A History of Boxing at Wembley Stadium in Six Classic Bouts
September 19, 2018
Ahead of Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title fight against Alexander Povetkin on 22nd September at the Populous-designed Wembley Stadium, we look back at six of the greatest boxing encounters in the stadium’s history.
Jack Bloomfield vs Tommy Gibbons – 9th August, 1924
Pictured above, this was the first ever fight held at the old Wembley Stadium (then called the Empire Stadium), which was built as part of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25 for a cost of £750,000. In the wake of World War I, it was hoped that the exhibition would reinforce Britain’s standing as a global superpower and help to reignite the general public’s waning interest in an empire in decline.
“There is not in all England a modern building that can compete with the Empire Stadium in the effect it creates upon the mind of the spectator,” read the official guidebook. “In a world that has developed so great a devotion to sport there is no arena that can compare with Wembley.”
The bout between American heavyweight Tom Gibbons and British fighter “Basking” Jack Bloomfield drew a crowd of 50,000 spectators and was seen as an experiment to determine whether boxing would work in the wide open space of the stadium bowl. It was not successful.
Gibbons won by knockout in the third round, with many in the press reporting that the combination of sparsely filled ringside standing areas and distant seating in the stands made for a terrible atmosphere. The promoter, Major Arnold Wilson, filed for bankruptcy immediately after the fight but the stadium survived, having originally been scheduled to be demolished at the close of the Empire exhibition in 1925.
Suited and booted: Tommy Gibbons, third right, arrives in London for his fight with Jack Bloomfield
Jack Petersen vs Walter Neusel – 25th June, 1935
Back in the 1930s, Jack Peterson was one of the biggest names in British boxing. After turning pro in 1931, the 6-foot one-and-a-half-inch-tall Welshman made a meteoric rise to the top of the sport, losing just one of his first 31 fights on the way to becoming both the British light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion. Then he encountered German fighter Walter Neusel.
The pair clashed in two, drawn-out and bloody bouts at Wembley Stadium. Peterson was forced to retire after 11 eleven rounds in the first fight in February of 1935 but performed well, and many of the 60,000 spectators that gathered to watch the rematch on the 25th June later that year were hopeful of a British victory.
But it was not to be as Neusel, who was both the taller and heavier of the two, dominated Peterson, forcing him to again throw in the towel after the 10th round.
Peterson had four more bouts over the next two years, winning three of them, before again fighting Neusel and again losing. He subsequently retired at the age of just 25.
Henry Cooper vs Muhammad Ali – 18th June, 1963
Muhammad Ali was less than three years into his professional boxing career when he met with seasoned British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion Henry Cooper at Wembley. The young American fighter was not short on confidence, having amassed an impressive 18-0 record, and swaggered into the ring, arms raised high, wearing a crown.
Aliwas the firm favourite ahead of the fight, weighing in 20 pounds heavier than his opponent and also having a four-and-a-half-inch reach advantage. But despite this, Cooper was on top in the early rounds, peppering Ali with jab combinations and only narrowly missing with a bludgeoning left hook affectionately known by fans as “’Enry’s Hammer”.
Ali’s agility was enough to keep him out of harm’s way until two minutes and 55 seconds into the fourth round when the Hammer finally found its mark and he was sent sprawling to the canvas.
This was the first knockdown that Ali had suffered and he looked visibly stunned, clambering back to his feet and only just about making it through to the bell. The writing appeared to be on the wall for the man who in the run-up to the fight had dismissed it as merely a stop-gap before “I demolish that ugly bear Liston” (the reigning world champion at the time).
What happened next is still the source of much debate. Grainy footage appears to show Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, opening up an existing tear in his fighter’s glove, allowing him more time in the corner to recover while the hole was then repaired. Both Ali and Dundee fervently deny this but one thing’s certain: Ali returned to the ring and stopped Cooper in the fifth round, just as he had predicted.
Oliver McCall vs Frank Bruno – 2nd September, 1995
Frank Bruno had already failed in three championship title bids against Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Tim Witherspoon before challenging American fighter Oliver McCall for the WBC heavyweight title at Wembley Stadium.
Despite this, expectations among fans were high that the Briton, who had endeared himself to the boxing public with a valiant display against Witherspoon, could finally claim the world crown he so desperately desired.
30,000 spectators watched on a chilly September evening as Bruno, flanked by super-middleweight champion Nigel Benn, made a dramatic entrance to the ring and was then made to wait 15 minutes by McCall. The American was playing mind games.
But Bruno was unfazed and dominated the early exchanges, landing several big punches to the face. McCall rallied, inflicting considerable bruising around Bruno’s eye, but was well behind on points going into the final round and knew that his only chance of winning was to knock his opponent out.
He went at Bruno “like a madman”, the Briton later said, landing punch after punch. Many thought that the challenger would collapse, as he had done before, but he held on to win his first world title.
“If I never walk again, get run over or get shot, it’s down in history that I’m heavyweight champion,” said a battered looking Bruno after the fight. “I look like ET but I’m a winner, a champion.”
Carl Froch vs George Groves – 31st May, 2014
In stark contrast to the flat atmosphere at the 1924 Bloomfield vs Gibbons encounter, a raucous crowd of 80,000 fans shook Wembley to the rafters during Carl Froch’s defence of his unified WBA and IBF super-middleweight titles against George Groves – the first boxing event held at the redeveloped stadium.
Tensions were high in the run-up to the fight. Froch had won a controversial points victory when the pair first met in the ring six months previously, and the rematch was billed as Unfinished Business.
“It was a stone-wall robbery the first time,” proclaimed Groves at one press conference. “Everyone knows it.”
The early rounds were cagey as both fighters tentatively exchanged jabs, then in the fifth round the fight exploded into life.
A flurry of combination punches from both boxers was met by a standing ovation from the crowd. Froch pressed forward, trying to seize the initiative, but Groves held his ground and in round seven landed a strong left hook which left Froch visibly shaken.
At this point, the champion had a narrow lead of 67-66 on two of the judges’ scorecards while the third scored it 68-65 in favour of the challenger.
With his titles on the line, Froch rallied in round eight, forcing Groves back against the ropes and then letting fly with a devastating right hook that caught his opponent flush on the chin. Groves crumpled to the canvas in a heap and the referee immediately stopped the fight.
Anthony Joshua vs Wladimir Klitschko – 29th April, 2017
Anthony Joshua last visited Wembley Stadium to face up against legendary former unified world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.
At 41 years old, Klitschko was well past his prime. But in a career that spanned three decades, with 68 fights and only four losses, the Ukrainian had learned every trick in the book and was a wily operator in the ring.
By comparison, Joshua had fought only 18 times, with 18 wins and 18 knockouts. He had dominated his opponents up until this point and Klitschko was seen by many as the first real test of his mettle. Would he rise to the occasion or would he crumble?
It was youth vs experience. Attack vs defence. The stage was set. And the fight didn’t disappoint. It was a barnstormer.
The two traded blows in front of a post-war record crowd of 90,000 fans. Joshua took the initiative, and in the fifth round sent Klitschko sprawling to the floor with a barrage of bludgeoning punches. The crowd smelled blood, roaring Joshua on to go ahead and finish the fight as his opponent staggered back to his feet and stood, jelly-legged for the count. But there was life in the old champion yet.
Klitschko fought back with a renewed energy, dominating his opponent and scoring a knockdown of his own in the following round. The fight was on a knife-edge, poised to drop either way. And then, in the 11th round, Joshua delivered a devastating uppercut that seemed to lift his opponent clean off the ground, cartoon-style.
It was a blow that Klitschko could not recover from and the fight was stopped moments later. Boxing had a new, undisputed king of the ring.