Ahead of Queensberry Promotions’ show at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston remembers some classic encounters at the historic London venue.
It’s good to see boxing back at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday. At one time, fights at the Kensington Gore, London venue were held in rotation with promotions at Wembley Pool. The two big promoters of the 1950s and 1960s, Jack Solomons and Harry Levene, staged big shows at the Albert Hall before a newer promoter, Mike Barrett, acquired exclusivity.
I have many memories of boxing at the Albert Hall, at a time when promotions traditionally took place on a Tuesday night.
One memory is of a classic featherweight fight in 1963 between rising British stars Frankie “Tiger” Taylor and Lennie “The Lion” Williams. This was at a time when a fight didn’t need a title tag. Taylor vs Williams was a 10-rounder that appealed to the boxing fraternity and that was all that mattered.
Williams was an aggressive, heavy-hitting southpaw from Maesteg, Wales. “The Lion” nickname was actually inspired by a popular ventriloquism act of the time. The ventriloquist, Terry Hall, used a dummy he called Lenny the Lion. So, when Williams turned pro, “Lennie the Lion” had a nice ring to it.
Taylor vs Williams was a fight that caught the public imagination even though neither had “beaten anybody”, as they say in the game. Taylor, 21, from Lancaster, was a former British amateur champ and European championships gold medallist with a record of 14-0 (11 KOs). Williams, just 19 years old, was 28-0 (23 KOs). Neither man had been past eight rounds. This was the first time either boxer was taking part in a bout scheduled for 10 rounds.
I attended as a paying customer and there was a real sense of anticipation in the arena even though in world-class terms the fighters were relative novices. Williams was known for a fast and furious style. Attack was his best form of defence. He’d won 14 fights in either the first or second round.
And Williams, as was expected, went right at Taylor. As I remember the fight, Williams banked everything on overpowering Taylor quickly. He winged in punches — big, wide blows to the body. If I remember correctly, the colourful writer Peter Wilson described Williams’ assault on Taylor’s ribs as akin to a man trying to smash in the staves in a barrel.
Taylor’s amateur pedigree showed, though. He remained steady in the face of his opponent’s fierce onslaught. Taylor was landing the shorter, more compact, more “educated” punches. By the fifth round, Williams was fading, partly as a result of Taylor’s own body punching, partly because the Welsh boxer had burned himself out trying for the KO. When the ending came in the sixth, as I recall, Williams went down as much from exhaustion as anything.
The rematch was anti-climactic, with Williams retiring after four rounds due to a broken wrist. A fight between Taylor and the skilled British champion Howard Winstone was much talked about but never happened. Taylor suffered an eye injury when losing to a Brazilian boxer in 1966 and and retired from the ring later that year. Williams did meet Winstone in an all-Wales bout for the British title in December 1966 but he was outclassed and stopped in eight rounds. It was Williams’ last fight. In retirement, Taylor was boxing columnist for the Sunday People newspaper, billed as “The writer with a punch!” Williams died in 1976 at the age of 72. In 37 bouts, Williams’ only losses were to Taylor (twice) and Winstone.
As a reporter and later as a boxing magazine editor I was to see many big fights from a ringside position at the Albert Hall.
Among the most thrilling was Alan Minter’s 15-round points victory over Kevin Finnegan in the second of their three bouts for the British middleweight title on September 14, 1976. Finnegan was cut over both eyes by the 10th round but he severely rocked Minter in the ninth and had him out on his feet in the 15th and final round. “A great fight had been predicted and it probably surpassed expectations,” I wrote at the time.
Minter had an exciting win at the Albert Hall when he stopped the American Olympic gold medallist Sugar Ray Seales in the fifth round that December. Cut on the right cheek and on the bridge of the nose, and with a huge lump on his forehead, Minter dropped a possibly over-confident Seales with a big left hand in the fifth round of the all-southpaw contest and then overwhelmed him with a barrage of punches.
And — talk about being matched tough — Minter lost in eight rounds to another southpaw US Olympic gold medallist, Ronnie Harris, who was undefeated at the time, back at the RAH just four months later. Minter was cut over the eyes and his upper lip was sliced clean through. Referee Sid Nathan visited Minter’s corner at the end of the eighth of the scheduled 10-rounder and decided the cut lip was too bad for the fight to be allowed to continue. “Minter was the aggressor but Harris proved the slicker fighter and kept his composure rather better,” I wrote at the time.
In between the two fights with the US Olympic gold medallists. Minter knocked out Germano Valsecchi in the fifth round of a European title bout in Milan. That’s three big fights for Minter in four months. We’ll never see this sort of thing again.
Dave “Boy” Green from Chatteris in East Anglia was a popular attraction at the Albert Hall. I was there when he overpowered Liverpool’s stylish Joey Singleton in six rounds to win the British light-welterweight (as it was then called) championship on June 1, 1976. Singleton had a lovely left jab but Green was too strong.
Just six months later Green battered his way to the European title when a gallant but outgunned Jean-Baptiste Piedvache, of France, was retired by his corner after nine rounds with his left eye swollen shut, courtesy of Green’s stiff jabs and “muck spreader” overhand right. (Minter vs Seales was the chief supporting contest but good enough to have been a main event in its own right.)
South London’s Mark Rowe, a big box-office attraction, headlined a number of RAH shows. There were two fights with Liverpool’s Pat Dwyer, who stopped Rowe in the fourth round on June 20, 1967 but lost the rematch three years later when a left hook broke Dwyer’s jaw and his corner retired him after four rounds. Rowe also had two RAH main events with New York middleweight Tom “The Bomb” Bethea, losing the first meeting narrowly on points in December 1970, just a quarter-point under the scoring system in effect at the time (equivalent to one point in today’s scoring). In the return bout 10 months later, Bethea won on a corner retirement after nine rounds. Rowe’s left eye was swollen shut and the rematch never reached the heights of the first fight.
I was at the Albert Hall ringside for each of Alan Rudkin’s British bantamweight title wins over Johnny Clark. In the first fight, in April 1970, south London’s Clark started fast and dominated the early rounds only for the more seasoned champion to come on strongly.
Rudkin’s jab jolted back Clark’s head time and again and the Liverpool craftsman was beginning to punish the challenger severely by the 12th round of the scheduled 15-rounder. Clark’s corner wisely decided not to send their man out for the 13th. In the rematch two years later, Clark, more experienced and more mature as a fighter, paced himself much better but Rudkin was just that little bit more effective, winning a close points victory after 15 rounds. It was Rudkin’s last fight.
Still another Albert Hall memory was the night Bootle, Merseyside’s Harry Scott won what I thought was a slightly fortunate decision over middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in their rematch on April 20, 1965. (The referee’s scorecard was not made public back then.)
Carter, who won the first meeting when Scott was cut over the eye, dropped the British fighter in the first round of the rematch with, as I remember it, a sneaky right hand, more a flash knockdown than a heavy flooring. Scott came back very well, hustling and bustling, but Carter landed the sharper, harder punches. But the referee for the rematch, Bill Williams, preferred Scott’s workrate to Carter’s precision.
And Joe Bugner, often criticised for caution, scored a rather dramatic win at the RAH when he knocked out Germany’s Juergen Blin in the eighth round to regain the European heavyweight title in October 1972. In the fight preview I implored Bugner to be assertive after scraping home on points in a previous meeting with Blin. I recall — shamefacedly — using a jingoistic headline on the lines of “Bash him, Bugner!” Well, Bugner certainly followed the imperative.
So many great Royal Albert Hall fights, so much to look back on with affection — and I’ve only scratched the surface. Saturday’s contestants are boxing in an arena steeped in ring history, and they are following in some pretty big footsteps.
Main image: Joe Bugner and Jurgen Blin fought at the Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Pool in the early 1970s. Photo: Alamy/PA images.