Matt Bozeat journeys back in time and examines 11 of the most memorable all-British heavyweight rivalries
LEN HARVEY vs JACK PETERSEN (1933-36)
HARVEY and Petersen were two of Britain’s most popular prizefighters of the 1930s. A pro at 12, Cornishman Harvey boxed at every weight from flyweight up to heavyweight and wherever Petersen went, thousands of Welshmen followed.
There were 70,000 fans at White City Stadium to see colourful Irishman Jack Doyle slung out in the second round of their fight for repeated low blows and the first time Petersen fought Harvey in November 1933, hundreds were locked outside the Royal Albert Hall [pictured above].
That gruelling fight went Harvey’s way on points to bring him the British heavyweight title and interest in the rematch was such the promoters hoped for a crowd of 100,000 at White City Stadium in June 1934.
The attendance was closer to 70,000 and they saw Petersen get his revenge to take away Harvey’s British and Commonwealth titles when Len, brave to the end, was withdrawn after 12.
Tickets for their rubber match at Wembley Arena in January, 1936 soon sold out and Petersen knocked Harvey down in the first and won on points.
BRUCE WOODCOCK vs FREDDIE MILLS (1946-49)
THE charismatic Woodcock was possibly Europe’s top post-war heavyweight back then and as world light-heavyweight champion, Mills was a national hero.
Their first fight went ahead shortly after Woodcock injured his knee when losing to Tami Mauriello at Madison Square Garden and he won a hard fight on points in 1946. Three years later, they met again in front of 46,000 fans at White City Stadium. Mills, crowned world light-heavyweight champion 11 months earlier, found Woodstock too big and strong.
The heavier fighter by 20lbs, Woodcock knocked him down four times on his way to a 14th round stoppage.
JACK GARDNER vs JOHNNY WILLIAMS (1950-55)
TED BROADRIBB, manager of Williams, remembered the first fight between Gardner and Williams “as gruelling a heavyweight contest as two youngsters have ever fought.”
Gardner, a former guardsman and chicken farmer from Market Harborough, and Williams, a Welshman domiciled a few miles away in Rugby, were born only a few months apart and knew each other well having sparred many times.
Williams went into their first fight, at Leicester’s Granby Halls in July 1950, as the favourite on the grounds of his experience and ring intelligence. The feeing was that if Gardner’s right was taken away, there wasn’t much left. To the surprise of the press, Gardner jabbed his way into a points lead and held off Williams’ late surge to hold on for a points win. So hard was the fight, both went to hospital and the patient in bed next to Williams asked him: “Do you know how the big fight went tonight ?”
They boxed twice more. BN thought Williams fortunate to win the rematch on points before Gardner won the rubber match, dropping him four times for a fifth round KO in June 1955.
HENRY COOPER vs JOE ERSKINE (1955-62)
COOPER reckoned that if Erskine had punched his weight, he would have been world heavyweight champion. Cooper would know. He fought the Welshman eight times.
Cooper and Erskine had a friendly rivalry that dated back to when they played cards against each other during their National Service.
In the ring, Erskine edged their amateur bouts 2-1 and was a points winner in their first two fights when they met as pros.
Cooper was an emphatic winner when he defended his British title in 1959, saying he left Erskine “arched backwards over the bottom rope like a giant violin bow and out to the world” with a mighty left hook in the 12th round.
Nonetheless, Benny Jacobs, Erskine’s manager, used a punch that Cooper landed a fraction after the bell to end the fifth to set up another fight between them. Cooper bust Erskine up with jabs in five rounds to win the first of his three Lonsdale belts.
There would be another fight, a decade after they had first fought in the semi-finals of the 1952 ABA championships, and by then, Erskine had lost the mobility and skills that had previously troubled Cooper.
HENRY COOPER vs JOE BUGNER (1971)
BBC commentator Harry Carpenter famously exclaimed: “How can you take away a man’s title like that?” after Harry Gibbs raised Bugner’s arm in victory following his fight with Cooper at Wembley Pool in March 1971.
“What happened to me after that fight was worse than being crucified,” said Bugner years later. “I was blamed for something I had no control over and one moronic Labour MP even called for me to be stripped of my title, stripped of my assets and sent back to wherever I came from.”
Cooper reckoned the fight was level after 10 rounds and then upped it to win the next four before Bugner [below] won the last.
On Gibbs’ scorecard, it was level after 14 rounds – and he gave Bugner the final session.
Cooper made comments in his autobiography that led to Gibbs successfully suing him.
The irony was, Cooper later revealed that, win or lose, he was planning to retire after fighting Bugner. Joe claimed in his autobiography that he offered Cooper a rematch three times, but “Our ‘Enry” couldn’t be tempted out of retirement.
LENNOX LEWIS vs GARY MASON (1991)
THE night Lewis announced himself as Britain’s next heavyweight hope. Lewis won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but early in his pro career, he didn’t always convince.
As it turned out, Lewis needed to be challenged and when he stepped up to take on Mason in March 1991, he shone. Mason was ranked No 5 by the WBC after putting together 35 straight wins, with 31 coming inside schedule. He had undergone career-saving eye surgery the previous year and following a switch of management from Terry Lawless to Mickey Duff, Mason had got his weight down and looked sharper.
Mason felt the fight had come too soon for Lewis and the bookmakers went along with that, making the British champion a narrow favourite to beat the European ruler.
They were wrong. As early as the third, Mason’s right eye was closing. Mason had his moments in the fourth and fifth, but Lewis opened a cut over his left eye in the sixth.
Mason launched an all-or-nothing attack in the seventh and when he stopped punching, Lewis was still standing and ready to take his turn. The end was only seconds away.
FRANK BRUNO vs JOE BUGNER (1987)
THE British public has always loved a heavyweight – with one possible exception. Bugner was never forgiven for ending the career of national treasure Henry Cooper with a controversial points win in 1971.
Seventeen years on, the tabloids could barely hide their excitement at the prospect of Bruno [below] righting a perceived injustice by bashing Bugner.
By then, Bugner was 37 years old, based in Australia, known as “Aussie Joe” and happy to play the role of pantomime villain to sell the fight.
Bruno-Bugner was Barry Hearn’s promotional debut and he was able to convince the public it would be a better fight than it ever promised to be.
Predictably, Bruno dished out an eight-round beating.
LENNOX LEWIS vs FRANK BRUNO (1993)
THE build up to ‘The Battle of Britain’ was tense with Bruno taking legal action against the WBC champion for calling him an “Uncle Tom.”
The ill feeling continued into the fight at Cardiff’s National Stadium in October, 1993 and referee Mickey Vann had to lecture both when the action turned ugly in the second.
To the surprise of the bookmakers and delight of the public who held him as the sentimental favourite, Bruno more than held his own when they duelled with lead hands early on.
In the third, he put a right hand behind his jab to have Lewis looking disorganised briefly.
At the midway point, Bruno [below] led on one scorecard and the other two judges had it level.
The momentum seemed to be with Lewis and possibly sensing that, Bruno went on the attack at the start of the seventh – and left a gap in his defences. Lewis launched a sweeping left hook that smacked Bruno flush on the chin, turning his body stiff and his eyes blank.
Power punch after power punch from Lewis followed until the referee jumped in.
TYSON FURY vs DERECK CHISORA (2011-14)
SO desperate was Fury to get his hands on Chisora that after spotting him in the crowd at the George Groves-James DeGale fight, he peeled his shirt off and offered to fight him there and then.
As Fury remembered it, it took around 20 security guards to convince him to leave. “I paid £100 for the ticket and asked for a refund,” he said, “but I didn’t get it.”
Fury then threatened to “kill” Chisora at a press conference ahead of the fight in July, 2011. Boxing News picked Chisora to win, but, weighing a too-heavy 18st 9lbs, he was outboxed in a bout watched by millions on Channel 5.
Chisora showed some of the best form of his career to set up a rematch three years later and again, the build up was remembered for Fury’s antics.
At a press conference, Fury [below] tipped over a table and walked out and another outburst earned him a £15,000 fine from the Board.
On the night of the fight, Fury showed the coolest of heads to walk Chisora onto punch after punch until his face was such a mess that his corner pulled him out before the 11th round.
Fury has since said he wants to finish his career by fighting Chisora at Old Trafford football ground.
ANTHONY JOSHUA vs DILLIAN WHYTE (2015)
WHYTE said ahead of his fight with Joshua for the vacant British title in December, 2015: “I’ve been living in his head for years.” The reason?
When they were novice amateurs, Whyte had outpointed Joshua [below] on a club show. Joshua went beyond Whyte by winning Olympic gold while Whyte turned pro and fought on small-hall shows.
Neither forgot that amateur bout and they had to be pulled apart after running into each other during a Wladimir Klitschko training camp in Austria. Gatekeeper Kevin Johnson was the peacemaker, telling them: “Why do it for free?” There was further friction when they went head to head at a Gloves Are Off programme for Sky Sports. The bad feeling was genuine.
At the end of the opening round, the fighters carried on trading punches and it took both corners and security to separate them.
The drama continued… Whyte connected with a left hook in the second that left Joshua on rubbery legs and it took him a couple of rounds to fully recover and start letting his hands go again.
In the seventh it was Whyte who was hurt. The force of a Joshua shot sent shockwaves through his body and though he tried to pull himself together, Joshua found the finishing punch, a right uppercut.
DILLIAN WHYTE vs DERECK CHISORA (2016-18)
WHYTE and Chisora threw more than punches at each other. Ahead of their first fight, in December, 2016, they threw glasses of water at each other during Gloves Are Off on Sky Sports.
That was followed by the ever unpredictable Chisora hurling a table at Whyte during a press conference days before the fight.
For that, he was fined £25,000 and what followed was a ferocious see-saw battle Boxing News voted the best seen in a British ring that year.
Whyte [below] won narrowly on points.
The rematch, in 2018, was more of the same for 10-and-a-half rounds – until Whyte found Chisora’s chin with a short left hook that was perfectly timed and had all his weight behind it.