Remembering British boxing’s Olympic golden wonders
- Credit: PA
Boxers representing Great Britain have won 18 gold medals (16 men, 2 women) between 1908 and 2016 ad we look at those who have come good over these years.
Over half the gold medal supply (nine in fact) was earned in the years 1908, 1920 and 1924, when very few countries supplied boxers to the Games, just four, 12 and 27 respectively for those particular years.
After 1924, we had a long wait until Melbourne in 1956, then Mexico City in 1968, Sydney in 2000, Beijing in 2008 and of course our three great triumphs in London 2012 and Nicola Adams latest success in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Curiously enough, the boxing events in 1908 in London were held in the Autumn, a few months after the main athletic events had taken place in July.
American boxers were not present in London when the host nation, sometimes described as the UK in those far-off days, won all five golds thanks to bantamweight Henry Thomas, the only reigning ABA champion to land the ultimate prize; Dick Gunn at welterweight; Fred Grace at lightweight; John (JWHT) Douglas at middleweight and in the heavyweight division, Albert Oldman.
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In St Louis in 1904, the flyweight and welterweight titles were boxed for, but not in London in 1908, as those weight divisions were not adopted in England until 1920.
In Antwerp in 1920, GB finished with two gold medals as more countries were plying their own trade now in the roped square.
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The legendary Henry William “Harry” Mallin won the first of his Olympic gold medals in the middleweight division as heavyweight Ron Rawson got the other gold medal.
Mallin was an extraordinary character, a London policeman, and only ever boxed as an amateur and was undefeated in over 300 contests.
He won five consecutive ABA middleweight crowns from 1919-1923 and later became team manager for the GB Olympic boxing team in 1936 and also 1952.
He successfully defended his Olympic crown in Paris in 1924, surviving a quarter-final scare which eventually led to the disqualification of home favourite Roger Brousse for biting the Englishman.
GB’s other gold medallist in Paris was light-heavyweight Harry Mitchell as amateur boxing was becoming an established Olympic event and rapidly gaining ground with 27 countries entering boxers in these Games.
Clearly we will never see the likes of the late Mallin ever again. A true blue amateur and a great exponent of the art of boxing, probably our greatest ever Olympic boxer, even in a far less competitive international scene than exists today.
To win an Olympic crown and then to successfully defend it four years later is some feat, in whatever era it is achieved in.
Some may genuinely question the ability and greatness or otherwise of those early Olympians and whether they could match up to Olympic champions of today. We will never know, so we cannot make a sensible judgment or comparison.
However, what is not in doubt is that they were often national champions in their particular era and sometimes Olympic champions alike in that era; so they must have had something to put them a cut above the rest. I think we should leave it there.
They were the best of their day, no one can deny them that honour. They surely belong to history and history should honour them for what they achieved and how they did it. They were and will be forever, Olympic champions and there is not a greater honour than that, is there?
Many gold-less Games followed, for whatever reason, and it was not until Melbourne in 1956 that Team GB delivered gold once more, with two medals going to the late Terry Spinks MBE in the flyweight division and Scotland’s greatest ever amateur boxer, Dick McTaggart MBE at lightweight, who was also ABA champion at that weight that year.
McTaggart also won the coveted Val Barker award in Melbourne and added a bronze medal in Rome in 1960 at lightweight, losing a tight decision 3-2 which went in favour of Poland’s eventual gold medalist Kazimierz Pazdior.
He was a winner of 610 of his 634 amateur bouts, a phenomenal competitor and a great, great stylist and exponent of the “noble art” and excelled with four exceptional performances to take his gold in Melbourne.
He had a third shot at the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, when in the light-welterweight division he had the misfortune to meet Poland’s Jerzy Kukej, the eventual gold medalist.
Kulej triumphed 4-1 over the ageing Scot and Kulej defended his crown successfully four years later. McTaggart never punched for pay, unlike his East End team-mate Spinks who eventually became British featherweight champion.
Spinks, an 18–year-old ABA flyweight champion in 1956, shocked and rocked the amateur boxing world Down Under with five classy displays which saw him take gold, when probably not many outside his immediate family, friends and boxing circle, imagined he would. But he surely did and in some style too to become our first gold medalist for over 32 years.
This was the Games readers will remember when the icy shivers of the “Cold War” appeared for the first time in real earnest and sporting tensions were revealed just like the political, military and economic tensions alongside them.
Spinks and McTaggart were fine sporting ambassadors for their team and respective countries, as they demonstrated their winning skills in the ring and were not concerned by any political under currents in Melbourne.
Both boxed exceptionally well and each deserved his special success which was acknowledged fairly and properly by the judges concerned; unlike some others in Melbourne who were perhaps not treated so fairly, along with quite a few others over the ensuing Olympic years, for whatever reasons.
It is sad when sport is tarnished in this way, we all have a responsibility, however difficult, to try and see that it doesn’t happen again!
Mexico City in 1968 threw up perhaps another surprise Olympic champion in the late Chris Finnegan MBE, who took gold at middleweight and later had a very successful paid career, winning British, Commonwealth and European light-heavyweight titles.
Finnegan boxed five times for his Olympic triumph, winning all of his five Mexico City contests on points, and thoroughly deserved his golden triumph, even if it still surprised many here at home.
He had won the ABA middleweight crown in 1966 and was a losing finalist in 1967, then in 1968 he lost on a cut eye in the London North West Divisional championships, hardly the credentials for a budding Olympic champion. But he was selected and on his way to Mexico City, where the rest is Olympic history.
Finnegan was our last Olympic champion until big Audley Harrison MBE strutted his stuff in Sydney in 2000.
Harrison became our first-ever Olympic super-heavyweight champion Down Under and was the first GB Olympic champion who was required to enter the World Zonal qualifying tournaments before the Olympics proper.
This mechanism had been introduced for the Barcelona Games in 1992 for all aspiring entrants to the boxing tournament and is still in place today, with Harrison navigating the qualification process successfully, although it was not an easy path for him.
In the lead-up to some past Games some of our home boxers had to take part in British box-offs, or trials, but this was a whole new ball game, you were up against world class performers, before even getting to throw a punch in the Olympic ring itself.
Harrison’s career had certainly taken off when joining the famous Repton Boxing Club in Bethnal Green, east London, where he came under the watchful eye of legendary coach Tony Burns Snr MBE and won ABA super-heavyweight crowns in 1997 and 1998 and a Commonwealth super-heavyweight title in 1998.
He boxed four times for his golden triumph, stopping a Russian opponent in his opening bout and then running up a fine trio of wide points victories to become Olympic champion.
After he turned professional, Harrison’s paid career never matched the way his amateur code had ended. Not for the first time, Olympic success had not heralded the way to real professional glory.
Eight years later middleweight James DeGale MBE was crowned Olympic champion in Beijing, the first time the Summer Games had taken place in the Peoples Republic of China.
Once again, there was some element of surprise in some quarters that he had reached the pinnacle of Olympic success.
DeGale won an ABA middleweight title in 2005 and during his victorious run in Beijing he met the late Irishman Darren Sutherland.
The two had met before in the finals of the 2007 and 2008 EU Championships, with each time Sutherland taking gold and the Dale Youth ABC man silver. However, DeGale turned the tables in Beijing, outscoring Sutherland, who finished with a bronze medal.
DeGale, later, had a successful paid career becoming the IBF super-middleweight title twice between 2015 and 2018, making him the first man from Team GB to win an Olympic gold and a world professional title.
However, Harrison might just possibly dispute this claim as he won the lightly regarded World Boxing Federation world heavyweight title in London in 2004.
London 2012 was so far Team GB’s most successful in terms of gold medal triumphs with three such medals won on home soil.
Bantamweight gold was won by Luke Campbell, who had a very successful amateur career, including winning a gold at the European championships in 2008.
He is still making good headway now punching for pay and held the WBC Silver and Commonwealth lightweight titles from 2016-2017.
Finchley ABC’s Anthony Joshua 0BE became our second Olympic super–heavyweight champion, having earlier won ABA super-heavyweight crowns in 2010 and 2011 and also a GB title in 2010.
He had a tough Games, but came through to triumph in the final on “countback” after a tied 18-18 final with his very experienced and ultimately very disconsolate Italian opponent and defending Olympic champion Roberto Cammarelle.
Winning margins are often very tight and this final was certainly a very tight one to call, but Joshua got it and has not looked back ever since. At present he stands as a two-time unified world heavyweight champion.
During the late afternoon of Thursday August 9, 2012 a piece of Olympic boxing history was made when Nicola Adams MBE, a flyweight, became the first female to win an Olympic gold medal in the ring.
In London 2012, women’s boxing was included in the Games programme for the first time and the very talented Adams, who represented Haringey Police BC, came good in the final roared on by thousands of excited fans.
Adams had acquired six other gold medals and four silver at a variety of international tournaments, including World Championships, European Games, European Union Championships and European Championships, and successfully defended her title in Rio in 2016 when outscoring France’s Sarah Ourahmoune (3-0) in the final.
That made her the first GB boxer to successfully defend an Olympic crown since Mallin in 1924 and she was subsequently awarded the OBE and went on to have a short, but nonetheless successful professional ring career.
Adams retired due to problems with her eyesight in November 2019 with a record of five victories and one draw, winning the vacant WBO female interim flyweight crown, before being elevated to the regular world WBO female flyweight champion.
A draw against Mexico’s Maria Salinas in this contest proved to be her goodbye and Adams is without doubt our greatest ever female boxer and certainly the hardest of all acts to follow. Will we ever see her like again, I very much doubt we will, but with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics deferred until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, we look forward to hopefully more gold medal success next year.