By Alan Hubbard
I love light heavyweights. Always have. It goes right back to the night of Tuesday, May 14, 1946 when my dad allowed this wide-eyed eight year old to stay up and listen to my first boxing broadcast. It was the world light heavyweight title fight between the British lionheart Freddie Mills and the American champion Gus Lesnevich.
I was captivated by the blow-by-blow commentary on an encounter brimful of passion and excitement and although Mills lost he typified the bravery and spirit which had brought his country successfully through the Second World War, in which he served in the RAF. All guts and gumption.
He was knocked down early in the fight but he got up and fought his heart out before being stopped in the 11th, bruised battered but going down fighting valiantly.
From then on I was hooked on boxing.
It so happened that I go to know Mills quite well in the years to come. As a teenage schoolboy I earned a few bob in pocket money at the weekends by helping out in a sweet shop in Kennington, south London, managed by my aunt.
Mills, who lived in nearby Camberwell, had by then retired in 1950 following his 101st contest and after winning the title in a return with Lesnevich on points in another glorious showpiece of ferocity two years earlier, which also had my ears glued to the radio.
One of the most popular sports personalities of that era, he was something of a hero to me. I was in awe of him when he came into the shop most Saturday afternoons for half a pound of his favourite sweets – Quality Street. “Put a couple more of those lovely purple ones in, son,” he would say with a knowing wink as I weighed them on the scales.
One day he gave me a couple of tickets for the National Schoolboy Championships at the Royal Albert Hall, where he was to present the prizes, and accompanied me and a mate there. I was knocked out, so to speak.
So you imagine how shocked and distressed I was by his mysterious death in July 1965 – he was found shot through the eye, and slumped in the driving seat of his car parked near the club he part-owned in a Soho backstreet – and the subsequent rumours that he was bumped off either by the Krays or Chinese gangsters to whom he apparently owed money; and even more bizarrely that he was a latter-day Jack the Ripper, a homosexual who had murdered eight prostitutes.
As a journalist then I found that story absolutely preposterous – and so did my aunt with whom I always suspected he had a brief dalliance. He was a lovely, gentle man in every sense.
I shall always be grateful to Fearless Freddie for whetting my appetite for boxing in general and light heavyweights in particular. What attracted me to the division was that while they did not possess the massive punching power of slower-moving heavyweights by and large they were slicker and faster, with greater boxing skills.
Although I never saw him in the flesh I was fascinated by the magic of Archie Moore, the Old Mongoose who arguably was the greatest light heavy of them all. There have been some good ‘uns, too, from the matinee idol Frenchman Georges Carpentier through to Sergey ‘Krusher’ Kovalev via Ezzaerd Charles, Bob Foster, the wonderful Willie Pastano, Billy Conn, Andre Ward and Roy Jones jnr among others.
Here in Britain we can recall that the first British world heavyweight champion, Bob Fitzsimmons, was actually a light heavyweight. Apart from Mills others of distinction have included Len Harvey, Don Cockell, Chris Finnegan, Nathan Cleverly and Jock McEvoy.
While John Conteh, in my book is bracketed with Joe Calzaghe, Ken Buchanan, Naseem Hamed and Lennox Lewis as the best of British pound-for-pounders in post war years.
Which brings me to Anthony Yarde, currently the outstanding light heavy in Britain who last year came heartbreakingly close to winning the WBO world title with a ferocious, storming, Mills-like performance against then champion Kovalev in the provincial Russian city of Chelyabinsk which saw him on the brink of stopping Kovalev before running out of gas and into a tremendous left jab (from Krusher with love?) which shattered his dreams.
Temporarily, we hope, just like Freddie Mills.
It was a highly creditable display from Yarde, not least because he had bravely ventured to Kovalev’s home town.
Yarde ranks highly among my favourite present-day fighters and has done so since his debut in May 2015 after only a dozen amateur bouts.
Which is why I am delighted to see him back in action again this Saturday night, heading another crowd-free bill from the BT studio where he faces former English champion Dec Spelman in what could be a tense ten rounder.
The 29-year old Yarde is one of the modern breed of fighters who continue to be attracted to the Queensberry ranks as they articulate verbally as well as with their fists. He is bright and brainy and very much an useful athlete, footballer and sprinter in his youth.
With 19 wins and just that one defeat, against Kovalev, he is a class act and should have too much nous and power for Spelman, 28, who hails from Scunthorpe and has never been stopped.
His last contest was on a BT show when he lost on points to Lyndon Arthur, scheduled as Yarde’s next opponent, for the Commonwealth title.
It has been an especially wretched time of late for Ilford’s Yarde, losing both his father and grandmother to coronavirus.
But he is a resolute character who gets strength from adversity and I would back him to join that special group who have won a world title at the second attempt. Just like Fearless Freddie.