Anthony Joshua against Carlos Takam is the latest instalment in a rich history of heavyweight title fights involving British boxers. They have been cut, dropped, beaten, delighted, crushed, lucky, unlucky, memorable and mostly plucky in over 40 world title fights during the last 51 years.
From when Henry Cooper lost to Muhammad Ali at Highbury in the early summer of 1966 all the way to April, when Joshua turned the clock back with his slugfest win over Wladimir Klitschko, British heavyweights have used magic, had their gloves imprisoned, met the very best and showed tremendous bravery in lost cause after lost cause. They also won a few.
That Cooper and Ali fight was not the famous one with the split glove — that had happened three years earlier — but it was bloody and dramatic, ending in round six with Cooper being led back to his corner. Amazingly, just ten weeks later, and after England’s footballers had famously won the World Cup, Ali returned to London and beat Blackpool’s Brian London in the third round. Ali was a frequent visitor during the next decade or so, but there would not be another world heavyweight title fight involving a British boxer in Britain until 1986.
“Only he and I and the referee know just how damn hot it was in there,” said Ali after beating another Brit, Joe Bugner, on points over 15 rounds at 10am at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur in June 1975. Bugner was criticised for not trying, Ali defended him but there was an ugly fall-out with the British boxing press. “I got bloody crucified,” screamed Bugner. “It was a miracle we could move under those conditions.” Ali was at the hospital after the fight on a drip, suffering from dehydration and Bugner, exhausted, stiff and sore was back at the hotel and foolishly posed in the swimming pool with a glass of champagne. “I was stitched up, a photographer gave me the drink,” Bugner pleaded.
It was in Kuala Lumpur that the gloves were placed in prison the night before the fight to keep them safe. “How can you put my gloves in jail? They ain’t done nothin’…yet!” Ali told the vast press corps. Bugner was just 25 that night and took 16 months out, all part of his enigmatic career. Bugner is the most overlooked boxer in British history, at any weight.
In 1976 Richard Dunn, an ex-paratrooper from Huddersfield, travelled to Munich to fight Ali and he took with him a celebrity magician called Romark, the David Blaine of the Seventies. The plan was for Romark to put Ali in a hypnotised state and increase Dunn’s chances of victory. Romark did get a chance, but Ali actually fell on the floor laughing so hard. In private Romark, who had tried to drive across London blindfolded as one of his stunts, worked on Dunn, telling the giant Yorkshire lump that he had “fists of iron”. In the end, Dunn was brave but battered in five nasty rounds. Romark found Dunn after the loss: “Richard, I let you down, I’m sorry. I made your fists turn into iron – but I forgot about your chin.”
Next it was the turn of Frank Bruno, too often neglected when heavyweight champions are mentioned, and for a decade his bravery dominated. In 1986, he was trailing on points as the brawl entered round 11 against Tim Witherspoon at Wembley Stadium. It had been an epic, draining, emotional fight and Spoon, as the American was known, was weary and marked but he found a punch or two to ruin Bruno. In 1989, Bruno was stopped again, this time by Mike Tyson in Las Vegas and in 1993 it was left to the great Lennox Lewis, one wintry night in Cardiff, to inflict the third consecutive world title defeat on Bruno.
However, Big Frank is made of stern stuff and in 1995, back at Wembley, he beat Oliver McCall, who a year earlier had knocked out Lewis, to finally win the world heavyweight title in his fourth attempt. It was a fairy tale at the time. Bruno lost his title in his last fight the following March when he once again met Tyson in Las Vegas.
Lewis, for his part, won and lost the world title several times, but he was in some truly memorable fights and is now — 14 years after retiring — considered the last of the great heavyweight champions. Lewis had a total of 18 world heavyweight title fights, winning 15, losing two and having one infamous draw with Evander Holyfield in 1999. He first won a world title fight in 1993 and 10 years later he stopped Vitali Klitschko on cuts in his final fight.
Herbie Hide held a version of the world heavyweight title twice, winning it first when he was just 22 in 1994; Hide lost world title fights to Riddick Bowe and Vitali Klitschko and was a much better fighter than he ever gets credit for.
A man called Henry Akinwande, who was born in south London, also held a version of the world heavyweight title and is perhaps best known for getting disqualified against Lewis one afternoon in Lake Tahoe in 1997. “He was not trying, so I threw him out,” explained Mills Lane, the no-nonsense referee.
Scott Welch, Matt Skelton, Dereck Chisora, Audley Harrison and Danny Williams have all lost world heavyweight title fights in the last 20 years; David Haye won the title in Germany in 2009 when he beat the Beast from the East, Nikolai Valuev, but lost when he fought Wladimir Klitschko in the “toe” fight in 2011. Haye is still having heavyweight dreams.
In late 2015, in one of the greatest performances ever by a British heavyweight Tyson Fury stunned the boxing world with a performance of brilliance to beat Big Wlad in Dusseldorf and win several versions of the title. He has not fought since, but his cousin, Hughie, lost on points to New Zealand’s Joseph Parker a few weeks ago.
After Tyson vanished, Big Josh stepped in, dusting off a trio of Americans in 2016 in title fights and in April he met Wlad in a slugfest that could have graced any decade. “It was my type of fight,” Joshua said last week. Joshua is now part of the tradition: a heavyweight fighter carrying a lot of expectation on his shoulders and a man aware of all the good fighters, bad fighters and great British boxers that went before him.