Number 5, Old Ford Road, London E2 9PJ, the York Hall Leisure Centre, to give it its correct name, has become over many recent years, one of the most iconic boxing arenas in the world. Opened in 1929, with a current capacity of around 1,200 spectators, no fewer than six British world heavyweight champions have strutted their stuff in this famous old fight venue. All six were learning their trade when they boxed there and no doubt their experiences there will have helped them to gain what is often affectionately termed as “the greatest prize in sport.”
One of Britain’s most popular heavyweight champions, none other than Frank Bruno never actually boxed in the paid ranks at York Hall, although Bruno regularly filled other London venues, such as the Royal Albert Hall, Wembley Arena and Wembley Stadium where he eventually won the WBC world belt.
Now over to those who thrilled the York Hall audiences and later went on to heavyweight glory. Henry Akinwande was born in London of Nigerian parentage and made his one and only York Hall appearance in April 1994, comfortably outscoring Sheffield’s Johnny Nelson over ten rounds. Akinwande won the vacant WBO heavyweight crown in June 1996, only to vacate it in 1997 after making two successful title defences, to challenge Lennox Lewis for the WBC crown in July 1997. Akinwande was disqualified against Lewis in five rounds for persistent holding.
Herbie Hide (birth name Herbert Okechukwu Maduagwu) re-located from Nigeria to Norfolk and curiously enough his paid ring career started and ended at York Hall. Hide was a York Hall regular, boxing there five times and never losing. He won his paid debut in October 1989 stopping Lee Williams in two rounds. Other successes at the York Hall followed over Steve Osborne, Gus Mendes and Mike Dixon, before the final hurrah there against Wayne Brooks. He held the WBO crown twice between 1994 and 1999. I saw him blitzed inside two rounds – losing his title for the second time – on this occasion at the London Arena in June 1999 by Ukrainian giant Vitali Klitschko. The curtain came down on his career at the York Hall in April 2010. He unanimously outpointed Wayne Brooks over three rounds, in the quarter-final of Matchroom Boxing’s Prize fighter Cruiserweight competition, but suffered a bad cut in doing so to his right eye which prevented him from taking any further part in that competition. That was the last time we saw Hide in action at the York Hall.
Londoner David Haye had a remarkable professional ring career, not only becoming a unified cruiserweight world champion but also winning the WBA heavyweight crown. Haye, like Herbie Hide, was a York Hall regular in his early days, performing there on five occasions. He made his professional debut in December 2002 against Hull journeyman Tony Booth who was forced to retire in round two. Further victories against Greg Scott-Briggs, Tony Dowling, Lasse Johansen and Giacobbe Fragomeni followed at the famous old east London fight venue.
Lennox Lewis was arguably the greatest British heavyweight of all-time. Born in east London, he moved to Canada at the age of twelve and has both British and Canadian citizenship. Lewis was a phenomenal amateur boxer and under the flag of Canada he won a gold medal at super-heavyweight at the summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988.
He boxed once as a professional at the York Hall, halting tough Liverpudlian Noel Quarless in two rounds in January 1990. Lewis, now based in Miami Beach and sometimes also in Jamaica, excelled when punching for pay. He never ducked any of the challengers of his era and his phenomenal punching power with either hand helped him become undoubtedly the greatest heavyweight of his era and he remains an icon.
We can now turn our attention to today’s heavyweight champions from Britain. First is Watford born Anthony Joshua and then from Wythenshawe, Manchester, “The Gypsy King” Tyson Fury.
Joshua won a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at London 2012, beating the reigning 2008 Beijing champion from Italy Roberto Cammarelle on countback after their scores were tied at 18-18 after a very close final contest. Opinion is even split today in some quarters about the final verdict.
“AJ” made one professional performance at the York Hall in November 2013, stopping Croatian Hrvoje Kisicek in two rounds. He has hit the road to fame and fortune in a very big way, a two-time unified world heavyweight champion, holding the WBA (Super), IBF and WBO.
Tyson Fury boxed three times at the York Hall, winning on each occasion against first Mathew Ellis (April 2009), then Latvian Aleksandrs Selezens (July 2009) and finally American Rich Power (September 2010).
Fury is also a two-time heavyweight world champion. He holds the WBC title since defeating champion Deontay Wilder in February. Fury had unified the WBA (Super), IBF and WBO when he defeated Wladimir Klitschko in 2015. I, like many other punters, have been thrilled and excited by the exploits of the “super six” at York Hall and indeed far beyond there as well. Great champions, great fighters, I am privileged to have been around “when they had their say.”