A world-ranked British heavyweight was once as rare as a Penny Red. On Saturday at London’s Excel Arena, two shall converge for the first time since 1997, when former Westminster street-sweeper Henry Akinwande attempted to exact a citizen’s arrest upon compatriot Lennox Lewis in Lake Tahoe. It was a course of action that left the exasperated third man, Mills Lane – a former county district court judge who found himself repeatedly punked by a generation of heavyweight jackasses – with little option but to throw out the Tallahassee-based spoilsport on grounds of compulsive clinching.
Quite whether HRH should have been implicated in such a fiasco is another matter. For while both were London-born, Akinwande and Lewis spent the meat of their formative years abroad (Nigeria and Canada respectively). Famously, Lewis won an Olympic gold medal for Canada in 1988. Upon turning pro, however, Lewis was cajoled into abandoning the maple leaf for a Union Jack, by the London-based spiv and convicted fraudster Roger Levitt. An operator so abrasive he once copped a right hander from promoter Frank Warren in a Nashville hotel, Levitt speculated he could capitalise on Frank Bruno’s national hero status by delivering Britain a prized sporting commodity: the nation’s first world heavyweight champion since Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899 (“Ruby Robert” incidentally, though Cornish-born, was a naturalised New Zealander who later immigrated to America).
Initially, the U.K. was slow to warm to Lewis, who was prone to peddling boorish clichés in a Canadian twang – and perhaps with good reason. For after fleeing their hometown of Szeged during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the family of József Kreul “Joe” Bugner sought sanctuary in Cambridgeshire, England. A man Hugh McIlvanney once famously remarked had “the physique of a Greek statue but with fewer moves” Bugner – a gifted yet fitful boxer – struggled to win over his adopted countrymen. Despite extending faded versions of both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, England had already cooled on Bugner after he brought down the curtain – somewhat contentiously – on Henry Cooper’s career in 1971. Bugner later immigrated to Australia where he fought on into middle age under the guise of “Aussie Joe.”
As if to compound matters for Lewis, flags of convenience were being hoisted all about him. In 1995 another Canadian with a monster right hand – Tennis player Greg Rusedski – tapped into his English bloodlines in a failed bid to secure the other Holy Grail that British sports fans had long salivated over: a men’s Wimbledon champion.
A year prior to Rusedski’s arrival, Michael Bentt, a heavyweight boxer from Queens via Dulwich, South London, had also got in on the act; Bentt – who made Dick Van Dyke sounds like Frank Butcher – was cack-handidly positioned as the nation’s auxiliary saviour after he shellacked Oklahoman PED cheat Tommy Morrison in Tulsa. A professional novice, Bentt was summarily defrocked in his next outing by yet another adopted Brit, Herbie Hide, at the Old Den, Millwall.
A blown-up cruiserweight born and raised in Owerri, Nigeria, Hide – born Herbert Okechukwu Maduagwu – collected Bentt’s alphabet world title after orchestrating a seven-round rout. Bentt suffered a concussive brain injury that left him in a coma for more than three days and cost him his career.
Suddenly, Hide was something of a commodity. With an ABC title in tow, he was chased down by former heavyweight king Riddick Bowe who – thanks to the obnoxious posturing of manager Rock Newman when the duo had held power – had been frozen out of the world title picture. Bowe bounced Hide around the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, like a kid pawing at a Weeble, after a clash of heads appeared to discombobulate the already floundering Norfolk man.
Frank Bruno – as unequivocally British as fish and chips (in spite his Jamaican heritage) – eventually won a world title belt of his own to reassure everyone that Britain could turn the trick without the aid of mercenaries. Lewis meanwhile was only begrudgingly accepted after he finally became a dominant champion.
As for Saturday: Dereck Chisora, who was born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe before immigrating to London in 1999, actually resembles a giant Union Jack on his way into the ring. Wilmslow’s Tyson Fury – who once grabbed an Irish championship with a shamrock emblazoned on his trunks – belongs to the wind.
Fury hung Chisora’s first loss on him in 2011. A talented giant who had largely snubbed his nose at professionalism, Fury finally elected to get real and get fit. In direct contrast, Chisora weighed in at a whopping 261 lbs. – rendering him a sitting duck for the more energetic Fury, who carved out a sloppy yet entertaining 12 round decision win.
Fury (22-0, 16 KOs), has flirted with disaster since that promising win; he had to fight back from the brink in bouts with the limited transatlantic duo Nicolai Firtha and Neven Pajkic along with the undersized Philadelphian Steve Cunningham – all three of whom had him seeing stars. He has fought only twice in two years – a wretched period for him financially – after a series of postponements involving first David Haye and then Chisora drove him to spontaneously combust on social media, retire and then come back (all within the same week).
Chisora (20-4, 13 KOs), has been something of a mixed bag since the first meeting. Creditable decision losses to Robert Helenius and Vitali Klitschko were sullied by a crushing knockout defeat to Haye. He has since dropped his Mario Balotelli routine to register fair-to-middling wins over American’s Malik Scott and Kevin Johnson – the latter presenting little more than a glorified public sparring session.
Fury has spent the best part of 18 months in camp, jail time that has diminished both his love handles and hairline. Sporting a shaven skull and caveman whiskers he looks a dead ringer for the notorious convict Charles Bronson. Some would argue that the look-alikes have more in common than just facial hair.
Both men have improved since their first encounter. One could quite easily envisage a scenario where Fury is sluggish early before fading late, just as Chisora is coming on. Fury, though, an 11-to-4 on favourite, has something going for him outside of just physical stature. Call it luck, mozzle, kismet, whatever, he has a canny knack of evading defeat, often in spite of himself. The big man should be able to shake off the cobwebs by the half-way point to secure a gruelling decision win.
British junior lightweight champ Gary Sykes takes on Commonwealth boss Liam Walsh on the undercard in a long-mooted showdown. Dewsbury’s Sykes, 30, has had a bittersweet career, one that is arguably at its apex after a difficult couple of years. Cromer’s Walsh, 28, one of a trio of boxing brothers, is a snappy southpaw who can box and punch.
Sykes (27-3, 6 KOs), is a slow-burning volume puncher who comes on like a Fellsman steam train (he would have been quite something in the age of 15-round bouts). He appeared vulnerable, though, at times against Ashton under Lyne’s Jon Kays in May, when he had to pull out a rare stoppage victory to secure the Lonsdale belt outright. Walsh (16-0, 11 KOs) could well be catching Sykes at the right time and is favoured to do so in what looks a 50-50 fight.
The bout that has everyone talking is the middleweight clash between Chris Eubank, Jr., (17-0, 12 KOs) and Billy Joe Saunders (20-0, 11 KOs). British and European champ Saunders, a traveller from Hertfordshire, is fancied to have too much experience for Eubank, whose level of opposition has been less than formidable, to put it mildly.
Most experts have sided with the steady southpaw Saunders, based on what they’ve seen the former Olympian do to tough opponents such as John Ryder and Nick Blackwell as opposed to what they’ve heard Eubank did in sparring against the likes of Carl Froch and George Groves.
Eubank, originally a 6-to-4 outsider (but whose odds are narrowing) looks more than mere hype, though. The suspicion is we’ve seen only a smidgen of what he can produce when faced with a competitive fight, which is what he’s presented with on Saturday. Let off the leash, Eubank can score a spectacular win inside the distance that would not only steal the show but would pave the way for some gargantuan fights up at super middleweight.