Contributed by sportswriter Paul Zanon
Brian London once said, “I was christened the ‘British Bulldog’ by friends and colleagues who said I not only looked like a bulldog but fought like one,” but he came into this world as Brian Sidney Harper on 19 June 1934. Born in West Hartlepool, he moved to Blackpool when he was 16.
His father, John George Harper, better known as heavyweight boxer Jack London (because he mainly fought in the capital city), fought 142 times as a professional over 18 years, with an impressive 95 wins, beating Freddie Mills on points in 1944 to become British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion.
Despite the pugilistic heritage, London only started boxing when he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF). He enlisted into his two years compulsory national service, and with his father’s reputation hovering over him, was soon encouraged to lace up the gloves. Despite not being fully sold on the idea initially, London soon realised that there were perks to being on the boxing team, such as more plentiful food rations.
It seems the genes carried down well. Fighting under the name of Brian Harper, he won the heavyweight Imperial Services title, the gold medal at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada and the ABA heavyweight title in 1955. London ended his amateur career in stellar fashion, winning 85 of his 87 fights.
Shortly after winning the ABAs, London left the RAF in 1955 and turned pro later that year, adopting his father’s fighting surname. Incredibly, Jack London only retired five years prior to his son’s debut.
In his first 12 fights as a pro, only one went the distance, including a notable victory against Simon Templar (not the eponymous main character from the hit TV series, ‘The Saint’), who had only been stopped twice in his 49 fight career at that point. London also stopped a certain Jim Cooper in four rounds in his eleventh contest. Jim, real name George, known by many as ‘Twin George,’ alongside more famous brother, Henry.
Less than four months after beating George, the undefeated London was pitted against ‘Our Enry’ on 1 May 1956 at Earls Court Empress Hall, Kensington. At the time, Cooper, 12-2 was the underdog. However, whether it be avenging his brother’s loss or simply wanting to make a statement against the Lancashire resident, Cooper stopped London in the first round. This would be the first instalment of a trilogy that would span eight years.
The British Bulldog bounced back from his first defeat with gusto, racking up three stoppage victories in four months, before incurring a points loss against the former long reigning European heavyweight champion, Heinz Neuhaus on 3 February 1957.
Intent on climbing the domestic and world rankings, London added a further three KO victories to his record, before fighting Tongan Kitione Lave on 12 August 1957 at the Greyhound Stadium, West Hartlepool. The contest acted as an eliminator for the Commonwealth heavyweight title, with London winning a comfortable points victory.
After beating American Howie Turner four months later, London embarked on eight fights that certainly helped define his spot in British boxing history. On 25 February 1958, he went ten rounds with future light heavyweight world champion, Willie Pastrano. Despite giving a good account of himself, New Orleans born and bred Pastrano was on this occasion a little too wily and ring crafty, and duly took a points decision win.
London’s next two fights certainly helped him to get over his third defeat. On 3 June 1958, the Blackpool Rock knocked out Joe Erskine in eight rounds at White City stadium to join his dad in the history books and become the British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion. If that wasn’t enough, he had the rematch with Pastrano three months later and stopped the American in the fifth session.
London, now 22-3, was widely regarded as the best heavyweight in Britain. When he faced Henry Cooper for the second time on 12 January 1959, Cooper possessed a record of 17 wins, seven losses and one draw. In addition, he’d lost twice to Erskine during that time and again was the underdog going into the fight. Unfortunately for London, lightning struck twice and Cooper outpointed him over 15 rounds at the Earls Court Arena, taking away his two hard earned straps.
London’s stock had obviously risen and his next fight, on 1 May 1959 was against none other than the heavyweight champion of the world, Floyd Patterson. The American had only lost one in his 35 previous contests and had successfully defended the crown three times after having beaten Archie Moore back in 1956.
Fighting in Indianapolis, the Brit lasted 11 rounds with gentleman Patterson, before the referee stepped in to halt the proceedings. Patterson was simply too fast and tactically had too much in his toolbox. Seven months later, London was overwhelmed by the boxing ability of Cuban, Nino Valdes. The fight was stopped in the seventh round due to a badly cut eye, but London was behind on the scorecards anyway.
On 26 April 1960, London took on the Olympic heavyweight gold medallist, Pete Rademacher. The American made history less than three years earlier, by being the first man to challenge for the heavyweight world title in his first bout, taking on Floyd Patterson. Rademacher, unable to regain his amateur form, was stopped in six rounds by the New Yorker and London wasn’t far behind when he knocked him out in seven.
The Lancashire favourite’s next outing was on 29 August 1960, against Welshman Dick Richardson, for his European heavyweight title. The fight, which took place at Coney Beach Arena, Porthcawl was remembered for matters that happened inside the ring, but had precious little to do with the Marquis of Queensberry’s Rules.
Suffering a nasty cut in the seventh round, London came out in the eighth intent on knocking Richardson out. Unfortunately, the cut by now was in a terrible state and the referee, Andrew Smythe intervened, to the total consternation of a furious London.
In London’s defence, Richardson could be seen clearly headbutting on numerous occasions and throwing the occasional elbow in for good measure. Seconds later, pure pandemonium broke out in the ring as London launched an assault on Richardson’s trainer, Johnny Lewis, at which point both teams jumped in. London, well represented by his father and brother, Jack Jr, continued to let their fists fly until the police entered the ring to restore order. London was eventually fined £1,000 by the British Boxing Board of Control for a fight which went down in British folklore.
With his eye fully healed, London went on to win five out of his next seven before coming up against former world champion, Ingemar Johansson on 21 April 1963. One fight of note during that stretch was against American Howard King, which took place at Stanley Park, Blackpool in torrential rain.
The conditions were so bad that the referee, Wally Thom officiated in a raincoat and both boxers fought barefoot.
Back to Ingo. The Swede had too much technical ability for London and won the contest over 12 rounds on his home turf of Stockholm.
After a further two victories in 1963, bringing his record to 30-10, on 24 February 1964 London once more stepped through the ropes to face his old adversary, Henry Cooper for the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles. Cooper, fresh off a defeat against Muhammad Ali, won over 15 rounds despite a valiant attempt from London.
In his next eight fights, he won five and lost three, which included domestic dust ups against Johnny Prescott and Billy Walker. Then on 6 August 1966, London challenged The Greatest for his WBA and WBC world heavyweight titles at Earls Court. Inevitably, London lost, only lasting three rounds with the master tactician.
In his last nine fights, London only won two. Despite being on the slide, he continued to add to his ‘Who’s Who?’ of heavyweights, with fights against Zora Folley, two contests against Jerry Quarry and his last fight on 12 May 1970 against Joe Bugner. He was stopped in five by the Hungarian born Brit, who would later challenge Ali for the world title.
Retiring with a record of 37-20-1, London invested his money well and opened a nightclub. Despite its closure, he retained the building and still lives in his beloved Blackpool.
Paul Zanon, has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and is a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly magazine amongst other publications.