BACK in 2020, within my series of the top 50 British contests, I ranked the 1950 bout between the heavyweights Johnny Williams and Jack Gardner at number 28. I wrote that “The contest was sensational and the hardened Leicester fight fans, who had seen every heavyweight of note in Britain over the previous 20 years, had seen nothing like it”. Williams lost the decision after 12 rounds and ended up in hospital after collapsing in the ring at the end of the bout.
These two lads fought three times and the sensational encounter in 1950 was their first meeting. When they met again, in March 1952, it was for Gardner’s British title. Jack had won this title immediately after his victory over Williams, when he stopped Bruce Woodcock in 11 rounds in November 1950. He then won and lost the European title whilst Williams was slowly rebuilding his career. When the two men met again, another great duel ensued, and this time Johnny came out on top, taking both the verdict and the title after 15 very close rounds. Their third contest took place in June 1955 at Nottingham Ice Rink in an eliminator for the British title, now held by Don Cockell, and this time Gardner, 25 pounds the heavier, walked through his man and knocked him out in the fifth.
Both men are now largely forgotten despite their exploits during this tough period in the annals of the sport in Britain. Bruce Woodcock and Don Cockell are better remembered these days, probably because both fought leading American heavyweights and cracked the world ratings. Despite this, Jack and Johnny deserve their place, especially for the many exciting bouts in which they took part.
Johnny Williams, as his name might suggest, was a Welshman. He was born in Barmouth in 1926 and his family then moved to Rugby, where his father took on a farm. He started out in boxing by hanging around his local gym, sparring with all-comers. Like many others at the time, he earned a few extra quid on the boxing booths and when he turned pro in 1945, he had no amateur experience at all, but he soon made his mark.
His first contests took place at the Rail and Road Transport Club in Leicester, and they were not reported in BN at the time. Johnny started out as a middleweight, but Ted Broadribb spotted his potential as a long-limbed heavyweight, and he took him into his stable. Broadribb was the manager of Freddie Mills, and he knew a fighter when he saw one. Johnny remained undefeated throughout his first 22 bouts and, by August 1949, he was ranked as the number one contender for the British heavyweight title, with a certain Jack Gardner behind him at number two.
Gardner came to the game a little later, turning pro in 1948 when he won a novice heavyweight competition at Harringay Arena. Before this he had won the Army, the Inter-Services, and the ABA heavyweight titles as an amateur. He was also Britain’s heavyweight representative at the 1948 Olympic Games, held in London, where he went out in the quarter-finals at the hands of Hans Muller from Switzerland. Jack was one of three fighting brothers from Market Harborough, and he rocketed to the top of the heavyweight lists, winning his first 13 inside the distance, and losing only two of this first 21 bouts, both at the hands of Vern Escoe, a decent Canadian.
Jack and Johnny dominated the British title scene between 1950 and 1953 and though neither of them ever managed to break through into world contention they deserve to be remembered more than they are. Both went on to become farmers after their ring careers had ended, with Jack dying young at 52 in 1978, and Johnny living into his eighties before passing in 2007.