Obituary: Bruce Woodcock

Bruce Woodcock, boxer: born Doncaster 18 January 1921; British and Empire heavyweight champion 1945-50; European heavyweight champion 1946-49; married 1947 Nora Speight (one son, one daughter); died Doncaster 21 December 1997.

Bruce Woodcock was one of Britain's sporting heroes in those heady, deprived, optimistic days immediately after the Second World War. He had a snappy left jab, a big, honest heart and plenty of charisma, and was the dominant European heavyweight of his generation.

When the world heavyweight champion Joe Louis retired, the great British sporting entrepreneur of the day Jack Solomons matched Woodcock with another American, Lee Savold, for the vacant championship at White City in June 1950. It was not recognised as a title fight far beyond Britain, but none of that worried the crowd of more than 50,000.

Woodcock's workouts attracted as many as 5,000 at a time. Sadly, his world championship claim evaporated because of a vile, snaking cut which ran the length of his left eyebrow. The fight was stopped in round four.

It is a lamentable reflection of the standards of the day that Woodcock was able to box Savold at all: he was virtually blind in his left eye, the result of an earlier drubbing at the hands of the Pennsylvan- ian former miner Joe Baksi, and yet passed all medical examinations,

Woodcock learned his boxing at impromptu bouts with boyhood friends in a local copse known as "Three Cornered Wood", and eventually at an amateur club. "Boxed with man in gym," wrote the 12-year-old future champion. "He made my nose bleed." And a little later: "Boxed with same man. He broke my two front teeth. But I know I can beat him now." That's the way he always was. Getting hurt was a part of the job. Winning was what mattered.

As an 18-year-old railwayman Woodcock boxed for England in the 1939 European Championships in Dublin, and won the ABA light- heavyweight title. By 1942, he was a professional.

For two years, up to the summer night in July 1945 when he became British and Empire heavyweight champion by knocking out Jack London, Woodcock trained in a tiny, home-made gym in an old stable at the back of The Plough pub in Doncaster.

There was no running water, and the tiny ring was jammed flush against the walls, which made sparring hazardous. Yet from these antiquated conditions Woodcock launched himself into world class. The gym, which legend has it was a hiding place for Dick Turpin in the 1730s, is still in use.

Woodcock beat London, whose son Brian would fight Muhammad Ali 20 years later, in the first of the splendid outdoor promotions staged by Solomons. This one was at White Hart Lane. Woodcock won in six rounds. Ever the homespun hero, he declined all invitations to celebration parties and drove straight back to Doncaster.

He was hurried too quickly into world class and lost to Tami Mauriello in the fabled Madison Square Garden, New York, when he hurt a knee, and yet a fortnight later outpointed Freddie Mills over 12 hard rounds at the Harringay Arena.

Two months later, Woodcock knocked out Albert Renet of France in six rounds to become European champion, and then in September 1946, he stopped Lesnevich in the eighth of a non-title fight before a sellout crowd at Harringay.

The year's earnings were enough to buy Bruce and his wife Nora their first house, plus another one for his parents away from the poor "Low Drop" area of Doncaster where they had lived for so long.

In his autobiography, Two Fists and a Fortune, published shortly after his career had finished in 1951, Woodcock remembered:

Bright lights, gay nights, champagne parties and pretty women are not for me. I know better than anyone how lucky I was to have the chance to earn the money that lifted us out of the drabness and frequent despair of the surroundings down in the Low Drop. Right from a kid I had to learn the value of every penny.

Woodcock's world came crashing down when he fought Joe Baksi in 1947. He was floored with the first punch, and today the flickering tape bears terrible witness to his immense bravery. Woodcock's punishment lasted 20 minutes, described by the contemporary Weekly Sporting Review as "seven of the most wicked and vicious rounds ever endured by any fighter, any time, anywhere".

He remembered the horror only too well. "My legs, arms, head, all seemed to be leaving me. I couldn't see properly. The whole vast arena seemed to be swimming round me in a crazy whirlpool of lights. I lost all sense of balance and distance, all count of time."

His jaw was broken, he had a detached retina in his left eye, yet in the autumn of 1948, he returned with a bloodless victory over the American Lee Oma and then in December won again when Lee Savold was disqualified for hitting him low.

After a successful Empire title defence in Johannesburg against Johnny Ralph, Woodcock and Freddie Mills drew 46,000 to White City for a rematch. Thousands crammed Great Windmill Street off Piccadilly simply to see the fighters arrive for the weigh-in. Woodcock won in 14 rounds.

The cut eye ruined his chances against Savold, but while the promoter Solomons attempted to talk up a rematch, Woodcock defended his British and Empire titles against the younger, untested Jack Gardner, and retired after the 11th round. Gardner's punches had closed his one good eye.

In retirement, he remained in the Doncaster area, and for many years kept a pub. He rarely talked publicly about boxing, but acknowledged that it had enabled him to put his son through college and provide his daughter with a convent education. That probably meant more to him than any of his victories.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Subsea Cables Installation Project Manager

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Subsea Cables Installation Project Manager

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Head of Offshore Operations & Interfaces

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Offshore Engineering Design Manager

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices