From a pair of Ali v Cooper dates to Tyson and Bruno, half a dozen GB v US boxing battles from down the years
You got a Queen, you need a King,” crowed the brash, unbeaten 21-year-old Cassius Clay on his arrival in London in 1963. The chances of local hero Henry Cooper upsetting the princeling relied on a left hook nicknamed ’Enry’s ’Ammer. Cooper was left-handed but fought orthodox, carrying his power in his lead hand. If his opponent was worried, he hid it well. Entering the ring wearing a crown and a robe emblazoned with “Cassius Clay, The Greatest”, the visitor soon found his rhythm. A slashing jab opened the fragile skin above Cooper’s left eye and Clay began to showboat in the fourth.
Then it landed. As Clay moved backwards, Cooper’s ’Ammer struck, sending the American down. Clay got to his feet as the round ended, staggered to his corner, sat down, then sprung up again like a jack-in-the-box. His cornerman, Angelo Dundee, widened a tear on his fighter’s glove and yelled for a replacement. Yet despite the commotion, no gloves were changed and most observers suggest the delay was five or six seconds, rather than the mythical minutes ticking by. Still, the break proved enough; a recuperated Clay ended the fight in the fifth.
A 1966 rematch followed, the now Muhammad Ali bringing his world title to Europe to escape the animosity towards him in the US. This time, he won without the drama. Yet Cooper still had his moment; when his left hook shook up the man who’d go on to shake up the world.
Tyson v Bruno (1989, 1996)
Frank Bruno epitomised the US view of British heavyweights. They were game, but lacking in elite skill and punch resistance. Or, as columnist Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “He [Bruno] has been on more canvases than Rembrandt
Mike Tyson was the antithesis of Bruno. The Londoner was a warm, beloved public figure. Tyson was viewed as dangerous and divisive. Their 1989 Las Vegas showdown saw Bruno clobbered to the canvas inside the first minute. Yet he got up, held heroically – and illegally – then staggered Tyson with a left hook. “Get in there Frank!” exhorted the usually impartial BBC commentator Harry Carpenter from ringside. Bruno could not capitalise. However, he fought gamely and was still on his feet as the referee intervened in the fifth round.
In 1996, a rematch came with Bruno defending the WBC belt he’d won against Oliver McCall. “Iron” Mike was now a rusted destroyer; not that anybody told Bruno. The Brit looked overwhelmed on his way to the ring, “crossing himself repeatedly, like a cardinal on speed” as Observer scribe Hugh McIlvanney put it. Tyson ended the contest inside eight minutes. Bruno, wisely, never fought again.
Lewis v Rahman (2001)
Lennox Lewis’s greatest wins came against Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Yet it was a less acclaimed American who riled the relaxed British-Canadian: Baltimore’s Hasim Rahman.
Lewis’s two bouts against Rahman were his career in a microcosm: when Lennox was good, he was very very good, but when he was bad, he was horrid. Their first fight was deemed so uncompetitive that no major US casino would put up the site fee. Carnival City Casino, South Africa, became the venue. Rather than preparing for the high altitude, Lewis trained in Las Vegas while filming scenes for Ocean’s 11. A bludgeoning Rahman right hand and a fifth-round knockout was Lewis’s reward. The American, suddenly in possession of boxing’s richest prize, became hot property. A legal battle around Lewis’s rematch clause ensued and the ill-feeling grew. After Rahman disparagingly referred to Lewis as “gay”, the two brawled on the floor during a TV interview.
An in-ring rematch saw the 36-year-old Lewis score a spectacular victory. A looping left hand was merely a decoy to distract Rahman from the right-hand howitzer that swiftly followed. Rahman crashed to the canvas. “Everybody thought that Rahman got under my skin and he did a little,” Lewis confessed. “But ‘Has-Been’ Rahman, that’s my new name for him now.”
Louis v Farr (1937)
If Tommy Farr was intimidated by poker-faced Joe Louis, the Welshman concealed it superbly. At the weigh-in, when Louis asked Farr how he’d received the scars on his back, he replied that they came from fighting tigers with the circus. The truth was less exotic: they came from crawling down the coal pits that Farr had first entered aged 12.
The fight between Farr and Louis was held in front of 37,000 at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Most expected a demolition. Yet Farr withstood the world champion’s ramrod blows and rocked Louis on several occasions. Farr lost, but gallantly and by a far narrower margin than the scorecard of referee Arthur Donovan, who awarded the champion 13 of the 15 rounds. The contest was named 1937’s fight of the year by Ring magazine, while proof of the pulverising nature of the blows Farr survived came as Louis stopped his next seven opponents. “I’ve only got to think about Joe Louis and my nose starts bleeding,” Farr dryly remarked.
Hide v Bentt (1994)
A curiosity in which a Nigeria-born Brit, Herbie Hide, faced a London-born American. Raised in New York, Michael Bentt was a decorated US amateur who went on to win the WBO heavyweight title. Hide was, appropriately, something of a Jekyll and Hyde character. A press event to announce this fight descended into a wild brawl. “In that environment, your emotions are raw,” Bentt later recalled. “I slapped him, he grabbed me … I fell on my knees, he punched me. It was an ugly mess.”
The scrap in the ring proved uglier for Bentt. Hide dominated, finishing the fight in the seventh round. Afterwards Bentt lost consciousness and spent four days in a coma. He recovered and while his boxing career was over, he found success as an actor, playing Sonny Liston opposite Will Smith in 2001’s Ali. Following Hide’s victory, his promoter Barry Hearn claimed: “Herbie Hide will now develop into the greatest heavyweight fighter this country – perhaps the world – has ever seen.” As prophecies go, it did not last long.