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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own