Sean Castle Looks At The Best Overseas-Born Australian Boxers

Hi there,

I’ve had a few people asking me repost some of my old stories from my time writing for boxing magazines and websites and also doing ringside reporting. Hope you enjoy this first one on Aussie Joe Bugner that I did a few years back.

Cheers, Sean Castle

An Examination of “Aussie” Joe Bugner by Sean Castle

Sean Castle Looks At The Best Overseas-Born Australian Boxers

An Examination of “Aussie” Joe Bugner

By Sean Castle

The Australian boxing scene has been spoilt in recent history with the level of top-class fighters who have left their homeland and decided to ply their trade down under. In the past twenty years we have had two of the greatest fighters of their generation in undisputed world champions Kostya Tszyu (Russia- Junior Welterweight) and Vic Darchinyan (Armenia- Super Flyweight) adopt Australia and make their life here. A search through the record books shows a long and exhaustive list that also includes the class of world champions Johnny Famechon (France) and more recently Lovemore Ndou (South Africa) and Garry St. Clair (Guyana).

When examining such a topic it is important to look closely at the career and the contribution to their sport that each individual has made. Therefore it is entirely appropriate to commence this series with Former British Empire (Commonwealth) and European Heavyweight Champion Joe Bugner and rightfully recognise his position in this unique part in Australia’s rich boxing history.

Born József Kreul Bugner in Hungary in 1950, Bugner holds triple nationality and citizenship, holding passports with the United Kingdom, Australia and his native homeland of Hungary. To get a clear understanding of Bugner’s life it is necessary to understand the environment of Eastern Europe in the period following World War II. This section of the world was very unstable politically. With the advent of the Cold War, Hungary, along with a long list of Eastern European nations, fell to Communist Soviet (USSR) forces in 1956. This was the catalyst for the Bugner family  fleeing to safety  and seeking refuge in England.

Bugner’s professional career is remarkable in that it spans across an incredible four decades, commencing in England in 1967 and finally drawing to a close in Australia 32 years later in 1999. Bugner competed in an amazing 83 heavyweight contests, winning 69 (43 KOs). There was no indication that such longevity was on the cards when Bugner lost his first professional fight, courtesy of a 3rd round stoppage against mediocre Englishman Paul Brown. Brown only claimed two victories in a thirteen fight professional career, one being Bugner. For the sake of fairness it is only right to point out that Bugner twice avenged this early defeat by knocking out Brown in both rematches.

Following his knockout in his debut fight, Bugner had to make a choice on what path to take. Respond and continue with his dream of becoming a professional fighter or take up a trade position in industrial England. And respond he did. Demonstrating a major difference in approach to the often pampered professionals of the modern era, Bugner stepped into the ring an astonishing 33 times between 1968-70, for 32 victories and a narrow points decision loss. The defining fight in his career came early in 1971 when Bugner took on the beloved English icon Henry Cooper for the British Empire (Commonwealth) and European titles.

Cooper, who became famous for his 1963 bout with the legendary Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) where he had Clay in serious trouble, sprawled all over the canvas towards the end of Round 4. Legend has it that Clay only survived when trainer Angelo Dundee cut Clay’s glove between rounds giving the American valuable time to recover and stop Cooper on cuts in the fifth. In a fiercely contested title fight that went the full scheduled 15 rounds, Bugner was awarded a narrow and highly disputed points victory, sending Cooper into retirement. Following this victory, Bugner would feel the full brunt of English displeasure from here on, with many fight fans actively turning against the Hungarian-born fighter and his popularity at an all-time low.

When assessing Bugner’s standing in boxing it is important to have a sound knowledge of the history of the sport. Unlike today, where there are many soft belts given away and too many sanctioning bodies to count, the 1970s, when Bugner was at his best, basically had only the traditional WBA and the more recent breakaway WBC sanctioning world title fights.  Often regarded as the golden era of heavyweight boxing with champions of the ilk of three-time world undisputed world champion Muhammad Ali, “Smokin” Joe Frazier and the fearsome George Foreman reigning at various times, easy fights were often hard to find. Contrast this with the poor state of the heavyweight division today where quality contests and interest are at an all-time low. Bugner outlined his frustration at the current state of sanctioning belts to Sean Castle saying “that many of the fighters today with world title belts would not even have been in the Top 10 in the 1960s through to the 1980s. Fighters such as Bugner lament the fact that had they been born a generation late, the titles and the riches that go with them would have been there for the taking.

Bugner, who spent the best part of the 1970’s ranked in the Top 10, has a record that shows that he twice went the distance with Ali and also once with Frazier, getting up off the canvas in the 10th round against Smokin’ Joe to lose a tight decision. Bugner shared with Sean Castle that it incredibly took until his 59th professional fight for him to finally get his shot at the world championship. And the fight was against the greatest of all-tme, Muhammad Ali. Coming up against Ali in Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia in 1975, Bugner showed dogged tenacity to push the fighter widely recognised as the greatest of all-time to the full 15 rounds in a bout where Ali collected a then record purse of $2 million dollars. Bugner told Sean Castle that the conditions and environment of the fight meant that he had to arrive at the open air stadium in a bullet proof van as there was a credible assassination threat should Bugner defeat Ali, a Muslim, in an Islamic nation.

The period after the loss to Ali marked the decline in Bugner’s career as a legitimate threat to the world title. A lack of top quality opponents and motivation led to a series of retirements and sporadic comebacks throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s for the fighter dubbed by Ali as the best white fighter in the world. Bugner commented to Sean Castle that he relocated to Australia in 1986 for a new life and decided to give the fight game one final shot, adopting the moniker “Aussie Joe”, Bugner again set out on a journey with the hope of one last shot at glory. Beginning his “Aussie” career by defeating former WBA Heavyweight Champion Greg Page over 10 rounds, Bugner returned to his former home of England in 1987 to take on multiple Mike Tyson whipping boy and future WBC Champion Frank Bruno. This stoppage loss to Bruno at Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane in front of a large Bruno crowd again sent “Aussie Joe” into another retirement.

It was during the next period out of the ring that Bugner branched out into various other walks of life including acting in a variety of movies for Director Bud Spence, coupled with some other high-risk ventures such as the vineyard he bought and operated in Queensland. Its failure and the mounting debts that accompanied it and also inspired by George Foreman regaining the world heavyweight championship at age 45, led Bugner back into the ring in 1995, 8 years and 11 months since the Bruno fight. He shared with Sean Castle his belief if King George could do it, then so could he.

Highlighting his obvious international class and the lack of depth and quality in the Australian fight game, Bugner was able to capture the national championship in his return bout against Vince Cervi via a 12 round points decision. 1996 brought the regional Pan-Asian Boxing Association (PABA) title after knocking out big-punching Young Haumono in Canberra. Multiple Australian champions Colin Wilson and “Big” Bob Mirovic were on the receiving end of decision losses in 1998 as Bugner prepared for his match up against former world champion James “Bonecrusher” Smith for the lightly regarded World Boxing Foundation title. Smith’s retirement at the end of Round 1 due to a dislocated shoulder gave “Aussie Joe” a world title belt at the age of 48 before a final victory in 1999 against Levi Billups finally closed the curtain on an astonishing 32 year ring career.

Maybe if Bugner fought at his peak in another era then a genuine world title belt might be rightfully placed in his trophy cabinet. Nevertheless, as Australia pays due respect to its “imported” champions, it is appropriate to recognise the contribution and service of “Aussie” Joe Bugner to this great sport over such an extended period.

*Sean Castle is a trained historian and keen boxing fan. In this story he looks back at the career of “Aussie” Joe Bugner. If there is a topic or issue you would liked covered on his blog, email him at seancastle75@gmail.com

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