READING of the recent death of Brian London, I was reminded of his father, Jack, and it struck me what a special achievement it was for father and son to hold the British heavyweight title just 13 years apart. Their career paths, though, could not have been more different. It took Brian three years to win the British crown in his 24th fight. After losing the title, he got a chance to regain it, two European title tilts and two shots at the world crown. For his father, there had been just one shot at British honours, and it had taken 13 years and 121 fights to attain it.
Jack turned pro in July 1931, at age 18, to supplement his job as a lorry driver. It was the era of the Great Depression, when 20 per cent of the insured workforce was jobless, and men were queuing and literally fighting for tickets for a day’s work to help feed their families. But pro boxing was booming. Fights were staged with staggering frequency at fight halls, public baths, skating rinks and other improvised stadia nationwide. Unsurprisingly, these boxers fought as often as they could, many taking bouts at short notice against more experienced men.
Carefully curated records simply did not exist, and this is reflected in Jack’s fighting résumé. He had four fights in his first month as a pro, and an eye-watering 29 in his first year. There were plenty of losses on his early ledger, but he was learning fight by fight. He came off second best against seasoned performers like Gipsy Daniels, Jack Casey, Charlie Smith, Len Johnson, Ben Foord and the world-class Larry Gains. But he profited from those experiences and avenged the losses to Casey, Smith and Gains.
By the late 1930s London was a much-improved fighter and on the winning end most of the time. In 1936, he beat two good Americans in Roy Lazer (who would defeat Jersey Joe Walcott the following year) and the much-avoided Obie Walker. Jack also went the distance with former world light-heavy king Tommy Loughran, who was far too clever for him. But Jack put up a game display, and did likewise the following year when he lost on points to big-hitting future two-time world title challenger Buddy Baer, brother of world titlist Max.
Jack was battling towards a crack at the British heavyweight title, but the outbreak of war severely hampered his ring activity, and it wasn’t until September 1944 that he got his chance. London [inset], by then a bald-domed veteran of 31, faced 25-year-old rising star Freddie Mills (the reigning light-heavy champ) for the vacant heavyweight crown. Despite being 36lbs lighter than London, Mills had outpointed him three years earlier. For the return fight the disparity was even greater – a staggering 43lbs!
Watching the pair go toe to toe in a newsreel clip on YouTube, the vast weight difference isn’t obvious, as the phenomenally strong Freddie looks to be meeting Jack almost on even terms. It wasn’t a fight for admirers of the sweet science, but the crowd got their money’s worth watching these two gladiators go hell for leather for 15 rounds, after which London won the decision and the British and Empire titles, only to lose them 10 months later to Bruce Woodcock.
Fight fans whose memories stretch back to 1960 will probably know Jack best for his part in the infamous Brawl in Porthcawl, when tensions after an ugly bout between Brian London and Dick Richardson caused even uglier scenes as a mass brawl erupted, with Brian, his elder brother (and fellow pro) Jack Jnr and Jack Snr all proving they could handle themselves in an impromptu melee as well as in a sanctioned bout. Footage of this is available on YouTube too, and is well worth a watch.