IBHOF inductee Graham Houston remembers former world title challenger Brian London, part of Britain’s ‘Big Four’ heavyweights of the 1950s and 1960s, who passed away last week.
Brian London, who passed away last week at the age of 87, was the last surviving member of Britain’s Big Four heavyweights of the 1950s and 1960s. Henry Cooper, Joe Erskine, Dick Richardson and London fought each other in a round-robin series of bouts that received big coverage in the British newspapers of the time.
I remember London being what in Britain we’d call a “good on-top fighter”. That is to say, London, unless completely overmatched, was tough to beat when he was having his own way in a fight but couldn’t be relied upon if things started going against him.
“London tends to be nervous and can falter under pressure,” The Times noted when previewing London’s all-British showdown with Billy Walker. Yet London had been known to surprise his sternest critics with “flashes of skill and hard, accurate punching”. And that was London. He had his bad nights but also some very good ones.
London held the British and Empire (now Commonwealth) heavyweight titles and was twice involved in world title bouts. He was active when boxing was very different to what is today. Boxing enthusiasts would be there for the whole bill, not just to see the main event or to support one boxer. Each daily and evening newspaper had its own boxing writer.
When London was matched with the skilled American heavyweight contender, Eddie Machen, it seemed that the crowd was there as much to witness Machen’s artistry as to cheer for an unlikely British victory. Machen outclassed London, who was retired by his corner after five rounds.
As an amateur, London was British (ABA) champion and captured the gold medal at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games — as the event was then called — in Vancouver. He boxed under the family name of Brian Harper as an amateur but became Brian London as a professional. His father, known as Jack London, was British heavyweight champion in the 1940s.
Brian was known to be a rough and rugged competitor, even as an amateur. From memory, I believe there were angry scenes in Milan due to the, shall we say, uncompromising tactics London employed against the Italian heavyweight Giacomo Bozzano, who won the bout on points.
London suffered his first pro defeat when fellow up-and-comer Henry Cooper stopped him in the first round at London’s Empress Hall in 1956. It seems that Cooper hurt London with a left hook and kept hammering away, left hook after left hook, with London defenceless on the ropes, until the referee intervened.
Cooper was to defeat London twice more, both bouts for the British heavyweight title.
London’s reign as champion was brief, just seven months. He won the title with a knockout victory over Cardiff’s Joe Erskine at London’s White City Stadium in June 1958, and Cooper took the title from him with a bloody 15-round points victory at Earls Court Arena in January 1959.
London was on the receiving end of jolting left jabs for round after round in the fight with Cooper, who was simply too skilled for him. London was so bemused by the left-hand pounding that he raised Cooper’s arm at the end of the 14th round, thinking that the fight was over. But there was still another round to go. The third fight saw Cooper retain the title with a comfortable and rather unexciting points victory in Manchester in February 1964.
I well remember the Earls Court title fight and even now can recall London briefly looking like turning the tables around the 10th round when his superior weight and physical strength seemed to be telling on the more slender Cooper. But Cooper regrouped, got the left jab working again, and after that it was just a matter of whether London would make it to the final bell.
The Manchester title fight five years later was televised on a delayed same-night basis (actually 12:01 a.m.) by the commercial TV channel ITA. I lived in London and planned to attend a promotion at the National Sporting Club in London’s Piccadilly before returning to my modest accommodation in the Earls Court “bed-sitter” belt to watch the Cooper vs London fight with the result unknown. That idea was dashed when the National Sporting Club MC announced just as I was leaving the club’s press gallery: “Cooper won on points!”
So the “as live” part of the evening was ruined although in truth it was clear from very early that there was only going to be one winner.
London’s knockout win over Joe Erskine was one of those fights where fortunes changed dramatically. Erskine, a competent craftsman, was outboxing London in the early rounds only to suffer a cut over the eye in, I believe the, sixth round. I thought at the time that London’s head did the damage. But, whatever, Erskine fell apart and London overwhelmed him with a clubbing onslaught.
The British writers referred to London’s “bulldozer” style, and his preferred method was to crowd forward and pump out punches. But London was capable of producing displays of sound, textbook boxing. I remember that when London met the “Tongan Terror” Kitione Lave, a heavy hitter with an all-out slugging style, the writers predicted a war that was unlikely to go the distance. But London flipped the script and employed a boxing, jabbing, counter-punching style to which Lave had no answer.
London’s career had more incident and controversy than most. For instance, he defied the British Boxing Board of Control by travelling to the States to take on heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in 1959. The Board felt the fight wasn’t in the best interests of British boxing and London was instructed not to proceed. When London went ahead he was fined £1,000 (reduced to £500 on appeal).
Patterson, using the bout as a warm-up before defending the title against Ingemar Johansson, outclassed London before knocking him out in the 11th round. But at least London hung in there and took his lumps that night in Indianapolis. This wasn’t the case when he met Muhammad Ali for the title at Earls Court Arena in August 1966. London collapsed to the canvas in the third round after Ali launched a flurry of punches, none of which seemed terribly hard. London later admitted that he knew he stood no chance and simply decided not to get hurt.
When London lost to Dick Richardson in a European title fight outdoors in Porthcawl, Wales, in August 1960 the two camps engaged in a post-fight brawl in the ring. London, who retired in his corner after eight rounds due to a cut over the eye, was adamant that Richardson had deliberately butted him. Dad Jack London and Brian’s brother (another Jack London), who boxed professionally as a light-heavyweight, were involved in the scuffle.
More controversy came when the Birmingham heavyweight Johnny Prescott was adjudged to have outpointed London in a 10-round bout at Liverpool Stadium in 1964 that was televised live by the BBC, a rare treat for fight fans in those days. London seemed to have outfought, outpunched and basically bullied the smaller Prescott in almost every round. Such was the outcry over the verdict that, as I remember, the referee and sole arbiter, Wally Thom, a former British welterweight champion, was demoted from Star class refereeing status. He handed in his licence as a protest.
I always consider London’s victory over Willie Pastrano in their rematch at London’s Harringay Arena in September 1958 to have been his finest performance. The fight was stopped in the fifth round due to Pastrano being cut over the eye but the bigger, stronger London was driving the classier American boxer all around the ring and simply overpowering him. Pastrano later moved down in weight to become light-heavyweight champion.
Some will never believe this, but when London was active the complaint in British boxing was that referees too often gave the visiting boxer the benefit of the doubt in a close contest (this was at a time when the referee was the sole judge). Such was the case in the first bout between London and Pastrano at Harringay Arena in February 1958. Pastrano got the nod from referee Bill Williams but it was highly controversial.
London got hit by a low blow during the bout and he doubled up and seemed about to go down. Referee Williams kept the fight going by basically holding up London with one arm while giving Pastrano a lengthy caution about keeping his punches up. There was no five-minute time out in those days. If a boxer went down from a low blow and was unable (or in some cases unwilling) to continue the contest, the referee really had no choice but to disqualify the other boxer.
Referee Williams’ quick thinking averted a possible fiasco. Williams gave London time to gather himself and at the same time wasn’t faced with the dilemma of possibly having to DQ the American boxer. That, to me, was one of the most underrated pieces of refereeing in boxing history, somewhat lost in the dissent over the decision in Pastrano’s favour.
If London was perhaps unlucky not to get the decision against Pastrano in their first meeting he was definitely out of luck in his fight with former heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson in Stockholm in April 1963. Behind on points, London floored Johansson in the waning seconds of the 12th and final round. The former champion groggily got up in time to beat the count and was saved by the bell. It looked as if one more clean punch from London would have ended matters. London was surely just seconds away from a sensational upset and, if the bout had been a 15-rounder, it is unlikely that the Swedish boxer would have survived the final three rounds.
There were so many big fights in London’s 15-year, 58-bout career. He blasted out well-regarded American heavyweight Roger Rischer with three knockdowns in 50 seconds, a fight in which London simply charged at his opponent and never stopped punching. London knocked out another US heavyweight, Howard King, in a fight held in a torrential downpour in Blackpool, with the two men boxing in bare feet to avoid slipping on the rain-slicked canvas.
London outpointed former contender Zora Folley, just eight months after Folley’s seventh-round defeat against Muhammad Ali. Other wins were over two of Floyd Patterson’s title-fight opponents, Tom McNeeley, who London outpointed, and the Olympic gold medallist Pete Rademacher (knocked out in the seventh). London lost on points but gave it a good go against the talented Thad Spencer, who was to feature in the WBA elimination series two years later. Former top contender Nino Valdes, now faded, had his last fight against London, who retired with a cut over the eye.
The loss to Valdes was one of London’s more disappointing fights, but there were many good ones, including a 10-round pasting of “Golden Boy” Billy Walker in a big all-British fight at Wembley Pool in March 1965. This fight saw London at his best against a less-experienced boxer he felt sure he could beat.
“Walker, with only 18 bouts behind him, tried desperately hard all the way through. But he was frequently at sea against the prodding left to the head of London and sometimes dazzled, as well as dazed, by the combination punches which London unleashed when he was caught against the ropes or in a corner,” The Times reported.
I was there when London had his last fight, retiring after five rounds against the much younger, fresher Joe Bugner at Wembley Pool in May 1970. London was a month away from turning 36, he had been knocked out in his last two fights, and I believe he was just there for one final payday. He left boxing with a record of 37-20-1 (26 KOs).
Never one for extravagances (a boxing writer noted seeing him travelling on a crowded Tube train immediately after a hard fight at a London arena), London looked after his money and opened a night club called the 007 in Blackpool. He was comfortable in retirement.
It’s a shame that, to many, London will be best remembered for the three-round flop against Muhammad Ali. London fought legitimate, world-class American heavyweights and he was courageous in the Earls Court fight with Henry Cooper.
You never quite knew what you would get with Brian London, but he was one of the larger-than-life personalities of British boxing and, while he was never an elite heavyweight at the world level, there is no doubt in my mind that he was a far better fighter than the Ali affair indicated.
Main image: Alamy/PA images.