DURING the weekend scramble to find a man to fight Anthony Joshua, the anniversary of Brian London’s fight for glory came and went.
London’s fight with Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world took place at Earl’s Court, August 6, 1966. And nobody really knows why it happened. It was, as it always is, strictly business. This Saturday is no different.
In the fight, it is reported that Ali let rip 14 punches in as many seconds to ruin London. That is the figure from the newspapers the next day, a figure calculated without replays; it is my type of boxing figure, both urgent, raw and probably incorrect. It is a fantasy figure to go with a ridiculous fight. It ended in the third round; London asked Ali for a rematch in the dressing room.
However, London wanted Ali to have a 56-pound weight strapped to each ankle. Brian was a funny guy. By the way, 56-pound weights were used on all seated scales to weigh fighters and jockeys. That is why London said 56-pounds. The iconic John Lovesey, writing in Sports Illustrated a week later, said: “Even on these terms the fight would be a one-sided affair.” The writers back then were savages, but they loved detail.
It was Ali’s third defence of the year and he would manage two more. That is five defences, four ending quick in one year. Ali was the last heavyweight champion to manage five defences in one year; we are getting close right now to five fights in a decade looking like a busy agenda. Sure, not all five were vintage and some, like George Chuvalo, put up more of a fight. London never quit, he simply stood no chance against a very mean Ali that night. The fans knew and half of the 18,000 seats were empty.
“Brian London, by his petrified pancake landing at the flickering fists of Cassius Clay, has removed all traces of robust competition from the heavyweight championship of the world,” wrote George Whiting in the early edition of the Evening Standard. George would last about ten minutes in the modern business, bless him and the brutal truth he wrote. He was a real poet in the boxing game and there were a lot of them on the beat then.
Veronica, London’s wife, who was described in papers at the time as “a chirpy, buxom blonde”, told reporters: “I don’t mind if he beats my husband, as long as leaves me a little bit.” London was reportedly paid $112,000.00 for the fight, which impressed the travelling American press. Make no mistake, Ali was a cash cow. Veronica certainly got her bit.
The referee, the infamous growler, Harry Gibbs, never smiled as he waved the massacre off. It was a poor crowd; it was a poor fight, and it fits perfectly in the long and distinguished list of bad heavyweight fights to take place in London. Frank Bruno, the national treasure, has most of the top ten; Johnny Bos is responsible for that unwanted accolade. Bos found the bodies for Mickey Duff to pickle and serve to Bruno.
Big Brian finished his career with 20 losses in 58 fights; he won the British heavyweight title and scrapped with some top, top names. He lost to Nino Valdes, Eddie Machen, Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson before Ali landed the 14-punch finish. Make no mistake, Briain London could fight and was brave, but just not on that night and in that ring. He admitted later he never tried.
“The fight with Ali?” London once said. “Well, I was smaller, fatter and couldn’t punch. I don’t think I hit him.” He did, once and Ali talked about that when the press corps gathered in his dressing room. “He hit me once, in the eye, and made me mad,” he said. “But he was not dirty.”
London was not dirty, just robust on occasion during some fights. Ten years before he lost to Ali, he was stopped in one round after one punch by Henry Cooper. He never went down, he just staggered, showed he was hurt and was stopped. It always amazes me when people tell me that Dereck Chisora was finished when David Haye beat him 11 years ago. Finished? You are joking, just starting – ask Big Brian.
A few weeks after the London fight, the next defence for Ali was in Frankfurt against Karl Mildenberger; he won in the 12th and it was just 35-days after beating London. That is, however, not the truly amazing statistic from that first Ali reign: Ali actually managed nine defences in just 17 months at that time. He was in a race against the clock, a race to stay active.
Before the London fight, Ali had held court at The Load of Hay pub, now the Haverstock Tavern, in Belsize Park, near Hampstead in north London. He covered the windows in the pub’s gym with papers to keep secret his preparation; Ali, it turns out, trained hard for London. Inside the gym, George Francis was working with his teenage fighter, Bunny Sterling, who made his debut at 18 a few weeks after the Ali v London fight. It was also at that pub that Ali was meant to have kept some of England’s World Cup heroes waiting for over two hours. Ali was a major news attraction at this point, he was very hot news.
The fight with London was all part of the roadshow.
By the way, Big Brian, who was not that big, would fight Anthony Joshua for a plate of chips and a bit of pride.