Success doesn't come easy in U.S.

8/28/2014 - Boxing

My dog pulled on his leash, eager to sniff the next lamppost, when I stopped to stare at the billboard across the street. "SEE IT ON FILM NOW! ROCKY MARCIANO vs. DON COCKELL" read the huge advertisement, which also promised that the "ACTION THRILLS IN SLOW MOTION."

I could hardly wait to get home and tell my father about it, hoping he would take me to see the screening of the epic battle between the "Undefeated World Heavyweight Champion" and the "British Empire Champion." Alas, he was less than enthusiastic about paying to watch a boxing match that had already taken place, especially as Cockell, who lived in London, about 90 miles from our home in Bristol, had absorbed a terrible beating.

"Do our boxers always lose when they fight in America?" I asked.

"Usually," he answered. And then, seeing the disappointment on my face, added, "But Tommy Farr came close to beating Joe Louis."

Thus was my introduction to the centuries-old rivalry between British and American fighters. My father didn't live long enough to see Kell Brook beat Shawn Porter last Saturday, but he would have loved the way the Sheffield man used the traditional British style -- upright stance, piercing jabs (often followed by a straight right) and clever footwork -- to defeat the American swarmer.

It has been almost 70 years since Farr "came close" against Louis, and while U.S. boxers still hold an advantage against the Brits, the numbers are nowhere near as lopsided as when Marciano creamed Cockell.

The transatlantic feud began long before Farr fought Louis in 1937, dating all the way back to the bare-knuckle era. The celebrated James "Deaf" Burke arrived on our shores in 1836, followed by such prominent British pugilists as Tom Allen, Jem Mace and Charlie Mitchell. Even the notorious Yankee Sullivan, whose real name was James Ambrose, was born in Ireland, then part of the British Empire.

One of the earliest British fighters of the gloved era to enjoy a lengthy period of success in the United States was welterweight champion Ted "Kid" Lewis, who launched a five-year campaign here in 1914. Nineteen fights of his legendary 20-bout series with American Jack Britton were fought in the U.S., the other in Canada.

How good was Lewis? Well, Mike Tyson said that Lewis was "perhaps the greatest fighter to ever come out of [Britain]." And maybe Mike was right, but others would argue in favor of Jimmy Wilde, who fought only once in the United States, in what turned out to be his final bout.

Another Englishman who enjoyed great popularity in the U.S. was Jackie "Kid" Berg, whose other nickname, "The Whitechapel Whirlwind," perfectly described his pell-mell manner of fighting. After beginning his career in London, Berg came to the U.S. in 1928, where he won the junior welterweight championship in 1930. He fought almost exclusively here until 1933 when he returned to England. By that time, Berg held victories over future Hall of Famers Tony Canzoneri, Kid Chocolate and Billy Petrolle, earning his own plaque in Canastota in the process.

While thousands of other British boxers have campaigned (with varying degrees of success) in the U.S. since the days of Lewis and Berg, generally speaking the nation's heavyweights have been a disaster. From Bombardier Billy Wells and Phaintin' Phil Scott to Brian London and Frank Bruno, they've been, on the whole, a rum lot. Even the best of them, Henry Cooper, Len Harvey and Farr, never won the big prize.

It got so bad that Britain's horizontal heavyweights became the subjects of ridicule, fair game for wisecracking writers and fighters alike.

"Sleep came as it must come to all British heavyweights, midway in the fifth round," wrote Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Red Smith of Bruce Woodcock.

"They told me Jack Bodell was awkward and he was ... he fell awkwardly," said Jerry Quarry after dispatching the former British heavyweight champion inside of one round.

And when chubby Cockell crumbled under Marciano's merciless assault, somebody joked he was "the biggest thing on canvas since the 'Wreck of the Hesperus.'" No wonder Dad wasn't keen on seeing the "action thrills in slow motion."

Worse of all, the hapless heavyweights cast a pall of inadequacy over British fighters of all sizes, which was in many cases inaccurate and unfair.

But the heavyweight drought didn't last forever, and upon the arrival of Lennox Lewis, the laughter stopped. Here, at last, was a British-born heavyweight capable of wiping the smile off the faces of the condescending Yanks. Before he retired, still champion, in 2004, Lewis had virtually cleaned out the division and avenged the three blemishes on his 42-2-1 (32 KOs) record. He remains, to this day, the last undisputed heavyweight champion.

I've often heard members of the British media bemoan the fact boxing there is nowhere as popular as it used to be and that the mainstream media gives it short shrift, and I suppose they know what they're talking about. But compared to the United States, the United Kingdom is boxing crazy. When is the last time between 75,000 and 80,000 people packed an outdoor stadium to see a fight in the United States?

Carl Froch and George Groves did it last May in what the Daily Mail called the "richest fight in British history." The overall take from gate receipts, pay-per-view, sponsorships, merchandising and international TV added up to more than 22 million pounds, the equivalent of $36,800,000. And it was far from a one-off.

Ricky Hatton, arguably the most popular British boxer of the new millennium, attracted a crowd of 55,000 to the City of Manchester to see him fight Juan Lazcano -- in his very next fight after being flattened by Floyd Mayweather Jr.!

Boxing might not be what it used to be in Britain, but it plays on the biggest of stages more often than it does in the U.S. In the past 16 years there have been only two stadium-sized boxing attractions in America: In 1998 Oscar De La Hoya drew more than 45,000 to see him fight Patrick Charpentier at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, and when Manny Pacquiao fought Joshua Clottey in 2010 there were 50,994 on hand at the new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

Why then, with so many loyal fans and lucrative fights at home, do the top British fighters inevitably travel to the United States? Money is part of it, of course, but they can often earn almost as much at home for safer fights.

Listen to what Froch, who is considering retirement, says about fighting in Las Vegas.

"There is one box that has not been ticked and that's Las Vegas," said Froch shortly after the second Groves fight. "I have not had my name up in lights in the fight capital of the world and I'd like to do that."

He was echoing Hatton and Joe Calzaghe, both of whom yearned to fight in Vegas, even though they were already bigger stars in the U.K. than they'd ever be in America.

It worked out peachy for Calzaghe. He won the light heavyweight title in a close, taxing battle with Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas, and closed his unbeaten career, against Roy Jones, at historic Madison Square Garden.

Prior to his fight with Mayweather, Hatton told the press, "It's always been a dream of mine to fight at the MGM Grand and now I'll finally get my chance."

His chance ended in an emphatic knockout loss to Mayweather and an even more brutal knockout defeat 17 months later at the hands of Manny Pacquiao. Ricky earned a lot of money for those bouts, but the dream had been shattered, and afterward his life spiraled down into a very dark place, which he still hasn't completely climbed out of.

There has always been an unusual dynamic between Britain and America. For the British, the U.S. has always had something of a mystical quality, a big place where big things can happen. For me, as an English schoolboy, it was all about the cowboy heroes who galloped across the silver screen at Saturday matinees. Boxing had taken root but had not yet flowered.

While that mystique has faded since, it's still there, a tantalizing lure for the dreamers and schemers. Boxers, of course, are foremost among their numbers right up there with would-be movie stars and pop singers. They wouldn't be boxers if they weren't.

Kell Brook has now reached the first plateau of his own American odyssey. How far he can climb will depend almost entirely on how well he can fight. The connections are in place and opportunities abound. But the competition gets tougher from here on. If he can get past Keith Thurman -- and that's a big if -- the old guard of Mayweather, Pacquiao, Marcos Maidana, Tim Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez awaits.

It's a daunting lineup, and nothing is assured, but we can reasonably assume Brook will fare better than poor Don Cockell, who found his taste of American pie bitter indeed.