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Ranking the Biggest Moments in British Boxing History

Briggs SeekinsFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2014

Ranking the Biggest Moments in British Boxing History

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    Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    When Carl Froch and George Groves meet up in a rematch Saturday at Wembley Stadium in London, over 75,000 of their fellow Brits will pack the arena. It will be a notable moment in British boxing history.

    But the history of boxing in Great Britain is long and deep. From James Figg and Jack Broughton in the 1700s to recent stars, such as Lennox Lewis and Ricky Hatton, fighters from the United Kingdom have often been central players in the sport.

10. Ted Lewis Fights Georges Carpentier for the Light Heavyweight Title

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    Ted "Kid" Lewis is arguably the greatest British boxer of all time. His 20-fight series with Jack Britton was one of boxing's greatest rivalries in the early part of the 20th century. More often than not, the World Welteterweight title was at stake.

    In May 1922, Lewis was back in London at the Olympia to face the popular Frenchman Georges Carpentier for the light heavyweight belt. Carpentier had challenged heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in one of the biggest fights of all time the previous year.

    Lewis is considered an all-time great as it is, but a win over Carpentier in this case would have raised his historical legacy to another level. In the fight, Lewis got off to a quick start before getting knocked out by a single shot thrown on the break in the first round.

    The sudden ending caused a near riot and is perhaps the most controversial knockout in British boxing history.

9. Naseem Hamed Captures the WBO Featherweight Belt from Steve Robinson

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    "Prince" Naseem Hamed was one of the biggest boxing stars of the 1990s, both in England and North America. His flashy and explosive style made some fans despise him and others delight in him. Either way, it sold tickets and won fights.

    In 1995 Hamed captured his first world title, the WBO featherweight belt, when he travelled to Cardiff to face champion Steve Robinson. Robinson's fellow Welshmen packed a rugby stadium to watch the cocky Hamed get handled.

    Instead Hamed put on a show. Fighting in the pouring rain, he dominated the bout and dropped Robinson with a brilliant hook in Round 8 that prompted the referee to stop the fight.

    The WBO was still a very new ranking organization in 1995, and Hamed was among the champions who clearly established them as a major player in the world-title scene.

8. The Emerging King: Lennox Lewis Stops Frank Bruno

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    Frank Bruno was one of the top heavyweights of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although he had lost twice before in world-title challenges to Tim Witherspoon and Mike Tyson, in 1993 he appeared well-positioned to make the third time a charm against Lennox Lewis.

    Lewis had won gold in the 1988 Olympics, representing Canada. But as a professional, he had reverted to London, the city of his birth, as his hometown.

    In May 1993 he had captured the vacant WBC title by beating Tony Tucker. In October he was set to face Bruno in his first defense. In the pre-fight promotion, Bruno loudly declared himself the true Brit.

    Bruno used his very good jab to make the bout competitive in the early rounds and even take a lead on one card. But Lewis was clearly a dominant champion on the rise. He won by TKO in Round 7 and was on his way to becoming a British superstar.

7. Ricky Hatton TKOs Kostya Tszyu

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    Ricky Hatton has been among the biggest boxing stars of this century. The two-division world champion had a natural following among his fellow Manchester residents that eventually spread across Great Britain and throughout much of the rest of the world.

    No fight did more to solidify his status than his June 2004 Round 11 TKO of IBF light welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu. Fighting in front of a raucous crowd at the Manchester Evening News Arena, Hatton got off to a quick and aggressive start.

    The fight was hotly contested, with both men pushing the boundary of legal tactics and taking heavy punishment. However, once Tszyu could not longer continue following Round 11, mutual respect and sportsmanship quickly took over.

6. The First International Championship Fight: Tom Cribb vs. Tom Molineaux

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    By 1810, the professional prizefighting tradition in Great Britain was well-established and over a half-century old. In December of that year, with no recognized, reigning world champion, a bout was organized between the British champion, Tom Cribb, and a former American slave, Tom Molineaux, a protege of the legendary Bill Richmond.

    According to Nat Fleischer's The Heavyweight Championship, this was the first international championship fight for the heavyweight crown and the first championship bout between a black man and a white man.

    Cribb captured the title after 35 bruising rounds. A rematch was fought the next year in front of a crowd of 25,000, which was enormous for the era.

5. James Figg Opens His Boxing Booth in 1730

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    The history of boxing stretches back to ancient times and the first Olympic games. But the modern version of the sport can largely trace its roots to a single figure, James Figg.

    Figg was the great boxing champion and coach of his era, though the sport in his time more closely resembled hand-to-hand combat on a battlefield than the sport we know today. Indeed, clubs were sometimes used.

    Figg ascended to the heavyweight championship in 1719. His great innovation for the sport was the establishment of regular professional boxing cards. Prior to Figg, pugilists had earned their living as common laborers of some sort or perhaps through sponsorship of the gentry or through coaching the nobility in the finer arts of hand-to-hand combat.

    But once Figg's dominance of the sport was established, he founded "Figg's Great Tiled Booth on the Bowling Greens" in London, where boxing exhibitions were held for the paying public. In The Heavyweight Championship, Fleischer identifies a printed handbill advertising an exhibition at Figg's establishment in 1730 as "the first advertisement of boxing as a public spectacle."

4. "Broughton's Rules" Adopted in 1743

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    John Broughton followed Figg as world heavyweight champion and is arguably the greatest figure in the history of the sport. Conscious of the need to mitigate at least some of the nascent sport's unrestrained brutality, Broughton established a code of conduct, "Broughton's Rules," that held sway over the sport between 1743 and the widespread adoption of the London Prize Rules in 1838.

    Broughton's rules established a designated space for bouts to take place and outlawed any but the fighters, a chief second and "two umpires" from entering that space. The rules established fall by throw or blow as a pause in the action, at which time both fighters were required to return to their neutral corner. If a fallen fighter could not make it back to his neutral corner by a count of 30 seconds, he lost.

    Broughton's set of rules also outlawed blows or grappling below the waist, moving the sport further from free-for-all fighting and closer to the sport of today. Fights were still waged until one man could no longer continue and hence the sport remained extremely brutal, but it was a move toward modern principles of sportsmanship and fair play.

    Broughton also introduced the innovation of "mufflers," or boxing gloves, to be worn during sparring. In The Heavyweight Championship, Fleischer refers to Broughton as "The Father of the English School of Pugilism."

3. Henry Cooper Nearly KOs a Young Muhammad Ali

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    Muhammad Ali was still going by the name of Cassius Clay and was not yet the heavyweight champion when he went to England to face Henry Cooper in June 1963. But the 1960 Olympic gold medalist was very much a star on the rise.

    Cooper was among the most beloved figures in the history of British prizefighting. His left hook, known as 'Enry's 'Ammer, was an extremely dangerous punch. In Round 4 of his bout with Ali, he caught the future champion with it flush and nearly altered the course of boxing history.

    In the film, it's clear that Ali was badly hurt as he stumbled back to his corner. Ali's trainer and manager, Angelo Dundee was accused of deliberately cutting Ali's glove between rounds to buy a few more precious seconds to recover.

    And, of course, Ali did recover. In the very next round, he pummeled Cooper, stopping him on cuts. In his next fight, in February 1964, Ali defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown.

2. Randy Turpin Shocks Sugar Ray Robinson to Win Middleweight Title

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    "The Leamington Licker," Randy Turpin, would eventually end his life in tragedy, committing suicide while still in his 30s. But for a period of time in 1951, Turpin was the toast of the boxing world and a national hero, after winning the world middleweight title by defeating all-time, pound-for-pound king Sugar Ray Robinson in July 1951.

    Robinson at this point in his career was the biggest star in the sport and still very close to his physical prime. He hadn't lost in over 90 fights and had only lost once in over 130 fights during his entire career.

    Turpin was a respectable contender, but when he beat the legend, it was among the biggest upsets of all time and pushed British fans into a celebratory frenzy.

    Turpin would drop the rematch by Round 10 TKO just two months later. Still, the win places him in elite company for all time.

1. Jem Mace Becomes First "Marquis of Queensbury Rules" World Champion

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    In Fleischer's The Heavyweight Championship, he describes Jem Mace as a fiddle player who took up boxing after pub patrons were extremely impressed by the thrashing Mace administered to a ruffian who busted his violin. He would go on to become the most popular boxer of the 18th century prior to John Sullivan, serving as a vital figure in the emergence of modern boxing.

    Mace was a technician who dazzled crowds by handling larger opponents. He held the British middleweight and heavyweight championships before becoming the undisputed world heavyweight champ.

    As a fighter who relied on skill, Mace was drawn to the emerging Marquis of Queensberry Rules, which instituted the use of gloves and completely outlawed grappling, throwing and kicking. These rules also established three-minute rounds, with one-minute breaks, an innovation which made scoring a fight for technical prowess much easier.

    Essentially, these are the rules the sport follows internationally to this day. It could be argued that Mace's reign was not just the most important event in British boxing history but in boxing history as a whole.

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