Great British Boxers
Britain has an extremely proud and successful history in boxing. The sport did in fact originate in England under the guise of bare-knuckle boxing, from which evolved a set of rules to form the sport as we know it today. Britain has produced some of the world’s greatest boxers, from Lennox Lewis to “Prince” Naseem Hamed and the career highlights of some of the best are described below.
James Figg was one of the pioneers of boxing, a bare-knuckle fighter who achieved considerable fame in Victorian Britain. In 1719, he became the first English bare-knuckle champion, and held the title for 11 years. After retirement, Figg started up his own school and taught boxing, fencing, and quarterstaff. In 1992 he was finally inducted into the International Hall of Fame as one of the forefathers of the great sport.
John ‘Jack’ Broughton
John “Jack” Broughton was another one of the pioneers of the sport and one of the original inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
He was born in 1703 and from his early/mid twenties was fighting semi-professionally on a regular basis. In those days, all fights were bare-knuckle and there is no evidence to suggest that Jack ever lost a fight. Around 6 foot tall and weighing in at around 196 pounds, he was a man of considerable physical prowess for this period and, by the 1730s, had developed a reputation for being a formidable fighter. He was particularly effective in stopping and barring opponents’ blows and was considered somewhat untouchable.
Huge numbers of people used to flock to his fights and on at least one occasion, a man was crushed to death by the riotous crowd. One of his most famous fights during the era saw him tackle George Stevenson in 1741, in which Broughton’s opponent received devastating and ultimately fatal blows. Broughton claimed the title of Champion of England in 1734 after he beat George Taylor, successor of James Figg. He managed to keep hold of this title until 1750.
James Broughton was particularly influential in developing the first code of rules for “boxing” encounters. After the death of George Stevenson from injuries he sustained in the fight of 1741, Broughton developed his code of 7 rules in an effort to offer a certain degree of protection for fighters. The code later became the basis for the London Prize Ring Rules, introduced in 1838 for bare-knuckle fighting.
After retirement, Broughton taught youngsters in an amphitheatre arena bought with funds saved from his career as a fighter, and also introduced the use of “mufflers”, the first boxing gloves ever to be used. Broughton was a truly pivotal figure in shaping the modern sport of boxing.
The Modern Sport
Thomas George Farr
One of the most famous Welsh boxers of the 20th century, Farr was born at Clydach Vale in South Wales and was nicknamed “The Tonypandy Terror”. He was a heavyweight fighter and became both British and Empire Heavyweight Champion in March 1937.
He faced the hugely formidable Joe Louis at the height of his career on 30 August 1937 in the bout for the World Heavyweight Championship. Farr lost in a points decision over 15 rounds and really held his own against one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Louis had knocked out 8 of his last 9 opponents and went on to knock out his next 7, but couldn’t do the same with the “Tonypandy Terror”.
Farr retired in 1941 but lost most of his fortune and subsequently spent the rest of his days managing a pub in Sussex. He died St. David’s Day of 1986.
Sir Henry Cooper OBE is considered among the best British heavyweights of all time, alongside Frank Bruno, Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Bugner, Tommy Farr and Lennox Lewis. He is affectionately known as “Our ‘Enry”, referring to his Cockney roots, and remains one of the most popular celebrity figures to have emerged from boxing.
Cooper has held the British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight champion. He also had two very high profile fights with Muhammed Ali. The first time they fought in 1963 (Ali still calling himself Cassius Clay) at Wembley Stadium was a non-title contest. Cooper was almost triumphant when he knocked Ali down in the fourth round with a pounding left hook, affectionately referred to in boxing as “Enry’s ‘Ammer”. Ali eventually won the contest, but following the bout, Ali famously stated on British Television that Cooper “had hit him so hard that his ancestors in Africa felt it”. The second time the pair met was to contest the world title. Ali beat Cooper once again to become “The Greatest” in Highbury, 1966.
As well as his boxing titles, he was also the first to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award twice; in 1967, for going unbeaten throughout the year, and in 1970, when Cooper was the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight champion.
In 2000, he was recognised for his contribution to boxing with a knighthood, the first boxer to receive the honour. In a career spanning 17 years (1954-71) he achieved 40 wins, 27 of which were knockouts, suffered 14 defeats and 1 draw.
Similar to his predecessor Henry Cooper, Franklin Roy Bruno is a British institution. He is a popular cultural figure in the UK who has been regularly in the news and on stage. Although often slightly overshadowed by his celebrity profile, his boxing career was comprehensive and impressive. The highlight of his career was when he won the WBC Heavyweight championship in 1995. Of his 45 career contests, he won 40.
Bruno became a professional boxer in 1980 and proceeded to win his following 21 consecutive bouts by knockout. His explosion onto the scene really caught the attention of the boxing press, but his incredible winning streak was to end. In March 1984, he faced American James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, who went onto become Heavyweight World champion and defeated Bruno by knockout in the tenth and final round.
Unfortunately history repeated itself for Bruno in 1986 when he challenged Tim Witherspoon for the title of WBA World Heavyweight Champion and, after leading on the cards for most of the fight, he was knocked out in round 11. Criticism was subsequently levied at Bruno for not having the stamina or killer instinct to win the big fights.
It took time and some big losses for Bruno to finally become world champion. The big fight of Bruno’s career came in 1989, Bruno vs. “Iron Mike” Tyson for the unified World Heavyweight title, but Tyson defeated Bruno in five rounds. In 1993 he went onto face Lennox Lewis in a third world title chance, and again Bruno was defeated by the younger fighter. However, on 2nd September 1995 Bruno’s time came, becoming world champion by defeating Oliver McCall over 12 rounds. Bruno did not hold onto his title for very long, his first defence of the title being a rematch against Tyson, who again prevailed by knockout in the third round. This would prove Bruno’s last professional fight.
Bruno’s post-boxing career has been varied and colourful. Following retirement from the sport, he appeared frequently in pantomime and this is perhaps what he became most famous for to a new generation. To add to the acting, he also released released a cover version of “Eye of the Tiger” in 1995 – the theme song of the movie Rocky III – that reached #28 in the UK charts.
The events that followed were to leave Bruno’s reputation slightly tarnished though. In January 2001 he announced that he would like to stand for the Conservative candidacy in the Tory seat of Brentwood and Ongar and his proposed slogan was “Don’t be a plant, vote for Frank!”. The idea was not surprisingly dismissed by the Conservative party. Then, in September 2003, Bruno was taken from his home by medical staff under the provisions of the Mental Health Act, and admitted to Goodmayes Hospital in Ilford for psychological testing. It was revealed that he had been abusing cocaine, that in part, had contributed to a long-lasting bout of depression.
Despite being hounded by the tabloid press, Bruno has since made appearance on BBC Radio as a guest speaker and also occasionally on television.
Nigel Benn held world titles at both Middleweight and Super Middleweight. Like Bruno, Benn exploded into professional boxing in 1987 by winning 22 consecutive knockout bouts and quickly developed an aura of invicibility. During this golden period of his career, he was popularly referred to as “The Dark Destroyer”.
Benn became world champion by knocking out Doug DeWitt in the Middleweight championship challenge in Atlantic City. He successfully defended the title against Iran Barkley, but subsequently lost the title at the hands of long-term rival Chris Eubank at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham on November 18th 1990. Benn conceded the title to Eubank in round nine, stopped on his feet in a fight hailed as one of the greatest in British history.
Benn then went onto take the WBC Super Middleweight title by knocking out Mauro Galvano and retained the title against various challengers, including Nicky Piper, Galvano and Lou Gent before meeting Eubank for a rematch. The fight was a twelve round draw, Eubank retaining his WBO World title and Benn his WBC World title.
The most famous fight of Benn’s career came in the form of World Middleweight champion Gerald McClellan, largely for the wrong reasons. McClellan was considered the hardest puncher in the world at the time. The fight started extremely aggressively from both parties and continued that way for most of the bout. In the first round McClellan knocked Benn from the ring and although stunned, Benn bounced back to continue. Benn survived a considerable beating in that first round from his eager opponent, but amazingly Benn withstood the tremendous assault.
The 30 minutes that followed this point in the bout are considered the most vicious in British boxing. Neither man backed off, trading heavy blows and stabbing punches. Finally, McClellan was worn down and in round ten, went down on one knee. As the joyous crowds flooded the ring, McClellan abruptly collapsed on his way back to his corner. On the way to the hospital he lost consciousness and did not regain it for a long time. McClellan was left blind, 80% deaf and partly paralyzed. Unsurprisingly, it is believed this bout sapped the fighting spirit from Benn.
In 1996 he conceded his WBC World title to “Sugar Boy” Malinga in a 12 round decision. He then faced Steve Collins in the WBO world title challenge, but lost by knockout in round four. The bout went to a rematch due to the fact Benn had broken his ankle in the first fight. However, he retired on his stool after 6 rounds and conceded the victory once again to Collins.
Benn was a formidable fighter and sportsman, holding a fine record of 42 wins, 5 losses and 1 draw, with 35 wins by knockout as a professional. After retirement, he appeared in the ITV reality TV show “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!!”, which he lost to former Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn. A biography has been published chronicling Benn’s life, entitled Dark Destroyer.
Christopher Livingstone Eubanks (later dropping the ‘s’ to form Eubank) held the WBO Middleweight and Super Middleweight titles. He built a considerable celebrity profile for himself during and after his career in boxing, largely owing to his eccentric and colourful personality.
Eubank grew up in poverty for most of his childhood in Peckham and Hackney. With his mother, he moved to the South Bronx, New York when his parents divorced. There he found himself back on the straight and narrow and began to box at his local gym.
He quickly became an amateur boxer and in 1984 won the New York Spanish Golden gloves. The following year he reached the semi-finals of the New York Daily News Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden, where the controversy surrounding him began, as he bizarrely bit his opponent’s shoulder.
In January 1988 he returned to the UK and began his career seriously as a professional. By October that same year, he had already racked up 10 wins in 10 bouts and began to fan the flames of his rivalry with Nigel Benn. In 1990 he won an inter-continental title and a shot at the world title in an amazing 20 second match with Brazilian Reginaldo Dos Santos. This would be followed in 1990 Eubank with the WBO world middleweight title, coming at the expense of Nigel Benn. Eubank then retained his title against Dan Sherry, Gary Stretch and finally in a great match with Michael Watson. Eubank concluded his middleweight career with 28 wins without a single loss.
In 1991 he fought Michael Watson in a rematch that was to be arguably the greatest fight in a British ring and one of the most ill-fated in the sport’s history. In 11 rounds Eubank was losing on the score card, but miraculously rose from the canvas to deal a upper cut to Watson. He quickly followed this devastating blow with a left hook and Watson was sent reeling into the ropes. The bout continued into the 12th round but Watson collapsed soon afterwards and was close to death, ending up in a coma. It was reported that Eubank contemplated quitting the sport after this fateful bout. It is certain that Eubank lost his desire to win by knock out. In fact, he never boxed at middleweight again and missed out on the opportunity to be ranked alongside the all time greats such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard.
Eubank continued to fight and win matches despite his unwillingness to force opponents into knockouts. In a bout with Steve Collins, Eubank had Collins bleeding and disorientated but seemingly refused to land the killer blow. Eubank lost on points and after this bout retired, having won 45 fights and lost 2.
By the next year, however, Eubank had returned to boxing and faced Joe Calzaghe in a memorable fight. The young Joe Calzaghe proved too fit and strong for Eubank and won the bout, but claimed that Eubank had given him the toughest fight of his life. Eubank finally retired at the end of 1998 having been two weight world champion for six years.
Outside of the ring, Eubank has a celebrity status that arguably cannot be matched by any other boxer. He is an eccentric, who appears to have invented for himself the character of a stereotypically upper-class Englishman, dressing in classic aristocratic gentleman wear, including a monocle. He also speaks with a lisp and with an upper-class register and accent, the curiosity of which has attracted much media interest. In 1991 and 1993, for example, he won the Britain’s Best Dressed Man award, given by the Menswear Association of Great Britain, and in 1995 he received the Best Dressed Sportsman award from the Daily Express.
Following this early TV fame on Spitting Image, he also appeared on Top of the Pops, introducing the new Madness single, and also on Louis Theroux, who accompanied Eubank through his daily life for a period of time in 2001.
In 2003, he also dabbled in his own personal form of reality TV in the show At Home With The Eubanks, which was broadcast on Five. His celebrity TV life since has been extensive and he has featured in TV ads for Nescafe, McDonald’s, and Jaffa Cakes.
Lennox Claudius Lewis has represented Canada in the Olympics and also fought under the British flag as a professional. Alongside Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield Lewis he is one of only three boxers in heavyweight history to have won the Heavyweight Championship on three separate occasions.
Although, born to Jamaican parents in the UK, Lewis and his family went to live in Canada at an early age and it is there where he began to box. Still a youngster, he represented Canada as a super-heavyweight in the 1984 Olympics. At the following Olympics in Seoul 1988, he won the gold medal in his category with a technical knock out in the second round.
Having achieved Olympic success he returned to the UK and turned professional, quickly moving up the rankings. By 1990 Lewis had won the European heavyweight title, to which he added the British heavyweight title shortly after in 1991, and the Commonwealth by 1992. That same year, he achieved number 1 place in the WBC World’s rankings and on January 14th 1993, he was declared WBC Heavyweight champion, the first British titleholder in the 20th century. He managed to defend his title in 3 fights, before losing it to Oliver McCall in 1994. He won back the title in 1998, knocking out champion Shannon Briggs in five rounds.
Lewis vs. Holyfield
In the first of a series of high profile fights in his career, Lewis faced Evander Holyfield in New York on March 13, 1999. The bout was declared a draw amidst much controversy, as most believed Lewis had won the fight. The pair staged a rematch in Las Vegas eight months later, this time Lewis winning a closely fought contest.
On June 8 2002, Lewis defended his title against Tyson, one of the most anticipated fights in boxing history. The two heavyweight giants promised a great boxing spectacle and the fight was the highest grossing pay-per-view event in history, generating $106.9 million, but was very much a one-sided contest. Lennox wore Tyson down with a long reach and lots of jabs and, in the eighth round, knocked him down to the canvas with a perfectly timed right hand. Tyson did not fight on.
Lewis found more of a match when he faced Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko, the WBC’s No. 1 contender and former WBO holder. Klitschko was an extremely strong and heavy fighter like Lewis and Lennox almost fell in the second round. However, he recuperated somewhat in the fifth and sixth rounds and in round seven the fight was stopped as a result of a severe cut on Klitschko’s left eye, not without controversy.
Despite calls for a rematch between Klitschko and Lewis, Lennox refuted claims that he was preparing to fight the Ukrainian again. Lewis decided to hang up the gloves and dedicate himself to sports management and music promotion. In a truly incredible career, at retirement his record was 41 wins, 2 losses and 1 draw, with 32 wins by knockout.
Naseem Hamed is a boxer who has been surrounded by considerable controversy for the majority of his career, such as his famous altercation with Chris Eubank in Heathrow airport. Although he has not officially announced retirement, his return is unlikely, having been jailed for 15 months in May 2006 for dangerous driving.
Hamed’s fights were characterised by extremely flashy and arrogant behaviour, including spectacular (and ostentatious) ring entrances. He was also a devastating boxer and for a time held both the British bantam and featherweight titles.
Hamed had a very quick-footed style and rarely blocked punches, but instead stepped back or moved aside helped by his quick reflexes. He employed a devastatingly powerful straight left jab, that had been known to finish fights with one blow, or combined with an upper jaw cut to phase opponents. His style owed much to his first manager Brendan Ingle, who introduced a young Naseem Hamed to boxing at St. Thomas Boxing school gym in Wincobank, Sheffield.
At the age of 20 Hamed had risen through the rankings of professional boxing and won the European Bantamweight title from Vincenzo Belcastro in twelve rounds. After one defence, he added the WBC International Super-Bantamweight title to his resume in 1994, overwhelming Freddy Cruz in Sheffield, whom he knocked out in the sixth round.
1995 was arguably his finest year though. Hamed moved up to featherweight in order to face defending WBO World Featherweight champion Steve Robinson. Riding on a high, Hamed won the fight, knocking out his opponent in 8 rounds in front of Robinson’s home crowd in Cardiff. He then defended his title against Nigerian Said Lawal and knocked him out in just 45 seconds, the fastest ever fight held in Scotland.
Hamed then went on to defend his title against Puerto Rican Daniel Alicea, who dropped him down to the canvas in round one, much to the surprise of the crowd. Hamed altered his tactics slightly in round 2 and bounced back to knock his opponent out and win the tie, but cracks were beginning to show.
He subsequently defeated IBF world champion Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson in 8 rounds and then successfully defended his titles against Juan Gerardo Carbrera. Still just about on his throne, “Prince Naseem” continued winning high profile bouts in the United States against Kevin Kelly, who he defeated in four rounds with a knock out. Following this huge fight, he enjoyed three more victories against Wayne McCullough, Wilfredo Vazquez and Cesar Soto.
Hamed’s seemingly unstoppable winning streak finally came to an end on April 7th 2001 though, when he fell at the hands of Marco Antonio Barrera. Hamed before this bout held a record of 35 wins 0 losses and Barrera had a record of 52-3. The two fighters employed very different styles, but in this fight it was Barrera who threw harder punches and more impressive combinations. Barrera won the bout with a unanimous decision on the scorecards and won the vacant IBO Featherweight title.