The great outdoors
The local-rivalry lightweight fight between Luke Campbell and Tommy Coyle at Hull’s KC Lightstream Stadium on 1 August is the latest in a long line of British open-air shows.
Once, outdoor shows were commonplace as promoters took a chance on the vagaries of the British weather - and holding a fight outdoors in Britain is always going to be a gamble.
For instance, when Jack Solomons promoted the lightweight championship fight between formidable champion Ike Williams, from New Jersey, and Ronnie James, of Wales, at Cardiff’s Ninian Park in September 1946, rain fell so heavily that it seemed the show would have to be postponed.
Solomons, as he related in his autobiography Jack Solomons Tells All, had never had to postpone a show due to adverse weather conditions and did not intend to start now. He placed a bucket on the hotel verandah, and assured newspaper reporters that by the time the bucket was full, the rain would have stopped.
“Rain had been descending on Wales for more than a week and Ninian Park looked like it was getting ready for Noah,” Solomons recalled. Fate smiled on Solomons that day. The rain ceased almost magically when the bucket was almost full with rainwater, the fight went ahead, and Williams knocked out the outclassed and outgunned James in nine rounds. “The legend of Solomons Weather was born,” Solomons recalled.
Solomons was not as fortunate, though, when he promoted the heavyweight fight between Cuba’s Nino Valdes and British champion Don Cockell at White City Stadium on 13 September 1955.
Cockell, having his first bout since Rocky Marciano battered him into defeat in nine rounds in San Francisco four months earlier, was to have defended the British title against Jack Gardner, but Gardner had to withdraw due to injury and, as The Times reported: “Valdes is almost certainly a much more formidable opponent than Gardner, even over 10 instead of the full 15 rounds.”
The weather was dreadful, rain lashing down, which had a deleterious effect on the gate receipts. “For once those who were in the more distant seats, who were at least under cover, had cause to congratulate themselves,” The Times reported. “Those in the more expensive seats ranged around the ring in the open were not so happy, for the rain was persistent and often heavy.”
Promoter Solomons took a double hit - the weather, and Cockell’s defeat in three rounds. Never one to pass up a photo opportunity, Solomons was pictured in the sports pages the next morning wearing a hat, raincoat and forced smile at ringside as a gentleman who was purportedly a doctor checked the promoter’s heart with a stethoscope.
One would think that the month of August would be safe enough for an outdoor promotion - but we’re talking about British summer weather here. When Brian London, the former British heavyweight champion, fought Howard King of the US on a show outdoors at Stanley Park, in London’s hometown of Blackpool on 14 August 1962, the rain fell with such driving intensity that the boxers fought in bare feet to get better traction on the rain-slicked canvas, which the promoter covered with sawdust in a forlorn attempt to give the fighters a better footing.
The referee - former British welterweight champion Wally Thom - wore a raincoat. King went down from what seemed to be a left jab in the sixth round and, contemporary reports tell us, slid across the canvas and virtually aquaplaned under the bottom rope. King was counted out when he failed to get back into a “fighting posture” before the count had been completed.
“Thousands of sodden spectators, who had been drenched continuously for 90 minutes, nevertheless stayed to see the final comedy,” The Times reported.
The unpredictability of British summer weather was illustrated when Welsh heavyweight Jack Petersen fought Germany’s Walter Neusel in a rematch at Wembley Stadium on 25 June 1933.
In the days leading up to the bout, Britain sweltered under a June heat wave, with temperatures reaching 87F in the shade.
“Three people died from the heat and hundreds more collapsed in streets, factories and fields yesterday,” the Daily Herald reported on the morning of the big fight. The “tremendous heat” buckled the steel girders of a railway bridge in Middlesex.
“Should the heat wave continue it is officially anticipated that the attendance will reach at least 80,000 people,” boxing writer James Butler reported. “No match in recent years has so captured the public imagination.”
However, British summer weather can change quickly. There were rainstorms on the day of the fight, reducing the attendance from the hoped-for 80,000 to an estimated 50,000 spectators.
“Rain ceased as the big fight began,” the Daily Herald reported, “but earlier hundreds of umbrellas and sunshades were put up, and women in summer frocks borrowed men’s raincoats.”
Neusel had stopped Petersen in the 11th round indoors at Wembley’s Empire Pool (as Wembley Arena was then known) four months earlier. In the rematch, the bigger, stronger, heavier Neusel suffered a badly swollen left eye but wore down the faster Petersen, who retired at the end of the 10th of a scheduled 12-round contest.
“A section of the 50,000 or so there hooted Petersen when he retired,” The Observer reported. “It was a mean thing to hoot a man when he had fought himself to a standstill as Petersen had, after taking heavy punishment with the utmost courage.”
Petersen had suffered a severe cut over the left eye in his first fight with Neusel, and by the second round he was “bleeding profusely” when the cut reopened, the Daily Herald reported. “It was a pity that Petersen’s left eye was giving him so much trouble, because he was infinitely the better tactician and boxer,” the newspaper noted glumly.
There was another disappointment for the British heavyweight boxing business on 6 June 1950 at White City Stadium when Lee Savold, of the US, defeated British heavyweight champion Bruce Woodcock at White City Stadium, with Woodcock suffering a severe cut over the left eye that caused his corner to retire him after four rounds. The scheduled 15-round bout was recognised as a world title fight by the British Boxing Board of Control and attracted a crowd estimated at over 50,000.
“A right-hand punch at close quarters opened a deep, ugly gash over the Briton’s eye early in the fourth round,” the New York Times reported. “Although he boxed on in the fourth, nearly blinded with blood streaming down his face, Woodcock did not come out for the next round.” Reporter Joseph Collins, covering the event for the New York Times, described the fight as “the most ballyhooed contest to be held in England in living memory”. The huge crowd was “shocked to silence” by the bout’s bitterly disappointing finish.
One of Britain’s biggest outdoor fights took place during the Second World War, when Freddie Mills knocked out Len Harvey in the second round of a British light-heavyweight title bout held during the afternoon at Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane football ground in north London on 20 June 1942. Each man was serving in the RAF at the time, but according to the book Len Harvey: Prince of Boxers, by boxing historian Gilbert Odd, Harvey, a physical training instructor in the RAF, was allowed only one week’s leave to train for the fight and looked “pale and drawn” as he waited for the first bell in front of an “estimated 40,000 fans”. (In his book, Box On, the referee for that fight, Eugene Henderson, put the attendance at 25,000, the “wartime record crowd” having “braved the air raids” to attend.)
By all accounts, Harvey, who was three weeks short of his 35th birthday and hadn’t boxed for three years, enjoyed success with his stylish technique in the opening round, only to be overwhelmed and knocked through the ropes in the second round by the younger, stronger, aggressive Mills, with Harvey being counted out while still outside the ring.
In his last fight before meeting Mills, though, on 10 July 1939, at White City Stadium, Harvey scored one of his greatest victories when he outpointed the heavy-hitting Jock McAvoy in fight that the British Board recognised as a world light-heavyweight title bout. The colourful Irish heavyweight Jack Doyle appeared on the same show on what appears to have been, weather-wise, a perfect summer’s evening - Doyle lost in the opening round to Londoner Eddie Phillips.
The promotion was a huge event. “Every road to the stadium was choked,” author Michael Taub related in Jack Doyle: The Gorgeous Gael. “Cars had been abandoned where they stood. People were alighting from buses and taxis that could move no farther. London was at a standstill.”
Harvey was caught up in the “huge traffic jam” and arrived late at the stadium, boxing historian Brian Hughes MBE noted in his book Jock McAvoy: Portrait of a Fighting Legend. According to Hughes’ book, a White City Stadium “publicity man” put the attendance as between 90,000 and 100,000 people; Michael Taub’s book informs us that an estimated 250,000 people were making their way to White City. An attempt was made to storm the gates when would-be spectators couldn’t gain admittance, although the crowd was apparently good-humoured and it seems that police easily restored order.
War with Germany was considered imminent and inevitable, and author Taub suggested that part of the reason for the colossal crowd was “a collective desire to celebrate while there was still time.”
More recently we had the rematch between Carl Froch and George Groves, held before an estimated 80,000 spectators at Wembley Stadium, but it is doubtful if the British fight game will ever see another night - or another crowd - quite like the one when Harvey outpointed McAvoy and Phillips beat Doyle in one round in what author Taub described as “that glorious summer of 1939”.
• This is an updated version of a story that originally appeared in Boxing Monthly.