Bellew vs Usyk build-up: When Merseysiders took on the best...
Photo: Tony Bellew Twitter
As Tony Bellew and Rocky Fielding prepare to take on Oleksandr Usyk and Saul Alvarez respectively, Chris Williamson recalls previous occasions when Merseyside boxers challenged the world's best...
When Tony Bellew and Rocky Fielding signed to face elite modern champions in undisputed cruiserweight ruler Oleksandr Usyk and unified middleweight champ Saul Alvarez (up at super-middleweight), they signalled their intention to emulate some of Liverpool’s most accomplished fighters of yesteryear, men who tested themselves against the very best pugilists of their day, some of whom had built legacies as among the greatest champions of all time.
Many of us born and raised in the city of Liverpool enjoy personal links to the region's long love affair with the hardest game of all. Boxing pervades the fabric of the city to such an extent that these fascinating old stories can trickle their way through families in unexpected ways.
My father was learning his trade as a young trainee electrician at a Manweb base in the Huyton area of Liverpool while one of the older workers happened to be long-retired former boxing superstar Ernie Roderick. My father says that even during his later years Roderick - usually dressed in a long, thick overcoat - exuded a strong, stoic authority and was regarded with a special level of esteem by his fellow working men.
Almost 80 years ago and some 30 years before these events, in the spring of 1939, Roderick won the British welterweight title at Anfield stadium, knocking out the Scot Jake Kilrain in the seventh round of their second meeting. This victory led to the chance of a lifetime for young Roderick at the old Harringay arena in North London just two months later. The broad-backed scouser climbed the ropes that Thursday night to challenge all-time great Henry Armstrong for the world welterweight title. Remarkably, he extended the celebrated champion - then in the midst of an incredible 45 fight winning streak - for 15 hard rounds in what was a terrific, all-action fight.
Roderick told the 'Liverpool Echo' that the match was so competitive that he was promised a rematch, which was initially scuppered because Roderick was getting married and then scrapped entirely after World War II broke out.
Incidentally, Roderick's brother-in-law and manager was perhaps the most loved of all Liverpool boxers, Nelson 'Nel' Tarleton, a legendary fighting man who held the British featherweight title three times and challenged for the NBA version of the world featherweight title on Liverpool soil twice, losing to the American Freddie Miller on points on both occasions. Tarleton even held ‘Panama’ Al Brown – number eight in Kyle McLachlan’s terrific all-time bantamweight top ten currently counting down on the BM website – to a 15-round draw in the summer of 1932 at Anfield.
While the outbreak of war was frustrating Roderick’s chances of a rematch with Armstrong, a young family by the name of Rudkin were fleeing Liverpool for Wales to escape the bombings. The young Mrs Rudkin was pregnant during this evacuation which meant one of Merseyside’s favourite fighting sons, Alan, was actually born in Wales and later brought up on Merseyside. Rudkin challenged unsuccessfully for the world bantamweight title on three separate occasions - all overseas - and all against extremely tough competition in Fighting Harada, Lionel Rose and, perhaps the mightiest bantam of all, Ruben Olivares.
Before I ever heard of my father’s Roderick connection, as a boy I grew up hearing stories about how my late grandfather on my mother’s side was good friends with the much younger John Conteh, so much so that the future WBC light-heavyweight champion had once lent him his Commonwealth gold medal to take home to show the children, including my mother.
Years later the family would crowd around the television to watch Conteh's professional fights while my grandfather would shout - tongue in cheek - “the champ still owes me two and six!” Later still we discovered a batch of greying photographs of the children beaming widely while posing in the garden with Conteh’s medal.
Conteh pursued but missed out on a match with the premier light heavyweight of the 1970s, Bob Foster. The scouser was number one contender and in attendance to watch Foster’s draw with Jorge Ahumada, before the American great announced a short-lived retirement, thus freeing up his two world titles. Conteh’s light shone brightly during his WBC title-winning effort against Ahumada and successful defences against contenders Yaqui Lopez and Len Hutchins before - during the diminished twilight of his career - he twice unsuccessfully challenged the new all-action face of the division, Matthew Saad Muhammad.
More recently, almost 25 years ago and deep in the winter of 1993, scouse light welterweight Andy Holligan boasted an unbeaten 21-fight record and held the British and Commonwealth titles. These achievements earned Holligan a number four ranking with the WBC and the dubious honour of a match with legendary champion Julio Cesar Chavez. The fight was held in the Puebla soccer stadium in Chavez’s homeland in what was the 90th professional fight of the then-undefeated Chavez’s incredible record.
Graham Houston’s fight report in the February 1994 issue of Boxing Monthly was titled ‘Suicide Scouser’, a reference to the gung-ho approach Holligan took that night against a legend who was presumably still smarting from a controversial draw against Pernell Whitaker up at welterweight three months previously.
In the event, it was an incredibly tough five rounds for Holligan who was bullied and butchered as long as the match lasted, while always game and giving it all he had. In truth Holligan was hopelessly outgunned, and there’s no shame in that. As Houston summarised: “Holligan is a good fighter on his own level, but against Chavez he was moving up another plateau altogether.”
One day the friends and relatives of Bellew and Fielding will regale the tales connected to their audacious winter challenges.
Bellew told me last year, when interviewed for BM, that he wonders how his unlikely fistic story will end.
It surely couldn’t end as gloriously as unbeaten-at-the weight heavyweight contender and undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world.