The Pugil List: Top 10 U.S.A. vs. England battles
America and England enjoy an embattled relationship dating back to our founding fathers; it is the longest boxing rivalry that covers centuries. Punches were traded as far back as the 1770s and Errol Spence Jr. follows in the footsteps of bareknuckle legend Bill Richmond, who took American fistic expertise to England for the first time in 1777. There is a lot to choose from when reducing those battles down to the 10 most noteworthy engagements. The history of American versus English boxers remains clearly tilted in favor of America but the Tommys (or Limeys, as the Irish part of me wants to scream out) have been catching up since the 1990s. Before that era, the part of the Englishman was played by the lovable loser. We even invented a term for their heavyweight title challengers: “horizontal heavyweights.” Is it payback time for IBF welterweight titlist Kell Brook against Errol Spence this weekend?
Until 20 years ago, America was dominant, only experiencing a backlash from heavyweight to featherweight, sporadically as a random Englishman popped up to take the title from an American champion. Even then, it was usually loaned out, as the rematch or subsequent title challenger inevitably led to America regaining the crown. A look at this Top 10 shows seven of the 10 fights occurring after 1990, with decades separating wins before British boxing’s rebirth. Even though scientists are still puzzled as to Lennox Lewis’ real national identity (he fought for Canada’s Olympic team), I have chosen to view Lewis through British eyes.
A couple notes before I get to the Top 10: I was going to include Bob Fitzsimmons’ defeat of Jim Corbett in 1897 but Fitzsimmons was more of a New Zealander moving there as a young child and he never fought in England. I was bemused that I was unable to slip two of my favorite English boxers of recent vintage in, with Carl Froch (his fight against Jermain Taylor would be my No. 11) and Ricky Hatton. I also teetered on whether to include Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s dominant victory over Alan Minter but the post-fight melee and ensuing riot overshadows that breakout performance to this day. I did not include any of the plethora of brutal bareknuckle encounters either, as I consider that a different sport more akin to mixed martial arts than boxing.
10. Frank Bruno UD 12 Oliver McCall, Sept. 2, 1995 – The excitement in this fight 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 his left eye as soon as the second. However, by round six, McCall had Bruno’s right eye puffed up but was still losing rounds, unable to escape the left jab. It got interesting in the 10th round as Bruno clearly hit the wall. He is tiring badly and Bruno’s gas tank is reading empty! How much reserve is there? Enough for two rounds? In round 11, Bruno clinches for dear life, then foolishly slugs with McCall in mid-rounds before reverting to the holding tactics. McCall is a crude mauler in the last round, chasing Bruno who only comes off his stool to survive. McCall frantically tries to land anything of note but fails to score a hook, which would have surely spelled the end for Bruno. Bruno hears the final bell, winning a unanimous decision. It wasn’t pretty and Bruno made his fans sweat it out until the last second.
9. Lennox Lewis UD 12 Evander Holyfield II, Nov. 13, 1999 – This is a fight that should not have been necessary. Lewis clearly beat Holyfield in their first encounter but was robbed in New York City before millions of worldwide viewers. The rematch 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 not particularly exciting or spectacular, for that matter, early. It finally heated up in the seventh as Holyfield began a desperate rally, attempting to catch up on the scorecards. However, Lewis showed his smarts, again, and put his foot on the pedal over the championship rounds to secure a unanimous decision win. The fight is more important for its unifying of all three major title belts (at the time, the WBO strap wasn’t as regarded as it is today), thus crowning a undisputed heavyweight champion, than for its action.
8. Paul Ingle TKO 11 Junior Jones, April 29, 2000 – A word to the uninitiated: Paul Ingle was one of the most exciting fighters of the late 1990s. Yeah, Americans talk about Marco Antonio Barrera, Micky Ward, Arturo Gatti and Diego Corrales but Ingle fit in with that class nicely. Ingle had to give 100% just to ensure he would win a fight by a slight margin. Any less and his limited arsenal (outside of willpower and heart) would not be enough to win. So in the Jones fight. It started well for Ingle, rocking Jones in the second round and pressing the advantage until the seventh. It looked bad for Jones, who was cut on the left cheek, right eye and bleeding from the mouth. But Ingle relaxed and Jones staged a rally and 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 in vain. Ingle again dominated finishing Jones off with combination punching that forced referee Steve Smoger to call a halt. Unfortunately, Ingle was forced to leave boxing after his next fight, suffering a blood clot on the brain which nearly cost him his life.
7. Muhammad Ali TKO 6 Henry Cooper, May 21, 1966 – If you are going to do a Top 10 British list, you must include a lovable loser for which England has gained a reputation for supporting. This, of course, was the famed torn glove fight, in which trainer Angelo Dundee saved Ali’s unbeaten record by deliberately widening a small hole (which Dundee noticed at the end of the first round) in his glove, forcing referee George Smith to pause the fight and change the gloves. Ali said many times that the Cooper punch, which dropped him in the fourth round, had him in more trouble than any other punch of his career. Dundee said he believed Cooper could have won the fight, if it had not landed seconds before the rounds end, even considering Ali’s prodigious recuperative skills. By the time the fifth round finally began, Ali had recovered and went on to batter a bloodied Cooper until the referee was forced to rescue the tender-skinned Cooper. There was no bitterness in Cooper, “It’s part of the game. I try to put the boot on the other foot. If something like that had happened (to me), (trainer) Jim Wicks would have tried to do something like that for me, to give me every opportunity.” Fifty-five thousand fans watched as Ali marched toward fate, while Cooper is forever known as “Our ‘Enry.”
6. Lamont Peterson SD 12 Amir Khan, Dec. 10, 2011 – Remarkable for strange decisions during the fight, as well as post-fight revelations. It took place in Washington D.C., so some raised eyebrows as Khan had two points deducted by referee Joseph Cooper for “pushing,” including in the twelfth and final round. It also looked like Cooper missed a knockdown he ruled a slip in the first round. The boxing was a mix of strategy and “Who wants it more?” bombs being thrown, as neither man wilted under the pressure for extended periods. They took turns leading and countering, with Peterson effectively timing the faster Khan with scene-stealing punches that turned Khan’s – and judges’ – heads. Khan was more active, throwing 150 added punches and his effectiveness was hard to argue against, given the state of Peterson’s face. After the fight, it was revealed Peterson had a steroid treatment (for abnormally low testosterone levels), which left many with an even worse aftertaste.
5. Lennox Lewis KO 8 Mike Tyson, June 8, 2002 – I know Lewis had much better wins over then-better American opposition. However, this fight established Lewis as the best heavyweight in the world, in terms of American eyes who somehow thought Tyson was still a relevant boxing force. I remember the pre-fight scene of 20 security guards stretched across the ring, ensuring there would be no pre-fight fight, the most, when I should remember the visage of a bloodied and bruised Tyson on the canvas instead. It is a testament to Lewis’ mental toughness, that he could block out the raving psycho image of Tyson from their famous press conference brawl, one in which Tyson did better than in the actual fight, since Tyson did not have anyone in the ring to pull Lewis off him. A clear case of mind over matter.
4. Lloyd Honeyghan TKO 6 Donald Curry, Sept. 27, 1986 – People forget how highly Curry was regarded in his prime; a welterweight, who some boxing experts gave a chance of outboxing Marvelous Marvin Hagler at middleweight. Honeyghan’s achievement ranks highly by virtue of stopping an undefeated champion in his prime. Curry was 25 and had amassed an outstanding amateur and pro record. The victory made Honeyghan unified welterweight champion and established him as only the third British fighter to win a title in America. The corner of Curry and referee Octavio Meyran stopped the beating, with Curry needing 20 stitches to put himself back together. Curry’s educated feet and fists had no answer for the pressure tactics of Honeyghan, who did not get enough credit for laying traps for Curry time and time again. This was the zenith of Honeyghan’s career, while simultaneously spelling the beginning of the end for Curry, who was a spent force afterward.
3. Naseem Hamed KO 4 Kevin Kelley, Dec. 19, 1997 – Wow, what an American debut, and in New York City, no less! As they say, if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. If Brook could duplicate even half the excitement fellow Brendan Ingle disciple Hamed did, he would be a pay-per-view attraction. Early on, it looked like “Naz” was another British pretender to the throne, as Kelley knocked Hamed down in the first, second and fourth rounds. However, Hamed took 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 stoppage. My lasting image is of a smiling Hamed walking away from a floored Kelley while giving a cheeky wink at him. It was as if Hamed said, “Thanks for the millions this fight has earned me.”
2. Nigel Benn KO 10 Gerald McClellan, Feb. 25, 1995 – It is depressing that 1995’s “Fight of the Year” left such a bad aftertaste for all boxing fans. Forgotten in the tragic circumstances of McClellan’s brain injuries, suffered during this fight, was the incredible effort and heart Benn showed. Benn was knocked out of the ring in the first 30 seconds of round one, battling back a foothold, only to be knocked down again in the eighth round. Still, Benn endured more and turned the tables on McClellan in the 10th to cap off one of boxing’s greatest comebacks ever. I have oversimplified the two-sided battle of attrition with this description but it is one of those events that has to be seen for it to be truly appreciated. It is a fight that clearly defines how great, beautiful, brutal and life-threatening the sport we follow is.
1. Randy Turpin W 15 Sugar Ray Robinson, July 10, 1951 – Hardened Londoners were shocked when a 23-year-old Englishman upset a living legend. Yes, this was a cocksure Robinson, who rarely trained for fights on this European tour (traveling with 53 large suitcases, an entourage of eight, including a hairdresser, odd-job man and a dwarf) but Turpin did what others never came close to doing. Turpin clearly beat the greatest boxer of all time…sorry Muhammad Ali. Robinson admitted as much in defeat, “You were real good. I have no alibis. I was beaten by a better man.” Turpin had an awkward crowding style, pushing out a pesky jab that prevented Robinson from establishing any kind of rhythm. Even in their rematch, which Turpin lost in New York City via 10th round stoppage, Turpin was ahead after nine rounds before Robinson caught him with a picture-perfect straight right. Turpin was ultimately a sad boxing casualty. Unable to deal with expectations after the second Robinson loss, life’s pressures and bankruptcy, he committed suicide at age 37.