A historical perspective:
British Heavyweights and the Rise of Modern Boxing
THE BIRTH of the modern prize ring can be traced back to 18th century England. James Figg, an Oxfordshire-born Englishman, is regarded as the first heavyweight champion in the sport's history. He helped popularize boxing by opening a training academy. He taught the sport to countless pupils and accepted the challenges of all comers. He retired as undefeated champion in 1734.
A series of British fighters held the heavyweight crown after Figg. One of the more prominent pugilists was James Broughton, who fought from 1729 to 1750. He was recognized as a heavyweight champion and he too was the proprietor of a successful boxing academy. He is also considered the father of boxing because he was the first to establish rules, encouraged the use of gloves and set up the bouts in an area between ropes.
Broughton's rules touched off a chain of reform in boxing that led directly to the Marquis of Queensberry rules. The Queensberry regulations, established in 1867 and the foundation of boxing as we know it today, introduced three-minute rounds and helped facilitate the transition from bare knuckle fights to gloved contests.
Boxing continued to thrive in England throughout the 19th Century and among the heavyweights who reigned successfully were Jem Belcher, Henry Pearce and Tom Cribb. Cribb is best remembered for winning a pair of exciting fights against Tom Molineaux, a freed American slave. The bouts were chronicled by the eloquent Pierce Egan, and the rematch is believed to be the first sporting event to garner worldwide attention from the media.
At the close of the century, heavyweight champs Tom Sayer and Jem Mace rose in popularity but English champions were slowly losing their grip on the sport. By 1880, Irish-born Paddy Ryan was recognized as heavyweight champ. He lost the crown to John L. Sullivan, a first-generation American of Irish decent. It was Sullivan's fearless, brawling style and stunning knockout power that was responsible for the rise of boxing's popularity in America.
After a spectacular 10-year reign, Sullivan lost the belt to American James J. Corbett, who lost the belt to Bob Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons was born in England but fought primarily out of Australia and the United States. However, when American James J. Jeffries dethroned him in 1899, it began nearly a century-long drought of British heavyweight champions.
Britain's never-ending futility finally ended in 1992 when Lennox Lewis was awarded the WBC heavyweight title when Riddick Bowe refused to honor an agreement to meet Lewis, who had earned the position of mandatory challenger.
There were plenty of challengers between Fitzsimmons and Lewis and plenty of gutsy losses. Heavyweights who fought under the Union Jack were celebrated for their valor, not necessarily their ability. The trend was so ominous that the boxing press in America began referring to British challengers as "Horizontal Heavyweights."
Tommy Farr: A former coal miner from Wales, Farr was among the most courageous heavyweights of his era. He beat the likes of Tommy Loughran, Bob Olin and former heavyweight king Max Baer. But when he challenged reigning champ Joe Louis on August 30, 1937, courage only took him so far. He lost a unanimous decision. Louis made 25 defenses of the heavyweight crown, knocking out 22 of his challengers. Only Farr, Arturo Godoy and Jersey Joe Walcott lasted the distance with Louis.
Don Cockell: A blacksmith by trade, Cockell began boxing in 1946. He beat an aging Farr en route to winning the British and Commonwealth crowns and later defeated American contender Roland LaStarza. He challenged heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano on May 16, 1955 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. Marciano swarmed over his foe but the British contender managed to withstand the attack until the eighth round. Cockell was dropped in the 8th and twice in the 9th but arose from each knockdown. However, the referee had seen enough and stopped the contest after the third knockdown. Marciano said after the fight, "He's got a lot of guts. I don't think I ever hit anyone else any more often or harder."
Henry Cooper: Known as "Our 'Enery." The most beloved heavyweight in British history, Cooper held the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight crowns. However, Cooper was best known for his two bouts with Muhammad Ali. The first came in 1963 at Wembley Stadium and Cooper managed to floor the future champ with a left hook in Round 4. The bout would end a round later with Cooper bleeding profusely from above the left eye. The fight has taken on a mythical status because it was revealed later that Ali's cornerman Angelo Dundee bought his charge more time between rounds after the knockdown by splitting the American's glove. Three years later, Cooper challenged Ali with the heavyweight title on the line and was again stopped on cuts, this time in Round 6.
Brian London: He lost a pair of bouts to Cooper and also lost in a pair of heavyweight title fights. London was knocked out by champion Floyd Patterson in the 11th round of a 1959 bout and was stopped by Ali in three rounds in 1966.
Joe Bugner: He was born in Hungary but launched his pro career in London in 1967. Fought out of England until his retirement from boxing. Defeated Henry Cooper in 1971 to win British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles. He beat notable American heavyweights such as Chuck Wepner, Mac Foster and Jimmy Ellis. At 6-5, he was more boxer than puncher. In 1973, he lost consecutive 12-round fights to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Bugner challenged Ali for the world heavyweight title on July 1. 1975 in Kuala Lampur and lost a 15-round decision. Made a comeback to boxing and in 1998, at the age of 48, he defeated former WBA champ Bonecrusher Smith, who was 45.
Richard Dunn: A southpaw born in Halifax, England, Dunn held the British and Commonwealth heavyweight crowns in 1975. He challenged Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown on May 24, 1976 in Munich and was stopped in five rounds.
Frank Bruno: He had posted wins over Gerrie Coetzee, Carl "The Truth" Williams and James "Quick" Tillis, but couldn't win the big one until the ordinary Oliver McCall became champ. Bruno decisioned McCall for the WBC heavyweight title in 1995. Bruno, who had above average power, failed to win the heavyweight title from Tim Witherspoon in 1986, Mike Tyson in 1989 and Lennox Lewis in 1993. After racing to a fast start, Bruno was knocked out in each of those title challenges. In 1996 Bruno would meet Tyson again. This time Bruno held the WBC belt while Tyson was challenger. The result, however, was the same. Tyson stopped Bruno in the third round.
Lennox Lewis: He won a gold medal for Canada in the 1988 Olympics but returned to England, his place of birth, to launch his pro career. He knocked out Razor Ruddock in two rounds at London's Earls Court in 1992 and was subsequently awarded the WBC title. American rival and undisputed champ Riddick Bowe vacated the WBC belt rather than meet Lewis in a mandatory match. Thus, Lewis became England's first heavyweight king since Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899. He lost the belt when Oliver McCall upset him via second-round knockout in 1994. He later regained the WBC crown with a TKO over McCall. Then in a bid to unify the heavyweight crown, Lewis met WBA/IBF champ Evander Holyfield in March of 1999 at Madison Square Garden. The bout, which many thought that Lewis had clearly won, was declared a draw. They met in rematch later in 1999 and this time Lewis left no doubts, winning a unanimous decision and the undisputed heavyweight title. Since that meeting, he lost the title to Hasim Rahman and then regained it with a knockout, much the way he did with McCall. In June of 2002, he scored his highest-profile win, an 8th-round knockout of Mike Tyson. Lewis retired in 2003 following a 6th round TKO over Vitali Klitschko.
Herbie Hide: The hard punching Hide won the WBO heavyweight title from Michael Bentt with a seventh-round knockout in 1994. In his first title defense, Hide was knocked out by Riddick Bowe.
Audley Harrison: Captured the super heavyweight gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. As of December 2008, he was 23-4 (17 KOs).
-- Compiled by Robert Cassidy