ON THE BUSES
One of the busiest boxers in history, Billy Bird fought for 28 years and scored more KOS and stoppages than anyone
BERNARD HOPKINS turned pro in 1988, aged 23, and retired in 2016, aged 51. He boxed for 28 years, and became the oldest fighter to win a world title – at the grand old age of 48. Before Hopkins, boxing’s grand old man was the “Old Mongoose” Archie Moore. Archie was still a world champion at 44 and retired at 46. Like Hopkins, he was active for 28 years. But he had more than three times as many fights as Bernard – at least 219, with 186 wins, 10 draws and just 23 defeats – which perhaps makes his achievements more impressive.
Twenty-eight appears to be the magic upper limit for professional boxing careers. Britain’s own record-holders, Billy Bird and Sam Minto, also each boxed for 28 years before retiring. Though not in the world championship class of Moore and Hopkins, they each had more fights than Moore and Hopkins combined.
I wrote about mysterious 345-fight veteran Sam Minto in the June 30, 2016 issue. So what about Billy Bird?
Billy was the younger of two famous fighting brothers from Chelsea, long before that London borough became the preserve of the super-rich. Sonny Bird, the elder brother by five years, was a frenetic crowd-pleaser, while Billy was an orthodox boxer. When possible they got fights on the same card and seconded each other. Sonny fought from 1918 to 1935 and had 232 recorded pro bouts. Billy, though, had even more – 359 that historian Miles Templeton has traced – in a career that started in 1920 and finished in 1948, when Billy was 49.
Billy served in France during the Great War and turned pro at 21. Somehow, despite his busy fighting schedule, he managed to hold down a day job as a London bus conductor. “Rushing up and down the steps of my bus serves as running practice sometimes,” he told a reporter in 1927. “I work from 8.30am to 4.30pm. Then I go to a gymnasium and train for an hour or two. Believe me, I’m as fit as any boxer.”
Bird was often billed as “The Fighting Bus Conductor”, and most passengers knew not to mess with the uniformed, well-set young man on the Golders Green to Wandsworth route. But in the early 1930s Bird passed ‘the knowledge’ and became a London taxi driver. Inevitably, his new sobriquet was “The Fighting Cabman”. Often he’d park his cab outside the halls where he boxed. After a fight and a quick change of clothes, he’d head outside to pick up fares from the fight-goers leaving the show. Few realised that their driver was the man they had just seen in the ring!
Billy started as a lightweight, finished as a middleweight and was far more than a journeyman. He won 262, drew 20 and lost 74 of his recorded bouts, sometimes fighting two or three a week. Once he had two fights on the same day and won them both. And he could punch. Going by available data, he holds the record for the most KO and stoppage wins of any fighter in the world. Bird had 141 KOS and stoppages; in second place is Archie Moore with 132. Sadly, Billy died from a blood disease in February 1951, aged just 52, less than three years after retiring.
Bird never reached a British championship, but another longserving campaigner who did was Welsh heavyweight legend Tommy Farr. Tommy’s career spanned 27 years (1926-1953), but he did take 10 years out before an ill-advised comeback, confirming the old ring mantra: ‘They never come back.’
One man who came close to disproving the mantra was Holland’s only ever Olympic boxing gold medallist, Bep van Klaveren. Bep turned pro in 1929, captured the European lightweight and middleweight titles, then retired in 1948. However, he came back in 1954, and in 1955 went the distance in an unsuccessful European welterweight title bid. He was then 48.