British heavyweight crown now a worthless title

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The Independent Online

A weakness common to veteran sports correspondents is that the past invariably appears rosier than the present. This was the subject of a discussion that quickly picked up pace, becoming quite heated, one night last week at Lytham during The Open Championship. The younger guys present agreed it must have been terrific to see past notables perform but argued that toilers of my vintage should go easy on nostalgia. "Sport has changed so much," one of them said, "it is impossible to make accurate comparisons."

Maybe so, however, there are times today when you look at a forthcoming event, take history into account and know pretty well that things are not what they used to be. This week is such a time.

What I have in mind is the British heavyweight title-defence Danny Williams is making against Julius Francis on Saturday at the Wembley Conference Centre. Both men are above questions of commitment but it is hardly a contest to quicken the pulse or cause a rush on the box office. Sadly, it is a title that few other than the fighters themselves care very much about, where once it was supreme in British sport.

Risking the charge levelled last week, let me take you back a little more than 30 years to March 1971, when Henry Cooper was controversially out-pointed by Joe Bugner at the Empire Pool, Wembley, in defence of his British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles.

They drew a full-house of around 13,000 and the narrow decision arrived at by Harry Gibbs after the old championship distance of 15 rounds caused an uproar, stemming from the 37-year-old Cooper's popularity, that raged for days in newspapers and across the airwaves. Cooper, his intention to retire announced before going to the ring, had fought for the last time, leaving Bugner to suffer the unfair wrath of British fight-fans for the rest of his career.

Anyway, it is fairly safe to say that the British heavyweight title went into decline from there, gradually losing the historical attachment of glamour. Some of the men who have held it since then have long since passed into obscurity, names buried in record books.

On his way up, Lennox Lewis defeated Gary Mason for the championship but relinquished it after a successful defence against Glenn McCrory. Held back for bigger things, Frank Bruno never fought for it.

Cooper's era was that of Joe Erskine (amateur and professional, they fought several times), Dick Richardson, Brian London, Billy Walker and Johnny Prescott: what could be described, in domestic terms, as the golden era of British heavyweight boxing. Contests between these men drew large audiences and were widely reported, before and after the event.

What my young friends may find astonishing was the public's response to a British heavyweight title-fight between Bruce Woodcock and Freddie Mills that took place at the White City, London, on 2 June, 1949.

Even with a restriction imposed following the Bolton crowd disaster, almost 50,000 spectators saw Woodcock stop Mills in the 14th round. This was by no means a record attendance, falling way behind figures set in the 1930s.

Until his retirement in 1937, there was no more popular figure in British sport than the Cardiff heavyweight Jack Petersen. On 12 July, 1933, Petersen defended the title against the handsome Irish contender Jack Doyle, who would later make a career in Hollywood.

More than 70,000 showed up at the White City to see Doyle disqualified in the second round for repeated low blows.

Tickets were priced at three times their face value on the night in November 1934 when Petersen was outpointed by Len Harvey at the Royal Albert Hall.

Special trains brought thousands of Petersen's supporters from South Wales to see him regain the championship from Harvey on a 12th round retirement at the White City seven months later.

Petersen filled Earls Court for a successful defence against Jock McAvoy and the Empire Pool for another victory over Harvey.

I have no intimate memories of that time but people who lived through it as adults, most of them gone, left me with impressions of a boxing atmosphere that has been long since drained away by television.

As emphasised by retrospective comparison, the truth about the British heavyweight title has long been irrefutable. It doesn't amount to much and never will again.

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