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Ringside Report Remembers Tough Heavyweight Title Challenger Joe Bugner

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

“Joe Bugner possesses the physique of a Greek statue but with fewer moves.”

My fellow countryman and devotee of the sweet science had the ability in a phrase to sum up all that we thought. Hugh McIlvanney penned that tribute, and did so, with plenty sagely nodding heir head and agreeing with him.

I was one of them. The irony now, is that I look back with different eyes than the memories I had and have altered that state of mind for myself. Joe Bugner 69-13-1,43 KO’s himself, now suffering dementia and in care home is unable to remember any of it at all.

So let me remind you, on his behalf.

Bugner came to the UK, having been born Jozsef Kreul Bugner in 1950, six years later, in 1956. He, and his mother left their small village, avoiding Soviet soldiers, dodging in amongst the trees in a forest, managing to make a refugee camp outside of his homeland. They fled persecution from Communist Hungary during the 1956 uprising.

After packed trains, a ferry and a final journey into London, mother and son arrived in London. Joe was eight years old.

Bugner went on and fought the great Ali twice, was a tremendous figure and storyteller for most of his career, was able to straddle two brilliant eras in British boxing by taking on two of the most popular icons of this sport and took the heat that came with fighting against the heroes of each of those generations – Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno.

Bugner started professionally in 1967 and finally finished in 1999. In between the list of people, he fought included Frank Bruno, James Tillis, Ali – twice, Richard Dunn, Joe Frazier, Chuck Wepner, Brian London, Henry Cooper and Ernie Shavers. When you list it like that, you think he would be an icon on pedestals like Bruno and Cooper, but most of us hated Bugner.

Bugner had a stiff jab, feet that, unlike McIlvanney’s description moved, and was able to last 15 rounds. His problems? He lacked that knockout punch and he won most of his fights on points, and unfortunately McIlvanney had it right – Joe was easy to hit.

But hatred was irrational, though I was not alone and most of us found our distaste for him fueled by the fact that 1, he beat Cooper, 2, he talked funny because he was an immigrant and 3 he then took on Bruno. It was utter nonsense not to give the guy credit for what he achieved and what he contributed and the idea that it was a different time – the 1970’s – is no excuse.

I had the dichotomy early because whilst in Primary School we got a half Hungarian boy come to join our class. He was a little aloof and took time to integrate with us and most of us never really got to know Michael Molnar. It was a name that was a bit different from ours and though I cannot remember any overt racism, there must have been implied racism, and I cannot discount the issue of Bugner similarly being “different” that fueled our attitudes.

In the 1970’s Bugner was ranked in the top 10 heavyweights of the time and his honors included the British and Commonwealth titles – twice – and three times becoming the European heavyweight champion. He fought for a legitimate world title once, in 1975 against Ali and lost, initially retiring in 1976 but then making comebacks more often than Sinatra.

During those comebacks, and now settled in Australia as an Australian citizen, he managed to win the Australasian and Pacific and Australian title and also the World Boxing Federation title in 1998, at 48 years of age against James “Bonecrusher” Smith.

Bugner, who turned professional in 1967 at the tender age of 17, who lost on his debut and then racked up some impressive wins throughout the late 60’s had one significant crime. He ended the career of Henry Cooper early in the next decade. The fight was delayed from 1970 when it was first really touted to 1971 to allow Bugner to become old enough to fight for the Commonwealth belt: you had to be 21 at the time.

15 rounds of boxing for the British, Commonwealth and European titles in March 1971 at Wembley’s Empire Pool in London saw Bugner beat Cooper by ¼ of a point on the card of the single judge – Harry Gibbs. There were plenty who thought Bugner had won it due to his superior defensive boxing and work on the inside whilst others argued Cooper had been far more aggressive and deserved the victory. Whatever the debate, Cooper was never to box again and Bugner became the top heavyweight in the UK rankings but not in the heart of the nation. It was massively unfair as Bugner was to go on and prove how durable he was and how much he deserved to now be amongst the elite in world boxing.

Bugner held the titles for a mere 6 months before being beaten by a bona fide Brit, in the eyes of the public, back at the Empire Pool by Jack Bodell.

Even when both Angelo Dundee and Muhammad Ali claimed he was good enough to be a world champion, the British public failed to take heed. His first fight with Ali, a non-title affair, saw Bugner being introduced to a US audience. He took Ali the full distance, a feat he was to repeat when he went in against another great, Joe Frazier, in 1973. It was hailed as classic with Frazier beating our Joe over the 12 rounds but again the British public were cool.

His world title fight against Ali in 1975 was in Kuala Lumpur and any previous plaudits for his abilities were wiped out, with smug over opinionated faces telling you he was just a flash in the pan, when he had to fight defensively due to the extreme heat. It was a comfortable night for Ali and now the heat was truly turned up on Bugner as he thought about his future, the following year he was to retire for the first time. Having hit the heights against Frazier, Bugner was to hot rock bottom with one US report suggesting that: “To win a world title, a boxer has to be prepared to die, but Bugner wasn’t even prepared to try.”

But the story of that fight was more than the story of what happened in the ring. According to Bugner, as reported years later, his very life was threatened prior to the fight. In an interview years after he was to recall: “ “People in Malaysia were very, very nice, but then you had the radical side who obviously didn’t want Muhammad Ali to lose. Every floor had police with machine guns. I’m thinking: ‘This is absolutely absurd. Here I am, I’m challenging Muhammad Ali for the greatest title in the world and these bloody people are trying to threaten me and are getting the word out.’ Three days before the fight, the Green Berets were brought in and they took over the hotel. I actually went to the fight in the back of a bulletproof vehicle. We get these radical guys, whoever they were, talking to people saying: ‘If Joe Bugner wins this fight, he will not leave the ring alive.’”

Fortunately, or not, he lost and in 1976, regained British Commonwealth and European titles by beating Richard Dunn, another Brit who faced Ali in absurd conditions. Bugner scored an unusual stoppage win, in the first round.

Bugner was unfortunate to fight British boxing heroes and try and take their mantle at a time in British society where diversity was a dirty word. That he did not achieve the love and fame that his abilities deserved are dreadful. The fact is that if he was starting his career now, we would see him mentioned in with the likes of Tyson Fury, Dillian Whyte, David Haye, and people would think he had a real chance.

Bugner himself had a view of how he was treated as he told British trade paper, The Boxing News: “I had to leave England in 1975 and move to America because I couldn’t stand the morons who write for the press. They are the most horrible people – I’m talking about the writers. I’m talking about the newspapers. On the other hand, Boxing News was pretty fair 90 percent of the time.”

In 1987, Bugner was announced as the lamb going in against another British favorite in Frank Bruno. Bruno, the country’s favorite fighter stopped him in the 8th round. Bugner retired again. He came back repeatedly, often in his new adopted country of Australia. His final fight was in 1999, at least in a ring.

But no matter what we thought then or now, nothing should take away from Joe Bugner’s legacy. Having read again about the fight in 1971 with Cooper it took me seconds to re assess my view of Aussie Joe. I can now appreciate what I never saw the first-time round, I can see just how good he was and how much he contributed to my love of the sport; after all boxing needs two to make a fight.

Bugner was always game for that.

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