[It is a pleasure to reproduce this piece – penned by the late, great boxing writer O. F. Snelling – for a new, online, 21st-century audience. We do so with the kind permission of Derek O’Dell, Editor and Producer of ‘The Southern Ex-Boxer’, in which this article first appeared in 1998 – Ed.]
It has been known for us to make mention of pugilists like Jack Hood, of Birmingham – one of the very best – and we've also dwelt upon those characters beloved by Geordieland's Ringwise. Oh boy, what a bunch they had, on Tyneside! Seaman Tommy Watson, Mickey Maguire, Benny Sharkey, Jack Casey, Jack London – and the great Billy Charlton, among others.
Most of these men were of world class! I kid you not! But, unfortunately, they dwelt in unsophisticated surroundings, and their managers, although capable enough, did not always carry the influence to negotiate their men into prestigious fights, and they lost out – with one or two notable exceptions.
As for the Scots – remember Tancy Lee, Elky Clark, Tommy Milligan and Benny Lynch – ensconced up there near the Arctic Circle? Milligan, then a little past his best, faced the great Maxie Rosenbloom, at that time claimant to the twelve-seven world title, when he came to London in June, 1928. Tommy knocked out ‘Slapsie Maxie’ in nine! You don't hear a lot about that one, but people do play up the occasion when Tommy bowed the knee to Mickey Walker at Olympia in 1927.
But I'm running away with myself. This is supposed to be a piece about the best I ever saw. Well, I saw plenty – believe me! The very first fighter I ever watched was the legendary Sam Minto, from under his corner in an Edmonton boxing-booth when I was a gullible kid, for which honour I had paid tuppence, and I didn't have the experience to know that I was watching a ‘gee’!
The last fights I saw ‘live’ I can't actually recall. These days I sit and watch them on TV – sometimes as they are waged or on video later – if I've recorded the events. Less and less I feel inclined to do so. The OFS at the age of 21 in 1937, who sat up until the small hours to hear the radio commentary of Farr's great battle with Louis would not now disturb his difficult efforts at slumber to get the ‘live’ outcome of the clash between David and Goliath.
Let's do this thing properly. I am not writing about the boxers I think were the best in their particular division. No, I am discussing those people I was fortunate in actually seeing perform, during my lifetime. I've been watching boxing for getting on for 70 years, now, and all of the fights I've seen ‘live’ have been in this country. So all of the boxers mentioned here are British.
The best heavyweight I ever saw was Jack Petersen and he'd only box as a cruiser today. He was the fastest big fellow I can remember. He came out from the first bell straight into the attack, and he never stopped. And what a puncher! I'd have backed him against Bruce Woodcock – both at their best. People who follow the game to a slight extent and believe most of what they read in the papers, have made Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno national heroes. Those people who are really aware of what's going on up there in the ring know different. While I wish both men good luck, they were never really great.
People forget that in the 1920s and '30s, when Len was an eleven-sixer, he was quite a knockout specialist! It was only when he slightly outgrew the division and had to tackle the bigger fellows, that he took few chances. He became something of a spoiler, but he had cultivated tremendous strength in his grip.
He could tie up a powerful sixteen-stone bruiser like Walter Neusel as he would a babe!
Middleweights? For me, there was only one, after Harvey became a light-heavy. That was the Rochdale Thunderbolt, Jock McAvoy. What a hitter! He took a trip to New York, and they gave him a non-title fight with the reigning world champion, Babe Risko. Jock made a very, very big mistake: instead of ‘carrying’ his man for a bit, he blasted out Risko in the opening round, and that was it! He never got a smell of a world title chance at the middleweight limit after that.
They did let him fight John Henry Lewis for the light-heavyweight championship, but his opponent was too big. Still, he went the full 15, in a close one.
Eric Boon was the best lightweight I ever saw. He was the man who gave me the greatest excitement: he was a phenomenal puncher. But when Ronnie James took his title in 1944 the lad from East Anglia had really grown into a welter, and should never have weakened himself by getting down to nine-nine. Dave Charnley came along a good while later, but what a clash he and Boon would have put up when each was at his peak! One thing's for sure: such a contest would never have gone the distance.
No-one knows what might have happened had Boon and Danahar met for the first time without the drastic business of weight-reduction. Their second contest was a stinker, with neither willing to take a chance. But you all know what happened in their first go. Pure boxing versus pure hitting: the greatest clash I ever saw. I shall not see another fight like it! If you weren't actually there, and have only seen brief excerpts of this scrap on the telly – don't judge this epic by those! You are fully aware of the outcome, but we weren't, at the time, as this incredible battle progressed. The issue was in doubt almost right to the end.
I never saw a more stylish featherweight than Nel Tarleton. His best days were past when I got a glimpse of him, but he was still boxing rings round most of his opponents. Facing Johnny King when both of them were about the same poundage, he won every round by sheer text-book skill. At the end of his career he was lined up to fight Willie Pep for the world title, but Pep had a bad accident, and had to withdraw. Willie would probably have won, but it would have been a close thing.
And now for the flyweights. Most people would go for Benny Lynch, and maybe they're right, but I only saw him a couple of times. I watched Peter Kane on several occasions, and I have to name him as my best eight-stoner. He did pretty well as a bantam, too. On the way up he cleared the field, except for Lynch. But Benny always had trouble with Jimmy Warnock, and the Irish lad never got the Scot into a ring with the title on the line. Kane, on the other hand, was too good for Warnock, and stopped him inside the distance.
I'm well aware that Lynch flattened Kane in their Glasgow battle for the title in 1937, but never forget the return match they had the following year, in Liverpool. It was over 15 rounds, but the Lynch camp made sure that Benny's title wasn't at stake. The two lads' drawn battle was one of the greatest scraps between little men of all time. Lynch went to pieces after that: he lost his title on the scales, before facing Jackie Jurich, although he knocked the American out. But Peter Kane met Jurich a few months later and won the vacant title without too much trouble.
I'm also well aware that lots of readers will disagree with my findings – but I'm only writing about the best men I ever actually saw. Maybe some of those old and legendary scrappers we read about would make my lot seem like second-raters. For instance, I'd reckon Owen Moran to have been one of the finest and most versatile men this country ever produced, but I never saw him – only on film. But he was great!
Best heavyweight who ever lived
And, finally, who do I reckon was the best heavyweight who ever lived? Again, although I saw Muhammad Ali in the flesh, I never saw Mike Tyson, except on the box. But technology has advanced so much that you now get a better view of matters at home than you do at the arena!
I'd say that if the Ali of the 1960s had boxed the Tyson of the 1980s – before they took Muhammad's licence away, ‘Iron’ Mike wouldn't have laid a glove on ‘The Greatest’. But Tyson versus Ali after the great man had come down off his toes and was slugging it out with the likes of Foreman, Frazier and Norton – well, that's a different matter.
But I'm of that generation which saw Joe Louis on the screen in every one of his fights that was ever filmed. At his peak, I think he could have licked anyone. He was a very clever boxer, a terrific fighter when under pressure, and a devastating hitter. In my opinion, he had the lot!
A closing thought
There was a time when the title of heavyweight champion of Great Britain was a prestigious one. True, men like Billy Wells, Joe Beckett and Phil Scott were not quite world-beaters, but we did all know about them, and whenever they were on view you could be sure of a packed house. Later on, we had Jack Petersen, Tommy Farr and Bruce Woodcock. Not a slouch among them, although not one quite reached the heights. Then there were Brian London, Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner. At least, they did earn shots at the world title, although a fellow named Muhammad Ali was ruling the roost back in those days, and our lads were never serious opponents for him. But members of the public believe to the contrary. By the time Frank Bruno arrived on the scene he didn't think a mere national title was worth bothering about, and the British championship wasn't worth the price of admission to see it contested.
Some time back, Mr Bruno, on television, was asked the name of the current British titleholder. He had to think about it a bit, but he did eventually come up with the right chap. But he didn't even know how to pronounce the poor fellow's name! Still, he did better than I could have done. The title has lost so much prestige that although I can pronounce the name of our present heavyweight champ, I didn't even know that he had won the title! Further, I didn't even know the name of the chap he had licked to acquire it!
And a few years ago I could have told you every British champion, chronologically, every defence he had made, the year he made it, his opponent, the venue, and all the rest.