When Lennox Lewis takes on Evander Holyfield in New York in two weeks' time he will be hoping to end a sorry tale of British disappointment and crushed ambition which goes back to December 1907, when Noah Brusso, a squat French-Canadian who had taken Tommy Burns as his fighting name, retained the only acknowledged version of the heavyweight championship with a 10th-round knockout against Gunner Moir at the National Sporting Club in London.
What Burns lacked in size - he stood only 5ft 7in and weighed in around the light-heavyweight mark of 175lb - he made up for with an aggressive style that quickly accounted for the three other British hopefuls, all within five rounds.
History's denigration of Burns as a man on the run from Jack Johnson, who flatted him at Rushcutter's Bay in Sydney, is unfair. As the first truly international champion, prepared to take on anyone who could find a backer, Burns took the title to England, France, Ireland and Australia.
The second of his British victims, Jack Palmer, lasted only four rounds at Wonderland in London. Barely more than a month later, on 17 March 1908, Jem Roche (Ireland was then still a part of the United Kingdom) lasted less than a round in Dublin. When Jewey Smith went over in the fifth round of a challenge to Burns in Paris, it would be 29 years before another British heavyweight fought for the undisputed title.
By then British heavyweights had become a standing (or prostrate if you prefer) joke in American boxing circles, personified by Phaintin' Phil Scott, who lost a chance of going in against the new undisputed champion, Joe Louis, when he cried "foul" once too often in an eliminator against Jack Sharkey.
Exasperated by Scott's antics, the New York boxing impresario Mike Jacobs sought another "safe" opponent for Louis's first defence. The choice fell upon Tommy Farr, a durable but light-punching Welshman whose reputation had soared with victories over Ben Foord (for the British and Empire titles), the former world champion Max Baer, and Walter Neusel of Germany.
Born and raised in the Welsh coalfields, so desperate for betterment that he once walked to London seeking work, Farr had fought his first 10-rounder at just 13 years old and been hardened by booth boxing.
An odd contradiction, both tough and a romantic, Farr's epic stand over 15 rounds, against a man who many would come to regard as one of the greatest heavyweight champions established him as a hero of British sport. On the night of the contest a huge bonfire blazed on the mountainside near Farr's home village, Clydach Vale, and many thousands throughout Britain, their attention held like no other sports event before, gathered around radio sets for the BBC's blow-by-blow commentary.
In reality, Louis was a clear winner but Farr's stubborn resistance temporarily altered America's sneering perception. Remarking many years later on the difficulties he found with Farr's crouching style and unexpectedly good counter-punching, Louis thought the first of his defences to be one of the most difficult. "Maybe I was fooled by what people said before the fight," he later said, "that Tommy wasn't up to it and would run from me."
To this day there are people who believe Farr was robbed at Yankee Stadium in New York but the amiable Welshman never claimed to have done enough. "The very mention of Louis's (he pronounced it Louey) name still makes my nose bleed," he would chuckle. "The morning after the fight it felt as though I had been hit by a truck."
If Farr was given little chance against Louis, even less hope was held for Don Cockell when he met Rocky Marciano in San Francisco in May 1955. A blown-up light-heavyweight (the description is particularly appropriate in Cockell's case because of the glandular disorder that gave him a bloated look even when in peak condition), he took a fearful pounding from the most ruthless heavyweight champion in history, and the only one to retire undefeated.
The BBC's fight commentator, Eamonn Andrews, was shocked by the viciousness of Marciano's repeated fouling. "Marciano is one of the toughest champions who ever rubbed a foot in resin," he said, "but he has never read the rule book. He played a different sport from the one Cockell was taught. He butted unmercifully, he hit with his elbows, he hit low. A British referee would have sent him back to his corner after three rounds."
In agony from a kidney-punch in the first round, Cockell was also hit low, head-butted, struck three times after the bell and while down. And yet the referee Frankie Brown did not issue a solitary caution. Remarkably, showing immense courage, Cockell, a former blacksmith from Battersea in London, went nine rounds before Brown stopped the contest.
The British Boxing Board thought so little of Brian London's prospects against Floyd Patterson in 1959 that it ordered him not to take the contest and subsequently imposed a fine of pounds 1,100 for defiance. London, from West Hartlepool, had emulated his father, Jack, in becoming British heavyweight champion but he was not equipped to provide Patterson with more than a work-out before going over in the 11th round.
One punch, a left hook, resurrected Henry Cooper's ailing career and turned him into a folk hero. Light by modern heavyweight standards, Cooper had eight defeats on his 36-fight professional record when he was matched with the colourful contender Cassius Clay at Wembley Stadium in June 1963. Cut-prone, Cooper was already leaking blood when he dropped Clay just before the bell to end the fourth round.
A mysteriously split glove gave Clay time in which to clear his head and 75 seconds later Cooper was a gory wreck, his face so savaged by Clay's slashing punches that horrified ringsiders screamed for the contest to be stopped.
However, the memory of that one blow encouraged Cooper's supporters to believe he was in with a shout when challenging Clay (by then Muhammad Ali) for the undisputed championship at the Arsenal football ground in May 1966.
Ali's third defence, after taking the title from Sonny Liston and beating him in a re-match, proved to be an anti-climax. Taking no chances with the natural power in Cooper's left arm, Ali ripped into the Londoner's fragile features to win on a sixth-round stoppage.
Barely two months later, shortly after England defeated West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, Ali gave London his second shot at the title. A gross mis-match, it lasted only three rounds. "Ooh, he's quick," a bemused London muttered in his corner after the session.
The Hungarian-born Joe Bugner had almost all it takes to be a world champion - impressive build, strength and courage - all but efficiency in punching and, most importantly, desire. Ali's third defence of the championship he sensationally regained from George Foreman was against Bugner in Kuala Lumpur on 1 July 1975.
Again (he had been earlier out-pointed by Ali in a non-title bout) Bugner could not stir himself sufficiently to give the champion a problem. "At least Phil Scott fainted," an American observer said.
When a Yorkshire born ex-paratrooper, Richard Dunn, was brought forward to challenge Ali for the title in Munich on 25 May 1976, the tale of the tape showed that he was at least a match for Ali in physical dimensions. An American television commentator thought them to look about equal. "Yeah, from the ankles down," somebody else said. Utterly outclassed, sent over five times, Dunn was stopped in the sixth round.
Frank Bruno's elevation to the status of heavyweight contender was a masterpiece of promotion. With his sculpted frame and a record beefed up by astute matchmaking, Bruno looked the part and would eventually become the World Boxing Association champion, but he lacked the instinct for surviving a crisis. This was already clear from violent losses to James "Bonecrusher" Smith and Tim Witherspoon when holding a points advantage, and it left Bruno vulnerable to the terrible force of Mike Tyson's punching when they came together for the undisputed title in Las Vegas on 25 May 1989.
With hindsight, Tyson was on the slide that would lead to a sensational defeat by James "Buster" Douglas but he was still far too powerful for Bruno, who actually shook the champion with a hook in the first round. The plan was for Bruno to make it a rough fight, as Holyfield did in the two contests that finally exposed Tyson's limitations.
It did not work. Deducted a point for a foul blow, Bruno failed to win a round and was being battered on the ropes when the referee, Richard Steele, called a halt in the fifth.
Self-serving fragmentation of the heavyweight championship masks a rarity of the contest between Lewis and Holyfield at Madison Square Garden in New York: Lewis, the World Boxing Council title-holder against Holyfield, who brings the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation belts. As Don King puts it: "for the unmitigated, unadulterated, undisputed heavyweight crown."
A CENTURY OF BRITISH ATTEMPTS TO WIN THE UNDISPUTED WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE
2.12.07 Tommy Burns v Gunner Moir (NSC, London) KO 10th
10.2.08 Tommy Burns v Jack Palmer (Wonderland, London) KO 4th
17.3.08 Tommy Burns v Jem Roche (Dublin) KO 1st
18.4.08 Tommy Burns v Jewey Smith (Paris) KO 5th
3.8.37 Joe Louis v Tommy Farr (New York) Pts 15th
16.5.55 Rocky Marciano v Don Cockell (San Francisco) TKO 9th
1.5.59 Floyd Patterson v Brian London (Indianapolis) KO 11th
2.5.66 Muhammad Ali v Henry Cooper (Arsenal, London) TKO 6th
6.8.66 Muhammad Ali v Brian London (Earls Court, London) KO 3th
1.7.75 Muhammad Ali v Joe Bugner (Kuala Lumpur) Pts 15th
25.5.76 Muhammad Ali v Richard Dunn (Munich) TKO 5th
25.5.89 Mike Tyson v Frank Bruno (Las Vegas) TKO 5thReuse content