WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and potential challenge Anthony Joshua are circling each other once again. The two elite big men of the last decade have been here before, so close to agreeing the biggest all-British bout in history before talks have stalled. But the excitement surrounding this fight is indicative of the modern lot of the British heavyweight.
Fury and ‘AJ’ head up perhaps the best crop of big men the country has ever produced. Beneath the two figureheads sits an array of talent, including Joe Joyce, Daniel Dubois and Dillian Whyte. Extend the era a little further back and we have had David Haye wearing WBA gold and Derek Chisora proving himself to be a very able contender. But this was not always the way.
For the majority of boxing history, the idea of the “horizontal British heavyweight” has persisted. It is a grim reputation but one that has sadly been deserved. We are spoiled with championship-level British fighters nowadays. Apart from Andy Ruiz Jr’s six-month IBF, WBA and WBO title reign in 2019, a British fighter has held at least one of the sanctioning body belts every single day from 9th April 2016 until today. In contrast, there were no British holders of a world heavyweight championship title between Bob Fitzsimmons losing the title in 1905 and Lennox Lewis lifting his first in 1992.
Many challengers stepped up in that time. Some of them challenged the greatest heavyweights that have ever lived, some of them were bludgeoned long before such noble failures were a possibility. But one thing linked these wannabes, never-could-bes and never-would-bes. Their inevitable defeat to sharper, better-prepared or just plain more-talented fighters from America.
Welshman Tommy Farr exists on the more glorious end of the failed world title challengers. ‘The Tonypanda Terror’ earned his crack at the richest prize in sports with a win over former champion Max Baer. A quality fighter who had reigned as British heavyweight champion, Farr gave a superb account of himself against world boss Joe Louis. The Welsh fighter hurt Louis several times in a bout that would win The Ring Magazine Fight of the Year. But after coming so close to glory he could taste it, he lost six of his next eight bouts before retiring. Britain’s first heavyweight title challenger since Fitzsimmons ended up as another “horizontal British heavyweight”.
Don Cockell would join Farr in the history books as a UK big man blitzed by one of the all-time greats. Rocky Marciano mauled the man from Tooting. Unlike Farr, who emerged having looked to be Louis’ equal at times, Cockell was dismantled in brutal fashion by ‘The Brockton Blockbuster’.
From one ‘Rock’ to another, ‘The Blackpool Rock’ Brian London would become the first frequent-flyer in the “horizontal British heavyweight” club. A former British and Commonwealth kingpin, London had nonetheless been found out when stepping up in class. Henry Cooper, Johnny Prescott and Jack Bodell all beat him at domestic level. But London did earn two shots at the heavyweight crown. Floyd Patterson knocked him out in 11 rounds of a 1959 bout. Most famously, Muhammad Ali blasted him out in three rounds in a 1966 title defence. Britain once again had been found wanting on the world stage.
Henry Cooper’s status as Britain’s most famous and popular boxer of the 1960s summed up this phenomenon. A brave battler and a record-breaker at domestic level, Cooper nevertheless struggled when faced with the elite. He famously knocked down a pre-Ali Cassius Clay in 1963 on the way to a loss on cuts. In a rematch with the title on the line, Ali once again opened up the face of Cooper. He would later become Sir Henry Cooper for his services to the sport, but the world heavyweight championship would never sit proudly on his mantle.
It would be nine years before another British heavyweight even got a shot at the title. Joe Bugner was the recipient, but he was worn down by Ali in fifteen gruelling rounds. Halifax heavy Richard Dunn was knocked out in five rounds the following year. Title fights for British boxers were a rare occurrence in boxing’s banner division. When they did occur, they only ended one way.
The late 1980s brought the emergence of a man who seemed destined to change all that. Frank Bruno was an adonis physically and a teddy bear emotionally. A mainstream hit with domestic audiences, he dropped the smiles and hugs routine when stepping through the ropes. The exciting contender raced to 21-0 with 21 knockouts before he met future heavyweight champion James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith. The first indications of Bruno’s vulnerabilities were evident when he led on all three scorecards going into the tenth and final round, before being knocked out.
Bruno rebuilt, winning seven bouts on the spin. This run of form included a European title win and a stunning first-round knockout of former champion Gerrie Coetzee. Affable Frank finally seemed ready. WBA champion Tim Witherspoon was his next target and this time he was determined to make it count. But Bruno faded down the stretch again. Once again, he led in the opinion of the judges. Once again he was knocked out. Once again, he was a “horizontal British heavyweight”.
Wins over James ‘Quick’ Tillis and an ancient Bugner got him back into contention again. On this occasion it was timing rather than conditioning that failed Bruno. The undisputed heavyweight champion at this time was ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson. Bruno fought the phenom bravely, even rocking him in the first round. But Tyson was inevitable, right in the dead centre of his terrifying pomp. Bruno was knocked out inside five rounds.
By the time he next fought for the world title, in 1993, Bruno had been pipped to the post. Lennox Lewis was the WBC champion, having broken the cycle of beaten Brits that had existed since Fitzsimmons was defeated at the turn of the century. The all-British battle took place in Cardiff, with Lennox winning a spirited battle in seven rounds.
Bruno would get one more go, resulting in one of British boxing’s greatest nights. Oliver McCall had unseated Lewis for the WBC belt and had successfully defended the title against Larry Holmes. Most felt he would have far too much in the tank for Frank. But Bruno battered ‘The Atomic Bull’, with his conditioning holding out down the stretch for him to win a unanimous decision. The beloved Bruno was a world champion and Britain’s heavyweights were no longer quite so ‘horizontal’.
The travails of Brits in the heavyweight division through history highlights what a special time we are living through. Fury against ‘AJ’ with Bruno and Lewis’ old WBC belt on the line feels like a perfect way to underline how far the big men have come in this country. The negotiations may end up being long but certainly not as long as the 87 year wait between champions we suffered through post-Fitzsimmons.
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