Alas, here we go again. At the Albert Hall in London, the other evening, right opposite Kensington Gardens, the largest in the unedning line of dud British heavyweights, John L. Gardner, demolished the latest in the long line of obscure American heavyweights, Greg Sorrentino.
Sorrentino was lined up as a cannon fodder. Kensington Gardens is, of course, the home of the statue of Peter Pan, as likely a contender for the world heavyweight title as many who have carried British colors.
If immobile Adonis Joe Bugner - statuesque as Peter Pan - if ludicruous Richard Dunn were lined up as chopping blocks for Muhammad Ali, why not Gardner? Why not, since Ali seems bound, or doomed, to go on forever.
I watched him demolish Henry Cooper and Brian London. Cooper, on that first occasion long ago at Wembley Stadium, did dump him on his shorts with his famous left hook, provoking all sorts of shameful chicanery in Ali's corner, as Angelo Dundee sliced open Ali's glove to gain time.
The saddest words: it might have been. There are still those who think that had the bell not rung and had the maneuvers of why Angelo not prolonged the break, Cooper would have won the nontitle fight.
When Ali (the Cassius Clay) returned as champion, to fight Cooper at Arsenal Stadium, a welter of blows cut open Henry's poor vulnerable face. Cooper was he best, bravest, most likeable heavweight we've produced since Tommy Farr (who sat beside me that night), but his prominent bone ridges made him a martyr to cuts.
"He's fast," Cooper admitted to me, before the first fight with Ali. "He's that type of fighter. A flashy type of fighter. He's got fast hands. Any fighter who is unbeaten must be a good fighter, but he ain't invincible. He ain't that good that he can't be beat. As you say, I mean, I don't mind him jumping around, but the thing is, he's not one of those duckers and divers. That'a the main thing, he stands up.
Burger stood up: straight as a ramrod, straight as a statue. Not even Ali could knock him down. When they mey in the tropics, Bugner barely tried to win.
Britishers, who loved their fellow cockney, Cooper, loathed it when Bugner took the British title in Cooper's waning days.
As for Bugner, studiously polite, superbly built, absurdly handsome, he was neither really a boxer or a Birton. He was a Hungarian refugee who'd fled across the border during the 1956 revolution, finding his way to England. Bugner excelled at throwing the discus, and liked neither hitting nor being hit. The publicity machine got hold of him and made him, willy-nilly, a heavyweight boxer, of a kind.'Perhaps...early training as a fireman...spoiled him (Scott): He was always being put off.'
They got hold, too, of Bill Walker, from the West Ham boxing gym in the depts of London's East End, the very Week he turned professiona. Walker's brother George, once a light heavyweight of modest abilities, once bodyguard to a renowned london gangster, assured me almost plaintively that no one could look after Billy better than he, his manager. Bill was blond and handsome too, a young man of engaging humor, charm and goodwill.
"Don't laugh too loud," said Brian London grimly, when a languid black boxer called Charlie Powell came to London, went into the ring with Walker, and seemed to lay down for 10 seconds.
There were several such results, though none of them tarnished honest Billy.As time went on, one feared for him. He went after every fight to be examined by a brain surgeon, but he was being thrust into one hard fight after another, and brief tutoring by the admirable Harry Wiley, once Sugar Ray Robinson's trainer, did little for his skill. Shades of the old Cockwey boxing aphorism: "he's a goalkeeper: stops everything."
Billy couldn't box, all sorts of strange creatures came creeping from under stones toward the end of his career and all sorts of strange results evolved. At least Billy became rich. His brother formed a company which owns restaurants, property and financed films. Billy earned every penny.
Britain's horizontal heavyweights, to use the cruel Americanism, go back to the years just after World War I. The story is still told of the fight between Joe Beckett of Britain and France's Georges Carpentier. Beckett was knocked out so fast that a spectator who put his hat under his seak looked up to find the fight over.
Then there came Fainting Phil Scott of whom it was variously said, "No man has been more cleered on entering the ring and more booed on leaving it ...If he continues to hold the title he merely perpetuates a situation humiliating alike to himself and British sport ...Perhaps it was his early training as a fireman that spoiled him: He was always being put out."
By the time Scott got his title fight with Jack Sharkry in Miami in 1930, he had won seven disqualifications while squirming on the canvas. A Londoner from Marylebone whose real name was Stuffling, Scott, like Bugner and Walker, superbly looked the part. A splendid 6-foot-3 statue. "Fear," wrote a breathless admirer, "is as meaningless as Chinese to this young fellow when he lightly vaults into the roped arena."
He was variously a Royal Marine, a polcieman - he once stopped a runway horse - and a fireman. Jack Dempsey sparred with him 90 seconds at Brighton in 1925 and said, "He'll sure wake up one of these days." He also said that "he should sure make good."
Ridiculed on his visits to the States, Scott nevertheless could fight at times. A fine victory against Vittorio Campolo, an Argentine, won him his title shot against Sharkey (though it was later billed as a final elimination) and literally ended in tears.
"Why don't you fight?" sobbed Sharkey, as Scott writhed on the canvas. "I hit you in the belly? You're yellow."
The referee said box on. Scott twisted his leg. Sharkey floored him with a right to the stomach and won. "I saw it," said Damon Runyon, Gertrude Stein-like. "A foul is a foul."
Poor Fainting Phil, victim of his own reputation. Seven years later, the Welsh ex-miner, Tommy Farr, substantially make up for that in Yankee Stadium, taking Joe Louis the whole 15 rounds, twice surviving his thunderous left hook in the seventh round and leading the champion a surprising dance till the 11th.
After the war there was the Yorkshireman, Bruce Woodcock, who looked good until he came to the States and was brawled to defeat by Tami Mauriello. Later, preparing for a fight in England with Lee Savold, Woodcock drove a lorry filled with training equipment against a tree, seriously damaging his right eye.
"The tree," wrote the incomparable John Lardner, "was a vicious one, probably an oak..."
The fight was postponed. When it went on, Savold won easily.
Later there came the stocky, almost plump Don Cockell, another Londoner from Battersea, a mere chopping block at San Francisco for the rampant, Rocky Marciano. "What is courage?" trumpeted an English reporter. "I give you the answer, fellow Englishmen, in two words: Don Cockell."
But courage was not enough, and we continue to await the white, or black, hope. It's strange that the increasing, largely imporverished, West Indian population of Britain has yet to put forth a single decent heavyweight. Meanwhile, there is Gardner, who beat Sorrentino in the seventh round. He threw a low of punches, none of which seemed very hard, and took a lot, too.
Here we go again.