Boxing: GB wait for Olympic heavyweight gold goes on

Lawrence Okolie relaxes with team-mate Nicola Adams at the Rio Olympics (pic: David Davies/PA)

Lawrence Okolie relaxes with team-mate Nicola Adams at the Rio Olympics (pic: David Davies/PA) - Credit: PA WIRE

It seems hard to believe it is 100 years since Great Britain last won an Olympic heavyweight medal in the ring.

Heavyweight Lawrence Okolie at the Team GB announcement at the English Institute of Sport (pic: Rui

Heavyweight Lawrence Okolie at the Team GB announcement at the English Institute of Sport (pic: Rui Vieira/PA) - Credit: PA WIRE

The heavyweight division was often considered boxing’s blue riband event at the Games at least until the super-heavyweight division was introduced.

The honour of being our last gold medallist fell to Kensington-born Ronald “Ron” Rawson of the Polytechnic who won gold in Amsterdam in 1920.

He was our ABBA champion at that weight in 1920 and 1921. In those far off days there were nine boxers in that weight category from eight nations.

At the London 1908 Games, GB had a clean sweep in the heavyweight category as Mile End-born Albert Oldman (City Police ABC) won gold, while silver went to 1908 ABA champion Sydney Evans (Reading ABC) and south London’s Frederick Parks (Polytechnic) claimed bronze.

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There were only six contestants, all from GB.

In 1924 and 1928 our two representatives – Cornelis O’Kelly and Joe Goyder – both lost first time out and GB did not field a boxer in 1932.

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In 1936 in Berlin, Anthony Stuart won his opening two contests, losing in the quarter-final to Germany’s eventual gold medallist Herbert Runge. Stuart won four ABA titles – one with the Royal Corps of Signals and three with the London Fire Brigade.

What was becoming clear was that as the Games were opening up to a wider world sporting clientele, it was becoming increasingly difficult for GB to maintain its high medal returns, sadly this trend was to continue for too many years.

At the London Games of 1948 ABA champion Jack Gardner from Market Harborough lost on points at the quarter-final stage to Switzerland’s Hans Muller.

Gardner did, however, have a very successful paid career, winning British, British Empire and European crowns.

In Helsinki in 1952, Battersea ABC’s Edgar “Eddie “Hearn, the ABA title holder, lost (3-0) to Finland’s eventual bronze medallist Ikka Koski, while GB did not have a representative at the Melbourne Games of 1956.

Rome 1960 was the chance of the Polytechnic’s “Fighting Dustman” Dave Thomas, who was outpointed (3-2) by Josef Nemec, the then Czechoslovakia’s bronze medallist.

Thomas had beaten the Czech at the European Championships a year earlier, before being outpointed (5-0) in the final by mighty Russian Andrey Abramov, a triple European gold medallist.

Thomas won three consecutive ABA crowns (1957-1959) and also secured a silver medal at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1958, losing in the final to South Africa’s Daniel Bekker. He was one of our best post-World War II heavyweights and a regular performer for England and ABA in top level international test matches.

GB did not have a heavyweight representative in 1964 and in 1968, former ABA champion Billy Wells (Lynn) was halted in the second round of his contest with Russia’s Jonas Cepulis, who lost the final to America’s George Foreman.

There was no GB representation at the Games of 1972, 1976, and 1980 and in 1984 the ABA champion Doug Young (Hawick ABC) was knocked out in round two of his bout by Greece’s Georgis Stefanopoulos.

In 1988, Lynn‘s two-time ABA champion Henry Akinwande lost on a split decision (3-2) to Arnold Vanderlyde from the Netherlands, while the Barcelona Games in 1992 saw Repton’s Paul Lawson in action.

A two-time ABA champion, Lawson lost in his first outing to Danell Nicholson (USA) who lost to eventual Cuban gold medalist Felix Savon as one of the greatest-ever amateur boxers claimed the first of his three successive Olympic crowns.

Four years later, the already stiff competition at the Olympics became even harder, with the introduction of qualifying tournaments which remain in place today.

But GB were fortunate to be able to compete at heavyweight level after Fola Okesola (Lynn AC) lost 14-12 to Denmark’s Michael Ibsen in a box-off as the Danes decided not to send their man after all.

Okesola was offered the place that Ibsen had won for himself and, after a bye, met American Nate Jones in the next round, when he was stopped late in their bout.

GB did not have a qualifier at the Games of 2000, 2004, 2008 or indeed 2012, but Hackney’s Lawrence Okolie made it to Rio in 2016.

Okolie had boxed for Hoxton’s Lion Club, Repton and also Dagenham ABC and won his opening contest in Brazil, unanimously outpointing (3-0) Poland’s Igor Pawel Jakubowski.

However next up was Cuba’s Erislandy Savon who outpointed Okolie on his way to a bronze medal.

Team GB continue to wait for an Olympic heavyweight medal to this day.

It is one thing becoming a domestic champion, but European levels, let alone Olympic and World ambitions are in a much different league. The old guard of the USA, Cuba, Russia and Italy, pressed now by the likes of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan are all hunting medals which makes Team GB’s chances that much more difficult.

But as we now look towards the delayed Tokyo Games in 2021, will we see GB’s names upon the Olympic heavyweight medal table once more? Let’s hope so.

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