By Ian Hemmens
Part 1 of the story saw the origins of bare-knuckle boxing through to the organisation of the sport via the Queensberry Rules featuring notable Bradford Boxing celebrities ranging from ‘Brassey’ & Paddy Mahoney to the Blakeborough Brothers & the Fighting Delaneys up to and just after the Great War. With the tragic loss of Jerry Delaney in the conflict, Bradford’s biggest, brightest hope was lost.
1924 saw Bradfords next big promotion with York fighter Syd Pape being matched with a legend of the sport , Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, a veteran of over 200 bouts and a former World & European Champion. Pape had gained respect with Bradford crowds for his battling & game displays against a noted Aussie heavy called Lloyd. Sadly, the difference in class was there for all to see even from Round 1. Lewis handed out a severe beating but Pape gamely stuck in there despite the crowd calling for the fight to be stopped. The Referee allowed the fight to continue until Pape’s corner threw the towel in during the 2nd Round. Such was the brutality on show, it was perhaps unfortunate that sat at Ringside were the Lord Mayor of Bradford, the Chief Constable & several other notables who allegedly but never proved, were splattered with blood from Syd Pape. The Referee came under severe criticism for allowing the fight to continue but he defended himself as an experienced official saying he was working within accepted rules. This didn’t wash with the officials and the Chief Constable called the whole event a ‘Sickening Spectacle’ which, if it was indicative of the way Boxing was going, would not be allowed in the Windsor Hall or indeed, Bradford as a whole.
As a result, Boxing was banned from anywhere in the Bradford Corporation boundaries. Bradford was not the only place where bouts were banned, Hull, Nottingham & even parts of London also withheld licences. Amateur & Schoolboy boxing under ultra-strict rules was allowed to continue mainly under Police supervision which saw the rise of the Bradford Police Boys Club as a major venue for young, up & coming fighters to learn the right way.
The fallow period lasted a long 6 years before professional boxing was allowed to return to the City. The main venue by this time was the Olympia Buildings on Thornton Road. The Boxing Board of Control had promised to clean up the sport with even stricter rules and more medical securities for fighters before it was allowed licences.
Former Bradford fighter & now Manager Fred Blakeborough organised the event and a crowd of over 4000 showed there was a healthy appetite for the sport in the City. For the next decade, although no Bradford boxers made any notable impression at a higher level, the Olympia held several big bouts of note before gradually fading from the scene with the Windsor Hall once again taking pride of place as the Citys major venue. British Middleweight Champion Len Harvey attracted a crowd of 5000 for his bout with Belgian Theo Sas which to the ire of the crowd lasted a paltry 175 seconds. If that upset the crowd the next big bout featuring Canadian Champ Larry Gains destroyed Marcel Moret in a mere 34 seconds. Stewards, Commissioners & Constables had to go into the crowd to calm them & local Heavyweight Ted Brookes addressed the crowd from the ring to calm events down. Despite the farcical scenes, Larry Gains drew a crowd of 5000 on his return to the City in 1934 for his bout with Polish Champion Bert Casimir. To his credit, Gains had a highly respectable record even holding a joint decision with World Heavyweight giant Primo Carnera earlier in the year. Casimir came boasting of never being knocked down but he had never fought anyone near the class of Larry Gains. After the last farce, what the crowd needed was a competitive bout but after stalking his opponent around the ring for a mere 125 seconds, the first serious punch thrown by Gains put the Pole on the canvas & out for the count. The mortified crowd felt cheated once again & chants of ‘We want our Money back ‘ started growing with stewards once again moving into the arena to protect the Boxers & BBBC officials from their anger.
1934 also saw up & coming Welsh fighter Tommy Farr contest a hard fought draw with South African Eddie Pierce. The Bradford crowd were dubious of Farr’s pedigree but he was to become a British Boxing great when 3 years later he went the distance and very narrowly lost on points to the legendary ‘Brown Bomber’ the one & only Joe Louis.
During this period from a Bradford point of view, the main characters in the Ring were the Melia Brothers from White Abbey, Mick & John. Although Mick was good enough to fight at National level in the ABA ranks, their pro careers never reached any notable heights despite being well respected on the circuit. Popular Local Heavyweight Ted Brookes managed to get a bout with the ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, the World Heavyweight Champ during an exhibition tour in 1931. It took place at the Winter Gardens in Morecambe and although Ted put up a valiant showing he was caught by one and knocked out by the 6’5” giant. Ted later said he couldn’t remember a thing about the punch. Ted was later offered a contract for another bout with Primo over in Ireland but it was later withdrawn when a better offer was put in. After retiring, Ted had a pie & pea shop up Otley Road and pride of place was a photo of Ted in the Ring with Carnera which Ted would regale his customers with stories of his fight with the ‘Champ’.
As the 1930s progressed, Boxing in Bradford seemed to quietly fade from public view with other more ‘public friendly’ attractions coming to the fore. As well as 2 professional Football teams, Bradford boasted a Rugby League team, A successful Rugby Union team, 2 successful Greyhound tracks, Speedway was introduced at Odsal. Yorkshire Cricket Club played regularly at Park Avenue and the Bradford Cricket League was possibly the strongest in the country. Outside sport but competing for public attention was the rise of Dancehalls, the talking picture sensation of Cinema, a rise in the accessibility of public transport, all placing demands on public income. Add to this the financial slump of the Great Depression all combined to see a sport like Boxing become less palatable to the public. Even Wrestling which was seen as less Bloody & brutal saw a rise in popularity to the detriment of Boxing. With War again on the horizon, it was to be a long fallow period before the sport in the City started to show roots of recovery and recognition once again & it came from an unlikely source.
The immediate post war period brought an almost immediate change of scenery for Boxing. In fact, locally the only thing of note would be an exhibition visit to Leeds by the then unknown but upcoming future World Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson. The whole vista had changed with a series of occurrences. The massive rise of Radio & the coming availability of Television broadened the horizons of families realising there was a whole world out there. The attraction & professional publicity machines by American promoters promoting the likes of Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson & the likes were appealing & on a whole new level to back street boxing halls. The sensational victory by Brit Randolph Turpin over Sugar Ray captured the sport fans attention but locally it was a barren landscape. Another major effect was the introduction of an Entertainment Tax by the government on the profits made by promoters which almost overnight killed off many boxing promotions & the number of halls in the 50s fell by three quarters down to below 200 nationwide. Television was able to offer more money for fighters which meant that locally, promoters couldn’t compete.
TV brought into the big time Characters like Cassius Clay & his gallant British opponent Henry Cooper and local Boxing Halls faced a precarious time as audiences refused to pay the money needed to bring quality bouts to the public.
Locally it was to be the early 70s before interest was perked with a Leeds born but Bradford raised bricklayer & former paratrooper named Richard Dunn came to the attention of the local fans. After years of journeyman bouts going nowhere, a call to veteran manager George Biddles saw his career boom big time and under his management, Dunn, within a year was British Heavyweight Champion following it up by taking the European crown. The whirlwind rise to fame saw him enter the ring in 1976 against arguably the Greatest ever, Muhammed Ali, the former Cassius Clay. Working his was up the rankings, a defeat by the teak tough Jimmy Young in 8 rounds where Dunn was actually ahead on the scorecards, a former sparring partner of Smokin Joe Frazier was no shame or disgrace & his upward trajectory continued with tough fights against well known characters like Danny McAlinden, Billy Aird & Neville Mead before taking the European crown against 6’7” German Bernd August, the Referee stopping the bout in the 3rd. Dunn had fought in the City at locations like the Talk of Yorkshire & The Midland. A typical, dour no nonsense Yorkshire man was now thrust into the national limelight. The fight with Ali was fixed for Munich on 25th May 1976 matching a ‘living legend’ with the ‘Bradford Brickie’ ! Despite a braveness & game showing there was to be no fairytale ending as the bout was stopped in the Round 5 after Ali cut loose leaving the Referee no option but to stop the fight. There was no shame in this and indeed the great Ali was effusive in his praise for the Bradford fighter admiring his courage and never-say-die attitude.
Richard arrived back to Bradford to a wonderful reception and his pride was clear to all as the City honoured him by naming the newly built sports centre in his honour. Bradford was finally back on the Boxing map.
Bradford’s long wait for a locally born Champion finally arrived in 1986 with the Girlington born Featherweight John Doherty and by the time he was finished in the early 1990s, John had been British Champion a record 3 times.
In the stable of local trainer John Celebanski, Doherty made great strides after beginning at the Bradford YMCA. Working his way up the rankings & despite getting cuts on several occasions, notably against future Champion Pat Cowdell, John proceeded to work his way forward even filling St Georges Hall before his date with destiny in Preston against his namesake Pat Doherty. After a slow start, John worked his way into the fight and despite another cut, the Referee gave John the verdict by 2 clear rounds. Bradford finally had its own homegrown Champ.
Defeat came in his next fight against old foe Pat Cowdell, again, cuts halting the Bradford man. A couple of years passed, John taking time out with various injury problems before a victory in a final eliminator against Kevin Pritchard saw John matched with the flamboyant new Champion Floyd Havard. John altered his tactics and kept the showy Havard at close quarters where his powerful punching saw him cause a major upset to regain his title against all odds.
Once again, john was unable to defend his title losing a very closely fought bout with Joey Jacobs before circumstances where for 11 consecutive fights, the Champ was unable to defend his title saw John once again given the chance to win a cherished Lonsdale Belt. Pitched against Sugar Gibiliru of Toxteth at Stockport Town Hall, Girlingtons best was determined to not let the chance of a fabled Belt slip him by and despite a nasty gash on the eye in Round 9, John wore down his opponent and became a 3 time Champion. It was to be the last hurrah for Doherty as after yet again losing his title in 1992, he decided it was time to hang up his gloves. John Doherty can rightly claim his place at the top table of Bradfords Boxing Hall of Fame with his gritty performances and no little talent. Without the handicap of easy cuts who knows how high he could have reached but Bradfords pride in its very own Champion was clear to all.
As Doherty’s career was winding down, like London buses, another Bradford born Boxer became a Champion. West Bowling born Frank Grant had no real background in the sport and secured the honour after no amateur career and only 23 bouts. A short spell behind bars had focussed Frank and whilst a gym orderly had turned him into a fine specimen. A basic training & coaching, his evident promise attracted John Celebanski who added him to his stable. His first couple of bouts showed his inexperience but then his continued exposure to intense training & expertise saw him win 6 bouts in succession, 4 by referee stoppage. By early 1990, a record of 13 from 15 saw Frank catapulted up the Middleweight rankings as an eliminator along with Kid Milo for the title held by the classy Sheffield based Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham. When Milo couldn’t make the fight, Celebanski saw & grasped the chance for his man. Unfortunately, various circumstances , the sudden death of Frank’s Mother, Boxing politics & the backlash from the Michael Watson incident where he suffered brain damage after his defeat by Chris Eubank all conspired to stop the fight being arranged. All boxers were made to take brain scans and Frank’s showed up a small anomaly which was proved to be wrongly diagnosed but nevertheless further delayed his date with destiny.
Graham had further enhanced his reputation as one of Britains best winning & holding titles at both Light Middleweight & Middleweight , indeed his only defeats had been at European level & 2 World title fights. The bout with Frank Grant (pictured below) was set for September 1992 at Elland Road, Leeds on the same bill as Leeds upcoming Super Middleweight Henry Wharton.
Nobody outside his immediate circle & his Bradford fans gave him a chance against the classy ‘Bomber’ but Frank got his gameplan spot on by restricting the Champ in his movement around the ring and continually pinning the Champ against the ropes. Graham, in the 7th started to realise he was in trouble and started to work Grant more winning the next couple of rounds but come the 9th , Frank came out revigourated and his speed & power put the Champ down. Although he beat the count, Frank stormed forward unrelentless until the Referee had no choice but to halt the bout. The eminently qualified Mickey Duff was quoted as saying the 9th Round was one of the best he had ever seen. Bradford had another Champion to celebrate.
Frank defended his title at a packed & rowdy St Georges Hall against the durable John Ashton & there was talk of a bout to be held at Valley Parade to maximise Franks potential. Sadly, a lot of the headlines were caused by unruly elements in the crowd as several fights broke out & the police had to be called to quell the trouble but it had future consequences for fighting in the City. In the ring Frank more than lived up to the billing with the tough Ashton quoted as saying ‘it was like being hit by a truck’ such was Franks power punching. The purists were disparaging of Franks lack of ring craft but there was no denying, after only 25 fights he was a worthy Champion. His ranking rocketed him into the Worlds top 10 with the the great American Champs Gerard McClellan & Roy Jones in his sights. Due to the problems at St Georges Hall his next defence was to be held in Manchester with a Lonsdale Belt at stake. His opponent was Neville Brown from Brendan Ingle’s stable who had a record of 21 wins from 22 fights. Brown & Ingle had done their homework and managed to hold Frank at distance patiently picking him off with well placed jabs. In the 6th Brown opened a cut under Franks eye & his inexperience showed as desperation set in and Brown was able to finish the fight in the 7th. He was to become a valid Champion with several defences before being outclassed by future World Champ Steve Collins.
Frank had hit the heights quickly but bravely decided the fight game wasn’t for him and bowed out gracefully to enter the licensing trade.
The 1990s saw yet another Bradford product emerge in the form of Lightweight Bobby ‘Viper’ Vanzie (pictured above) who won British & Commonwealth titles and challenged for the Inter Continental title being beaten by Yuri Ramanau.
Also emerging was Bradford born Light Welterweight Junior Witter (pictured left) who finally reached the promised land after being crown British, European & Commonwealth champion he fought and lost his first World bid losing to Zab Judah in 2000. September 2006 saw ‘The Hitter’ finally be crowned World Champion beating American Demarcus Corley at the Alexandra Palace. He made 2 successful defences before losing on a split decision to American Timothy Bradley. A rematch was offered but then Bradley was stripped of his belt with Witter being matched with mandatory challenger Devon Alexander in 2008. Alexander proved too strong for Witter and despite valiantly trying to continue, his moment of fame had passed. After finally bowing out in 2015, he now runs a gym in South Yorkshire but after over 150 years, Bradford could finally claim its own World Champion.
Recently the gloves have been passed to yet another Welterweight with Bradford born Darren ‘TNT’ Tetley (pictured above) winning the WBO European belt . Another chapter has begun in Bradfords Boxing History.
By Ian Hemmens
Bradford’s boxing heritage: Part One by Ian Hemmens
References: Bradford Libraries
Boxing in Bradford & Leeds by Ronnie Wharton.
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Future articles are scheduled to feature the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford, early athletic festivals in the district and the history of Bradford sports journalists.
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