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The Great Blighty Hope
Hugh McIlvanney
July 21, 1986
Has an authentic contender at last bloomed in a boxing desert? Or is Frank Bruno another brittle Brit?
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July 21, 1986

The Great Blighty Hope

Has an authentic contender at last bloomed in a boxing desert? Or is Frank Bruno another brittle Brit?

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Over recent decades British heavyweights held the championship of Europe for much of the time. But another painful irony is that in the years between World War II and now, only one big man from Europe became a real power throughout the world, and he originated not in Britain but in the unlikely breeding ground of Sweden. Before and after violently but briefly dispossessing Floyd Patterson of the championship, Ingemar Johansson ate up every Briton put before him.

Henry Cooper, Joe Erskine, Dick Richardson and Brian London all had substantial reputations at home in Britain, but they were jolted into recognition of their inferiority by the Johansson right hand, which the publicists liked to call the Hammer of Thor. For all Henry Cooper knew about his fifth-round removal in 1957, it might have been Eric the Red who had hit him. "Johansson did not seem fast on his feet," Cooper said later, "but I never saw the knockout punch when it came." Yet, in spite of that demolition and an overall record that shows 14 losses in 55 contests, Cooper remains easily the most popular British heavyweight of the last 50 years. A fit and vigorous 51-year-old, he makes a rich living from being a national institution. He is "Our 'Enery" to the nation, and nothing a Swede or a handful of Yanks did to him in the distant past can alter that.

Cooper's special place in the strange pantheon of British heavyweights owes much to his left hook. It was referred to in the tabloids as 'ENERY'S 'AMMER, and without doubt it was a fearsome tool. Cooper was probably too light—he weighed around 185 pounds—and was too easily cut and too susceptible to brain-scrambling blows to draw full value from his own tremendous punch, but it did create one historic moment.

In the fraction of a second it took to explode on the jaw of the young Cassius Clay, it wrote Henry a pension for life. On that June night in 1963, the prodigy from Louisville had yet to become world champion, but he anticipated his imminent coronation by making his entrance through the crowd at Wembley while wearing a rented crown. The presumptuousness spilled over into Clay's work in the ring; by the fourth round his flashiness left an opening for Cooper's left hook.

The punch was as hard as any Ali ever took. When he rose, his thoughts were a rabble and his legs looked ready to do a Groucho Marx impersonation. But the bell sounded before Cooper could resume throwing in earnest. It was then that Angelo Dundee suddenly discovered a tear in one of Ali's gloves, and the ensuing fuss over what should be done about it considerably stretched the interval before the fifth round. The extended rest restored Ali's body and concentrated his mind, and in the fifth round he shed enough of' Enery's English blood to force the referee to intervene.

When the two fighters met again in London for Ali's fourth title defense, Cooper bled even more. That was the first heavyweight championship match Britain had played host to in nearly 60 years. It was outlandish that Ali should return within three months for another title defense, but return he did. And that event itself was suitably peculiar. How could it be otherwise, when it had, as its second principal, the egregious Brian London?

London was capable of coming on like a bully, but his bluster often subsided rapidly into meekness. The unnerving process was almost instantaneous with Ali. Had London not been counted out in the third, the referee might have had to act to save the spectators from further punishment.

Many would say that that night represented some kind of nadir for British heavyweights, but a man could make himself awfully tired by listing performances bad enough to deserve that particular designation. The truth is that England's best days for avoiding embarrassment occurred in the long-ago dark age of bare-knuckle bruisers when, having invented (or at least revived) organized prizefighting, the British kept it pretty much to themselves for more than a century. The lightly built, brash and crafty Charley Mitchell was England's last outstanding exponent of bare-knuckle fighting. His challenge for John L. Sullivan's championship in 1888 produced a historic 39-round draw on the training grounds of the Rothschild racing stable north of Paris, and Sullivan retained the title. In the 98 years since that rain-drenched and illicit set-to, the British have rarely seen anyone fighting out of their country come anything like as close to being called the heavyweight champion of the world. The good news is that very few big men from Britain have even been allowed to try such a thing.

Some who did are worth remembering. Around World War I, "Bombardier" Billy Wells was that favorite of old sportswriters—an enigma. He looked superb. He boxed fluently and he could punch. What he could not do was finish. He simply had no real stomach for destroying men after he had put them at his mercy. Georges Carpentier, who was a great light heavyweight when he wasn't being a boulevardier, said that he and others beat up on Wells only because "there was not the vice of a fighter in him, because he was afraid to hurt."

American sportswriters had a lot of fun with another inept British contender, Phil Scott, who reigned as England's champion between 1926 and 1931. They dubbed him Phaintin' Phil in tribute to a succession of groin-clutching collapses that brought him no fewer than six wins on disqualifications. In the elimination series to find a world champion after Gene Tunney's retirement, Scott rewarded connoisseurs of sedentary triumphs by defeating Otto Van Porat on yet another foul. But Scott paid a price for having so often cried wolf. In the final elimination match, Jack Sharkey actually did punch Scott low but went unpunished and won.

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