The Top 10 British Heavyweights of All Time
For many years, British heavyweights suffered a dismal reputation and were the butt of jokes in America, the country which ruled the division for most of the 20th century. In more recent years, Europe has seen a great revival in its heavyweight fortunes, and Britain has had its role in that.
The poster boy for the low American perception of Brits was "Phaintin" Phil Scott, a 1920s heavy who was famed for hitting the canvas at the slightest foul and who once won three of four back-to-back fights by disqualification.
Scott made it to a de facto world-title eliminator against Jack Sharkey in Miami, but after neither the referee, nor the commission, would uphold his claims about being fouled in Round 3, his record registers a third-round stoppage loss.
This came on the back of failures by earlier British champions "Bombardier" Billy Wells and Joe Beckett, who share the distinction of being knocked out in the first round of European title challenges against Georges Carpentier.
At our lowest ebb, a Dorothy Parker witticism was twisted against our big men: “If all the British heavyweights in history were laid out end to end, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.”
However, over the years Britain has had its fair share of European champions, if perhaps its world-title challengers have been more from the brave loser column than the glorious victor one.
Whilst it is probably an exercise in futility to try to compare fighters from different eras in a pseudo-scientific fashion, here is an impressionistic selection of the best-ever British heavyweights.
10. Jack Petersen
Welshman Jack Petersen never beat a top overseas fighter and retired at the age of 25 due to eye problems after a third defeat to German contender Walter Neusel.
In terms of career-best wins, he is edged out by late-1950s stalwarts Brian London and Dick Richardson, as well as Brian’s father Jack London. Nonetheless, amongst a host of nearly men, Petersen’s phenomenal early success and drawing power mark him out as something special.
The early 1930s was a boom time for British boxing, when, for the first time, fights hit outdoor stadia in a big way. As British heavyweight champion from the age of 20, first between 1932-33 and then 1934-36, Petersen was right at the vanguard of it.
He is arguably the biggest box-office draw in British boxing history, attracting crowds north of 50,000 on six occasions, first in his native Cardiff and later in London.
Petersen’s defining rivalry was against Len Harvey, who outpointed him in 1933 to relieve him of the British title. Petersen won the rematch the next year by 12th round TKO in front of a British-record attendance of 90,000 at White City Stadium, and then took the rubber match in 1936.
The spoils from that trilogy, as well as wins over top light-heavyweight Jock McAvoy and Canadian champion Larry Gains, mark Petersen out as the top Brit from his short era. At his peak at the end of 1934, he was the seventh-ranked contender by Ring Magazine.
Although perhaps better suited to the light-heavyweight division, Petersen chased the biggest fighters for the biggest fights and turned the British heavyweight scene into an attraction like never before.
9. Don Cockell
It is a frequent complaint of the recent heavyweight scene that there are fighters who prosper without even being in proper shape—world title challengers Chris Arreola, Dereck Chisora and Eddie Chambers spring to mind.
London-born British champion Don Cockell fell victim to the same jibes back in 1955 when he crossed the pond to challenge world titleholder Rocky Marciano. Cockell had gone from 175 pounds as a light heavyweight to as much as 210 pounds.
In that presentation, Cockell didn’t have the idealized physique of a pro sportsman but always insisted that his weight gain was due to a medical condition, not gluttony. That didn't stop the American press from coining a whole host of unkind nicknames when he arrived stateside—Dumpling Don, the Glandular Globe and the Battersea Butterball being only the choicest.
Having previously lost his British light-heavyweight title to the undersized ring legend Randolph Turpin, Cockell enjoyed surprising success in the top division, beating an aged Tommy Farr before picking up the British title against Johnny Williams.
Cockell’s biggest scalp was the Bronx fighter Roland LaStarza, whom he outpointed over 10 rounds at Earl’s Court in 1954. LaStarza had just pushed the champion Marciano close enough to win fight of the year awards and Cockell was then moved preposterously high up the Ring rankings—ending the year as the No. 2 contender.
Cockell was given no chance at all against Marciano, and admittedly, he never looked in danger of springing the upset over nine gruelling rounds.
However, from the British perspective, the perceived constant fouling by The Rock, which included low blows, shots after the bell, and punches thrown when Cockell was down, made Cockell into a heroic loser. Unfortunately, he would never truly recover from the onslaught and retired the next year aged 27.
8. David Haye
With only 47 rounds of heavyweight boxing to his name, you could argue David Haye is lucky to make the cut. On the other hand, on a head-to-head basis, he might be the favourite to beat as many as eight of the other nine.
What Haye has in his favour is two wins over top-10 heavyweights: his tedious decision against Nikolai Valuev, and his career-best fifth-round TKO finish against Dereck Chisora.
Haye is one of the most naturally gifted British boxers of all time, with great speed and power his principal advantages. His exciting run in the cruiserweight division is arguably second only to Evander Holyfield.
At heavyweight, Haye proved extremely selective in choosing his opposition and, doubting his ability to absorb big shots, was much more cautious in the ring. Against Valuev and Wladimir Klitschko, this resulted in tentative action over 24 uneventful rounds.
Haye will be remembered for his disappointing showing against Klitschko, where he seemed to settle for a respectable points defeat rather than go all out for a victory. Perhaps he thought he would live to fight another day, but his recent injury troubles may nix the chance of a rematch.
It would be a great shame if Haye is unable to fight again because his last performance against Chisora showed that he had the potential to be a truly great heavyweight.
Chisora had never been stopped and had gone the distance with Vitali Klitschko, but Haye picked him apart with irresistible power and the best combination work seen by a heavyweight in some time.
Looking back, Haye was the best heavyweight in the world not named Klitschko for a number of years, albeit in a weak era. However, he didn’t simply take on enough real challenges to consolidate his standing on the all-time lists.
7. Bruce Woodcock
In July 1945, just two months after VE Day, Doncaster-born Bruce Woodcock challenged the experienced champion Jack London for the British heavyweight title. He ushered in a new era on the domestic scene with a shocking sixth-round KO—London had not been stopped for 11 years.
Woodcock was thrown into the deep end the next year at the Mecca of boxing, Madison Square Garden. His big-punching opponent, Tami Mauriello, was coming off the back of 10 straight stoppage wins, and Woodcock became No. 11 in the fifth round.
To this day there are those who criticise the handling of Woodcock and wonder if he could have gone further with more careful management through the ranks. Nonetheless, he was able to bounce back from the Mauriello fight, beating perennial contender Gus Lesnevich in one of a string of fights at Harringay Arena.
A brutal seven-round loss to American Joe Baksi was soon evened out by a DQ win over Lee Savold before Woodcock’s true night of glory at White City Stadium.
British world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills, then at the peak of his powers, challenged Woodcock for the British title in front of 46,000 people. Woodcock made his size advantage tell in the end, winning by stoppage in Round 14.
Woodcock’s promoter then tried to bill his next bout, a rematch with Savold, as a vacant world heavyweight title clash, but few were sold on the idea. Woodcock lost because of a bad cut, and legend has it, he was already essentially blind in one eye. He would only fight once more.
Although he never managed to put a run of wins together at world level, Woodcock’s good jab and dogged determination had him in Ring’s top 10 heavies for 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1949, peaking at No. 4 in 1946.
6. Frank Bruno
Frank Bruno won his world title at the fourth attempt—a luxury that would never have been afforded his predecessors in simpler and less forgiving times.
Whilst it is possible to argue that Bruno was a paper champ, the man he beat for the coveted WBC strap, Oliver McCall, had won it legitimately against Lennox Lewis, and at a time when Lewis was probably the most avoided man in the division.
Certainly Bruno’s WBC reign was a lot more legitimate than David Haye’s WBA tilt, because there was genuine ambiguity at the time as to who was the top dog.
Bruno also stayed at the top longer than those below him on the list—the count runs to 11 years between the win against Lucien Rodriguez, which announced him on the world stage in 1985, and his last fight against Mike Tyson.
Although Bruno offered little resistance against Tyson, whom he fought twice, he did put up a good showing against Lewis in 1993, giving the future undisputed champion one of his toughest evenings.
Bruno also won the European title against Anders Eklund and has a first-round stoppage win over the usually competitive South African Gerrie Coetzee.
He ended his career with 38 KOs across 40 wins, a testament to his natural power and some canny matchmaking.
Outside of the ring, Bruno’s affable personality and willingness to send himself up on Comic Relief and in pantomime helped make him into a true household name.
Although poor stamina dogged Bruno and played a part in losses to world-class Americans Tim Witherspoon and James "Bonecrusher" Smith, he dug in late on against McCall to clinch a famous and popular victory in front of an ecstatic crowd at Wembley Stadium.
5. Tommy Farr
Like Don Cockell 18 years later, Farr earned great respect in a losing effort for the world heavyweight title. Unlike Cockell, Farr went the 15-round distance in his 1937 challenge to Joe Louis, and some of his most blinkered supporters even thought he had a case to have beaten the fabled champion.
Wales has a notably rich history in the heavyweight division—along with Jack Petersen, there is British champion Joe Erskine and European champion Dick Richardson. But it is Farr, "the Tonypandy Terror," who tops that list.
After a spectacular third-round KO win over able German Walter Neusel, Farr had five straight fights in the US. It is arguably the toughest run of fights ever taken on by a British heavyweight, starting with Louis, and also including former champions Jim Braddock and Max Baer (whom he had previously beaten on British soil).
Farr was the very model of the plucky British loser—he actually lost all five of those fights, although he was probably unlucky to drop a split decision to Braddock. Back in Britain he immediately beat one of those five, Red Burman, in a rematch.
But it is his dance with Louis that will cast his name into eternity. Farr went a long way to restoring the reputation of British heavyweights with his unrelenting effort. He took a lot of punishment from a ferocious puncher to go the distance, but he had surprising amounts of success and won at least five of the 15 rounds despite bad cuts around his eyes.
It is a testament to Farr’s indefatigability that Louis, many people’s pick as the greatest-ever heavy, had won eight of his previous nine by stoppage and would complete a sweep of stoppages in the next seven that followed.
It is estimated that as many as 10 million listened to Louis-Farr on radio in the UK and Prof. Peter Stead, co-author of Wales and Its Boxers, has said, “You could argue that Tommy's fight against Louis was the first sporting media event on a Wales-wide basis.”
4. Joe Bugner
Three of the top four here can be questioned on grounds of nationality. Joe Bugner was born in Hungary and in his twilight years competed as "Aussie Joe," having relocated to Queensland.
All the same, he debuted in the UK in 1967 and was based here through his prime until 1977. Bugner is another British heavy who is strangely more notable for good losses than good wins—he went the distance with Joe Frazier and twice with Muhammad Ali, including a 1975 world title fight in Malaysia.
Bugner, like Haye, was criticised for negative tactics on the biggest night of his life. Whilst Haye immediately blamed a bad toe, Bugner went for the tropical climate of Kuala Lumpur, arguing it was too hot and humid to fight in a more energetic fashion.
Many fans viewed Bugner as a frustrating figure and his pragmatism jarred with romantic conceptions of the fight game. Bugner himself believed he was unpopular because he finished the career of fan favourite Henry Cooper, as recorded in Stephen Brunt's Facing Ali, “I was never forgiven for that. I took out Old Henry.”
The 15-round decision win over Cooper was one of Bugner’s eight wins in European title fights, a record for a British heavyweight. He was the dominant European fighter in one of the richest eras of heavyweight boxing, as underlined by his first-round KO win over British champion Richard Dunn in 1976.
His peak in the global standings came at the end of 1974, when he was ranked as the Ring Magazine's fifth contender in the world, behind champion Ali, George Foreman, Frazier, Ron Lyle and Oscar Bonavena.
Standing 6’4” with a long reach, Bugner was an impressive physical specimen who would dwarf many of his predecessors on the list. Although he never quite put it together for a signature performance, his longevity and ability to keep it competitive against all-time greats merits his strong showing.
3. Henry Cooper
Henry Cooper will always be first remembered for his 1963 fight with Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), when he came within a whisker of stopping the world’s most revered fighter before he’d really got started.
Cooper felled Clay with his famous left hook—"Enry’s ‘Ammer"—near the end of the fourth round. Clay was saved by the bell, and what happened next remains a topic of controversy, with accusations that Clay’s trainer Angelo Dundee used illegal smelling salts in his corner and caused a delay by tearing one of his fighter’s gloves.
Ultimately Clay recovered and would prevail because Cooper fell victim to severe cuts to the face, a problem that would resurface in their rematch three years later, that time with the world title at stake.
Cooper was heavily criticised by Bugner for always losing when he stepped much above British level, and there is some truth to this. Apart from a win over Zora Folley in 1958 (which was later avenged), he struggled in losses to top Americans, such as Amos Johnson and former world champion Floyd Patterson.
However, it was on the domestic scene that Cooper earned his spurs. The UK talent pool was extremely deep in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Cooper ultimately emerged from the pack as the numero uno.
Cooper won three from five against Joe Erskine, twice stopped Dick Richardson in five, beat world-title challenger Brian London three times and rounded off his domestic run with wins over the golden-boy Billy Walker and future British champion Jack Bodell.
In prevailing from this tricky domestic battleground, Cooper gained almost unprecedented popularity, winning Sports Personality of the Year twice and eventually being knighted Sir Henry in 2000.
2. Bob Fitzsimmons
Bob Fitzsimmons never actually fought in the UK—he was born in Cornwall in 1863 before moving to New Zealand as a child, and then he turned pro in Australia, while his career highlights took place in the US, where he became a citizen. Even so, Fitzsimmons is traditionally considered a UK fighter, so here he is.
This is before the question as to whether Fitzsimmons was really a heavyweight at all, as he never weighed more than 175 pounds during a career in which he held the world middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight championships.
Because of those achievements, Fitzsimmons would rank highest out of anyone on this list in pound-for-pound terms, but his short reign as heavyweight champion keeps him off the top spot.
Fitzsimmons won the heavyweight title in 1897, becoming only the third man to hold it in the modern era. He conquered champion James J. Corbett by 14th round KO, despite being outweighed by perhaps 15 pounds.
When Fitzsimmons lost the title to James J. Jeffries two year later, he was outweighed by as much as 39 pounds, a startling fact which underlined his bravery and audacity at competing in the top division at all, let alone succeeding. It would be the equivalent of putting Carl Froch in with David Haye today. Fitzsimmons remains the lightest man to hold the heavyweight title, a record that could not be broken today due to sanctioning rules.
In his later years he would square off against and lose to future world champion Jack Johnson, again at a huge size disadvantage. Such was "Ruby" Robert’s power that Ring Magazine once ranked him as the eighth greatest puncher of all time, across all divisions.
1. Lennox Lewis
After Bob Fitzsimmons, it would take exactly 100 years for the next undisputed British world-heavyweight champion. That man, Lennox Lewis, would ultimately eclipse Fitzsimmons’ achievements in the top division, aided by an extra five-and-a-half inches of height and 75 pounds of weight at 6’5” and 245 pounds.
Lewis was born in London before moving to Canada aged 12, the country for which he’d win Olympic gold in 1988. Lewis returned to the UK when he turned professional and went on to win both the British and European heavyweight titles.
No heavyweight before Lewis’ era had combined such a large frame with first-class balance, power and athleticism, and he ushered in the super-heavyweight era which the Klitschko brothers have continued. Because of this unusual combination of attributes, Lewis lines up well against pretty much any heavyweight in history.
The leading American heavyweights of the 1990s: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe were less than eager to face Lewis, who was thought to entail more risk than the financial rewards he could bring to the table. Bowe in particular outright refused to face Lewis and was stripped of the WBC title.
Lewis’ career then hit a major setback when he was shockingly stopped in the second round by Oliver McCall in 1994. Lewis beat McCall in a rematch three years later (as he would his only other conqueror, Hasim Rahman, in 2001) but had to wait until 1999 for his first big shot against Evander Holyfield.
After a hotly debated draw, Lewis beat Holyfield on points at the second attempt before cleaning out the division, the most high-profile fight being the overcooked showdown with Mike Tyson–a fight Lewis won by eighth-round stoppage.
Lewis ultimately reigned for four years as heavyweight champion, beating Vitali Klitschko by cuts-related stoppage in his last fight, but he could surely have beaten Holyfield at an earlier date were it not for the politics that surround the sport.
Unlike quite a few names on this list, Lewis has avoided an ill-advised comeback, despite the huge sums potentially on offer.