The Pugil List: English Top 10 American Hits
Sheffield’s Kell Brook is nearly a three-to-one underdog against champion Shawn Porter but should not be discouraged as some of his countrymen stared down larger odds to return home with an extra belt in their luggage. The history of American champions against English challengers is tilted in favor of the home team but the “Tommys” (or “Limeys,” as the Irish in me wants to scream out) have been catching up quite effectively since the 1990s. Before that, the part of the Englishman was played by a lovable loser; we even invented a term for their heavyweight title challengers: horizontal heavyweights.” Is it payback time?
Historically speaking, America has experienced a backlash from heavyweight to featherweight with only a random Englishman popping up to take the title from an American champ before 1990. Even then, it was only loaned out as the rematch or subsequent title challenger inevitably led to America regaining the crown. A look at this top 10 shows six of the 10 fights taking place after 1990 with decades separating victories before British boxing’s rebirth. Even though scientists are still puzzled as to Lennox Lewis’ real national identity (Jamaican heritage but fought for Canada’s Olympic team), I have chosen to view Lewis through British eyes since he was born in London.
When a choice had to be made between two fights, I went with the upset over plain victory or the dramatic over a close but unemotional affair. Missing the cut were Carl Froch W 12 Jermain Taylor, Amir Khan KO 5 Zab Judah, Ola Afolabi TKO 7 Orlin Norris, Ted “Kid” Lewis W 10 Mike O’Dowd, Jackie “Kid” Berg W 10 Tony Canzoneri, Owen Moran W 6 George Dixon, Ricky Hatton TKO 11 Paul Malignaggi, Nigel Benn KO 1 Iran Barkley, Paul Hodkinson W 12 Steve Cruz and Herol Graham W 12 Vinny Pazienza.
10. Lennox Lewis W 12 Evander Holyfield II – This is a fight which should not have been necessary. Lewis clearly beat Evander in their first encounter but was robbed in New York City in front of millions of worldwide viewers, forcing an unwanted encore. The second match was unexpectedly competitive but in the end, justice prevailed as Lewis was given the decision he should have had eight months earlier. The fight was far from exciting or spectacular. It finally heated up in the seventh as Holyfield started a desperate attempt to catch up on the scorecards. However, Lewis showed his smarts again and put his foot on the pedal in the championships rounds to secure a unanimous decision victory. The fight is important historically for its unifying all three major title belts, the WBC, WBA and IBF – thus crowning an undisputed heavyweight champion – than for its action.
9. Frank Bruno W 12 Oliver McCall – The excitement of fight night was not about who would win – Bruno had it wrapped up by the eighth round – but whether Bruno would run out of gas before crossing the finish line. Bruno got off to a great start, rocking McCall in the first round and causing swelling under McCall’s left eye by the second. By round six, McCall has Bruno’s right eye puffing up but is still losing rounds because he cannot get past a stiff left jab. It starts to get interesting in the 10th when Bruno clearly hit the stamina wall. Bruno is tiring badly and his gas tank is reading empty…but how much reserve is there? Enough for two more rounds? In round 11, Bruno clinches for dear life, then foolishly tries to slug with McCall mid-round before reverting to the holding tactics. McCall is a crude mauler in the last round, chasing Bruno, who drags himself off the stool only to survive. McCall frantically tries to land anything of note but fails to land any good punch that would have spelled the end. Bruno hears the final bell and wins a unanimous decision. It wasn’t pretty and Bruno made his fans sweat it out until the very last second.
8. Paul Ingle TKO 11 Junior Jones – In terms of excitement, Paul Ingle was one of the most underrated fighters of the late 1990s. Yeah, we know about Marco Antonio Barrera, Micky Ward, Arturo Gatti and Diego Corrales but Ingle fit in with that class quite nicely. Ingle needed to give 100% just to ensure he would win a fight by a slight margin. Any less and his limited arsenal, other than willpower and heart, would not be enough for victory. So it was in the Jones fight. It started well for Ingle, rocking Jones in the second round and pressing his advantage until the seventh. It looked bad for Jones when cut on the left cheek, right eye and bleeding from the mouth. But Ingle relaxed and Jones staged a rally that had Ingle in trouble in the eighth with a five-punch combination. Jones’ comeback culminated in the ninth when he put Ingle flat on his back. It looked like the fight was over…but Ingle rose at the count of six. The splendidly trained Ingle found his second wind while Jones had given his all catching up. Ingle reversed the momentum, dominated and finished Jones off with combination punching that forced referee Steve Smoger to call a halt to the bout. Sadly, Ingle was forced out of boxing after his next fight, suffering a blood clot on the brain that nearly cost him his life.
7. Ted “Kid” Lewis W 12 Jack Britton II – There is no film of this classic but plenty of ink was devoted to a contest between future Hall-of-Famers who had over 300 bouts between them. This pair did not like each other, giving birth to 20 mean spirited bouts in 12 cities over the course of five years. They exchanged the world title four times (but never handshakes) and their second fight stands out as particularly entertaining and spawned the rivalry. The welterweight title was on the line and blood flowed as freely as the dirty tactics. Lewis proved faster and surprised Britton by forsaking his signature punch in favor of pinpoint punching. He was playing Britton’s game and with the exception of a first round knockdown, proved more efficient. Lewis’ larger upper body enabled him to get the better in tight quarters (often bumping with his shoulder or following through with an elbow), sealing the win with an 11th round knockdown. Referee Patsy Haley, handpicked by Britton, had no choice but to rule in favor of Lewis. It was the first time an Englishman won a title on American soil.
6. Bob Fitzsimmons KO 14 James J. Corbett – This was birth of body punching, if you will. Somewhere in the crowd, there was a young Mexican trainer taking notes, thinking to himself, “Hmmm, that hook to the liver would be something nice to return to Mexico with.” In order for this fight to take place, Nevada passed a law to legalize boxing and famous frontier lawman Wyatt Earp was in Corbett’s corner. Even with that disadvantage, Fitzsimmons was able to overcome an early-round beating to fire off the now-famous perfect solar plexus punch to win the world’s biggest sporting prize. There was some controversy with a reputed long count of 15 seconds given to Fitzsimmons, who held on to Corbett’s leg after the knockdown. The win also made Fitzsimmons boxing’s first three-division champion, winning despite being outweighed by 17 pounds. I know many do not consider Fitzsimmons an English champion since he left England at age 10, emigrating to New Zealand with his parents but if Hakeem Olajuwon can play for Team USA, Fitz can don a Union Jack.
5. Lennox Lewis KO 8 Mike Tyson – I know; Lewis had much better wins over better, at the time, American opposition. However, this fight established Lewis as the best heavyweight in the world in terms of American journalists who did not cover boxing regularly and in the casual sports fan’s eyes. What many remember about the fight is the pre-fight scene of 20 security guards stretched across the ring ensuring there would be no pre-fight fight when they should remember the visage of a bloodied and bruised Tyson on the canvas or a contract clause that called for a $3 million dollar fine if either man were disqualified by a flagrant foul. It is a testament to Lewis’ mental toughness that he blocked out the raving psycho image of Tyson from their famous press conference brawl, utterly dominating Tyson from the opening bell to final punch. Tyson did better in the press conference brawl than actual fight since Tyson did not have anyone in the ring to pull Lewis off of him!
4. Naseem Hamed TKO 4 Kevin Kelley – Wow, what an American debut! And in New York City, no less. As they say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” Early on, it looked like Hamed was just another British pretender to the throne as Kelley knocked him down in the first, second and fourth rounds. However, Hamed could take the best Kelley had to offer while Kelley could not absorb the bombs Hamed detonated on his chin. Hamed scored knockdowns in the second and two more in the fourth to secure a thrilling TKO victory. My lasting image of the fight is Hamed walking away from a floored Kelley, down for the final time, winking at him while sporting a devilish grin. It was Hamed’s way of saying, “Thanks for the millions this fight will get me.” It is sad that Hamed was never able to overcome his loss to Marco Antonio Barrera; Hamed is a cautionary tale and prime example of a fighter’s career taking a nosedive after he dumps his original trainer.
3. Nigel Benn KO 10 Gerald McClellan – It is tragic that 1995’s fight of the year left such a bad aftertaste for boxing and its fans. Forgotten in the tragic circumstances of McClellan’s brain injuries, suffered during this fight, was the incredible resilience and heart Benn showed. Benn was knocked out of the ring in the first 30 seconds of round one and battled his way back into the fight only to be knocked down again in the eighth round. Benn was able to endure and turned the tables on McClellan in the 10th round to cap off one of boxing’s greatest comebacks ever. I know this is an oversimplification of the fight in terms of description but it is one of those events that has to be viewed to be truly appreciated. It is a fight that clearly defines how great, beautiful, brutal and life-threatening the sport we follow can be.
2. Lloyd Honeyghan KO 6 Donald Curry – The passage of the decades has dulled fans’ perceptions how highly Curry was thought of in his prime. Curry was a welterweight whom many boxing experts gave a serious chance of outboxing Hagler for the world middleweight title. Even now, 20 years after the fact, I am focusing on the loser instead of the winner! The corner and referee Octavio Meyran stopped the beating at the end of the sixth and Curry needed 20 stitches to his eye and lip to put himself back together. Incomparable Scottish boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney wrote, “In 18 minutes of astonishing action, Donald Curry was transformed from an undisputed champion of the world into a battered former welterweight, with lacerations and violated bones where his aura of invincibility had been.” Honeyghan walked away with more than a championship belt, betting $5,000 on himself to win, at five-to-one odds, proving that a man who gambles on himself is always a winner.
1. Randy Turpin W 15 Sugar Ray Robinson – Fans at London’s Earl Court were shocked when an unheralded 23-year old Englishman upset a living legend. Sure this was a cocksure Robinson, who rarely trained for the fights of this European tour (he had 53 suitcases, an entourage of eight including a hairdresser, odd-job man and a dwarf) but Turpin did what others never came close to doing. He clearly beat the greatest boxer of all time…sorry Muhammad Ali. Even Robinson admitted as much, “You were real good. I have no alibis. I was beaten by a better man.” Turpin used his awkward crowding style to smother Robinson but also used a pesky upward jab that prevented Robinson from establishing any kind of rhythm. Even in their rematch, which Turpin lost in New York City, Turpin was ahead after nine rounds before Robinson caught him with a picture perfect right hand. Turpin became another sad case in boxing’s long line of unhappy endings; unable to deal with life’s pressures, he committed suicide at age 37. For one night, however, boxing allowed Turpin to be the most celebrated man on the planet.