the new champion plenty to think about, indeed there was a lot of booing when the champion’s hand was raised.
Only two other men, Arturo Godoy and Jersey Joe Walcott took Louis the distance in his very long reign as world champion from 1937 to 1950, when he eventually lost his crown to Ezzard
Farr had put Clydach Vale, Rhondda, south Wales on the world boxing map and gave arguably one of the greatest, if not indeed the greatest world heavyweight champions of all time, a
tough and torrid time for what many had considered would be the new champion’s routine and easy first title defence.
Bruce Woodcock and American Lee Savold met at the White City Stadium in June 1950 for the EBU version of the world heavyweight crown (recognised by the British Boxing Board of Control), but not in the United Sates.
Woodcock sustained a badly cut left eye which halted the proceedings in the fourth round.
The two had previously met in December 1948 when curiously enough Woodcock had won by a fourth round disqualification due to a low punch.
Don Cockell met Rocky Marciano in May 1955 in San Francisco and absorbed a huge amount of punishment before being stopped by the Brockton Blockbuster in the ninth round, Marciano retaining his title and unbeaten record.
Cockell was much admired for his bravery but had failed in his quest for the richest prize in sport.
Brian London was next to try his luck at gaining the richest prize in sport and had two attempts in fact at doing so.
First, he went over to Indianopolis in May 1959 to challenge Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight crown but was knocked out in 11 rounds by the American champion.
I saw his second world title attempt in August 1966 at the Earls Court Exhibition Hall against the one and only Muhammad Ali, who oozed class and had far too much for an apprehensive London.
Backed into a corner in round three, he then took a 12-punch barrage of blows before sinking to the canvas and failing to beat the count. The London v Ali clash was for the WBC and WBA belts.
Henry Cooper – the only boxer to be knighted, in 2000 – also had a shot at Ali in May 1966 at the Arsenal Stadium, Highbury and I took this fight in as I had done in June 1963 when the two had met in a non-title 10-round contest at Wembley Stadium.
That night saw Cooper floor Cassius Clay as he was known then in the fourth round, with his never-to-be-forgotten “Hammer” left hook, although Clay recovered and stopped Cooper on facial cuts around the left eye in round five.
When Ali put his WBC and WBA titles on the line at Highbury it was a much more cautious performance from both boxers, sadly cuts around the left eye being Cooper’s undoing once more, this time in round six.
Both men seemed to be very wary of the other, Ali of Cooper’s famed left hook and Cooper the damage that Ali could cause with his speed coupled with his rapier like artillery and solid blows particularly around the face.
Two great nights of British boxing and I was privileged to have been there to see both. The gallant Cooper was big box office over here and deserved his shots at Clay/Ali and will long be remembered for those two fabulous nights in London.
Hungarian-born Joe Bugner, who fled the country as a six-year-old with his family at the time of the Red Army’s invasion of Budapest in 1956, settled in England and in March 1976 at the Empire Pool, Wembley took Cooper’s British, Commonwealth and European titles in very controversially fashion.
The contest was scored by referee Harry Gibbs 73¾-73½ to new champion Bugner, who was a world class heavyweight, boxing all the top men from across the globe.
Like Cooper, he also had two encounters with Ali, going the distance on each occasion, a feat worth noting in itself.
The first time he lost a unanimous 12-round points decision in a non-title contest in Las Vegas in February 1973 and then for the WBC and WBA belts in the open air at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur in June 1975, it was a one-sided points verdict for Ali.
Yorkshireman Richard Dunn tried his luck against Ali in Munich in May 1976, but having been floored several times in their WBC and WBA title tilt he was eventually stopped in the fifth round.
Londoner Frank Bruno had no fewer than five shots at the richest prize in sport, not a bad tally for a boxer who never contested a British title fight.
Bruno had the right managerial and promoter relationships and connections, firstly with Mickey Dunn and then latterly with Frank Warren, and met American Tim Witherspoon at Wembley Stadium in July 1986.
He was doing really well, until he tired and run out of gas in the 11th round, with Witherspoon retaining his WBA belt.
Then Bruno travelled to Las Vegas in February 1989 to meet Mike Tyson who stopped him in the fifth round with the WBC, WBA and IBF belts on offer.
Next it was the National Stadium in Cardiff in October 1993 against WBC champion Lennox Lewis – a fight I was present at – when on a wet and murky night in south Wales he was stopped in the seventh round of an interesting fight.
For much of the time Bruno more than held his own, until finally the big bombs thrown by the champion forced him to be rescued.
Eventually, Bruno’s time would come and he was with Warren when he boxed Oliver McCall at Wembley Stadium in September 1995.
A strangely quiet McCall, almost seeming to lack motivation throughout much of the contest and only really taking the initiative when it was almost too late to do so, lost his WBC crown via a unanimous points decision in Bruno’s favour.
The scores for Frank were 117-111, 117-111 and 115-113 but in his first defence some six months later, Tyson blew Bruno away inside three rounds in Las Vegas and the title was gone in what proved to be his ring finale.
Bruno was big box office over here, drawing big crowds and this may have helped augment his title challenges here and Stateside. I cannot recall any other British heavyweight having so may shots at the world crown than Bruno, but that’s boxing as they say.
Brighton’s Scott Welch took on Henry Akinwande for the latter’s WBO belt in Nashville, Tennessee and lost a unanimous decision to the champion in January 1997.
And Brixton’s brave Danny Williams had his chance against the giant Ukrainian WBC world champion Vitali Klitschko in Las Vegas in December 2004, but the powerful champion stopped Williams in the eighth round to keep his belt.
Another Londoner, the tough Dereck Chisora, faced Klitschko in February 2012 in Munich and although he took the champion the 12-round distance, he was widely outpointed in a unanimous decision.
Hughie Fury had a shot at New Zealander Joseph Parker’s WBO title in Manchester in September 2017, but lost a majority points decision 118-110, 118-110, 114-114.
British world title heavyweight challengers have not fared that well over the past 80-odd years or so, since Farr’s exceptional performance against Louis.
Bugner coped with Ali in a defensive way rather than be more focused on actually causing a huge upset, while Bruno did well against Witherspoon and Lewis, losing both challenges, before triumphing against McCall.
I did ask Don King later that night why McCall had boxed so poorly and he fixed me with his most ferocious stare and replied between gritted teeth: “I’m just off to ask him that.”
I don’t know what transpired between the two men, but McCall was more of a disappointment that evening rather than Bruno being a super hero.
I was pleased, of course, that Bruno won, but remain concerned about McCall’s performance, he did later on in his career show some mental issues and problems; not least when he boxed Lewis in February 1997 for the vacant WBC belt in Las Vegas, not wanting to fight at several times in the contest and also crying in the ring.
Those title challenges apart, our British challengers have not done that well but many of the champions they were challenging were some of the best the division has ever seen.
That said, there are still a number of British heavyweight champions who never had a world title shot, spare a thought for them and what might have been!