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The 50 Greatest British fights: 50 – 41

greatest British fights Barry McGuigan
In a new weekly series, boxing historian Miles Templeton ranks the 50 finest battles that have taken place on British soil. This week, he reveals his choices from 50 down to 41.

*Criteria – fight must take place in the UK and include at least one British boxer

50. Jimmy Wilde (Tylorstown) v Tancy Lee (Paisley)

June 26, 1916.  National Sporting Club, Covent Garden

British flyweight title (20 rounds)

Lee had previously beaten an ill Jimmy Wilde the year before in a huge upset. In this return contest, at the famous National Sporting Club where all British title contests were then held, the Scotsman gave his all but came out second best. He launched a number of vigorous attacks throughout the early part of the contest, which Wilde skilfully dealt with. As Wilde started to press in the fifth round, Lee found that he had little defence against the greater strength and firepower that the Welshman, an all-time great, possessed. In the ninth, the fight swung again, and Wilde came under great pressure and looked troubled. After riding out this storm, Wilde really opened up in the tenth round, dropping Lee five times before the referee applied the closure in the 11th with Lee out to the world.

BN said: “Jimmy Wilde has settled a disputed pint once and for all, for most people have long believed that the Tylorstown Terror is not only the greatest flyweight, but quite possibly the greatest bantam in the world, as he is assuredly the most wonderful boxer of all time.”

jimmy wilde

49. Barry McGuigan (Clones) v Eusebio Pedroza (Panama)

June 8, 1985.  Loftus Road Football Ground, Shepherds Bush

WBA featherweight title (15 rounds)

This was the night when Barry McGuigan came of age. The 24-year old simply swarmed all over the tough Panamanian, beating him in every department of the game. The fight was not a particularly close one, with McGuigan winning by a wide margin on all three scorecards after scoring an eighth- round knockdown, but it was the exceptional skills displayed by both men that makes it stand out. Pedroza, noted for his dirty tactics, had held the title for seven years and he did everything possible to hang on to it, right up until the last bell, but he had no match for McGuigan’s variety, speed and power, and the Irishman’s work-rate throughout the full 15 rounds was particularly impressive.

BN said: “One of the most memorable nights in British boxing history. The unflagging good humour and exemplary behaviour of the crowd was rewarded with a title fight of supreme quality and craft. McGuigan’s performance was the greatest in a British ring since Randolph Turpin’s win over Sugar Ray Robinson, and it was unquestionably the finest ever by an Irish boxer”.

48. George Walker (Stepney) v Dennis Powell (Four Crosses)

March 26, 1953.  Liverpool Stadium

Vacant British Light-Heavyweight Title (15 rounds)

George Walker was the older brother of Billy Walker and, although his career lasted for only three years, he is still remembered for the gameness that he displayed in this, only his 12th contest as a professional. Both men hit the canvas, Walker once and Powell twice, and both lads fought a major part of the contest with severe eye damage of the type that would not be tolerated today. Powell was lucky, with the referee not inspecting the damage at the end of the seventh as he should have done and with his cornermen ready to pull him out. Walker’s left eye then closed completely in the following round and, despite him being the harder puncher, he could not tee up Powell for a finisher and at the end of the eleventh round he retired from the fray, having soaked up enough punishment in the last nine minutes to stop any man.

BN said: “It was one of the most punishing fights between light-heavyweights that we have ever seen.  It was not a scientific display, occasionally the exchanges were extremely crude, but it was a genuine battle, bitterly contested from start to finish.”

47. Richard Dunn (Bradford) v Bunny Johnson (Birmingham).

October 11, 1973.  Belle Vue, Manchester.

British heavyweight title final eliminator (12 rounds)

Both men held the British heavyweight title during their careers, but both were very unfashionable during what was a bleak period for the nation’s big men, yet the two of them served up a contest to remember. There weren’t many paying customers in the large, historic Manchester venue, where all the greats had fought over the preceding 40 years, but those that were there would not forget this one. Johnson was a classy boxer and he soon took control of the bout and had Dunn down twice in the fifth. In the seventh Dunn was down again but he roared back, nailing Johnson with a terrific left-hander and in the eighth he dumped Johnson on the canvas with another sizzling left hook. The contest ebbed and flowed until the tenth when a weary and battered Johnson finally stopped his man with what some observers thought was a jab, and others a thumb to the eye. 

BN said: “The sparse crowd saw a sensational battle. The fifth round was riotous and the seventh was perhaps the most exciting round seen anywhere in Britain this year and the way Johnson came through in a gruelling clash was a tribute to the man’s great ability and fighting heart.”

46. Jack Matthews (Hanley) v George Mackness (Kettering).

May 13, 1912  NSC.

10-round featherweight contest

The first editor of Boxing News, John Murray, said that this contest was the greatest that he had ever witnessed.  Murray had seen them all, from Sam Langford to Max Baer and from Jimmy Wilde to Benny Lynch, and yet this contest between two little known featherweights, on a quiet Monday night at the National Sporting Club was the one for him. The two served up a slugfest right from the off. After a relatively quiet first round, which saw Mackness down once, the pace really quickened up in the second, in which they were each floored three times and then both again for a double knockdown. The third round saw another four knockdowns between them before finally, in the fourth, after being down once himself, Matthews put everything into a finisher and Mackness was lifted clean into the air and onto his back, bereft of all his senses. Neither went on to great things but Jack’s son, Stanley Matthews, became quite a decent footballer.

BN said: “This was a fight that can never have been excelled as a real, right down tearing, thrilling slam in the whole history of the game.  It was simply astounding from start to finish and would require a whole volume of Boxing News to relate in full detail.”

45. Lennox Lewis (West Ham) v Frank Bruno (Wandsworth)

October 1, 1993.  Arms Park, Cardiff

WBC heavyweight title (12 rounds)

The pundits all thought this would be easy for Lewis, very much on the way up, against Bruno, a fan favourite but a perennial loser when it came to the really big contests. The contest surprised everybody. Big Frank came out confidently and, after a couple of quiet rounds, landed a massive right hander that knocked Lewis sideways. After this success he started to control the fight with stiff jabs and was comfortably ahead after the fourth. Things evened up in the fifth as Lewis started to come back into the fight. The seventh round was very exciting with both men trading hard shots but it was Lewis, looking ever more desperate, who landed the big one and from then on it was only a question of time before the bout was called off. Bruno had fought his heart out and had exposed some major flaws that Lewis would learn from as he went on to greater things and Bruno, who now looked finished, surprised everybody by winning a version of the title for himself two years later.

BN said: “Bruno fought better than anyone had expected. He had come to win, and his challenge was full of fire, nerve and self-belief.  Lewis, when his back was to the wall, found the punch to get himself out of trouble.”

44. David Haye (Bermondsey) v Carl Thompson (Bolton)

September 10, 2004.  Arena, Wembley

Cruiserweight contest (12 rounds)

With 10 straight inside the distance victories behind him, Haye, one of Britain’s hottest prospects at the time, was taking a big step up against Thompson, who could also hit very hard. The feeling was that whoever landed the first big punch would prove victorious and it was Haye who started the fastest and the stongest, frequently catching the older man with some massive shots. Thompson rode out the storm and then came back determinedly as Haye started to tire. The two of them continued to trade with huge digs until the fifth when after being caught by yet another savage blow, Thompson landed a right-hander that put Haye down for the first time in his career, and with Haye having little left to offer, the contest was stopped shortly afterwards. Whilst it lasted this was a classic brawl and, despite his defeat, Haye learned well from this encounter. For Thompson it was his last great win, but what a win. 

BN said: “The amazing Carl Thompson put young pretender David Haye firmly in his place with yet another come-from-behind victory.  The Wembley crowd witnessed 40-year-old Thomson retain his belt with an incredible firth-round stoppage”.

43. Len Harvey (Stoke Climsland) v John Henry Lewis (USA)

November 9, 1936.  Empire Pool, Wembley

World Light-Heavyweight Title (15 rounds)

I was hard pushed to pick between this contest and that between Chris Finnegan and Bob Foster in 1972 but ultimately settled on this one as Harvey came closer to victory than brave Chris had done. Harvey was Britain’s most outstanding boxer at the time of this contest but Lewis, who had beaten another Englishman, Jock McAvoy, for the same title earlier in the year, was the by far the toughest man Len had faced in a career stretching back sixteen years. The American, the best champion there had been at this weight for some time, was well fancied to retain his title. He generally bossed a fine contest and dealt most of the attacks that Harvey launched and he had a comfortable lead going into the 13th round. Realising that his only hope of victory lay with a knockout, Harvey then spent the final three rounds launching some vicious attacks that the American was hard-pressed to deal with.  When the final bell tolled, to Lewis’ great relief, Harvey was left beaten after a valiant struggle. 

BN said: “For the whole of the 15 rounds the pair punched away with full force with Harvey always giving the champion plenty to think about, and coming with such a wonderful rally in the last two rounds vast to have the vast crowd on its toes.”

42. Teddy Baldock (Poplar) v Archie Bell (USA)

May 5, 1927.  Royal Albert Hall

World bantamweight title (15 rounds)

Although recognised within the UK as a world title affair, the contest was not recognised within the United States as such, but Baldock, the reigning British champion, comprehensively out-boxed Bell, arguably the leading US man at the weight over the full championship course. Throughout the 1920 most of the leading fighters in Britain and Ireland came unstuck against US and European rivals in the most important contests and it is a tough decade in which to find classic contests. I have selected this one as it represented one of the last occasions in which a British fighter, boxing on the defensive and in the classic English style, leading with the left jab and counterpunching, outwitted an American, fighting in their more typical aggressive style. Baldock, aged only 19, picked the American apart to take a close decision in an exciting contest.

BN said: “Archie Bell is the best bantam in the United States. He is one piece of sheer grit. His features got disarranged by Teddy’s left shots, and was staggered more than once by Baldock’s left-crosses. Teddy Baldock made good. He did more, he showed us that the old Classical School can be revived.”

41. Jim Watt (Glasgow) v Sean O’Grady (USA)

November 1, 1980.  Kelvin Hall, Glasgow

WBC lightweight title (15 rounds)

In a controversial contest, in which both men received very nasty facial damage, Jim Watt outlasted his young American rival in this, his toughest defence to date. For the first eight rounds the contest swayed one way and then the other, with Watt holding a slight lead by generally controlling affairs with his jab. In the ninth he came under extreme pressure as the American turned up the heat and he sustained a nasty cut. Watt desperately back-pedalled and things looked grim.  With his trainer Terry Lawless telling him he would only give him one more round Watt, came out for the tenth looking to end it. After again dominating with his jab, Watt forced O’Grady to the ropes and then the two clashed heads, causing a horrendous gash to the American’s forehead. This changed everything and Watt finally stopped his courageous opponent in the 12th.

BN said: “Watt’s abused features told their own tale of the epic struggle. However, nothing should detract from Watt’s performance. Except for a period in the ninth, he was the picture of cold, calculated professionalism and it was a highly efficient performance by a pro’s pro.”

Read part two here

Read part three here

Read part four here

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