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August 1999

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Issue cover HE DIDN'T DO SO BAD

Joe Bugner never won any popularity contests, but then he was too smart to enter any. But nobody could dispute that the recently retired heavyweight was one of Britain’s best ever. GRAHAM HOUSTON reviews a colourful career

Photo shot

TOP DOG: Bugner was the most successful British heavyweight of the 1970s, and he managed to prolong his career for two decades more - Get Big Pic

The long, winding road that was Joe Bugner’s boxing career came to an end on 13 June in his adopted homeland of Australia, when his American opponent, Levi Billups, was disqualified for low blows in the ninth round.

"Aussie Joe", as he lately has been known, says there will be no more comebacks (he has made two already). This time I am inclined to believe him. He is 49, has been boxing professionally for 32 years (although in 11 of those years he was inactive) and his second wife, Marlene, says she has long wanted him to retire. Enough is enough, and Bugner is intelligent enough to know it.

He says that George Foreman’s unlikely comeback success spurred him to give the game one, last try, in 1995, and he did pick up the Australian championship and a couple of trifling titles. But it was a far cry from the days when he was British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight champion in the 1970s.

I was at ringside for most of his fights in the 1960s and ’70s. I even covered Bugner in the London amateur championships in 1967, when he was outpointed by the vastly experienced south Londoner, Billy Wells, a cagey campaigner whose bald head made him look older than he was, in the heavyweight semi-finals.

Although Bugner lost clearly, he fought with spirit, a mere 17-year-old and not much more than a promising novice up against a smaller man but a veteran who had won the Amateur Boxing Association title (British amateur title, for American readers).

Bugner’s trainer and mentor, Andy Smith, decided he would have more control over the matching of Bugner were the big, blond teenager to turn professional.

I would like to say I was there at the start. But when Bugner, from rural St. Ives in the county of Huntingdonshire, made his professional debut in December, 1967 - five days before Christmas in fact - I was elsewhere.

Bugner’s debut took place at the London Hilton on a show staged by the Anglo-American Sporting Club. In the main event, the welterweight Ralph Charles was meeting an ordinary Frenchman, while Bugner’s opponent was one Paul Brown, a trial horse from Birmingham by way of Jamaica. I had a press pass for the show, but someone I was seeing wanted me to accompany her to a staff Christmas party.

Oh, well, I thought, I won’t be missing much: Ralph Charles will handle the Frenchman easily and Bugner’s got a guaranteed win.

Right on the first count, as Charles won in five rounds, but wrong on the second: Bugner got hit on the chin, by a big right, and was knocked out in the third round.

I thought, after such a shocking setback, that Bugner was never going to amount to anything as a boxer - just a big, well-built young man (he was a former schools discus champ) who could not take a punch.

But Bugner became one of the most successful British heavyweights ever, making a record six defences of the European title in two reigns as champion.

And anyone who was there for his debut could never have imagined that Bugner would within six years be sharing the ring with heavyweight legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in major (though losing) fights.

At 6ft 3ins, Bugner was big enough, jabbed well and boxed capably. When he let his punches go, he could hurt an opponent. And, despite the first-fight KO, he was to prove durable, too.

Still, the general reaction of veteran boxing observers who look back on Bugner’s career is likely to be one of disappointment. He looked the part physically but failed to deliver, they will tell you. Some say that Bugner was never a natural aggressor, that his heart simply was not in boxing - especially after an early opponent, a Trinidadian journeyman named Ulric Regis, died from a brain injury days after being outpointed by Bugner.

Others might blame the training methods of Andy Smith, the trainer-manager, for instilling in Bugner an excessively defensive style.

But Bugner stopped 12 of his next 13 opponents after being knocked out by Paul Brown. This included four one-round wins.

At this stage of his career, Bugner was certainly letting his punches fly, as he did the night at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1969, when Bugner met a slugging Scot named Terry Feeley. Feeley had a reputation as a heavy hitter, and his record included a two-round win over Bugner’s old rival, Paul Brown. But Bugner overpowered and outclassed Feeley in the opening round. I remember him throwing a left hook that did not land squarely, and, with his glove hooked around Feeley’s head, simply tossing his opponent to the floor.

There were people in the arena that night who were saying that, finally, Britain had a genuine, exciting, heavyweight prospect.

But in his next fight, Bugner was unimpressive in outpointing Ulric Regis at the old Shoreditch Town Hall in east London. The fight was booed, as was the verdict when Bugner’s hand was raised after eight rather desultory rounds, although my impression was that Bugner dominated.

He had not seemed to punish Regis all that heavily, but then came the news that the boxer from Trinidad had been taken to hospital and undergone a brain operation.

Regis died, and perhaps something went out of Bugner after that. Or maybe, despite his run of quick wins, he had never really been the aggressor that those victories made him out to be.

Bugner developed poise and boxing acumen over the years that followed but displays of two-fisted fighting were rare.

He had some dull fights and a few positively dismal appearances, the most famous being his non-challenge against heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in 1975.

But on the way up, matchmaker, Mickey Duff generally did a superb job of making fights for Bugner against the right sort of opponents at the right time, often against well-known veterans whose decline had not yet become glaringly obvious.

Bugner did his part, winning consistently. He had a big following. Yet, generally speaking, the fans never really embraced Bugner in a consistent way. Some thought it was because he was born in Hungary, or because he received an unpopular points victory over the folk hero Henry Cooper in 1971 - or both.

Rather, I believe, the problem was that the fans truly wanted Bugner to do well only for him to fall short of expectations.

There were jeers, to be sure, but there were also nights when Bugner heard the cheers. For instance, he had a Royal Albert Hall crowd roaring when he won a narrow points victory over the hulking Irish-American Jack O’Halloran, who was 6ft 5ins, not only taller but considerably heftier than Bugner.

O’Halloran was not especially talented but he had the height, the reach and the weight, and in the first few rounds he scored points with a surprisingly quick left jab. Bugner looked tense and apprehensive early - a bit overawed, in fact. But by the middle of the fight Bugner was coming on, starting to open up. The last few rounds were all Bugner as he backed up the much bigger man and even had the massive O’Halloran looking shaky.

After this there were a series of technically efficient showings from Bugner - and some dreary ones. He was outsmarted by a veteran American southpaw named Dick Hall and could only get a draw with a Scots-born Canadian named Bill Drover. But he ended the career of ex-British champ Brian London in five rounds and easily outpointed well-respected British opponents Johnny Prescott and Carl Gizzi as well as defeating American Ray Patterson (Floyd’s younger brother) and Manuel Ramos, a Mexican who had faced Frazier in a title fight.

Bugner was the underdog against Henry Cooper, but after 15 rounds referee Harry Gibbs had it in Bugner’s favour by the narrowest margin of a quarter-point under the old fractional method used in Britain at the time. There was much booing from the packed, 10,000 crowd at Wembley and almost all the writers had Cooper winning.

Still, the 21-year-old Bugner was now British, Commonwealth and European champ. Had he instantly produced a couple of dramatic performances I am sure that the fuss over the Cooper verdict would have been overcome. But instead Bugner seemed to be regressing in his first two fights after the win over Cooper. First, Bugner barely defeated the willing but ordinary German, Jurgen Blin, in a European title defence, and then he was soundly outpointed over 15 rounds by the earnest if inelegant southpaw, Jack Bodell, to lose the three titles.

There was a point in the later rounds when Bodell seemed to run out of gas, physically sagging, and it appeared that Bugner could yet save the day with a determined assault. But Bugner let the opportunity pass him by, and it was Bodell who, as we now say, sucked it up. Bodell finished strongly, even sending a demoralised Bugner to the canvas in the 14th round.

Physically, in the ring with Bodell, Bugner looked like one of those Greek-god statues but unfortunately was nearly as lifeless.

Perhaps it had all happened too quickly. Maybe he faltered emotionally. The reaction to his win over Cooper must have been upsetting. It was as though Bugner felt he could not do anything right as far as the public was concerned, so why bother?

But Bugner pulled himself together. He was praised for gamely going 12 rounds with Muhammad Ali, despite getting cut over the eye, in February 1973, the year before Ali stunned George Foreman.

And in July 1973, came what I always will regard as Bugner’s greatest night, when he lost honourably to Joe Frazier in a gruelling, compelling 12-round struggle at Earls Court in west London.

Bugner’s nose was bloodied, he was on the point of being overwhelmed at times, but he banged back and had Frazier’s left eye swollen and closing. And, in the 10th round, Bugner finally answered the critics who doubted his courage when, after being knocked down, he not only got off the floor but buckled Smokin’ Joe’s knees with a cracking right-hander.

It was hot and cold showings after that. We had the passive 15 rounds with Ali in Kuala Lumpur, followed by a one-round wipe-out over a British rival, Richard Dunn, in the most aggressive showing from Bugner since his beginning days as a professional. Dunn, a Yorkshire southpaw who had been five rounds with Ali, never had a chance to get into the fight against Bugner.

And yet, in his next fight after that, Bugner went back to his conservative, safety-first ways when being outpointed by ex-convict Ron Lyle at Las Vegas. As with Jack Bodell, it was a fight that, it seemed, Bugner could have won - should have won - if only he had dug down and put some pressure on the other man instead of backing up and allowing himself to be outhustled.

This was in March 1977, and it was followed by a three-year retirement. Bugner came back to try his luck in America, but lost to Earnie Shavers in two rounds (due to a cut, although he was dropped in that fight).

He was promoted for a while by Frank Warren in London and won four fights, but in June 1983, at Atlantic City, in a fight seen live on American and British national television, he was well outpointed by the much smaller, 11-years-younger Marvis Frazier, son of Smokin’ Joe.

By 1986 Bugner was living in Australia, where he and wife Marlene were operating a vineyard two hours north of Sydney. Three successive wins in Australia over "name" heavyweight veterans - former contenders James Tillis and David Bey and ex-champ Greg Page - earned Bugner a final big payday in Britain, against Frank Bruno at Tottenham Hotspur football ground in north London in October 1987. Predictably, Bugner was battered in eight rounds but the old pro took his lumps gamely.

That looked like the end for Bugner, but eight years later he was back again, aged 45 and a grandfather. He had been hammered by the recession of 1989, the vineyard had failed and he estimated having lost one and a half million Australian dollars. He was not ashamed to admit he needed the money.

Talk of a big fight with George Foreman was fantasy on Bugner’s part, but he did win the Aussie title, and in July last year could actually call himself a world champ - as recognised by a small-time sanctioner - after James "Bonecrusher" Smith suffered a dislocated shoulder in the opening round. The combined ages of the two men totalled 93 years.

The fight with Levi Billups was in effect a farewell performance. Bugner’s wife of 22 years, Marlene, said she has insisted that there will be no more comebacks. This time, she told reporters, the retirement is definite. Bugner said: "I’ve had a very good run," and indeed he has.

He leaves the game - finally - with a record of 69 wins, 13 losses and a draw, and he stopped 41 opponents.

Americans will remember Bugner mostly for the way he covered up for almost the entire 15 rounds against Ali, but British boxing followers of a certain age will know that Bugner had far better nights.

I cannot think of any British heavyweight who could have fought a better, or braver, fight against Joe Frazier than Bugner did that warm July night in 1973.

A case could be made for Bugner having been the best heavyweight ever produced in Britain (Lennox Lewis, although London-born, came through the Canadian amateur system before returning to Britain to turn professional).

Bugner frustrated us, but also, on occasion, thrilled us. He created considerable excitement during his rise to the top, remained a big name and was involved in some of the biggest British fights of the 1970s.

Although Bugner talked a far better fight than he actually fought when he came back to Britain to meet Bruno, it was just Joe doing his bit to hype the event. There was never any malice in Bugner, and his good nature, the way he never took himself too seriously, struck a chord with the down-to-earth Australians.

We may never know the full impact, if any, the death of Ulric Regis had on Bugner’s career. My own feeling is that Bugner never really liked to hit people for a living. He thought too much, and never really had the basic instinct of a fighter. But for all that, Joe didn’t do badly - not badly at all.


That fight

Joe Bugner’s points win over Henry Cooper in March 1971, was one of the most controversial in British ring history. Referee Harry Gibbs, the sole arbiter as is still the custom with British title fights, had the boxers dead-level after 14 rounds. But Bugner clearly outworked a tiring Cooper in the last round, snatching victory on referee Gibbs’s card by 733/4 points to 731/2 under the old quarter-point method.

I, too, had Bugner pulling out the win although the overwhelming reaction was one of outrage. In the BBC-TV recording, shown the next evening, commentator Harry Carpenter exclaimed: "I find that amazing!" when Gibbs raised Bugner’s arm.

My impression was that Bugner had outscored Cooper in the early rounds, then let the fight slip away as Cooper came on towards the end. It was surprising to all of us at ringside on the night that the 36-year-old Cooper was closing more strongly than his 21-year-old opponent: the late rounds traditionally favour the younger man. I can remember that Cooper dominated the 12th, 13th and 14th rounds to such an extent that there seemed no way Bugner could halt the older man’s momentum.

But then Cooper’s age and the exertions of the previous 14 rounds seemed to catch up with him as Bugner finally, in the last round, reasserted himself. It was as if Bugner had shut down mentally for three rounds in a row but suddenly realised that he still felt strong, that there were just three minutes to go, that he was unlikely to be knocked out and simply decided, as we say today, to go for it.

In his autobiography, Box On, Gibbs wrote that Cooper appeared to accept the decision and added: "The crowd reaction in protest was predictable, and as I remember it not particularly hostile despite the boos. Henry was London’s idol and I suppose seventy five per cent of those in the hall came to see him win."

Gibbs’s scoresheet was printed in the book, showing he had given six rounds to Bugner, five to Cooper and four even.

When the film of the fight was shown in its entirety the next evening, the reaction of many of those who watched it seemed to have been that the fight had indeed been desperately close.

Also available to read from issue:

Magazine Contents:
Full details of the August 1999 issue - the complete contents listing.

World Rankings:
See where the top fighters were rated when August 1999 went to press...

Unbeaten giant Michael Grant has all the tools, but his win over Lou Savarese suggested that he’s happy to dominate rather than destroy. STEVE FARHOOD reports from NYC

Stevie Johnston has the look of a champion on the slide, while Angel Manfredy appears to be on track again. Could the title change hands? Preview by GRAHAM HOUSTON

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