TOP-FLIGHT boxing in Britain has always had a strong connection to football grounds. In recent years, Tony Bellew has fought at Goodison Park and Josh Warrington at Elland Road, while Ricky Hatton boxed in front of close to 60,000 people at the City of Manchester Stadium, now known as the Etihad Stadium. In 1993, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank drew in a classic encounter at Old Trafford. Most famously of all, Wembley Stadium has been the scene of some of Britain’s biggest contests. The first one occurred in 1924, when Jack Bloomfield met the American, Tommy Gibbons, on a show that bankrupted the promoter, while Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper boxed there in 1963.
Sadly, some of these great stadia have been demolished. The second time that Cooper crossed gloves with Ali, on this occasion for the world heavyweight championship, was at Highbury in 1966. Not to be outdone, Arsenal’s great rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, allowed the use of White Hart Lane, also now long gone, for Frank Bruno and Joe Bugner in 1987. White Hart Lane was also the venue where, 45 years previously, Freddie Mills won the British light-heavyweight title by knocking out the great Len Harvey. Elsewhere, Bombardier Billy Wells boxed at St James’ Park, Newcastle, in 1916, where he defeated Dick Smith of Woolwich for the British heavyweight title.
This week, I’d like to tell you about a series of high-class shows that occurred between 1948 and 1951 at Selhurst Park, the home of Crystal Palace, now doing so well in the Premier League. The ground was built in 1924 but no boxing was held there until after the war, as the original Crystal Palace, a magnificent glass structure built in 1851, was situated close by. This building, which burnt to the ground in 1936, regularly featured boxing throughout the 1930s, both indoors and in the open air.
In 1948, there was an extremely good crop of middles, light-heavies and heavyweights based out of Croydon and nearby. Selhurst Park was only a few miles away and so it was the obvious place to hold large-scale events in that area. Once the war had ended, sport then boomed, with large numbers of people desperate to get back to some sort of normality after six years of austerity and hardship. I suspect something similar might happen later this year.
There were six shows held at the ground over that four-year period and all of them took place, as one would expect, in the summer months. Not only was the weather more reliable for outdoor shows but there was no football to compete against. The promoters for the first five events were Bill Goodwin and Alf Hart, and for the last one, in 1951, Ron Johnson.
The undoubted star of these shows was Albert Finch [pictured above]. He ruled as British middleweight champion in 1950, beating Dick Turpin for the title before losing it to Dick’s brother, Randolph, six months later. On the first show at Selhurst Park, in 1948, Finch beat Jock Taylor, of Sidcup, in seven rounds on a bill topped by another Croydon middle, Mark Hart. Nine weeks later, Finch returned to win a Southern Area middleweight title eliminator against Kilburn’s Bert Sanders in front of 10,000 people. He then beat Hart for that title in an all-Croydon bout staged at the town’s Davis Theatre.
In 1949, in his final fight before challenging Dick Turpin in his first, losing, bid for the British title, Finch knocked out Bob Cleaver in seven rounds at the ground. He returned there the following summer, in his first contest as the new champion, when he stopped Juan Torrecillas, of Spain, in three. In his last bout at Selhurst Park, Finch hammered the South African, Billy Wood, in five rounds in May 1951. He won all of his five contests at the stadium, four of them inside the distance, and how the crowd loved him. Finch died in 2003 but he is still remembered by many in Croydon and beyond.