August 6 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous boxing matches to involve a Lancashire fighter when Brian London fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title
Already 32 years old, and with an opponent eight years his junior, Brian London acknowledged he was facing his toughest challenge with a man he called the “finest boxer in the world”.
Muhammad Ali had been heavyweight champion of the world for two-and-a-half years when the adopted Lancastrian stepped up to fight him on August 6 1966.
At the time the fight was covered by every major newspaper and, after the England’s World Cup triumph, was the most talked about sporting event of the year.
But despite all of the hype and excitement, this once in a lifetime match-up almost did not happen. It took more than six months between first talks of the fight to when the bout between the two heavyweights took place on that Saturday night.
In fact Ali, who was still referred to as his birth name Cassius Clay by some, had to be convinced it would be worth his while to even consider a meeting between himself and London.
On January 10 1966 the Evening Post’s sister paper the Blackpool Gazette reported Ali saying he has “no intention of fighting London”, describing him as “too old, too fat, too short and too slow” to face him.
Of course this did not go without reply, when asked about the comment during an interview in his Blackpool home, London replied: “Who does Clay think he’s worrying? I couldn’t care less if he doesn’t want to meet me.
“I reckon he’s scared. But it’s all the same to me if he doesn’t want to run the risk of losing his title”.
The verbal sparring continued to go back and forth between both boxers on the lead-up to the fight.
Ali insisted London would never beat him, stating his opponent had better take “two guns and a club into the ring if he expects to win”.
London hit back with a poem – a tactic which in later years would become Ali’s trademark, saying,
“Two guns and a club I don’t need,
But your feet and your speed you will need,
To move out of the way of two fists made for Clay,
And two feet that will dance on this day”.
Many boxing fans expressed confidence in London, claiming the fight would go on 12 rounds or more – a confidence not shared by fellow British heavyweight Henry Cooper.
Cooper, British, Commonwealth and European Heavyweight Champion, told the Evening Post’s Alan Hubbard, “I don’t go along with all these merchants who think it will go the distance. I think Clay will stop him.
“I know they say London doesn’t cut easily, but I cut him every time we fought. He also comes on to the punch, which is what Clay wants. Any fighter who beats Clay has got to do it with a single punch.
“There’s no other way. If London has that sort of punch then I’ve never felt it”.
Undeterred, London replied: “I may not beat this fellow Cassius Clay, but I’m going to have a right good go”.
The fight finally took place at the Earls Court Arena, in London, in front of 18,500 fans.
A further 40,000 people gathered at 20 cinemas around Britain to watched the contest on big screens while millions gathered at hundreds of cinemas around the USA, Canada and Mexico.
At 6ft tall, and with a reach of 72ins, Brian London was considered no slouch in the ring but Ali went into the fight undefeated in his previous 24 contests.
When the bell rang the Blackpool Bomber attempted to stalk his opponent but was met with a flurry of leather from Ali’s fists as the champion’s famed footwork enabled him to dance around the challenger.
In the second round, London attempt to charge his opponent into the ropes, only for Ali to spring out of the way. leaving the Lancastrian swinging at fresh air. And in the next round it was all over as the American trapped London in the corner and unleashed a ferocious series of 12 blows on London, sending him slumped to the canvas.
Despite his devastating defeat he returned to Blackpool £35,000 richer – half the purse collected by Ali but still the equivalent of £1m today. Not a single local supporter was at Blackpool station to greet their local hero, no “welcoming handshake for him or one or two loyal sympathisers to greet him as he stepped from the train”, reported the Evening Post.
London’s response was gracious, telling reporters, “I can take it. It has usually been the case in the past when I have got back from a big fight. Even after some of my most outstanding successes there has rarely been a welcome home, so the brush-off does not worry me”.
Boxing fans were not so classy, with one local supporter telling the Gazette, “It wasn’t so much that he was beaten that made us sad. It was the fact that he failed to land a single telling punch.”
London believed he “had no chance against Clay”, stating: “I could not catch him therefore I had no chance of going 15 rounds, possibly receiving some terrible punishment. Folks would only have said ‘what a courageous fellow London was’.”