IF ever a man looked like a fighter it was Brian London.
His crooked nose – smeared all over his face like a knob of melting butter – proved he was no stranger to a solid whack, while his sloping shoulders and heavy hands were always ready for retaliation. The amateur star, crowned the British Empire champion in 1954 and the winner of the ABA heavyweight title a year later, had mixed with some of the best big men in the world as a professional. But both London and his reputation, furnished in a golden heavyweight era, took a pummelling when he stepped into the ring to challenge Muhammad Ali for the world title.
On that August 6 night in 1966, at Earls Court in London, the Blackpool star went into the ring feeling something he had never felt before in all his years as a fighter. He knew that he could not win.
“He was far too good for me,” London, now 81, tells Boxing News many years after his disastrous date with destiny. “He was a brilliant fighter and I wasn’t good enough to fight him. When they offered me the money to fight him I just said ‘yes’ and I thought that I’d go for it, but I knew I had no chance. My problem was I never really fought for the love of it; I fought for the money.”
London was outclassed as Ali raided with astonishing speed and accuracy, yet the challenger’s collapse in the third round, despite it coming after almost 20 unanswered punches, angered many observers and media. Reporters, guilty of building the contest into something it wasn’t, felt cheated after taking several trips from London to Brian’s lavish training camp at his local Pontins. This publication declared what followed on fight night as “the worst flop in years.”
“Few people expected the British boxer to beat the classy American,” Boxing News reported. “But almost everybody, even Clay [Ali] were hoping to see some sort of a struggle. Some said eight rounds. Others, ten or eleven. Before the fight even the champ himself stated that as London was so big and strong, he was prepared for a hard fight that could go ten rounds or even the distance… Didn’t the press make plane journeys to Blackpool to see London’s elaborate training quarters? Didn’t fans flock to see some blood and thunder? Blood and thunder? London threw hardly an angry blow.”
British fans, so engrossed in the build-up, filled 20 cinemas to watch live coverage of the bout. One 16-year-old customer cleared his lifelong fortune – even sacrificing his bus fare home – so he could get a seat in the New Victoria Cinema and boast that he saw a world heavyweight title fight live. Up in Newcastle, at the Odeon, Eddie Baxter provided Boxing News with a blow-by-blow report of happenings during the live coverage. His findings suggested there was more fun to be had buying hotdogs than there was watching the action.
“Pretty girls wearing sashes emblazoned with the names of the combatants, sold programmes at two-and-six a throw, and the hot dogs were going down well for one-and-a-tanner. Mustard, no extra charge…”
In this day and age of PC excess, the harsh reporting – particularly when one considers exactly who London was faced with – is something of a shock. Reviewing the fight today reveals a fighter out of his depth, but it is perhaps unfair to judge London – who performed well against the likes of Thad Spencer, Zora Folley, Henry Cooper, and Jerry Quarry – solely on a thrashing at the hands of a peak version of the arguably greatest heavyweight in boxing history.
Today, London is proud to have shared a ring with Ali but remains scarred by the backlash his performance attracted.
“The criticism I received from some people after the fight was justified and it did hurt my feelings and my pride because I didn’t try and I should have done,” London says. “At least I should have had a go and I do regret not going after him more but he was so damn good. I said after ‘I knew he was fast but I didn’t know he was greased lightning’ and that was true, I’d seen some of his fights but never, ever, did I think he was fast like he was. His speed was like a welterweight or a middleweight rather than a heavyweight.”