THIS week’s article takes the form of a series of quiz questions related to British fighters who have fought undisputed world heavyweight champions. So readers might not wish to read it through in one go, but to try to answer the questions as they go along.
The heavyweight championship of the world became fractured after Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali in 1978. Since then, the line has been well and truly broken. Between John L. Sullivan in 1887 and Leon Spinks, 91 years later, 25 men were regarded as being the undisputed world heavyweight champion at one time or another. I exclude Ernie Terrell and Jimmy Ellis from this list as both achieved only partial, and questionable, recognition with the WBA.
Only seven of these 25 champions did not meet a British opponent at some time during their career. Who were they? If it helps, four of them became champions before 1930, and three since.
The pre-1930 champions were James J. Jeffries, Marvin Hart, Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey. None of them even came close to meeting a British fighter. In the case of Jeffries and Dempsey, there were simply no decent British heavyweights of sufficient class to fight them. Dempsey only met one European, an overmatched and underweight Georges Carpentier, in the first million-dollar gate in 1921. Hart was probably the worst of the 25 champions, and he did not reign for long. For most of Willard’s tenure, Britain was at war. Jack Johnson and Gene Tunney stand out as being among the best of the remaining champions from this era, and they fought three British men between them.
As well as knocking out Bob Fitzsimmons, a Cornishman, Johnson also fought in Plymouth in 1908, defeating the “Woolwich Infant”, Ben Taylor, in eight rounds. Tunney met Herbert Crossley of Mexborough in 1921, and the Yorkshireman gave him a good scrap, losing by decision over the unusual distance of seven rounds in a bout cut short to meet time constraints. Poor Herbert died shortly afterwards and his brother, Harry, went on to become a good British light-heavyweight champion.
Jack Sharkey beat Phil Scott, from Herne Bay, in an eliminator for the world title in 1929, and Max Schmeling and Primo Carnera fought against quite a few British opponents, and they shared one of these – a Deptford heavyweight who also lost to Scott twice by knockout. This man was Jack Stanley.
Who were the three American champions from the 1930s who only ever fought one British fighter, and who was that fighter? For it was the same man.
Max Baer, Jimmy Braddock and Joe Louis all fought Tommy Farr of Tonypandy, the British heavyweight champion at the time. Tommy had beaten Baer in London in 1937, thereby setting up his 1937 title contest with Louis. He then lost to both Baer and Braddock in the States during 1938. Rocky Marciano famously beat Don Cockell in a rough-and-tumble affair for the title in 1955, but who was the only British opponent of one of his predecessors, Ezzard Charles?
In an awful contest at Harringay Arena in 1956, Charles was thrown out by referee Frank Wilson for persistent holding against Dick Richardson of Newport. It seems to me that he just came over for the payday, as he was well past his best at the time. Floyd Patterson knocked out both of the British fighters that he met, in 1959 and in 1966, and both were British heavyweight champions. Ingemar Johansson also met both of these men among the six Britishers that he faced, and the same two men also both fought Muhammad Ali.
Brian London and Henry Cooper both came unstuck against all three of these champions, neither of them managing to last the distance in any of the contests. They also both fought Joe Bugner, who was the only British opponent of the great Joe Frazier. A fight that has perhaps been forgotten by many took place at Liverpool Stadium in 1977, when Leon Spinks had his second professional contest against a lad from Bolton – Peter Freeman.
The three champs since the war who did not meet a British fighter? They were Jersey Joe Walcott, Sonny Liston and George Foreman.