It may have been a long time coming – 102 years, to be precise – but Britain at last has an undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion.
The political and financial machinations of larger-than-life promoter Don King and governing body the IBF have agreed to give Lennox Lewis the honour of being the first holder of every version of the world heavyweight crown since 1992 – Brits Frank Bruno and Herbie Hide have held the WBC and WBO versions of the belt in that time. But, for now at least, an east London man is champion of the boxing world once again.
True Brit grit?
There are some who might challenge Lewis’ cockney credentials, as happened with the last man to be an undisputed English champion of the world. Bob Fitzimmons, who held the title in 1897, may have been born in Cornwall, but he was raised in New Zealand, did most of his early fighting in Australia and was twice crowned as an American world champion.
Lennox was born and raised in Stratford and professes a lifelong allegiance to West Ham United. Although his accent owes a little more to North America than east London, his career as a winning fighter puts him in a great East End tradition – of cockney kids using the ring to make their fame, if not their fortune.
Go to Paradise Row in Bethnal Green and you’ll see a blue plaque to the memory of Daniel Mendoza. Mendoza the Jew, as he was known, was English bareknuckle boxing champion from 1794
to 1795. With bouts lasting until one of the contenders dropped – often several hours – long reigns as champ weren’t common.
The East End doesn’t breed too many boxers the size of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield or even Mendoza – it’s at the lighter weights that most of our lads have won their world crowns.
He ain’t heavy
Gershon Mendeloff was born in Whitechapel on 24 October 1894, but it was as Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis that he held
the world welterweight title between 1915 and 1916. Lewis fought an extraordinary 279 bouts in a career stretching from 1909 to 1929.
Lewis was a graduate of Premierland, a boxing hall just off the Commercial Road. This Aldgate hall was the training ground of another two world champions. Teddy Baldock was a Premierland bantamweight, who in 1927 beat Archie Bell in London to claim the vacant British and World titles.
The third graduate was another Jewish East Ender, Jack ‘Kid’ Berg, the Whitechapel Whirlwind. Berg wasn’t considered much of a contender when he burst onto the American fight scene on 31 May 1928. The little fighter, born Judah Bergman, was considered cannon fodder for Pedro Amador’s junior welterweight world title bout.
But instead of the upright stance, limited movement and china chin of the classic British fighter, the Yanks were shocked as the whirling dervish – his range and angle of delivery of punches made him the Naseem Hamed of his day – dumped Amador on the canvas.
Berg powered through the division, fighting almost
weekly, only failing when he tried to step up to the more moneyed lightweight crown, against Billy Petrolle. But though he took a beating against Petrolle, he fought on for another decade and died at the ripe old age of 82 in 1991.
Take a look at Charlie Magri’s birth certificate and you’ll see July 20, 1956, Tunis, Tunisia. But Magri was a Bethnal Green fighter through and through, honing his speed and skills as a flyweight at numerous York Hall bouts from 1977 onwards.
By 1979 he was European champion and four years later he landed the WBC world crown, defeating Eleoncio Mercedes in London.