Muhammad Ali, whose death has been mourned around the world. fought three times in Britain, twice against Henry Cooper and once against Blackpool’s own Brian London.
The world heavyweight title was at stake when London met Ali in Earls Court in August 1966, in a country basking in England’s World Cup glory on the football field just a few days earlier.
The fight took place in high summer but the build-up began many months earlier, with London, the former British champion, talking up his own chances.
Negotiations had started early but the stumbling block was trying to sell the fight to the Americans, who thought it would be of limited TV interest, with London such a massive underdog. Certainly, London was talking himself up as early as January.
Regarding the apparent prevarications by the Ali camp, London said of the champion: “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. I’ve made a fortune in this game and I’ve got contracts for two further fights, which will make me another fortune.”
Ali is now universally recognised as the most popular sportsman of all time, but 50 years ago he was seen by many as the villain of the piece and was not popular with the British public who were ultimately to adore him.
London went as far as to say: “Clay (Ali) is a hated champion and the sooner he gets beaten the better. I would fight him anywhere.”
And so it was that eventually the fight was made.
In the days leading up to the clash in the capital, London, the former British and Empire champion heavyweight, was making the right noises.
As he left Blackpool for the capital, London, who had failed against Floyd Patterson in a previous bid to win the richest prize in sport, remarked: “I’ll be doing my very best to ensure that I’m world champion when I catch the next train back. I will be going in there having a real go.”
He was even given a ‘lucky’ charm by the Mayor of Blackpool, Coun Robert Brierley, in the shape of a horseshoe.
Cynics might say that London needed a particularly heavy horseshoe smuggled into his glove to have an earthly against Ali.
Sadly the fight was to be a non-event for London, who was never allowed to get into the contest on account of Ali’s hand-speed and all-round boxing ability.
As The Gazette report of the time said of London’s performance: “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 on the champion; that he went out under a hail of of lightning, but not ultra-destructive punches in the third, without the consolation of a retaliatory blow.” Looking back at the black and white TV footage of the fight, many would argue with the description of Ali’s punch-power as “not ultra-destructive”!
The Gazette report continued: “His (London’s) ambition to have a go never got off the ground. He failed to carry the fight to Clay.
“He seemed tense, nervous and sluggish by comparison with the flitting, firefly champion.”
London himself could only concede that he had been thoroughly outclassed.
“He was just too good for me,” admitted London, who was eight years Ali’s senior at 32.
“He’s like greased lightning – the best I have ever fought.”
And London fought some pretty good ones: Patterson, Cooper, Joe Bugner, Jerry Quarry, Eddie Machen, Joe Erskine, Ingemar Johansen and Johnny Prescott.
London scored notable wins in his lengthy career, including those against Willie Pastrano, Billy Walker, Zora Folley and Roger Rischer.
Promoter Jack Solomons was down in the dumps after the Earls Court fight, claiming he had lost a lot of money, though 10,000 did turn up to watch.
For London, there was the consolation of a purse of £40,000, which equates to in excess of £650,000 by today’s values.