Boxing: Heavy mob rumble back to Britain: Tonight's Wembley bout is only the eighth world heavyweight title fight to be held here. Rob Mee on a dubious history

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The Independent Online
FOR nine decades before the arrival of Lennox Lewis, the sporting world laughed at Britain's 'horizontal heavyweights'. And the world was right. The British record was dismal.

Although the art of bare-knuckle prize-fighting was developed in these islands, royal patronage had disappeared with the coronation of Queen Victoria. By the end of the last century the balance of power had shifted to the United States. There it has stayed and tonight's fight between Lennox Lewis and Oliver McCall is only the eighth world heavyweight title fight to be held in Britain or Ireland.

By the turn of the century it was clear that any Briton aspiring to the new 'gloved' world championship had to attempt to do so in America. The truculent Charlie Mitchell, of Birmingham, was the first to try against 'Gentleman' Jim Corbett, at Jacksonville, Florida, on 25 January 1894.

Mitchell knew he had no chance. On the way to the ring, dressed in a clown's hat, he told a friend: 'Here's where I get a good hiding.' During the referee's instructions about a clean fight, Mitchell poured forth a stream of insults. The champion was almost disqualified for hitting Mitchell when the Englishman was down, but eventually left him unconscious in the third round. 'I made him too mad,' Mitchell said.

It was not until 2 December, 1907, that Britain got to stage its first heavyweight title fight, when the Canadian Tommy Burns felt richer pickings were available in Europe.

He came to London, courtesy of the National Sporting Club, who stuffily controlled British boxing from their Covent Garden headquarters. They treated Burns with the respect they felt a colonial sportsman deserved. . . and were astonished at his impertinence when he asked for pounds 1,300 of his pounds 2,400 purse in advance.

The selected victim was 'Gunner' Moir, the British champion, and the poor man was outclassed from the first exchanges until the 10th round when he was knocked out. Moir was so demoralised he lost eight of his next nine fights and turned to acting, playing an executioner in several films.

Burns took another London fight at the Wonderland Arena hired by the East End promoters, Harry Jacobs and Harry Wolfe. His opponent on 10 February, 1908, was Jack Palmer.

Common boxing fans, who were not permitted within coughing distance of the NSC, turned out in force. And Burns, a businessman first, last and always, permitted only one turnstile, then counted every customer and took his agreed cut to the dressing-room. He proceeded to flatten Palmer in the fourth round.

On St Patrick's Day, 1908, Burns defended against the portly Jem Roche in front of a sell-out crowd at Dublin's Theatre Royal and there were 1,700 applications for press passes. A ticketless multitude stood outside, listening as Roche entered to 'The Boys of Wexford'. Minutes later a customer rushed out, moaning, 'It's terrible, they're killing one another, blood everywhere, I can't stand any more.' He sold his ticket for half-price and the latecomer charged inside to discover Roche had been flattened in 88sec.

In 1937, Britain's Tommy Farr took Joe Louis 15 rounds in New York City, but apart from a widely ignored attempt by Britain's major promoter of the day, Jack Solomons, to get recognition for a fight between Bruce Woodcock, of Doncaster, and the American Lee Savold, it was more than 50 years before the bona fide heavyweight championship returned to Britain.

That was when Muhammad Ali defended again Henry Cooper at Highbury in front of 40,000 fans on 21 May, 1965. Cooper had floored the 'Louisville Lip' three years earlier when Ali was plain Cassius Marcellus Clay, before a cut eye left Cooper an unlucky loser. Ali made good his promise to return with the title. 'Our 'Enery' was cut badly again and lost in six rounds.

Ali returned to Earls Court on 6 August, 1966, and chopped down Brian London in three hopelessly one-sided rounds. London's effort was not exactly superhuman. Recently in an after-dinner speech, a heckler asked him how he could defend boxing in the face of the current plight of Ali.

'Well don't blame me, pal,' London said. 'I never laid a glove on him.'

It was the summer of 1986, 19 July to be precise, before Britain staged another championship fight. And it brought another failure when 'Terrible' Tim Witherspoon overpowered Frank Bruno in 11 rounds at Wembley.

When Bruno also failed against Mike Tyson in Las Vegas in 1990, it seemed as if British boxing would have to wait until the 21st century before it celebrated a title victory in a British ring.

Then Lewis caught us almost by surprise. And when he outpunched Bruno in the seventh round at a rain-sodden Cardiff Arms Park 12 months ago, he brought to an end almost a century of frustration for British boxing, becoming the first Briton to win a world title fight on home soil.


2 December 1907 London: Tommy Burns (Can) bt Gunner Moir (GB) ko 10th

10 February 1908 London: Tommy Burns (Can) bt Jack Palmer (GB) ko 4th

17 March 1908 Dublin: Tommy Burns (Can) bt Jem Roche (Irl) ko 1st

21 May 1966 London: Muhammad Ali (US) bt Henry Cooper (GB) tko 6th

6 August 1966 London: Muhammad Ali (US) bt Brian London (GB) ko 3rd

19 July 1986 London: Tim Witherspoon (US) bt Frank Bruno (GB) tko 11th

1 October 1993 Cardiff: Lennox Lewis (GB) bt Frank Bruno (GB) tko 7th