By Alan Hubbard
There could not have been two more contrasting British boxing champions then Brian London and Kirkland Laing. Both passed away last week, heavyweight London at 87, just a few months short of featherweight Bobby Neill’s record as the nation’s oldest surviving title holder. Laing was 66 and had never really recovered from a bad fall some years earlier.
In terms of personality and performance they were as far apart as their respective birthplaces in Hartlepool, County Durham, and Kingston Jamaica. London, called the Blackpool Rock after the Lancashire coastal resort he moved to as a six-year-old, was a brawler of the old school, a chip off the old boxing block (father Jack, nee Harper) also a Former British heavyweight champion.
While Brian could box and bang a bit he was found lacking when taking on the best. A strict teetotaller, he had little time for life’s pleasantries, revelling in his image of the blunt northerner whereas Laing was laid-back, languid and eminently likeable in a surprisingly successful career fuelled by alcohol and wacky baccy. With good reason they called him The Gifted One.
London campaigned in an era not dissimilar to today’s current crop of talented British heavyweights. He mixed and matched it with the best in Britain – Henry Cooper, Joe Erskine, Dick Richardson, Jack Bodell, Billy Walker, Johnny Prescott and ultimately Joe Bugner, who ended his 58 fight career. Out of those fights London lost 20, but there was hardly a heavyweight in the world he did not tangle with, fighting twice for the world title against Floyd Patterson and then Muhammad Ali and former champion Ingemar Johanesson.
He revelled in his role as boxing’s rough diamond and would not have claimed to be gifted with the bon mot ‘us boxers are just prawns in the game’, he once said famously in a TV interview.
I recall how, on the afternoon of his fight against the American Chip Johnson in Wolverhampton back in the 60s, the era in which he best operated, London and his entourage swept into a local restaurant and sat down and demanded high tea. A waitress said “sorry sir we don’t serve high tea”. “In that case we’ll have bloody low tea then”, London snapped back.
Lack of bravery is something of which you accuse the fighting breed lightly. It takes courage just to clamber between the ropes but those sitting close to London’s corner when he fought Muhammad Ali at Earls Court in 1964 swear they could see and hear his knees knocking before the first bell. And on his own admission London later made it clear he had no intention of mixing it with the Greatest. For two rounds Ali pawed and played with him, unleashing a barrage of unanswered pat-a-cake punches as the Blackpool Rock cowered and covered up.
Early in the third Ali slipped a glancing right cross between London’s high-held gloves and the not so bold Brit quickly slumped to the canvas, one eye open and peeping up at the dancing Ali as the full count was tolled. It was not an edifying picture nor indeed was the one snapped the following morning when London bought his rail ticket back to Blackpool at King’s Cross, the sign above the ticket booth reading “Second Class.” That summed it up. London was to admit afterwards that he swallowed it. “I knew I couldn’t win. He was just too good. I decided not to get knocked to bits and I turned it in.”
At least London never pretended that he tried to make a fight of it and he remarked somewhat whimsically years later when he was told that Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s, probably as a result of his prolonged boxing career. “Don’t blame me, I never laid a glove on him”.
The bout with Ali was London’s second challenge for a world title. In 1959 he had defied criticism and an edict from the British Boxing Board of Control, who did not consider him a worthy contender, and flew to Indianapolis to oppose Floyd Patterson. He was knocked out in eleven rounds, pocketed $75,000 – more than he had earned in his career so far – but fined £1000 by the board for his pains.
One relatively untold tale of London’s chequered career is how the late northern promoter Laurie Lewis offered a tidy sum to another American heavyweight, Jim Fletcher, to take a dive. Lewis admitted this to a group of us some years after London’s retirement to open a Blackpool nightclub. Fletcher, from San Francisco turned out to be a proud man and to say he was outraged at the proposal that it took him only a few seconds to unleash his fury on London at Liverpool Stadium, knocking him cold.
London was one of the few boxers I never really rubbed along with, probably because I hailed from the south though I did work for a time in Lancashire. He was gruff, rude, and often uncooperative with interviews. However he did mellow in retirement.
Laing was the total opposite to London. He was easy-going and easy to get along with. Sadly his was largely a wasted talent. He was carefree in his attitude both in the ring and out but he could fight. And did so with style and verve though Terry Lawless and Mickey Duff, who managed and promoted him respectively, almost tore their hair out because of his unreliability. I rate him with southpaw lightweight Dave Charnley and middleweight Herol Graham as the best British fighters never to win a world title. He even managed to defeat old hands of stone himself, Roberto Duran, over ten rounds in Detroit before going AWOL for almost a year during which he could have had a world championship contest with Sugar Ray Leonard.
It was rumoured that he spent most of that time back in his native Jamaica lounging under a palm tree smoking pot and watching the world drift by on a Caribbean sea as Colin Hart, who knew him well, wrote in his tribute to him in the Sun. “It may not sound feasible but the titles Laing won were achieved with the bare minimum of training – and a mountain of marijuana.”
Laing, who won British, European and Commonwealth titles was a ring artist who painted pugilistic pictures on canvas and it is a shame that his talents have been overlooked in the mists of time.