Jack London: Member of a noted boxing dynasty

 

As the eldest son of a legendary British and Commonwealth boxing champion, it was perhaps inevitable that Jack London would follow his father into the fight game. While he was undoubtedly a gifted exponent of the noble art, he is as well known for his contribution to the explosive events in Porthcawl more than 50 years ago that not only made world headlines but remain entrenched in sporting folklore.

He was born John George Harper in West Hartlepool in 1933. As a schoolboy he saw his father lose his titles at White Hart Lane, knocked out in the sixth round of a bruising encounter by Bruce Woodcock.

He spent his formative years on Lancashire's Fylde coast. He and his younger brother Brian were members of Blackpool Boys' Club before moving to the Blundell Street gym run by the British flyweight fhampion Ronnie Clayton. His emerging boxing skills were honed during National Service in the RAF, and his fine record as an amateur included victories over an up-and-coming army corporal, later to become his brother's nemesis, Henry Cooper. Jack and Brian were members of the RAF team that won the Inter-Services Boxing Association Championship in 1954.

That August Jack made his pro debut, beating the Pole Johnny Zedd at the Engineer's Club, West Hartlepool. He had, like his father, adopted the ring name of the American author and boxing writer. As a light-heavyweight he traded punches with top-notch opposition including Ron Redrup, Eric Metcalfe, Noel Trigg and the South African Tommy du Preez. He took on Ted Williams six times in quick succession, winning all but the first bout.

Jack possessed a classically English style, a ramrod of a left hand supporting a strong right cross. A more cerebral performer than his father or brother, he based his success on skill, style and ring craft. He won a fair percentage of his fights, but Brian's more explosive punching power gave him the edge, and top-of-the-bill status.

In addition to serving as his brother's sparring partner, Jack proved to be a valuable mentor, trainer and occasional manager. In 1958 he was in the corner at White City when Brian emulated their father by taking the British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles from Joe Erskine. Two years later, on 29 August 1960, at Coney Beach, Porthcawl, Jack was ringside as Brian attempted to take the European title from local hero Dick Richardson.

The eagerly anticipated contest took place in the open air in front of 38,000. As the challenger piled up the points, in the eighth round of a foul-strewn contest Richardson's head opened up an old cut over London's eye. With his corner unable to stem the bleeding, the referee, Andrew Smythe, duly stopped the contest in Richardson's favour.

Incensed, Jack and his father rushed across the ring to confront the Richardson camp, and Brian joined them. A free-for-all – in and out of the ring – ensued, and the police struggled to restore order as fists flew and bodies hit the floor. The mêlée was vividly captured by television cameras and comfortably eclipsed the earlier ring action; it was said that more punches were thrown after the fight than the headliners managed during it. For many years film of the event was used to educate the police in the finer points of riot control.

When the dust had finally settled on what became known as "the brawl in Porthcawl", having found Jack London and his father to be the principal instigators, the British Board of Control fined Brian London £1,000 and suspended him for three months. As a rider, the Board congratulated London's opponent, Richardson, for his restraint and self-control during the mass punch-up.

In February 1964 Jack made a return to the ring at Blackpool's Tower Circus, comprehensively beating Johnny James. Two further wins followed before defeat toLloyd Walford persuaded him it was time to call it a day. In a professional career that encompassed 44 fights in 12 years, he won 28, lost 13 and drew two, with one no contest.

Having experienced the difficulties caused by his father's financial profligacy, Jack invested his own earnings wisely. With his wife Lettie running the cloakroom and he in charge of security, the couple were at the heart of his brother's popular Blackpool entertainment venues. Later, until overwhelmed by long-term illness, he enjoyed success as a landscape gardener.

Kenneth Shenton

John George Harper (Jack London) boxer: born West Hartlepool 8 May 1933; married 1955 Letitia Joan Catterson (died 2004; one son, one daughter); died Blackpool 21 December 2011.

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