‘You’ve got a chin like Bambi’s shinpads’, read the card. Even at 11 years old, I knew Dad was right. I’d never make it as a boxer. Still, it was nice of him to remember my birthday.
Despite those early setbacks, I have always been drawn to the sweet science, not just for the impressive power of the big hitters, but for the art of defence and the remarkable triumphs of will that do credit to winners and losers alike. Plus, the ring card girls always seem to be in such a good mood, even though they’re carrying a board around, wearing only their smalls, in the 21st century.
South London has produced and housed a few world champions over the years, but its place in boxing history starts at the beginning.
When the Marquess of Queensbury popped upstairs at The Ring pub in Blackfriars in 1867 to pen the rules of the sport (or at least take credit for them), he couldn’t know he was also securing his own place in history. It was quite a turn up for someone largely known as a bully, a twat, or a lunatic, not least by his own family, who despised him.
There followed a trail of admirable South London sluggers, to whom this post is dedicated. You can argue about who’s in or out of any boxing top ten, as fight fans love to do, but we can never know how fighters across the ages would fare, any more than we can know if Godzilla would beat Marvellous Marvin Hagler.
10. Danny Williams
Any man who batters Mike Tyson into submission deserves to wear the trousers in the house of his choosing, in my book. But Williams had already earned my awe when, with a dislocated shoulder, he fought one-handed, knocking out Mark Potter to win the British heavyweight title in 2000. The balls of a bull come to mind, though I wish they wouldn’t.
9. Don Cockell
‘I don’t think I ever hit anyone else any more often or harder’, said Rocky Marciano of Don Cockell after their world heavyweight title bout in 1955.
I think it was a compliment. Even in comprehensive defeat Cockell had partly repaired British boxing’s less than robust reputation in America, where the early exits of ‘Fainting’ Phil Scott were still recalled. Marciano fought dirty, but Cockell had no complaints:
‘Rocky kept beating away at me like a demented butcher flattening a lump of veal.’
Having the best laugh in boxing was little compensation in the ring, even against Mike Tyson’s lisp. People tend to remember him either for the Tyson losses or becoming South London’s first World Heavyweight Champion, at the fourth attempt, against Oliver McCall. Or for playing Widow Twankey. I remember him for the Lennox Lewis loss in which he was excellent for six rounds till Lewis figured a way through, as he tended to do. And I felt for him, as I tended to do.
7. Sir Henry Cooper
While there’s an element of myth about the delay that saved Cassius Clay from Our ’Enery (it lasted about six seconds – though smelling salts were used, illegally), there was substance in Henry Cooper’s left hook, which repeatedly rattled the future great, Muhammad Ali.
‘I will miss my old friend,’ Ali said, after Cooper’s death in 2011. ‘He was a great fighter and a gentlemen’.
Incidentally, Henry’s old boozer, The Fellowship Inn in Bellingham, is to be restored thanks to a lottery grant. A listed building and the first pub built on a council estate, it is to be turned into a cinema, a live music venue, a theatre, bakery, microbrewery, artists’ studios and a café. In short, a small town.
6. Sid Smith
Sid became the first British Flyweight champ, beating Stoker Bill Hoskyne over 20 rounds at The Ring, in 1911. The Bermondsey boy went on to become Britain’s first Jewish world champion. Oldsters will tell you Sid Smith was the best fighter to come out of South London, ever. Mind you they also talk fondly of rationing, smog and outside toilets.
5. Tom Cribb
I know I’m taking libs including Tom Cribb in our South London top ten, but once I’d visited his monument overlooking the Thames in Woolwich, I couldn’t resist. It shows a lion grieving over the ashes of a hero and reflects his unique status in 19th century England.
‘As a professor of his art he was matchless, and in his observance of fair play he was never excelled; he bore a character of unimpeachable integrity and unquestionable humanity,’ went a contemporary account.
Thousands would watch him fight, thousands would throng the streets of London when he returned victorious. His first fight lasted 76 rounds, in 1805. When he retired, he was allowed to keep the title ‘champion’, for the rest of his life, such was the esteem he was held in.
Bristol-born Cribb has been described as the David Beckham of his day. Indeed he can be seen in the main image in nothing but his pants.
4. David Haye
While disparaging the Ukranian Klitschko brothers as Vitali prepared for a title defence in Berne, Switzerland, Haye told the press:
‘They may be big in Switzerland, but so are yodellers.’
David Haye is always quotable, but he’ll want to be remembered as one of the most exciting boxers around, rather than the biggest trash talker. After blowing his big night with the younger Klitschko and blaming his little toe, he’s had to suffer ridicule, like the rest of us, probably for the first time in his life. He did win a world heavyweight title though, against the giant Valuev, in a fight that was like a chess match, only slower.
For his own peace of mind and the greater good of South London, The Hayemaker needs a better denouement than a toe-KO.
3. Duke McKenzie
A world champion at three different weights, Duke McKenzie proved that nice guys can come first. In his case, thrice. Getting the right size jumper for him at Christmas must have been a nightmare. They don’t think of that, do they?
Lacking the ‘super-fights’ that Eubank was to enjoy, Duke will be remembered for his own gifts rather than that of his opponents. He was slick, skilled and tougher than he looked. He still lives and breathes boxing, running a gym in Crystal Palace and commentating in a state of high excitement, as one should when watching boxing.
2. Chris Eubank
Eubank was born in Dulwich, which is easy to believe when you see him with his monocle. However, there was no silver spoon for him growing up in Peckham.
Eubank figured in the golden era of British middleweight boxing, in which we were spoilt for world class fighters, most of whom wanted to take his head off.
‘I personally hate him,’ said Nigel Benn, shortly before Eubank took his belt, in 1990.
‘Never take a fight when you’re angry’, my Dad told me. (Actually, I added the ‘When you’re angry’ bit).
For all the posing and affectation, he was a serious fighter with a granite chin. He went bankrupt owing £1.3 million in taxes, but not before he’d built 69 flats for the homeless in a listed building for a similar amount. Now, that’s balance.
1. Lloyd Honeyghan
‘Who is this ragamuffin?’ asked the undisputed, undefeated welterweight champion, Don Curry, in the build up to his title fight with Lloyd Honeyghan. Many bookies wouldn’t give you odds on Curry to win. The Ragamuffin Man then beat him like he was a ginger stepchild for the next six rounds, tearing the world crown off him in one of the biggest upsets in the history of boxing. It was the greatest single performance by a South Londoner since God created the 12 boroughs below the Thames.
It’s easy to dream of scoring the winner in the Rumbelow’s Cup Final – who hasn’t? – because you’ve played countless games of football as a kid. But boxing isn’t a game you play. Title fights are more remote than cup finals. Most of us could no more be boxers than astronauts, which leads me to paraphrase Simon Munnery:
‘I could have been a boxer, like my Dad. He could have been a boxer.’
UPDATE: December 2015
Reader David Porter has a point, suggesting the inclusion of the hard-hitting former British champ, Gary Mason, though not merely because David enjoyed Gary’s mum’s rice and peas. The Wallington heavyweight only lost one of his 38 fights and has a case for nudging Danny Williams out of the top ten. Said to be one of the nicest guys to ever punch people in the face for a living, Gary died in a tragic cycling accident in 2011.
But the most scandalous omission has to be that of Freddie Mills, the former light-heavyweight World Champion, who was a superstar in Britain after the war. He retained his celebrity after boxing through TV and film appearances, along with his Soho nightclub. He lived in Denmark Hill and was buried in Camberwell New Cemetery, though not until after his mysterious death from gunshot wounds.
Of today’s fighters, Penge welterweight Bradley Skeete is the only real contender to trouble our rankings in the near future. Currently the WBO European champ, he has ambitions to go all the way (to a world title, not to Beckenham).
While Chris Eubank lets his son do the fighting these days, he did enter the field of human conflict by going into the jungle for I’m A Celeb, Please Let Me On The Telly Again. He made the mistake of picking a row with Lady Colin Campbell which ended with the socialite winning an undisputed points decision.
And lastly, David Haye returns to the ring at the age of 35 to try and improve his legacy, if not his bank balance.