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Ranking Wembley's Greatest Fights Ahead of Froch vs. Groves

James GarnerContributor IMay 29, 2014

Ranking Wembley's Greatest Fights Ahead of Froch vs. Groves

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    On Saturday the new Wembley Stadium hosts big-time boxing for the first time since opening in 2007, with the much-awaited Carl Froch vs. George Groves rematch.

    The bout is expected to break the post-war British attendance record and will also be higher than any attendance ever recorded at the old Wembley.

    There were five major boxing events held at the original stadium, the first coming way back in 1924.

    The relatively few number of matches held at Wembley can be explained by the huge crowds needed to make such an occasion economically viable, plus the need for the fight to be held in the summer months, when you can at least hope that the weather will hold.

    In addition, during the 1930s, which was the big era of stadium fights before the rise of television, the White City Stadium, built in 1908 for the London Olympics, was the preferred venue.

    There have also been many notable fights down the years at Wembley Arena (previously called Empire Pool) such as middleweight world title fights Alan Minter vs. Vito Antuofermo, Minter vs. Marvin Hagler and Terry Downes vs. Paul Pender. Henry Cooper also faced Joe Bugner at Wembley Arena in one of the most anticipated British heavyweight fights of all time.

    This list, however, only includes fights at the great stadium itself, ranking the five main events in order of greatness.

5. Tommy Gibbons vs. Jack Bloomfield, August 1924

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    Tommy Gibbons KO3 Jack Bloomfield

    Domestic Interest: 7/10

    International Significance: 4/10

    Entertainment Value: 5/10

    Popularity of Result: 4/10

    This fight, the first held at Wembley Stadium, is the only Wembley main event prior to Froch vs. Groves that has not been a heavyweight matchup.

    The event saw Tommy Gibbons, an American who had gone the distance with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and defeated French ring legend Georges Carpentier, make his only ever ring appearance outside of North America.

    Gibbons came down a division to face Jack Bloomfield, who had lost the British light heavyweight title via disqualification. The visiting pug stopped Bloomfield, a North London-based fighter, in Round 3.

    The fight underlined the gulf in quality that existed between the British and American boxing scenes at the higher weights in these years.

    Somewhat surprisingly, there is video footage from the day, which shows a good but far from sold-out crowd.

    In truth, it wasn't a particularly significant occasion—Bloomfield retired on the loss, whilst Gibbons, at 33, was on the way down and would lose his final bout the next year to future heavyweight champion and Dempsey conqueror Gene Tunney.

    Despite a decent attendance, the fight promoter was forced to file for bankruptcy soon after, a fate unlikely to trouble Eddie Hearn anytime soon.

4. Walter Neusel vs. Jack Petersen, June 1935

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    Walter Neusel TKO11 Jack Petersen

    Domestic Interest: 9/10

    International Significance: 5/10

    Entertainment Value: 7/10

    Popularity of Result: 5/10

    This fight holds the Wembley Stadium attendance record somewhere north of 60,000, and as Steve Bunce recently noted on ESPN, a further 30,000 were expected but were put off by "torrential rain."

    Jack Petersen (Wales) and Walter Neusel (Germany) were two incredibly popular heavyweights who never managed to win any significant fights against top American opposition.

    Petersen holds the British attendance record of around 90,000 for fights with Jack Doyle and Len Harvey at White City, while Neusel holds the European attendance record of 102,000 for a 1934 fight in Hamburg against German legend Max Schmeling.

    The June 1935 contest was a rematch of a bout held in February of the same year. Petersen's corner threw in the towel in Round 11 of the first bout.

    Petersen, the British champion, had avenged his only previous loss to Len Harvey, and British fans hoped he could repeat the feat. However, the fight went exactly the same way, with Neusel standing tough through the Welshmen's early bombardment before grinding him down. The Petersen corner stopped the fight at the end of Round 10.

    On the same night at Yankee Stadium, Joe Louis defeated Primo Carnera in his first significant win. Neusel then fought in America against Carnera, his last ever state-side contest, and lost by fourth-round stoppage, showing the gap between Petersen, Neusel and the North American-based heavyweights.

    Neusel was actually well-known to U.K. fans, appearing on the shores over 10 times. He had a draw against Len Harvey in 1934, as well as headlined against Canadian opposition—Maurice Strickland—at Empire Pool.

    Petersen retired after a third loss to Neusel in 1937, while the German continued to fight at a good level for several years. He never got another shot at a top international opponent, at least partially because of World War II.

3. Tim Witherspoon vs. Frank Bruno, July 1986

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    Dave Caulkin/Associated Press

    Tim Witherspoon TKO11 Frank Bruno

    Domestic Interest: 8/10

    International Significance: 8/10

    Entertainment Value: 8/10

    Popularity of Result: 2/10

    Frank Bruno is the only fighter to have headlined Wembley Stadium twice. The first time was his 1986 challenge to Tim Witherspoon's WBA heavyweight title.

    Witherspoon was seen as a fairly vulnerable champion—he had previously lost the WBC title on his first defence (he beat Greg Page and then dropped the title to Pinklon Thomas)—and this was his first defence of a belt that he had won via a majority decision over Tony Tubbs.

    Bruno had one defeat on his record which was inflicted by the last decent American he had faced, James "Bonecrusher" Smith, two years previously. Bruno found himself in world-title contention after early stoppage wins over European champion Anders Eklund and the experienced South African contender Gerrie Coetzee.

    Although Bruno had proven knockout power, he had never gone past 10 rounds and had only gone past five rounds three times. This title fight was scheduled for 15.

    That was to prove a decisive factor. Although Bruno was ahead after five rounds, Witherspoon then came into the fight, hurting the home fighter in Round 7 and ultimately flooring him and forcing a stoppage in Round 11.

    The significance of this fight was somewhat undermined by the rise of Mike Tyson, who had captured the imagination everywhere as the uncrowned heavyweight king. He won his first world-title later in the year.

    Witherspoon would then lose by first-round KO to Bonecrusher Smith in his next fight, which was what many partisan observers thought would happen when Bruno landed his bombs. That result perhaps hinted at a missed opportunity for the Brit.

2. Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) vs. Henry Cooper, June 1963

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    Associated Press

    Cassius Clay TKO5 Henry Cooper

    Domestic Interest: 9/10

    International Significance: 8/10

    Entertainment Value: 9/10

    Popularity of Result: 3/10

    It is a testament to the fact that there was always something a little bit special about Muhammad Ali that his first overseas fight as an 18-0 prospect was held at Wembley.

    The then Cassius Clay came to the U.K. as the reigning Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist but had yet to break into the top tier as a professional.

    Henry Cooper was the reigning British heavyweight champion who was coming off good domestic wins against Dick Richardson and Joe Erskine.

    The fight went as expected in the early going, with the future Ali controlling the action with his superior speed and boxing pedigree.

    Then in Round 4 came arguably the most famous punch ever thrown in a British boxing ring when Cooper caught Clay with his signature left hook, flooring the American.

    Clay beat the count and was saved by the bell before turning it on in Round 5. Cooper was prone to bad cuts to the face, and ultimately that was the reason for the stoppage in the fifth.

    Clay's quick recovery became controversial with accusations that Clay’s trainer Angelo Dundee had used illegal smelling salts and caused a delay by tearing one of his fighter’s gloves.

    This was the last fight before Clay would contest the world heavyweight title against Sonny Liston. Few gave him a chance after so nearly being stopped by Cooper, but he would, of course, prevail.

    There was a rematch with Cooper for the title at Highbury Stadium in 1966; that time the stoppage came in Round 6.

1. Frank Bruno vs. Oliver McCall, September 1995

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    John Gichigi/Getty Images

    Frank Bruno UD12 Oliver McCall

    Domestic Interest: 8/10

    International Significance: 8/10

    Entertainment Value: 8/10

    Popularity of Result: 10/10

    This was Frank Bruno's fourth shot at a heavyweight title, his penultimate fight and his last fight in the U.K. It is also the only time a British fighter has won in a main event at Wembley.

    After failing in his challenge to Witherspoon in 1986, Bruno had been stopped in five by Mike Tyson in 1989 for the unified title, before losing in seven to Lennox Lewis in 1993, in a fight Bruno had been winning.

    In late 1994, Lewis, the WBC champion, was upset by the American contender Oliver McCall by a stunning second-round TKO. After one defence against aged former champion Larry Holmes, McCall came to London to face Bruno.

    Bruno's enormous popularity enabled him his fourth chance, and British pride was also on the line as he sought to avenge Lewis' conqueror.

    McCall was an erratic character and didn't offer a great deal in the early going at Wembley, allowing Bruno to establish his jab and rack up rounds on the scorecards.

    After the experience of watching Bruno squander leads in fights against Witherspoon and Lewis, British fans were understandably worried as the fight went on and Bruno's questionable stamina was put to the test.

    McCall did finally pile it on in the last two rounds, and a visibly exhausted Bruno simply had to hold on to claim the fight by decision, which he was able to do.

    It was a hugely popular outcome and a fitting goodbye from Bruno to the U.K. fight crowd. He travelled to Las Vegas for what would prove to be his last fight, again losing to Tyson by third-round stoppage.

     

    All boxing records from BoxRec.

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