The History of British Boxing
Boxing’s origins lie in the historical willingness of to men to line up face to face, bare knuckle and punch one another for reasons that vary widely but include honour, anger and monetary gain. However, boxing has also long been a sport with matches held for entertainment as well as competition.
Boxing and Britain have a very long association. References to fist fighting litter British literary works. Way back in 1681 there is a mention of a boxing match in the Protestant Mercury, a London newspaper. The Royal Theatre in London held regular boxing matches way back in 1698. Fist fighting was even considered something of a gentleman’s pursuit in the past, King George was a great fan along with many of his noblemen. The King set up a boxing ring in Hyde Park in 1723.
Then, in 1719 a fighter called James Figg entered the ring and brought with him considerable skill and tactics and these were to revolutionise the game. Figg was an expert fencer and had retired decorated and unbeaten in 1730. He then set up a booth at Southwark Fair where he would challenge all comers to bouts. He is also credited with the establishment of a boxing academy, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. After almost 300 fights James Figg passed away in 1734.
It was during this time that boxing began to develop towards the type of fighting we would recognise in a ring today as professional boxing. Back then fights were still brutal, and rules were few and far between. Champion boxers were very hard men indeed and they took a lot of very real physical punishment in the ring.
James Figg had a pupil called John ‘Jack’ Broughton. He became champion from 1729 to 1750 and was known as the father of English boxing. Broughton laid down some basic rules for boxing to try and organise what was still pretty much a free for all in the ring. In 1734, the same year he set out his first set of boxing rules, he established a school known as Broughton’s Amphitheatre in Oxford Road, near Oxford Street . Broughton’s rules advocated breaks for a man down and the use of gloves, but only in training. Despite his long stand in a brutal sport, Broughton died at the ripe old age of 86 at Walcot Place in Lambeth . As a Yeoman of the Guard at Westminster Abbey , Broughton was buried in the West Cloister there along with his wife Elizabeth.
Daniel Mendoza, another London boxer, was champion from 1791 to 1795. He also taught the art of boxing at his Mendoza School where he put greater emphasis on footwork, sparring and counter punching than had previously been used in boxing. His work helped move boxing on from brutal brawls to more sophisticated fighting, closer to the much more tactical professional boxing of today.
The 1800s were good years for British fighters with many claiming the World Title including James Burke, Tom Cribb, Jem Mace and Jim Belcher. This was the most important era of boxing because of the introduction of the Queensbury Rules. Boxing moved away from an ugly brawling spectacle that was at the time more like wrestling with a few punches thrown. It became the admittedly still brutal but more graceful game that it is today. The Queensbury Rules of 1867 helped to bring sporting behaviour, tactics, and sophistication into boxing.
Included in the package of changes brought in by the Queensbury Rules were the now familiar three minute rounds. Mauling, holding and general wrestling moves were disallowed. A ten second count on knockouts and the use of gloves in fights as well as practice were also introduced. This revolutionary update laid the foundations of modern boxing which evolved on the basis of fair effort formed by The Queensbury Rules.
Despite being at the fore of boxing development, British boxers were losing their grip on the World Title. By the end of the 1800s as the Americans started to take more interest in the sport and were enjoying most of the success. Although Britain struggled to make heavyweight champions they did enjoy numerous victories and titles in the lighter classes. During the early 1900s the UK produced fighters like George ‘Digger’ Stanley (World Bantemweight Champion 1910), Bill Ladbury (World Flyweight Champion 1913) and Teddy Baldock (World Bantamweight Champion 1927).
Later in the century Britain enjoyed some Olympic success including in 1956 when East London boxer Terry Spinks won the flyweight gold in Melbourne. The list of British fighters who managed to claim titles during the 20th century includes such boxing legends as Loyd Honeyghan, Welterweight 1986; Nigel Benn , Middleweight 1990, 1992-96; Chris Eubank , Middleweight 1990-91, 1991-95; Frank Bruno , Heavyweight 1995-1996.
Britain finally got firmly to the top of boxing again with the success of Lennox Lewis , Heavyweight champion in 1993-1994, 1997-2001, 2001-2004. While other fighters like Bruno had managed to claim a world title belt, Lewis did it with the style and consistency of a true world champion. One of Lennox’s greatest claims to fame is his defeat of the great Mike Tyson in 2002 with an eighth round knock down.
Boxers love to collect belts. They don’t need them to keep their trousers up they are the trophies that come with success in the world of boxing. One such coveted belt is the Lonsdale Belt, the oldest belt in boxing. The belt gets its name from former patron of the National Sporting Club Lord Lonsdale and was started in 1909. The belt is awarded to the winner in each British weight division each year. Any boxer who can do this three times in a row can keep the handcrafted belt with its intricate and expensive enamel and gold finishing.
The first boxer to receive the belt was Freddie Walsh who was awarded it in 1909 for winning the British lightweight title. The first heavyweight to take the title was ‘Bombadier’ Billy Wells. The boxer from London’s East End received the belt in 1911 when he knocked out opponent Ian Hague in the sixth round. British hero Henry Cooper won three Lonsdale Belts outright during his career! Earlier belts, like the belt won by Billy Wells, were made to a higher standard, using 22 carat gold. His belt is kept at The Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich , South London, but is unfortunately not on public display.
Boxing began to move away from its earlier association with noblemen and courtiers and found itself firmly entrenched in London’s culture. Boxing also has a strong link with many pubs in London. The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden is the area’s oldest surviving public house. It also used to stage bare knuckle prize fights back in the 17th century. A cobbled front yard was sometimes used for fights, alternatively a back room gruesomely nicknamed the Bucket of Blood would be used as a the venue for these brutal spectacles.
Before it was destroyed in a war time air raid in 1940, the Blackfriars Ring stood across the road from a pub called The Ring . Before the bomb wiped it out this was one of South London’s most famous boxing locations. The pub was formerly the Surrey Chapel, and dates back to 1783. A retired British Lightweight champion, Dick Burge, along with his wife took the building on in 1910. They organised matches and the pub is still adorned with many pictures of old fighters, making it a Mecca for boxing fans.
Despite the relative lack of success in the Heavyweight division Britain can still boast a long line of successful fighters. Thomas George Farr was a Welsh boxer who became known as the ‘Tonypandy Terror’. Although he never won the world title he was British and Empire Heavyweight Champion in 1937. He fought toe to toe with Joe Louis for the World Heavyweight Championship, also in 1937, but lost on a points decision against the champion. Given that Louis was in the habit of deciding his bouts by a knockdown, not points, at that time it was a great showing by Farr to go the distance.
Sir Henry Cooper, OBE achieved notable fame despite also never winning a world title. He became known as ‘Our Henry’, a reference to his Cockney upbringing and was a superstar both as a boxer and as a celebrity. Cooper did manage to floor Muhammed Ali at Wembley Stadium during a non-title fight. Ali went down in the fourth round after being hit by the left hook known in the business as ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer. Ali got up, recovered and subsequently won the fight. But Ali later said that Cooper had hit him so hard “his ancestors in Africa had felt it”.
Frank Bruno achieved similar all-round success as a media celebrity and fighter as Henry Cooper before had. Like Henry Cooper he came across as a people’s fighter, simple, likeable and hard working. However Bruno got something Cooper never did, a world title. Bruno only held the title for a short while after defeating Oliver McCall over 12 rounds. Mike Tyson took the title back from Bruno after a third round knockout. It was Bruno’s last fight.
Britain enjoyed great successes in the lower weight divisions, boxers like Nigel Benn dominated their classes. Benn came onto the professional boxing scene in 1987, winning 22 consecutive fights. He became known as the “dark Destroyer’ because of his explosive fighting displays. He won world titles at both Middleweight and Super Middleweight level. Unfortunately, Benn’s career reached a low point after a vicious fight with Gerald McClellan. Benn was knocked out of the ring in the first round but fought back in a gritty and brutal fight that eventually left McClellan severely injured. The fighter remains unable to see, 80% deaf and partially paralysed due to injuries sustained in the fight.
One of British Boxing’s most colourful fighters is Brighton based Chris Eubank. After a childhood spent in poverty growing up in Hackney and Peckham , Eubank moved to the Bronx with his mother and joined a gym. By 1984 he was winning amateur boxing titles. But the trouble that was to feature in his life was already in evidence the next year when he seemed to bite an opponent’s shoulder during a fight.
Eubank’s career was also blighted by tragedy. In 1981 he met Michael Watson in another gruelling contest between two equally brilliant and determined fighters at Tottenham ’s White Hart Lane in North London. Late in the fight Eubank looked beaten on points, but he rose from the canvas in the 11th round to deliver some brutal punches to Watson. The fight went on to the 12th round but Watson soon collapsed afterwards and entered a coma. Watson also suffered partial paralysis and hearing problems as a result of the injuries he sustained in the fight. Eubank seemed to lose the desire to fight after this bout and as a result he never really achieved his true potential.
‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed was one of a new breed of boxer. Always ready to play to the media, these brash young fighters are confident of their ability and not afraid to brag and show off the spoils of their success. However, much of this showmanship seems to come with trouble, and this has proved to be so in Prince Naseem’s case. The Prince was jailed for 15 months in may 2006 for dangerous driving, although this wasn’t his first brush with trouble. His meteoric rise through the rankings as a young Bantamweight fighter was indeed spectacular. He won many fights with early knock downs. Unfortunately his fall from grace has proved to be equally spectacular.
British boxing has a place in our history, The Queensbury Rules, the code that underpins boxing, was formulated by the British sportsman John Graham Chambers on British soil almost 150 years ago. Britain has enjoyed a good deal of competitive success in boxing over many decades. Lennox Lewis has made sure that we have had some recent representation at World Heavyweight level. Meanwhile a myriad of talented boxers have brought title after title home in the lower weights. Boxing is still great in Britain!
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