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Celebrating John Conteh, Hogan Kid Bassey and more

John Conteh
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A exhibition to celebrate the contribution of black boxers to Liverpool heritage

LAST year I was approached by Ray Quarless who asked me if I could assist with an exhibition that the Liverpool Heritage Development Company was planning to celebrate the contribution that black boxers had made to the city’s boxing history. Now there is a name that may conjure up some memories. Ray is related to Noel Quarless who at one time, not so many years ago, looked like becoming a heavyweight sensation.  

Ray had previously produced a similar celebration of the black influence on the Liverpool music scene and this had been received with great acclaim, and on October 9, Ray’s boxing exhibition will open and I urge anyone with an interest in boxing to go along and see it.  

As a major international port Liverpool has always had, like Bristol and Hull, a broad ethnic mix, and this has shone through, particularly in both music and sport, bringing great credit to the place. The story of British boxing throughout the 20th century was virtually played out within the confines of this great city.

Twenty boxers are featured in the exhibition, showcased through two exhibition stands, display cases featuring boxing memorabilia, a short film and accompanying booklet. John Conteh will officially open the exhibition alongside the Lord Mayor of Liverpool.  Among the many attendees will be members of Hogan Bassey’s family, Larry Paul’s family and the Wentons.  The exhibition will run until the end of December, on the 3rd Floor, at Liverpool Central Library William Brown Street.

Liverpool has a very rich seam of boxing history and the city has produced many great fighters, many of them black. John Conteh is the obvious standout, but there have been many others, and their stories are all told.

One of the first black boxers to make an impact on the Liverpool scene was Billy Jones of Birkenhead.   Billy boxed during the Edwardian era, and in the typically politically incorrect fashion of the period he was often billed simply as “Snowball”.  He was a bit of a knockout artist and when he fought Young Conroy in a local derby at the Birkenhead Physical Culture School in 1907 the bout was refereed by none other than Sam Langford.  

Young Jady was another Birkenhead lad who fought during this era and amongst the many good lads that he fought in an 83-bout career were Nat Williams, Mick Gordon and Billy Deane.

During the 1930s Peter Banasko was a great favourite at the Liverpool Stadium, one of boxing’s most iconic venues, and Peter later became a successful manager with many good black boxers in his Liverpool stable. The most famous of these was undoubtedly Hogan Kid Bassey of Nigeria.

As older readers will remember, or learned ones know, Bassey became the world featherweight champion in 1957, beating Cherif Hamia of Algeria. Bassey was later honoured by the Queen, being invested with an MBE for his services to boxing, and this week’s photograph shows him alongside his wife, and the MP Bessie Braddock, at the Buckingham Palace ceremony. Bessie loved boxers and she loved boxing. She was the greatest friend to boxing that there has ever been in the House of Commons and she represented a Liverpool constituency for 25 years.

We can’t leave this era without mentioning Kid Tanner of British Guyana and a favourite of Merseyside. Tanner was a world-rated bantamweight before the war and he fought two unsuccessful attempts for the British Empire title, at flyweight in 1940 and at bantamweight in 1941.

One man who did crack the British Empire title was Joe Bygraves. Joe beat the “Tongan Terror”, Kitione Lave, in 1956 to win the heavyweight crown and he defended it the following year against Henry Cooper, who he knocked out in nine rounds. Joe, a very capable fighter with a good amateur pedigree, later went on to box some outstanding contenders at the top weight including Willie Pastrano, Zora Folley, Karl Mildenberger and George Chuvalo.

In more recent years one thinks of Larry Paul, Ray and Steve Ako, that man Noel Quarless, Jimmy Price, Carl Speare, Nigel and Richie Wenton and of course, John Conteh. They are all commemorated by Ray in this exhibition. Go along and support it.

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