By Alan Hubbard
When Daniel Dubois
and Nathan Gorman
, the early twentysomethings step into the ring at London’s O2 this Saturday night
as arguably the two outstanding young heavyweights in world boxing they will be contesting the prestigious British heavyweight championship for the 111th
time in the history of the division.
Not every one of those contests dating back to 1911 has been a classic, ranging, from the occasional stinker to the scintillating and sensational.
But because big punching big men traditionally cause mayhem, many are remembered as giving the fans a lot to shout about. Dubois, 21, v Gorman, 23, will be no exception; providing real edge of the seat stuff from round one. Blink and you could miss an awesome KO punch from either man.
Ok, so even this Methuselah of ringside reporting cannot claim to have been present at the atmospheric Ring in Blackfriars, South London when
24-year-old Bombardier Billy Wells – the only boxer posthumously to have a beer named after him by namesake Wells brewery – became the first British champion by defeating Lance Corporal Pat O’Keeffe.
However I was lucky enough and old enough to have seen many a great punch-up involving the likes of Lennox Lewis and Gary Mason and all of those featuring Sir Henry Cooper through to Anthony Joshua.
Alas one I did not witness, and I would love to have been present at, was on that tumultuous night when one of my great boxing heroes, slam-bammer Freddie Mills who valiantly challenged the uncharismatic Bruce Woodcock for the heavyweight title while still virtually a cruiserweight himself.
That a big good ‘un will always eat a good little’un is boxing’s oldest adage and so it proved as I chewed my nails, my ear glued to the radio having been allowed to stay up and listen to the commentary from the packed White City as an 11-year-old schoolboy.
For some reason radio commentaries always seem to bring to life the raw reality of the ring and what a fight that was, Woodcock claiming victory after a bloody war of attrition in the 11th round.
But unquestionably, alongside Bombardier Billy Wells, who was British champion from 1911 until 1919, defending his title fourteen times and the first heavyweight to win the Lonsdale Belt, the most famous figure to have dominated the domestic heavyweight division has to be our ‘Enry,
the only man to have won three Lonsdale belts outright and the only boxer to have been knighted.
Sir Cooper saw off virtually every one of those homespun wanabes who dared to face his famous Enry’s ‘ammer, that lethal left hook which laid out so many of his 55 opponents and even sent Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay as he then was, crashing to the canvas before Henry‘s greatest liability, his fragile eyebrows, allowed the precocious Cassius to achieve the fifth round victory he had predicted at Wembley Stadium.
Jack Bodell, Johnny Prescott, Billy Walker, Dick Richardson, Joe Erskine (three times) Brian London. All succumbed to the Cooper clout in days when heavyweights scaled far less than they do now. Cooper was rarely more than 13½ stones.
But the British title fight that is lodged indelibly in the memory sadly was not his finest hour. As retiring champion he took on the 16 years younger Joe Bugner in what was to be British boxing is biggest-ever controversy.
The no-nonsense London referee Harry Gibbs, a former docker and POW was the best in Britain and among the top half dozen arbiters in the world at the time, but perversely awarded the decision to the young Joe by the slenderest of margins, just half a point, in days when bouts were decided solely by the referee and ridiculously by fractions on the scorecard.
There was uproar and anger in the Wembley Arena and it was the talking point of the nation for days afterwards for Cooper was then the sporting idol of the age, bigger then than even David Beckham was to become and bigger even than Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury are now.
I was among thousands who thought Cooper had positively edged it. So did popular BBC television commentator Harry Carpenter, who could hide his disbelief:”How can they take the man’s title away like this?,” he wailed.
As s the bell rang for the end of the 15th round Cooper turned towards Gibbs holding out his right hand, believing he had won. But Gibbs brushed past him and instead raised aloft the hand of Bugner.
The shock and disappointment on the face of Cooper and the fury of his cornermen , especially voluble manager Jim ‘The Bishop’ Wicks, was replicated throughout Wembley. “I thought I nicked it, ‘Arry”, Cooper remarked to Gibbs who sniffed in reply: “Champions don’t nick nuffin’”
That began a non-speaking feud that was to last until both passed away and at one stage even ended up in court.
Bugner had thus accumulated the Commonwealth and European belts as well as the British, after coming to the UK as a child refugee fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Before embarking on his boxing career he was a talented athlete, a junior AAA discus champion. But he could never attain popularity here even though he was twice to go the distance with Ali.
The later super-scribe Hugh McIlvanney likened his negative style to that of a Greek statue.
Whereas Cooper was and still is to this day revered as a national treasure.
A couple of weeks before the fight, Cooper had announced that it was to be his last. The glittering career would come to an end at The Empire Pool, Wembley, after 17 years and 55 fights.
From then on the public were only interested in one thing; seeing Cooper walk away with a win. And they would flock in their thousands to be part of his farewell party.
Defeat was unthinkable. And since mixing it with Ali and Floyd Patterson on a world level, Cooper was in good form and had not lost for four years.
The stage was set for Cooper to put the young pretender in his place and bow out victorious.
From the outset, things did not go to plan. ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer, made few inroads and it seemed as if years of clubbing opponents incessantly might have finally caught up with both the man and his prized punch.
Bugner, never the most proactive of pugilists, managed to pick Cooper off well and in short, sharp attacks, looked to be ahead in the middle rounds. But, as was his wont, he seemed to ease off as the fight reached its second half and slowly but surely, Cooper clawed his way back, draining every last effort to score well.
Referee Gibbs had them dead level going into the last round. With Bugner coming on strong, Cooper stood his ground and looked like a fighter who believed he had it won – he was the champion, after all.
When Gibbs then lifted Bugner’s arm aloft the old arena erupted in a crescendo of boos and a barrage of objects headed into the ring, aimed at both Bugner and Gibbs.
Bugner became the pariah of British boxing. While retirement brought more adulation for Cooper, the man who had won the fight, would never win the war he had found himself in.
Cooper remained adamant that he “knew certain things went on before the fight” and said this among other allegations in his subsequent biography. Gibbs successfully sued for libel and the book had to be pulped and re-written.
Bugner, though needed to leave Britain to attain recognition. Even a bravura performance against Joe Frazier in which he lost but put up an admirable fight, did little to change public opinion.
He moved to California before retiring for the first time in 1977. He came back again without any great success but was never based in Britain again. In 1986 emigrated to Australia, returning briefly a year later to be stopped in eight at White Hart Lane by Frank Bruno (who, for the record, never did contest the British title).
Of the Cooper fight Bugner was to say later: “I think for me personally it was one of the most hurtful and painful results a fighter could have had. I didn’t win. I never won. I was chased out of my beautiful country, England. Why? Because I beat a legend. I didn’t put my hand up and say I won. Somebody else did it.”
I doubt whether the upcoming intriguing domestic dust-up at the O2 (live on BT) will end up amid such acrimony but I am moving towards thinking then result might be equally controversial.
At least the appointed referee, the very competent Scot Victor Loughlin, will not have to assess the outcome in fractions, or even at all as he has three ringside judges to calculate the arithmetic. Though with two such dynamic punchers in the ring he might need to count up to ten.
Tickets for ‘Heavy Duty’ featuring Daniel Dubois v Nathan Gorman for the vacant British Heavyweight Title, plus Olympic silver medallist Joe Joyce v Bryant Jennings are on sale now. The show also features British Middleweight champion Liam Williams who clashes against France’s former European champion Karim Achour for the vacant WBC Silver middleweight crown. Super-flyweight sensation Sunny Edwards meets Mexican Hiram Gallardo for the vacant IBF super-flyweight title. WBO super-featherweight champion Archie Sharp risks his crown against Jordan McCorry. Returning after an impressive debut is Kent bantamweight Dennis McCann. Hamza Sheeraz, Mark Chamberlain, Jake Pettitt, Louie Lynn, Mickey Burke Jr and Florian Marku add to an exciting line up and tickets are available via AXS.com, Eventim and Ticketmaster and are priced as below:
£300 – (Hospitality)
£200 – Floor
£150 – Floor
£100 – Tier/Floor
£75 – Floor/Tier
£50 – Tier
£40 – Tier