Premium Issue Opinion

Rethinking the best British boxers never to win a world title

Jock McAvoy and John Henry Lewis
Don’t forget the old-timers when discussing the best Brits never to win a world title, writes Mark Massow

LONG before the current pandemic that the world finds itself dealing with, I once had a brief conversation with an apparent boxing fan, who in all innocence, asked if Floyd Mayweather wasn’t to be considered the best-ever pound-for-pound boxer in history, then who was? When I suggested that a consensus of opinion would probably favour Sugar Ray Robinson, his reply of, ‘Who’s he?’ told me all I needed to know about this particular fan’s qualifications to judge the sport’s premium pugilist.

Another frequent boxing debate is that of Britain’s best boxer never to win a world title. Herol Graham regularly rates highly in these discussions, but a common trend is for fighters only active in the last 20 years to be mentioned. Often it’s as if boxers from the pre-1970s eras cease to exist.

Although this is somewhat understandable given that the current generation of fans are particularly familiar with those that they mention, it could also be construed as doing the boxers of yesteryear a disservice.

Accepting the difficulties around comparing boxers from different eras, let alone different weights, with diet, strength and conditioning, training methods and facilities all developing and, hopefully, progressing for the betterment of the sport, we still nonetheless like to indulge in the ‘what ifs’.

There’s featherweight Nel Tarleton, who campaigned from 1925 to 1945, totalling 119 wins from a 148-bout career. He annexed Area, British (three times) and Commonwealth (Empire) titles, and was the owner of two Lonsdale Belts outright, while falling short in two attempts at world honours.

Tarleton’s great rival, Seaman Tommy Watson, whose 10-year pro career saw him claim a British featherweight title and post 112 wins from 123 contests, deserves a mention. He beat some world-class opposition but came up short in his world title challenge against Kid Chocolate.

There’s also Tommy Farr, who took the great Joe Louis the 15-round distance in a world heavyweight title bid. Welsh, British and Commonwealth (Empire) titles were bagged on the way to 86 career victories.

Jock McAvoy lost to Cornish great Len Harvey for the British version of the world light-heavyweight title in front of 90,000 fans – Carl Froch eat your heart out! – in 1939 after having already lost three years previously in a crack at the world championship at Madison Square Garden against John Henry Lewis. An Area, British and Commonwealth (Empire) champion at middleweight, as well as a British light-heavyweight king, and British and Commonwealth (Empire) heavyweight title challenger, McAvoy notched 132 wins from 147 fights to cement his place as an all-time British great.

Dave Charnley was a British, Commonwealth (Empire) and European lightweight champion. He finally beat Joe Brown in 1963 after two previous world title defeats against “Old Bones”. Unfortunately, by the time of their third contest, Brown had already conceded the title and so Charnley’s win was of the non-title variety.

Far from a definitive list, these are just a few names from British boxing’s rich past that warrant throwing into the mix when discussing the best British boxers never to win a world title.

The plight of welterweight Billy Bird, a winner of 260 contests and several 15-rounders, but never achieving even an Area title, is another discussion altogether. We may be in unusual times now but they were certainly different times then!

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