By Steve Bunce

JOE BUGNER was an ancient idol when he separated James Bonecrusher Smith’s shoulder with a jolting right cross one afternoon on the Gold Coast of Australia.

It was 1998 and Aussie Joe was finally a world heavyweight champion, and he wore that World Boxing Federation belt with pride. This is all true, by the way. His only other heavyweight title fight had been in 1975 when he lost over 15 rounds to Muhammad Ali. I love Bugner, but it is hard to keep a straight face when talking about his fight with Bonecrusher. Please, go watch his Earnie Shavers short-lived shootout or the brawl with Joe Frazier in London.

Bugner was 48 years and 110 days at the time and Smith, a child of just 45. The fight finished after three minutes with Smith unable to continue.

“I hit him so hard that I dislocated his shoulder,” Bugner said.

The WBF belt is still going now and the Bonecrusher and Aussie Joe fight was far from the most ridiculous and unnecessary pairing for the bauble. Not even close, trust me. Anybody for Richel Hersisia v Sandro Able Vazquez in the Hague in 2003? Vazquez was 18-23-2 in that fight; he was done in nine rounds. It amazes me that some of the sanctioning bodies survive, it really does. The last six fights for the WBF heavyweight belt have taken place in six different countries.

The first WBF heavyweight title fight was in January 1993, and it featured Lawrence Poncho Carter and a troubled Pinklon Thomas. This is a forgotten little gem with a great backstory.

Thomas had been free of drugs for just one year, one full year; in that year he had fought 13 times. He had left rehab; he was on the very edge of oblivion. He fought 13 times in seven months. He was fighting to save his soul. He had met a woman; he was battling, and he was using the fights as rehab. It’s remarkable. Thomas had last had a legitimate world heavyweight title fight in 1987 when he lost fighting for two of the three recognised belts to Mike Tyson at the Las Vegas Hilton. He had been a world champion a couple of years earlier.

Thomas had also, in November 1992 in his 13th fight of the year, won the inaugural International Boxing Organisation heavyweight title. Yep, the same belt Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk will fight over in May. Thomas had beaten Craig Payne for the IBO belt; Payne was having just his 10th fight and would finish his career with just 11 wins from 33 fights. Thomas struggled in the Payne fight.  It is too easy to forget that boxing’s wild west was really not that long ago.

In January 1993, Thomas entered the ring in Columbia, South Carolina to meet Carter for the inaugural WBF version of the heavyweight championship. There had been a brief time when Carter was 15-0 and then he seems to have found the fridge more often and started to get heavier and heavier. His first loss was in 1986 when Everett Big Foot Martin stopped him. Martin was just two pounds above the middleweight limit; Big Foot would be 98 pounds heavier when he got his crack at the WBF title against Joe Hipp in 1999.

The Carter and Thomas fight for the WBF title had quite a shocking end. Thomas was stopped on his feet in round seven, but he was unable to bend his legs and could not sit on his stool; he was clearly dangerously concussed. He was rushed to hospital, released the following day and retired. That was a bad, bad end for a one-time quality heavyweight.

Carter, meanwhile, was stopped in three in his next fight by Phil Jackson. The WBF belt was not on the line that night; the belt changed hands in July when Jimmy Thunder stopped Melton Bowen, the Jamaican Sledge Hammer, in Australia. At the end of 1993, Johnny Nelson was the WBF heavyweight champion. He beat Thunder in New Zealand, defended in Thailand and lost it in Brazil. This is like an alternative world, a twilight zone of boxing.

In the opening round of Bugner and Smith, there is enough old, old skill on display to make it a fun fight. Smith connects with three rights and Bugner is hurt, but he knows enough to survive. “They nearly knocked my head off,” Bugner said.

The pair were due to have a rematch later in the year and then there was a crazy plan to get Mike Tyson to Australia for a fight with Bugner. If Tyson wanted too much, then Larry Holmes and George Foreman were on the shortlist. They were lunatic days. In the end, Bugner fought just once more. He beat Levi Billups in 1999 and then walked away. He had fought 83 times in total with 69 wins. His career had started in London’s Park Lane in a private club in 1967 and finished 32 years later in a casino on the Australian Gold Coast.