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
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
‘I TRIED TO SHOUT THROUGH GHASTLY SWOLLEN LIPS’
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