Big Interview: Forgotten heavyweight champion John Lewis Gardner who nearly fought Muhammad Ali

John L Gardner
John L Gardner

It is more than a touch ironic that one of the biggest paychecks of John Lewis Gardner’s boxing career did not require him to step foot inside any ring.

The Hackney-born fighter – who now lives in Preston – was at the height of his powers more than 40 years ago when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity appeared to be heading his way.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

The reigning European heavyweight champion back in 1980, Gardner was on the cusp of catapulting his name onto the global stage when a fight against The Greatest was lined-up to take place in Hawaii.

Even though Muhammad Ali was very much in the autumn of his career, the chance to take out the three-time former heavyweight champion was too good an opportunity for Gardner to refuse.

Unfortunately, the meeting between the two never materialised as the boxing authorities decreed the bout would be a mismatch – in Gardner’s favour!

Ali had just turned 40 and had just been beaten by fellow American Larry Holmes – and the prospect of facing the fit and hungry 28-year-old Gardner was deemed to be a step too far for the legendary heavyweight.

John Lewis Gardner with his book

John Lewis Gardner with his book

Refused a licence, Ali pulled out of the fight, robbing Gardner of the chance of registering the biggest win of his career – although he was awarded $200,000 in compensation.

The story of Gardner’s meeting-that-never-was with Ali is documented in a new book entitled “The Forgotten Champ” written by the man himself in association with Nick Towle.

Although Gardner never met Ali in a competitive encounter, he did have a dust-up with the great man in a three-round exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall.

It was that initial meeting which looked to have paved the way for a serious contest between the pair.

“Ali tried to steam me in the first round at the Albert Hall when we had the exhibition,” Gardner said.

“He was giving it all that before the fight.

“He said, ‘I’ve got bad kidneys, bad liver – I’m getting old now. I am just doing this to earn a living for my kids’.

“After we did the exhibition, it was sorted that I would fight Ali.

“But there was a reason why the fight did not come off and why he didn’t want to fight me, which is all in the book.

“I ended up getting $200,000 compensation.

“I would’ve beaten Ali. But it was a honour – it really was – to meet the man, a dream come true to fight him in an exhibition.

“I have met some people in my life, met some really big stars, celebrities, Hollywood stars...they all love a heavyweight fighter.

“But Ali he was something else.”

Gardner – who won 35 of 39 bouts – became British and Commonwealth champion in 1978 when he got the better of Billy Aird in 1978.

He went on to defend the titles a year later at the Wembley Arena against notorious hardman Paul Sykes, who had spent time in prison.

That fight proved to be the perfect example of hardman against professional athlete, as Gardner outlasted his bigger opponent – eventually stopping him in the sixth round.

“I was always fitter than my opponents,” Gardner said.

“You look at my record – there’s a lot where my opponents have retired on the stool.

“The fight with Paul Sykes – you can watch it on YouTube – he turned his back on me, but I knew that was going to happen.

“If you look at the video after the fifth round, he went back to his corner and you can see his trainer saying to him, ‘You need to do this, you need to do that’.

“But you can see Sykes saying, ‘I know, but there is nothing I can do about it’. He just could not do anything about my relentlessness.

“When I fought Billy Aird for the British title, after the fourth round he didn’t go back to his corner, he went straight over to the referee Harry Gibbs and said, ‘I’ve had enough Harry’.”

Gardner became European champion when he defeated Belgian Rudy Gauwe for the vacant title at the Albert Hall in 1980.

He then defended his crown against Italy’s Lorenzo Zanon in his own backyard soon after.

Despite his pedigree, Gardner was never handed a shot at the world title.

“I’m the only European heavyweight champion never to have got a shot at the world title,” Gardner said.

“The reason why is all in the book – it’s a great story.”

Gardner – who earned a $150,000 purse when he fought and lost to Michael Dokes in Detroit, USA, hung up gloves in 1983 after his final bout with Noel Quarless.

After meeting and marrying his wife Michele, Gardner moved to the North East of England where he ran a pub.

In the late 1990s, he escaped death when he was stabbed by a drug dealer, who he had refused to serve.

Now the former heavyweight champion has arguably the biggest fight of his life as he battles prostate cancer.

He decided to move to Lancashire to be nearer his son Ross, daughter Charlee and three grandchildren Demi-Leigh (14), Freddie (5), and Harley (4).

“I was given five years and that was three-and-a-half years ago,” said Gardner.

“I decided to move here to be nearer my family and it’s made me so much better.

“I’ve been a fighter all my and I’m trying to come through this.”

‘The Forgotten Champ’ is a brutally-candid account of John L Gardner’s journey from obscurity to the highest echelons of the boxing world. It is the story, in his own words, of a fine heavyweight boxer who conquered Europe but preferred to shun the limelight.

“I’m the sort of person who shies away from fame. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely feeling when you are famous and people recognise you, but it wasn’t my thing,” said Gardner. Written in collaboration with sports biographer Nick Towle, the book is now available to pre-order on Amazon. The Kindle version priced at £2.95 became available to buy directly this month and the paperback is in all good book stores, costing £5.95.