Unified heavyweight world titleholder Anthony Joshua is a big betting favorite in his United States debut Saturday night, but fighting for a heavyweight title — or defending one — for the first time in the U.S. has not gone so well historically for British boxers.
England’s Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), 29, defends the WBA, IBF and WBO belts against Andy Ruiz Jr. at Madison Square Garden. Ruiz (32-2-1, 21 KOs), 29, from California, stepped in earlier this month to replace fellow American Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller after he failed multiple drug tests.
The odds — Joshua -2000, Ruiz +1000, according to Caesars — are heavily stacked in Joshua’s favor. Others, to be fair, were not so fancied when they made the trip across the Atlantic to take on the world heavyweight champion.
James J. Corbett, the second recognized world heavyweight champion, dispatched Charley Mitchell, from Birmingham, in three rounds in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1894. Apart from two outlier successes, it set the trend.
Three years later, when Corbett met Bob Fitzsimmons, a Briton who had been U.S.-based for seven years and was a world middleweight titleholder going into the fight at The Race Track Arena in Carson City, Nevada, it appeared another English fighter would go down.
Fitzsimmons, who was 16 pounds lighter than the champion, was a big underdog but stunned the crowd when he stopped Corbett with a body shot in the 14th round.
Fitzsimmons’ victory was followed by a series of defeats for British boxers trying to capture the heavyweight crown on American soil.
Welshman Tommy Farr, a former miner, made a valiant effort against the great Joe Louis in front of 36,903 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, in 1937. Farr went into the fight dismissed as a no-hoper, but took the champion the distance — the first to ever do so over 15 rounds — without being floored, before losing a unanimous decision. The New York crowd even booed the result, and while American newspapers insisted Louis deserved the scores, the British media thought otherwise.
World titlist Rocky Marciano stopped Don Cockell, a former blacksmith from south London, in the ninth round of his penultimate fight at the Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, California, in 1955. Cockell was knocked out of the ring in the eighth round, and was floored twice in the deciding ninth round, but the Briton complained Marciano had fought dirty with headbutts, low blows and hitting after the bell.
Brian London, known as “The Blackpool Rock” — a 10-1 underdog — crumbled in 11 rounds when he faced the next world heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, at the Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis in 1959.
It was another 30 years before a Briton challenged for the world title in the U.S. — and it was another crushing defeat.
After briefly worrying about a peak Mike Tyson with a left hook in the first round, Frank Bruno froze when the American launched a ferocious assault and was rescued on the ropes in the fifth round by referee Richard Steele at the Hilton Center in Las Vegas in 1989.
But after a 102-year drought of Britons winning a heavyweight title in the United States, Lennox Lewis defeated Tony Tucker at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas to win the WBC belt. After two defenses, Lewis lost the title by TKO against Oliver McCall one year later at Wembley Arena, in London.
Herbie Hide’s trip to Vegas to make a first defense of the WBO title against Riddick Bowe in 1995 did not go so well either. Hide, from Norwich, was 27 pounds lighter than Bowe and was floored seven times in the loss.
It was once again up to Lewis to buck the trend of heavyweight misery for British boxers fighting in the U.S.
After regaining the WBC belt in a rematch against McCall in 1997, Lewis defended it until November 2000, including a controversial draw against Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden New York in 1999 in a unification fight. Later in the year, Lewis won a unanimous decision in the rematch at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas to unify three of the four major titles.
The last Briton to fight for the world heavyweight title in America was Londoner Danny Williams, who was sent crashing to the canvas four times by Ukraine’s Vitali Klitschko in a WBC title fight at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas in 2004.
*Henry Akinwande and Michael Bentt, who were both born in London, won the WBO version of the world heavyweight title on American soil in 1996 and 1993, respectively. But Akinwande moved away from the UK at aged 4 and Bentt moved to New York at aged 5; neither are considered British for this story.