Boxing: Remembering great Hackney heavyweight John L Gardner

John L. Gardner (right) in action against Paul Sykes during their 15-round British Championship bout

John L. Gardner (right) in action against Paul Sykes during their 15-round British Championship bout at Wembley Arena - Credit: PA

The London Borough of Hackney has produced many professional boxing champions, both British and Commonwealth, also European and indeed some fine World champions too.

British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion John L. Gardner gives the V for victory salute as he s

British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion John L. Gardner gives the V for victory salute as he shakes hands with challenger Paul Sykes - Credit: PA

So far it has not produced a heavyweight world champion, but arguably the nearest Hackney came to this in more recent times was via the fists of John L Gardner.

Many in the fight game saw him as a top 10 contender, but two Americans in particular denied him the opportunity of ultimately boxing for the richest prize in sport.

Domestically and in Europe he was head and shoulders above his rivals, between 1973 and 1983.

Born on March 19, 1953, in London Fields, Hackney, John Lewis Gardner, went on to become, British Commonwealth and European heavyweight champion, turning professional aged 20.

In a paid career spanning around a decade, he never lost a title fight and retired in February 1983 with a record of 35 victories (29 inside the distance) and just four losses (three inside the distance).

Growing up in east London in the early post-war years was not easy and Gardner had a difficult childhood and tough family life, but he coped with such difficulties which helped shape his strong and determined character, leading him to be a successful paid fighter and drawing universal respect from within his own manor and far beyond too.

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As an amateur, starting around 16 years of age, with the old Polytechnic Club in Regent Street in London’s west end, he had a mere 15 contests wearing the vest, winning all but one of them.

In 1973, he became North-West London Divisional ABA heavyweight champion and then moved onto the London ABA semi-finals at the Royal Albert Hall where he met the reigning London ABA champion Dave McCann from the then St Georges’s Club in Stepney.

A very hard fought contest ensued but much to John’s chagrin, McCann got a very disputed majority nod and Gardner’s amateur career came to a losing end.

McCann was already a seasoned England international and a very experienced amateur, although he never did win an ABA heavyweight crown throughout his long unpaid ring career.

Gardner boxed out of the orthodox stance and was a tough and spirited pressure fighter, with his overall fitness, speed and aggression making him a dangerous opponent.

He possessed decent firepower and often tended to wear his opponents down, with a very commendable record of 74.4 per cent of stoppages among his 29 ring triumphs.

He usually had a decent chin and standing just under six feet in height, was not that tall by heavyweight standards of his era or of today.

Initially managed by Terry Lawless in London’s east end he appeared regularly on shows both matched and promoted by the late legendary London fight figure, Mickey Duff.

Gardner debuted at the Royal Albert Hall on October 2, 1973 and forced Bexleyheath journeyman Brian Hall to retire in the second round of their scheduled six-rounder. He was on his way.

He went on to win his first 24 contests, invariably strutting his stuff at either the Royal Albert Hall or the Empire Pool at Wembley, the capital’s two premier fight venues in those days. During that time he appeared twice at the legendary famous Shoreditch Town Hall as he boxed regularly in London and was increasing his reputation and fan base all the time.

He remained undefeated for almost five years, beating and stopping a succession of British, European and American heavyweights, including the very useful Norwegian Bjorn Rudi and the talented Nigerian Ngozika Ekwelum.

Gardner was gradually being protectively steered towards future title shots when disaster struck in the shape of useful American, Dale Arrington at the Empire Pool, Wembley on September 27, 1977 when he was caught cold in the opening round and knocked out in just two minutes and 20 seconds.

Oddly enough the visitor had been warned by referee Mike Jacobs earlier in the opening session for slapping, but quickly mended his ways and produced the knock out drop to dent Gardner’s fine winning run.

It was a real setback for the Hackney hero and undoubtedly the highlight of Arrington’s career as he achieved little ring glory thereafter, losing to Larry Holmes and then later on to South African Gerry Coetzee.

But history has shown that many subsequent champions had upsets in the early stages of their careers and still went on to achieve memorable triumphs in the ring and what better way to rehabilitate Gardner than to get him a title shot in his next contest.

This is what happened against Southern Area heavyweight champion Denton Ruddock, who was defending his crown for the third time against Gardner, who triumphed in his first title contest with an eighth-round stoppage at the Royal Albert Hall on December 6, 1977.

The contest was also an eliminator for the British heavyweight championship and in October 1978, Gardner was matched with Billy Aird for the vacant British and Commonwealth titles, stopping him in the fifth round of a scheduled 15-rounder to claim both crowns.

Gardner was really on his way now and defended his titles against the notorious hard man Paul Sykes in June 1979, again at the Royal Albert Hall, stopping his man in the sixth round of another scheduled 15-rounder.

However, three months later, there was disappointment for the Hackney hero as he was outpointed over 10 rounds by one of America’s top heavyweight contenders Jimmy Young.

The two men met at the Empire Pool, Wembley on December 4, 1979 and Young won 98.5-97.5 on referee Mike Jacobs’ scorecard, a two-round score margin in those days.

Young had an awkward defensive style and was a clever puncher who knew a little bit too much for Gardner on the night.

During his career, Young met virtually all the top heavyweights of his day and even went the full 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight crown. So, all in all, the loss to Young was a fine learning curve for Gardner, even though he did incur the second loss of his paid career.

To restart Gardner’s ring career once more, another title fight was put in front of him as Belgian heavyweight, Rudy Gauwe, a durable, but somewhat limited fighter was matched with Gardner for the vacant heavyweight championship of Europe at the Royal Albert Hall on April 22, 1980.

Gauwe retired in the ninth round of a scheduled 12-rounder and Gardner had claimed another title.

Seven months later he travelled to Campione d’Italia in Lombardy to make his first defence of his European crown and in the opposite corner was Lorenzo Zanon, a former Italian and European champion, who had gone six rounds with Larry Holmes for the WBC world crown in February 1980.

Zanon had boxed all the best heavyweights in Europe in his career as well as American stars like Ken Norton and Jerry Quarry and, realising it is never easy to receive a points verdict in Italy when you are not one of their own, Gardner knocked out Zanon in the fifth round of a scheduled 12-rounder to return to London with his belt and title intact.

Gardner vacated his European title in hopes of a world title shot, which sadly never materialised. But he remained on a roll on March 17, 1981, at Wembley Arena (formerly the Empire Pool) as he knocked out the world-rated Puerto Rican Ossie Ocasio in six rounds.

Ocasio was soon to become the future world cruiserweight champion but before their fight, the speculation had been that Gardner would box the legendary Ali, probably in Hawaii in the spring of 1981.

Ali had lost badly to Larry Holmes in October 1980 and there was much concern around the world about his deteriorating health and certainly the British Boxing Board of Control were not in favour of the contest, primarily from Ali’s perspective.

Gardner had signed for the fight and eventually received a six-figure sum, it is understood by way of compensation, when the event didn’t materialise.

The two had met some few years earlier in an exhibition bout over three rounds at the Royal Albert Hall and clearly Gardner fancied his chances in what would have been an epic rematch.

Ali vey sadly was a jaded and faded superstar by then and the fact the contest did not materialise, may have been for the best in hindsight. Ali did however box once more, losing on points to Trevor Berbick before finally calling it a day in the ring.

Instead, Gardner was off to the United States in what would prove to be a career-defining fight and one which dashed for once and for all any lingering hopes of him securing a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world.

He met top-rated Michael Dokes over 10 rounds on June 12, 1981 in the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan, with his opponent boasting an unbeaten record of 20 wins and a draw.

Dokes was a skilful operator, could box well and move around the ring very efficiently and had fast hands packed with real power.

The first three rounds were fairly even, although it was noticeable that Dokes was the more hurtful puncher with sharp combinations to head and body.

In the fourth round he started to move up through the gears and was catching Gardner with relative ease, with the end coming at one minute 54 seconds of that round, when a brutal right/left combination to the head dropped the man from London Fields for the full count.

Shortly after this crushing defeat, Gardner announced his retirement from boxing, while Dokes went on to become WBA heavyweight champion of the world in 1982.

It was a gamble which didn’t pay off for Gardner, with his third loss at the hands of an American by far the most significant one of his paid career.

He was imperious against opposition from Britain and indeed Europe, but the top-flight American heavyweights knew how to overcome him and indeed they did.

After taking a couple of years out of the ring, Gardner did like so many before him and some still do today, as he made a ring return.

Lawless and Duff had acquired Frank Bruno as their heavyweight hope by now and the returning Gardner had linked up with old friend and trainer Darkie Smith and fast-rising south London manager and promoter Greg Steene (a very good friend of mine in those days).

Gardner managed two rather inconclusive victories over Jamaican-born Ricky James and American Lou Benson Jnr.

On September 22, 1983, James retired with a damaged hand after five rounds of a scheduled eight-rounder at the Lyceum Ballroom in The Strand, while shortly thereafter on October 13 at the Bloomsbury Crest Hotel, near London’s Russell Square, Benson Jnr was disqualified in round eight of a scheduled 10 for a low blow.

Benson Jnr had caught Gardner “south of the border” several times, before finally being sent to his corner in disgrace.

The curtain finally came down on Gardner’s ring career on November 2, 1983, against Liverpool’s Noel Quarless at the same Bloomsbury venue, with the Hackney fighter being stopped after just 30 seconds of the second round.

Quarless was always a big puncher, but was often too, somewhat vulnerable around the whiskers. On this occasion his power won him the day as he took the opening round, hurting Gardner on several occasions, noticeably just before the bell ended the round.

Gardner seemed rather apprehensive in the ring that evening and got caught early in the second with a long right hand to the head which seemed almost to have a delayed impact upon him. Quarless, sensing his opportunit,y swarmed all over his man, landing many heavy punches without any real reply which forced referee Roland Dakin to intervene and stop the one-sided barrage of blows.

It was all over now for good for Gardner having lost for a fourth time – his third stoppage loss – and looking a shadow of his former fighting self.

A few years previously he would have dealt with the likes of Quarless without too much difficulty, but time had caught up with him and it was a sad way to exit into permanent retirement. He really was much better than that.

So, how will boxing historians judge Hackney’s fighting heavyweight?

Gardner came along in an era which was lacking in real depth and quality in Britain and Europe, whereas the opposite was the case in the United States.

They had some of the best heavyweights in the history of world boxing at that time, with the likes of Ali, Frazier, Foreman. Norton, Leon Spinks and many more besides.

Gardner was a very good heavyweight, just falling short of real top world quality, but he always gave 100 per cent and thrilled many fans here for almost a decade.

He was unlucky in that most European heavyweight champions of his era got a shot at the richest prize in sport, whereas he didn’t get that opportunity.

However, he remains one of Hackney’s best professional heavyweight champions of all time and will be remembered fondly as such by those who saw him box successfully on many occasions in our capital city.