The Hor­i­zon­tal Heavy­weights

Be­fore Len­nox Lewis came along, there were 12 un­suc­cess­ful bids for the world heavy­weight ti­tle, in­clud­ing four on Amer­i­can soil. Matt Bozeat in­ves­ti­gates

Boxing News - - The History -

IN the words of Steve Far­hood, for­mer ed­i­tor of The Ring mag­a­zine and Hallof-fame box­ing writer, it was Len­nox Lewis who “changed the way Amer­ica viewed British heavy­weights.”

The gap be­tween Bob Fitzsim­mons los­ing the world heavy­weight cham­pi­onship and Lewis win­ning it was al­most 94 years.

In that time, there were 12 un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts by British fight­ers to win sport’s rich­est prize, four of them los­ing chal­lenges on Amer­i­can soil.

Dorothy Parker once wrote: “If all the British heavy­weights were laid out end to end... I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised.”

She was pre­sum­ably think­ing about the ap­par­ently chin­less “Faint­ing” Phil Scott when she penned those words, rather than the brave and spir­ited Welsh miner who won hearts, if not the ti­tle, in the 1930s.

There had been talk of Lon­don pro­moter Syd­ney Hulls stag­ing a fight be­tween Tommy Farr and Max Sch­mel­ing that the British Box­ing Board of Con­trol would recog­nise as be­ing for the va­cant world ti­tle.

Con­cerned he may lose his grip on the ti­tle – and keen to freeze out Sch­mel­ing – Mike Ja­cobs, Joe Louis’ pro­moter, made Farr an of­fer he couldn’t refuse to chal­lenge Louis for the cham­pi­onship in New York in Au­gust, 1937.

Upon his ar­rival, Farr was re­minded he had no chance. Amer­i­can re­porters didn’t ap­pear to take him se­ri­ously – one news­pa­per car­toon claimed Judy Gar­land had more chance of beat­ing Louis - but noth­ing he read or heard dented Farr’s be­lief.

“Deep down in me was an un­shake­able be­lief I would win,” he wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Thus Farr and he found a sup­porter in Jack Dempsey.

He vis­ited Farr at his train­ing camp in Long Branch, New Jer­sey, and af­ter­wards told re­porters that with his jab, Farr had more chance than most thought.

Still, the ques­tion among ringside re­porters ahead of the fight wasn’t who would win, but rather, how long would Farr last? The con­sen­sus was, the fight would be over in­side three rounds.

Those who wrote Farr off reck­oned with­out his pride, tough­ness and know how.

At 24, he had al­ready been a pro for 11 years, fight­ing and work­ing down the pits to sup­port his fam­ily af­ter his mother died and his fa­ther was de­clared too ill to work, and he earned his shot at Louis with wins over Max Baer and Wal­ter Neusal, a thorn in the side of Bri­tain’s heavy­weights for some time.

Louis looked to be a step too far for him and in front of around 40,000 fans at Yan­kee Sta­dium, he went for an early fin­ish.

Farr saw his right hand com­ing and pecked away with his jab, but it was the Louis jab that was do­ing dam­age and by the end of the third, blood leaked from cuts un­der­neath both Farr’s eyes.

Farr learned to read the Louis jab and made him miss, but couldn’t slip ev­ery­thing and when he was caught cleanly and wob­bled, Farr toughed it out and fought back, to the de­light of the crowd.

The BBC ra­dio com­men­ta­tors gave the im­pres­sion to those lis­ten­ing at home that Farr de­served the de­ci­sion and for a mo­ment or two af­ter the fi­nal bell, he thought he was the new cham­pion.

“[Ref­eree Arthur] Dono­van came to take my hand,” wrote Farr. “’I’ve won,’ I tried to shout through cut and ghastly swollen lips… But I mis­un­der­stood. Dono­van had lifted my hand to con­grat­u­late me upon ³

“a won­der­ful show Tommy” and to stir the crowd to fur­ther ap­pre­ci­a­tion. All the joy, the heat, the ec­stacy went out of me. I had lost.”

On his score­card, Dono­van was hard on Farr, giv­ing him only one round and a draw of an­other, while the other judges had Louis up 9-6 and 8-5 in rounds.

The news­pa­pers who had writ­ten off Farr ahead of the fight were rather kinder to him af­ter­wards. Un­der the head­line: ‘Mo­ral Vic­tory For Farr,’ New York colum­nist Dan Parker wrote: “No loser ever won more in de­feat than Tommy.

“Amer­i­can fans ad­mire spunk and good sports­man­ship and Tommy dis­played both.”

Ja­cobs looked to set up a re­match in 1940, but when he rang Farr’s home, he wasn’t there. He was away serv­ing with the Royal Air Force.

Don Cock­ell earned his world-ti­tle shot with a pair of wins in the States. The blub­bery for­mer black­smith from Bat­tersea twice beat rated Harry Matthews in Seat­tle – on a split points vote and seven-round re­tire­ment – but de­spite pro­duc­ing what one British re­porter de­scribed as “one of the gamest dis­plays of all time,” Cock­ell was thor­oughly out­gunned when he chal­lenged Rocky Mar­ciano for the cham­pi­onship in San Fran­cisco in May, 1955. The crowd warmed to Cock­ell early on as he fought his heart out try­ing to stay with Mar­ciano and this an­gered the cham­pion. Mar­ciano, al­legedly of­fered $2 mil­lion to throw the fight by mob­sters, went on to dish out a bru­tal mug­ging.

He didn’t pay too much at­ten­tion to the Mar­quis of Queens­berry Rules as he set about his chal­lenger in what would prove to be his penul­ti­mate scrap.

Cock­ell ended the eighth draped over the mid­dle rope af­ter be­ing pum­melled to body and head and the chal­lenge fac­ing the des­per­ately tired and bat­tered Lon­doner at the start of ninth was, how to keep the ram­pant Mar­ciano off him. He couldn’t. Cock­ell took two counts – he rose from the first knock­down with a rue­ful grin af­ter ship­ping a punch when he was on one knee – and at least had the sat­is­fac­tion of end­ing the fight on his feet af­ter hand­ing Mar­ciano a free shot at his chin. Fol­low­ing the sec­ond knock­down, Cock­ell looked at his cor­ner for ad­vice and Mar­ciano am­bushed him, crash­ing a right hand off his chin. Cock­ell tot­tered, but stayed up­right and the ref­eree waved it off.

Brian Lon­don, a hard, tru­cu­lent fig­ure in a pop­u­lar era for British heavy­weights, had wins over good Amer­i­cans Howie Turner and Willie Pas­trano at Haringay Arena, but when he chal­lenged Floyd Pat­ter­son for the cham­pi­onship in In­di­anapo­lis in May, 1959, he fell well short.

Ahead of the fight, Cus D’am­ato, Pat­ter­son’s trainer, talked up Lon­don’s chances, say­ing he was faster than Mar­ciano. Lon­don talked down his chances. “What can I lose?” he rea­soned. “Pat­ter­son won’t kill me. I am get­ting a £20k pay­day. I won’t even talk about win­ning, but if I do, there’s a mil­lion dol­lars in the kitty.” By agree­ing to fight Pat­ter­son, Lon­don landed him­self a fine of £1,100. The British Box­ing Board of Con­trol made the de­mand, ex­plain­ing that Lon­don hadn’t asked their per­mis­sion to take the fight.

Lon­don pre­pared in a place called Fall River Creek, where things were not to his lik­ing. He said years later: “I would say that I never would have beaten Pat­ter­son, but I most cer­tainly could have gone the dis­tance with him, no doubt in my mind.

“But they didn’t give me any spar­ring part­ners in Amer­ica. Floyd was a 13-stone man – small – with fast hands. They just give me a big fat guy. 17 1/2 stones, to spar with. I couldn’t be­lieve it.”

Pat­ter­son dom­i­nated a rather plod­ding fight be­fore putting more venom into his work in the 10th to hand Lon­don the first knock­down of his pro ca­reer. Pat­ter­son fin­ished the job in the next.

Pat­ter­son’s ca­reer was ended by Muham­mad Ali. “The Great­est” was on his way back from his loss to Joe Fra­zier


and the re­build­ing con­tin­ued with a 12 rounder against Joe Bugner in Las Ve­gas on Valen­tine’s Day in 1973.

Bugner was al­ways in a good fight at the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, but was ham­pered by a cut on his left eye­brow sliced open by an Ali right hand in the open­ing round.

Bugner’s next fight was a 12-round points loss to Joe Fra­zier at Earls Court and two years on from their first fight, he chal­lenged Ali for the cham­pi­onship in Kuala Lumpar, los­ing on points over 15.

“He is the bloody best heavy­weight ever mate, don’t tell me what I should have done,” replied Bugner testily when quizzed by the British press af­ter­wards.

Bugner al­ways had a rocky re­la­tion­ship with a press he felt never for­gave him for end­ing the ca­reer of Henry Cooper and he played the pantomime vil­lain to per­fec­tion in the build up to his fight with Frank Bruno at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spurs’ White Hart Lane ground in Oc­to­ber, 1987.

That was Barry Hearn’s first box­ing pro­mo­tion and he did a good job of per­suad­ing the British pub­lic it was a gen­uine 50-50 grudge fight, rather than the one-sided win for Bruno it al­ways looked to be to those closer to the game.

Bruno won in eight rounds and his next fight was against Mike Tyson, for the IBF, WBA and WBC ti­tles. Be­cause of the tur­moil in Tyson’s per­sonal life, the fight was post­poned sev­eral times, but it was felt that even a Tyson who was pos­si­bly fall­ing apart would have too much for Bruno, pre­vi­ously ex­posed at the high­est level by James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith and Tim Wither­spoon.

The like­li­hood was, Bruno wouldn’t make it through the open­ing round – and within 20 sec­onds, he was on the floor.

But he picked him­self up and found a left hook that made Tyson’s legs trem­ble later in the round, lead­ing BBC com­men­ta­tor Harry Car­pen­ter to scream ex­cit­edly: “Get in there, Frank!”

For a sec­ond or two, Bruno looked to be one punch from vic­tory, but he couldn’t land it.

Per­haps he lacked sharp­ness af­ter the long break in be­tween fights or maybe his fin­ish­ing in­stincts were never that good. Ei­ther way, the chance was lost. Tyson slugged his way through the fog and took over, re­ally pun­ish­ing Bruno be­fore the fifth-round end­ing.

Seven years later, there was a re­match in Ve­gas and Bruno crum­bled in three, sur­ren­der­ing his WBC ti­tle in what would prove to be his last fight.

A cou­ple of months af­ter the first Tyson­bruno fight, Frank Maloney, a pub­li­can and small-hall pro­moter from South Lon­don,

pulled off a ma­jor coup by con­vinc­ing Len­nox Lewis to re­con­nect with his East End roots.

Maloney re­mem­bered re­ceiv­ing a “phone call from a British jour­nal­ist work­ing at a fight in the States.

“They said: ‘Imag­ine how good it would be to have a British world heavy­weight cham­pion?’” Maloney told me. “I said there wasn’t much chance of that be­cause Frank Bruno and Gary Ma­son were with Mickey Duff.

“But they told me the Olympic su­per-heavy­weight cham­pion, Len­nox Lewis, was from West Ham and that his brother, Den­nis, knew my brother, Eu­gene. I checked it out and it turned out to be true. I pur­sued Len­nox on the ‘phone. Len­nox wanted to come to Bri­tain to see his brother and said if I got him two round-trip tick­ets, he would come and see me. I got a credit card and used it up to its limit to get Len­nox over here. “I knew Len­nox had the pedi­gree and when I saw the size of him at Heathrow air­port, I be­lieved he could be heavy­weight cham­pion. I was de­ter­mined to put to­gether a deal he would sign. I knew that would es­tab­lish me in box­ing. “I said to him: ‘Lis­ten, if you box in Eng­land you will be a hero. Look how they treat Frank Bruno and he’s lost world-ti­tle fights. Imag­ine how they will treat you when you are world cham­pion.’”

Lewis’ sec­ond pro fight was in At­lantic City, a rou­tine two-round de­mo­li­tion of Bruce John­son on the Mike Tyson-carl Wil­liams undercard, and he went on to fight reg­u­larly in the States as he fought his way into con­tention, mem­o­rably lay­ing out Mike Weaver with a right-hand thun­der­bolt and over­whelm­ing Tyrell Biggs, an­other faded name.

Lewis went on to be­come the first British heavy­weight for more than a cen­tury to win a world-ti­tle fight in Amer­ica when he out­pointed Tony Tucker in a Wbc-ti­tle de­fence in At­lantic City in May, 1993.

Seven months later, Michael Bentt, born in East Dul­wich, but New York based, em­u­lated him, tak­ing just 93 sec­onds to rip the WBO belt from Tommy Mor­ri­son in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa.

Bentt lost the ti­tle to Her­bie Hide and in turn, he was well beaten by Rid­dick Bowe in his first de­fence, in Las Ve­gas.

The ec­cen­tric “Danc­ing De­stroyer” from Nor­wich did at least take a big com­pli­ment from his six-round crush­ing in March 1995.

Bowe [in­set] has since said that no­body hit him harder.

Bowe was suc­ceeded as WBO cham­pion by Henry Ak­in­wande, born in Nige­ria, raised in Lon­don and a prod­uct of Lynn AC.

He smacked Jeremy Wil­liams flush on the chin with a right hand in the third round of their fight in In­dio, Cal­i­for­nia, in June 1996 – and that was that.


FARR GONE: Tommy [right] boxes the great Louis at Yan­kee Sta­dium


FAINT­ING PHIL: Scott was an ap­par­ently chin­less British heavy­weight

AGAINST THE GREATS: Ali faces Lon­don [above] and Bugner [be­low]; Tyson deals with Bruno [top right], while Cock­ell has the temer­ity to chal­lenge Mar­ciano [be­low right]


BRI­TAIN’S FINEST: Lewis, here beat­ing Shan­non Briggs

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