Tommy Milligan

Hell Drivers: The Early Championship History of British Middleweights

The World Middleweight Title will be up for grabs tonight in Atlantic City, with a British fighter, Darren Barker, looking to claim the crown.

Though only four men from the United Kingdom have had their hand raised as ruler of the middleweights, many have had their chance at the honor – and A Backward Glance takes a look at the earliest title challenges, both the successes and the failures, of those British fighters as they faced off against some of the true greats of the middleweight class.

January 14, 1891, New Orleans – Champion: Jack Dempsey – Challenger: Bob Fitzsimmons

Bob Fitzsimmons

The first British middleweight title challenger, Bob Fitzsimmons, never actually fought in the United Kingdom.  Having moved to New Zealand at the age of 9, the Cornwall “freak of nature” turned professional in Australia before eventually moving on to ply his trade in the United States, where he claimed the crown from the original Jack Dempsey, The Nonpareil, less than a year after his arrival.

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The contest, scheduled for twenty rounds, at the Olympic Athletic Club in New Orleans, was a one-sided affair, with Dempsey badly beaten by the time the end came in the thirteenth session.  At one stage late in the bout, Fitzsimmons suggested to his bloodied foe that it would be better if he gave up – only for Dempsey to respond, “You fight. I’m not gone yet.”  The defending champion’s seconds also pleaded for their man to retire before the end, though Dempsey refused, and Fitzsimmons was forced to keep hammering away until his opponent was laid flat for the count.

After the fight, Fitzsimmons was queried on his “humane” approach, and said that he regretted having to inflict more damage than necessary, adding that Dempsey’s courage had cost him an extra $5,000, which he would have received if he’d been able to end the match within ten rounds.  As it was, Fitzsimmons claimed the winner’s share of the stakes–an $11,000 prize–while Dempsey was forced to settle for $1,500 – a $1,000 share for losing, and $500 for expenses.

William Muldoon, the renowned wrestler, who had trained former heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, offered his thoughts on the new title holder after the contest…

I never dreamed he was such a man.  He is a whirlwind, a terrific hitter, a two handed fighter and a great general.  I never saw as fair a fighter in my life.

1911, June 8, London – Champion: Billy Papke –  Challenger: Jim Sullivan

Having boxed beautifully for the opening eight rounds of a scheduled twenty at The Palladium, Jim Sullivan’s world title hopes came to a sudden and dramatic halt when a single shot to the mid-section from champion Billy Papke sent the Bermondsey fighter sinking to the canvas.  The bell temporarily saved the local man, who was dragged to his corner by anxious seconds. Sullivan – who reportedly suffered an injured rib – could not sufficiently after the one minute break, and the championship stayed in the hands of the American.

Jim Sullivan

Sullivan had been in fine form heading into his title challenge, having easily beaten Tom Thomas to claim the British crown the previous November, and right up until the time of the fateful body blow, the quick-jabbing, fleet-footed Englishman had been doing a similar number on the bruising Papke.

Image Courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring

The fight had been an unpleasant affair at times; as Sullivan boxed and landed the prettier punches from range, Papke played for the clinch, where he attempted to wrestle, butt, and bang away at close quarters.  These were tactics that eventually paid off, as the knockout blow was delivered with the fighters tied up on the inside – though Papke won no friends among the local spectators.

The Daily Mirror on the contest…

Science was badly beaten last night by the new methods, many of which sail very near the wind of fairness… It is bad in every way, but it wins fights, and it could all be altered by the rules being brought up to date.

The Daily Express had similar words…

Papke went to any extreme to win.  He butted; he held whenever it was tolerated.  The tactics were not those of the boxer we welcome in England.  It seemed frequently that Papke would be content with disqualification, for never has a champion gained laurels in such a fashion.

1915, October 9, Melbourne – Champion: Les Darcy – Challenger: Fred Dyer

Fred Dyer

Cardiff-born Fred Dyer saw his challenge of Les Darcy’s world (as recognized in Australia) title end when his corner mercifully threw in the towel during the sixth round of a scheduled twenty.

Dyer was a clever fighter, known in Britain for not just being an all-around athlete whose skills extended beyond the ring to the track and pool, but also as a “top-line” stage performer with a “rich baritone voice”.  A few years before heading to Australia, the Welshman had astonished the National Sporting Club in London by belting out a stirring rendition of “Thora” immediately after the completion of a grueling bout.

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Dyer had used his cagey defensive skills to last the full twenty against Darcy the previous December, and in the time since, had been arguing his case for a return match with the local star.  Eventually, Darcy agreed to put his title on the line, with a side bet of $500 added for good measure.  It proved a losing proposition for the versatile stage man, who was outweighed by nearly 10 pounds in the ring.  Fighting through the size disadvantage, he was said to have shown “remarkable grit” in his efforts, though his left jabs did nothing to dissuade the bigger man’s steady pressure, and Dyer suffered a bad beating for his ambition.

1924, June 26, New York – Champion: Harry Greb – Challenger: Ted Moore

Ted Moore

A brave effort from a Ted Moore earned a standing ovation from the crowd of 50,000 at Yankee Stadium, though his attempt at wresting the middleweight crown from the brow of Harry Greb came up decidedly short.  It was Greb’s fight the whole way, as he overwhelmed Moore in his typical darting windmill style, though the man from Plymouth had his moments, especially on the Inside, where he was able to land a number of heavy whacks to the body.

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The New York Times gave Moore, who finished the bout well bloodied, only two rounds – with an even split in another – though paid tribute to his determination, in what was a one-sided, though entertaining scrap…

The fight did not produce a knockout, but the absence of this thrill did not detract from the excitement of the bout.  There were enough thrills as Greb plunged and charged, ripped and slashed, and Moore plodded doggedly on with undimmed courage to satisfy the most exacting fan… Repeatedly Greb had his rival’s head bobbing from side to side and backward and forward with a criss-cross of bewildering rights and lefts and snappy jabs, but Moore invariably plunged in against these blows in his desire to get to close quarters.

1927, June 30, London – Champion: Mickey Walker – Challenger: Tommy Milligan

Tommy Milligan’s Glorious Failure was how the Daily Mirror put it.

Excitement had been high in London, when defending title holder Mickey Walker arrived to take on the highly touted Milligan.  Hailed as one of the most promising fighters produced in Britain in many years, the Scotsman had made his name by trouncing Ted Moore in a couple of British title fight clashes.

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Milligan left the ring, with the crowd still excited and his reputation enhanced, though at the same time, a thoroughly beaten man.  He had gone down to defeat in the tenth round, dropped six times over the last four sessions in what was ultimately a brutal and bloody ending; yet, for a number of rounds, Milligan had not just stood his ground in the savage toe-to-toe affair, but had the better of the champion.  In fact, he’d done so well early, that betting at ringside, which had started out 2 to 1 in favor of Walker, had shifted over to Milligan at odds of 5 to 4.

The success, however, was short lived. While Milligan beat the defending title holder to the punch in many early exchanges, he didn’t have the same thunder in his blows that Walker possessed, and eventually, in the seventh round, the difference in power swung the fight dramatically in the champion’s favor.  And it was here, during those moments, when it was clear Milligan was outgunned, that he earned his money and more.  As the Daily Express put it…

…it was marvellous.  It was wonderful.  It has never been seen before in London – this extraordinary way that time after time after time, when knocked down or knocked against the rope, a boxer immediately fought back like a lion, rushing on to his enemy, dauntless to the last.

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Tags: Billy Papke Bob Fitzsimmons Fred Dyer Harry Greb Jack "the Nonpareil" Dempsey Jim Sullivan Les Darcy Mickey Walker Ted Moore Tommy Milligan

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