For almost a century after Cornwall's Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Jim Corbett to win the heavyweight championship in 1897, British heavyweights were the butt of jokes, the most famous of which is probably Dorothy Parker's withering barb: "If all the British heavyweights were laid out end to end ... I wouldn't be at all surprised."
That sort of humor began to fade when Lennox Lewis stopped Riddick Bowe to win the Olympic super heavyweight championship in 1988. True, Lewis represented Canada (where he spent much of his youth) at the Seoul Games, but he was born in London and turned pro there in 1989.
Lewis, who went on to unify the heavyweight championship in a Hall of Fame career, is commonly considered the greatest British boxer of all time, and even those who disagree with that assessment admit he is undoubtedly his country's finest heavyweight.
Now comes Anthony Joshua, another English heavyweight with an Olympic gold medal in his trophy case. He was part of the outstanding U.K. squad that won five medals at the 2012 Games -- three gold, one silver, one bronze -- fighting in front of adoring crowds at London's ExCeL arena.
Joshua's Olympic success created a ready-made fan base, leading to a bidding competition for his services. After weighing his options, he recently signed a promotional agreement with Matchroom Sport and is scheduled to have his first professional bout Oct. 5 at London's O2 Arena.
While nobody is bold enough to call the 23-year-old Joshua the "new Lennox Lewis," everybody fervently hopes he is not the next Audley Harrison, the much-maligned Brit who won super heavyweight gold at the 2000 Olympics. Harrison, a loquacious character with a flair for self-promotion, signed a lucrative contract with the BBC, and 7 million viewers tuned in to watch his pro debut in 2001. Sadly, it was all downhill after such an auspicious start.
Although Harrison won his first 19 fights, the opposition was dismal and his performances were often painfully prosaic. Television ratings and attendance plummeted, and finally the BBC pulled out and canceled its boxing programming altogether. By the time he suffered a third-round knockout defeat at the hands of journeyman Michael Sprott in 2007, Harrison was officially a flop, a designation that numerous comebacks failed to dislodge.
Still, there have been a few minor successes along the way. Although never taken very seriously on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, affable Englishman Frank Bruno held a piece of the heavyweight title, albeit briefly, in the 1990s. And we can't forget David Haye, who wore the WBA strap for almost two years before losing it to Wladimir Klitschko and remains arguably Britain's most bankable boxer.
Speculation as to where Joshua will eventually rank among the pantheon of British heavyweights is as inevitable as it is premature. Could he be a good as Lewis or as beloved as Henry Cooper and Bruno?
There is little to go on besides his Olympic performances, which were impressive. Joshua got past tough Cuban Erislandy Savon in his first bout and knocked down 2008 silver medalist Zhang Zhilei to win his second. Next, he marched resolutely forward against the 6-foot-8 Ivan Dychko in the semifinal, bloodying the Kazakh boxer's nose with heavy left jabs and surging ahead in the final round to win a 13-11 decision. In the gold-medal match, Joshua outslugged Italy's Roberto Cammarelle in a free-swinging affair that had the London crowd going bonkers.
"Anthony is still only a baby in fighting terms, with little more than 40 amateur bouts behind him," said Tris Dixon, editor of the British weekly Boxing News. "But he is a real athlete, an incredible runner, has proved he can dish out and take punishment against top amateurs, and has a solid foundation to build from with Matchroom and Sky Sports around him. How he handles the immense pressure and scrutiny is the interesting part, for me, because he is turning pro with a serious set of tools at his disposal."
Joshua will be matched carefully at first, though hopefully not as carefully as Harrison. Whether the son of Nigerian immigrants will end up "laid out end to end" along with all the other failed British heavyweights from Phaintin' Phil Scott to David Price or scale the summit like Lewis remains to be seen.
Just as important in the wake of the Harrison fiasco is that Joshua maintains and builds upon the mainstream popularity his Olympic victory generated. The British are no longer willing to settle for gallant losers.
Winning impressively is what counts, and the 6-foot-6 Joshua certainly looks the part. But so did Frank Bruno.