Buncey’s BOXXER Bulletin: 1966, Football, Heavyweights and a Few Truths
Off the back of the England football team’s near miss at the Euros last weekend, in this week’s column Steve Bunce looks at the figures who have defined British heavyweight boxing since England’s last major tournament win at the 1966 World Cup. Drawing parallels between the two sports, which comes out on top?
British heavyweights have featured in thirteen world title fights in the past five years – but it hasn’t always been that way.
When Henry Cooper challenged Muhammad Ali at Highbury in 1966, he was the first British boxer to fight for the world heavyweight title in 7 years and only the third in 29 years.
Cooper lost in six bloody rounds, but there was a summer of sport to follow and the World Cup kicked off at Wembley six weeks later.
In one of the greatest miscalculations in promotional history, Ali returned to London eight days after the 1966 World Cup final to defend his title against Brian London. (Just eight days later! Hard to believe.)
Nobody cared, nobody came, London was accused of not trying and it was all over in round three. The truth is that potential fans, men that bought tickets for big fights, were emotionally and financially drained from the England win. Imagine, please, trying to sell a massacre this weekend!
The wait for the next British heavyweight world title challenger was a bit shorter. In 1975, Joe Bugner, the most underrated fighter in British history, lost on points over 15 rounds to Ali in Kuala Lumpur.
In 1976 in Munich, it was Ali again and this time he bludgeoned Richard Dunn in five easy and painful rounds.
Ali had personally taken care of two generations of the best British champions available: Cooper, London, Bugner and Dunn. There would be a long wait for the next challenger. Ali was like the finest Brazil team ever.
Bugner stands alone in British boxing at that time of great American heavyweights, a fighter capable of pushing Ali, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle and Joe Frazier. He was also in the same conversations as George Foreman and Ken Norton. It was a truly great era for heavyweights and especially the Americans.
One night, outdoors at Wembley, in 1986, Frank Bruno fell short when he was stopped by Tim Witherspoon for a version of the world title. ‘Big Frank’ was just starting to struggle before the 11th round finish.
In 1989, it was Bruno again. This time he lost in five rounds to Mike Tyson for three heavyweight belts. It was a great Tyson that night in Las Vegas.
The landscape, however, was starting to shift. The England footballers, meanwhile, were still in their wilderness.
In the Nineties, it changed forever.
Lennox Lewis won a version of the world title in 1993, defended against Bruno the same year. Herbie Hide won a version in 1994, lost it and won it back in 1997.
Lewis lost it, won it back, lost it again, won it back. Lewis dominated, defeating Tyson and Evander Holyfield. He was untouchable at times.
Henry Akinwande also held a version in the Nineties, but other British heavyweights lost in their attempts: Scott Welch, Matt Skelton and Danny Williams.
And in 1995, Bruno, in his fourth attempt won the world heavyweight title. The game had shifted, the Americans were in decline, desperately searching for a new champion. The footballers lost in a semi-final somewhere.
David Haye even had a reign.
After Lewis, Hide and Bruno it was the turn of the modern giants to take over.
Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua have been in a total of 13 world heavyweight title fights. They will be in a lot more fights that will put 90,000 bums on seats at Wembley.
Right now, there are other British heavyweights waiting for their chance and still others getting closer to real world-class. In the next five years as many as six British heavyweights, in addition to Joshua and Fury, will fight for the world heavyweight title.
In 1966, if a wise man had said England will not win a major football tournament in over 55 years, but British heavyweights will become the dominant force in the heavyweight boxing business, he would have been dismissed as a mad man.
The brutal truth is that the British heavyweights have done a lot better than the footballers since that long ago summer of glory in 1966. And in our game, we celebrate them as boxers.