RingSide Report

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Ringside Report Looks Back at Tough Former Heavyweight Contender John L. Gardner


By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

Somewhere in the back of my mind, like at the corner of my eye I can remember as a kid watching John L. Gardner, 35-4, 29 KO’s, fight. I could pretend I knew when or against who but it serves to remind me just how on the periphery of the world of boxing his career became. And yet here is a guy with a fantastic pedigree and one who it was an honor to spend time researching.

Gardner’s story starts like many a boxing champ, in poverty and with a childhood that tugs at your heart strings. In the book of his life he describes his wonderful mother and his best friend, Victor; Victor was an Alsatian dog.

From humble beginnings he became active at the time of a new government and philosophy which was the height conflict politically in the UK. We had a new dawn in the UK of thinking, dressing and challenging authority. It was a time of economic hardship and though most have long forgotten what we went through and how we came though it, it serves as a backdrop to a former British, Commonwealth and European champion who was an honest pro with a stocky presence balanced with speed and aggression that saw him rarely take a step back from things – out the ring it was to almost cost him his life.

A Londoner, he turned over at the age of 20 and went on a five year undefeated spree that saw 24 fights under his belt with no defeats. By 1977 he was noted and got a belt when he beat Denton Ruddock for the Southern Area title. A small regional belt but one that was the pathway to the British title.

The following year that chance came when he took on and beat Billy Aird by stopping him in the 5th round; he picked up the Commonwealth strap at the same time. He was on a roll and following a couple of non title bouts he defended that British title in 1979 against the legendary Paul Sykes. Sykes was to have a short boxing career and a longer prison one, becoming one of the most difficult inmates in the British penal system. That night though he was forced to back down and was stopped in the 6th.

Gardner vacated the British title and then went in for only his second defeat – on points to Jimmy Young. It was not to stop his progress to another title and in 1980, at the dawn of a new decade he went into the ring against Belgium’s Rudy Gauwe. It was another stoppage win for the Londoner and the belt he had relinquished his British crown to attain.

Momentum was building and after defending his European title once he vacated it in the hope he would get a world title shot.

Gardner has a unique record in that he never lost a title fight in his professional career. It makes what happened next more interesting. Perhaps had he been more of a mouth and like the limelight he would have forced his way into title shots but it was not to be. People wondered and thought surely a man who had managed to beat all the challengers and champions put in front of him would be ready for a world title shot?

Actually, yes, he would be and who was next in line? Next up? Ali.

Gardner found his pen and signed the contract but let’s remember where Ali was in the early 80’s. He was not the figure he had been and to put it mildly, the effects of his boxing life were all too evident to those who knew him and realized he was not a well man. Before Gardner could get his career defining fight, Ali retired.

Strangely Ali and Gardner had fought in an exhibition bout in London in the late 1970’s with Gardner showing his skill and for many beating Ali in the 3 round contest. Now though there was to be no rematch, no world title belt on the line for Gardner.

Instead, in 1981, he got in the ring with a man who was fancied to beat him – Michael Dokes. In Detroit, Michigan, John L. Gardner was knocked out after 4 rounds. Gardner was to hang up the gloves not long afterwards; he was 28 years of age.

In 1983 he made an ill fated comeback and fought 3 times in 3 months with 2 wins and the inevitable knock out in the 2nd round against Noel Quarless in his final fight leading to a second retirement.

Retirement saw him firstly in the liquor business with a pub before he sold mailing equipment for Pitney Bowes. The color of his life in the ring was matched with the unbelievable color of his life thereafter as that pub he ran was part of an arson attack and where Gardner was stabbed no fewer than 14 times outside of it by a drug dealer!

The Three Tuns Pub in Gateshead was a notorious den and where Gardner plied his trade. On Halloween one year a local drugs dealer took offense at Gardner refusing to serve him booze. He took it so badly that on that fateful Halloween night he came into the pub with a ski mask on and a knife. The eight inch blade went into Gardner’s chest, abdomen and neck no fewer than 14 times.

Recalling the event, years later, Gardner told of it as follows, “He thrust the blade into my chest and I felt a warm trickle run down my stomach. He stabbed me in the abdomen and I went down. He was manic, screaming, jabbing the knife in my neck. He was butchering me, slicing me up. I was hitting him on the top of the head, but the blade came down again and again and again. Blood was squirting out of me. My intestines were sticking out like cauliflower. I was screaming out.”

Even his wife was not immune and she suffered 4 wounds as she tried to help.

Gardner recovered, as did his wife, though he was left scarred down the side of his body and whilst they both were able to recover they left the area whilst the attacker got a 14 year prison sentence.

Gardner may be remembered more for the attack than anything else, but we should never forget a man who fought hard and entertained well. His win for the European title, his beating of Sykes with every known London gangster present and the fact he never lost a title fight means he is a boxer we should celebrate for his career in the sport and not for anything else thereafter; I must work out which fight I saw him in damn it why not watch them all and pretend I am still there and a young boy… I’m away to YouTube…

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