By Kieran Mulvaney
London -- They’re used to this, the Brits. There’s a proud, pugilistic tradition, of the best of the rest of the world landing on this pugnacious island with the intention of swatting aside the local champion; Gennady Golovkin, defending his middleweight belts against Sheffield’s Kell Brook on Saturday, Sept. 10 (HBO, 5:30 p.m. ET/PT), is just the latest in a long line stretching back a half century or more. And while the undefeated Kazakh knockout artist will be the big favorite among neutral betters, try telling that to the partisans who will fill the O2 Arena on the banks of the River Thames, or the social media warriors who have been making their man’s case online.
Of course, this is a nation whose history is replete with stories of repelling foreign invaders (we’re looking at you, Spanish Armada) and a fair few would-be conquering boxers have run aground on its rocky shores.
Sugar Ray Robinson sported a professional record of 128-1-2 when he arrived in England in 1951 for a defense of his middleweight title against England’s Randy Turpin; 15 rounds later, Turpin had done what to that point only Jake La Motta had been able to achieve, and sent (an admittedly unfocused) Robinson to defeat. More recently, Razor Ruddock, who had gone 19 hard rounds with Mike Tyson, was an overwhelming favorite to defeat young up-and-coming heavyweight Lennox Lewis in 1992; it took fewer than two rounds for Lewis to turn that storyline on its head, drop Ruddock on his face and announce the arrival of arguably the greatest heavyweight of his generation.
Muscle-bound Floridian super-middleweight Jeff Lacy was widely expected, on the western side of the Atlantic, to summarily dispatch Welshman Joe Calzaghe in 2006; instead, Calzaghe beat him from pillar to post, and Lacy was never the same again. Six years later, Romanian-Canadian Lucian Bute was, like Lacy, unbeaten when he pitched up in England to defend his 168-pound crown in the hometown of Nottingham’s Carl Froch, who had just lost to Andre Ward; but Froch smashed Bute, stopping him in five rounds. Even dear old Frank Bruno got in on the act, winning a heavyweight title belt at the fourth time of asking when he outpointed Oliver McCall at Wembley Stadium in 1995.
And rarely has a boxing ring in Britain, or indeed anywhere, encountered a more febrile atmosphere than at the New London Arena that same year, when Nigel Benn somehow overcame the mighty power puncher Gerald McClellan after 10 rounds in which each man had unleashed and absorbed a hellacious beating. “They brought him here to beat me up,” snarled Benn in the immediate aftermath, unaware that McClellan was lapsing into a brain-damaged unconsciousness.
Yet the most celebrated simple boxing moment on these shores -- perhaps unsurprisingly in a country that eulogizes the Charge of the Light Brigade -- may be one that ended in glorious failure. In 1963, Henry Cooper -- “Our ‘Enery” as he was always affectionate known -- landed his vaunted left hook on the jaw of the flash, brash, young Cassius Clay and, but for the swift thinking of the future Muhammad Ali’s cornerman Angelo Dundee, who either created or exacerbated a split in his fighter’s gloves between rounds, might have changed the course of boxing history. Less frequently mentioned is the fact that Cooper was stopped on cuts in the following round, or that Ali sliced him up again in a rematch three years later.
If there is a precedent to give Brook pause, it is one that in many respects might seem to have the most similarities to the task he faces on Saturday. In September 1980, a highly regarded middleweight who had been struggling to convince opponents to get in the ring with him took on a popular Englishman in London. His name was Marvin Hagler, and it took him less than three rounds to cut Minter’s skin to ribbons and be declared the winner -- a turn of events that led Minter’s fans, shamefully, to shower the ring in beer cans and bottles.
Brook will, of course, be hoping for an entirely different outcome, on many levels. If he’s seeking inspiration from any predecessor in particular, it’s surely Ricky Hatton, who simply overwhelmed pound-for-pound entrant Kostya Tszyu in front of a raucous Manchester crowd in 2005. That win secured Hatton a place of unrivalled affection among British boxing fans.
For all the confidence exuded by Brook, his team and his fans, it will require an even more herculean effort for him to achieve success against Golovkin. And if he somehow does so, then Saturday night will surely take its place among the very greatest nights ever seen in this country’s boxing history.