When boxers were Kings

FROM the days of bare knuckle fighting to the 1990s, a new book chronicles boxing's golden days, with guest appearances from Kevin Keegan and a well known politician whose pugilistic skills came in handy on the election trail.

Jack London took on Bruce Woodcock at White Hart Lane

IT’S hard now to imagine, as former champ Barry McGuigan points out in the foreword to ‘When Boxing Was Boxing’, there was a time when the most famous man on the planet was a boxer.

And usually that would be the Heavyweight Champion. From John L Sullivan to Jack Johnson, through Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano to Muhammad Ali, say the name and you could picture the face. Picture the face and you could remember their fights.

As much a part of the character of the fighters were the venues they fought in, turning bouts into huge occasions and events. Two fighters slugging it out in the ring surrounded by a vast swathe of humanity was a common sight.

It was the sport of the people, arguably the most popular in the world. Today things have changed. With the different boxing governing bodies you could have four or five ‘world heavyweight champions’ at any one time while the calibre of fighter seems to have dropped, perhaps because the hunger for success isn’t what it was as many fighters literally fought to eat, not to mention the ever rising popularity of Mixed Martial Arts events.

Boxing has become a bit too showbusiness and lost a bit of its heart. When Boxing Was Boxing re-visits the past with a stunning collection of pictures, celebrating both the greats of the sport and those at grassroots level.

Author Adam Powley said: “It’s unashamedly nostalgic. It harks back to the halcyon days of the sport. However I try not to whitewash it. You can’t do that with boxing. It is often a brutal game and has a fairly murky history.

“While I tried not to airbrush that I did want to celebrate the golden time of the sport.”

A form of boxing - unarmed combat between two opponents - is thought to have originated in Africa or the Middle East before spreading to Europe. By 688 BC fighting had become an Olympic sport in the ancient world. The Romans adopted it, introducing leather thongs to protect hands and bouts were fought to the death until it was banned in AD 339 throughout the Roman Empire.

However the sport continued in various forms up until the 17th Century when in England it became more organised. This led to a boom in bare knuckle heavyweight boxing going into the 18th Century when a fighter called James Figg was crowned the first ever ‘champion’ in 1719.

In 1867 boxing became properly regulated thanks to the adoption of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules which introduced three minute rounds, gloves, a 10 second count and a ban on wrestling holds.

While in the 19th century the heavyweight division was dominated by British fighters, by the turn of the 20th century American boxers took over, including John L Sullivan, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, Jack Johnson and then in 1919 Jack Dempsey.

As well as the legendary heroes portrayed in book there are the local fighters, a number from the North, ordinary men who made their mark in the ring. They include Maurice Cullen from Wheatley Hill, County Durham, who was English lightweight champion, a title he defended four times. Born in 1937, his glory days were in the 1950s and 1960s. After retiring from the sport, he first worked in a chemical factory in Hartlepool, then as a milkman. He is pictured proudly wearing his Lonsdale belt - awarded to British boxing champions - as he began his job as a milkman.

On a historic note, Maurice lost his lightweight title to future Scottish great Ken Buchanan who would later become world champion.

Then there is Jack London. Born John George Harper in West Hartlepool, he took the ring name of Jack London after the American author who also covered fights for American boxing magazines. He was the British and Commonwealth Heavyweight Champion from 1944 to 1945.

His fight with Bruce Woodcock at White Hart Lane is pictured and gives an insight into the vast interest in boxing and the significance of the Heavyweight division. Today there are few people who know who the British Heavyweight champion actually is (Tyson Fury if you’re interested). The same can be said about the World Champions in many of the weight divisions.

Adam said: “Modern boxing is riven with politics with the multiple governing bodies. Things were slightly more straightforward then. It was perhaps the most popular sport in the world and in lots of newspapers would take priority over other sports, including football.

One thing boxers generally didn’t get - which would explain why Maurice ended up a milkman despite being a champion fighter - was big money. “One of the things you do find from the olden days is the purses they fought for were risible,” said Adam.

Many had day jobs, like Alan Richardson, a colliery welder from the North who won the British featherweight title in March 1977, beating Vernon Sollas.

But not in all cases. Muhammad Ali is arguably the biggest name ever to come out of the sport and his popularity transcended the ring. He is pictured in a Tesco supermarket on a promotion for, of all things, Ovaltine, looking a bit more apprehensive of the mob of shoppers clamouring for his autograph than he appeared when fighting Sonny Liston.

Then there were the days of the kings, when the middleweight division ruled the roost. Adam said: “I think that was my favourite era when you had Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran all fighting for the Middleweight crown.”

No book about boxing would be complete without the late Henry Cooper, perhaps the most popular boxer Britain has ever produced. He is pictured getting a jokey punch from Kevin Keegan as part of a commercial for an after shave.

And, amusingly, there is picture of a young John Prescott boxing while in the merchant navy in 1956, showing the form that would stand him in good stead about half a century later when he took to the hustings.

When Boxing Was Boxing is available from bookshops and direct from Haynes at www.haynes.co.uk  or call 01963 442030, priced £18.99.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer