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Joe Bugner: Destined to be unpopular


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Joe Bugner was a classical case of a talented fighter who could have achieved more than he did, but several factors contributed to him falling short of that. First there was that (in)famous Henry Cooper fight, which we will go into a bit later. Then there was Ulric Regis, an early opponent who died after Bugner beat him. But perhaps most of all, it was the era in which he fought, one of the strongest in heavyweight history. He also was accused of having the tendency to be lazy sometimes or too cautious, especially after that Regis fight. Joe was just a too good guy to wilfully hurt another human being like that. However, he did knock out or stop some notable lesser fighters like Brian London, Chuck Wepner, Juergen Blin, Santiago Alberto Lovell and Jose Luis Garcia.


Born Joszef Kreul Bugner on 13th March 1950 in Budapest, Hungary, Joe was 6 when he fled his native country which was then in a difficult situation due to the anti-communist riots which were brutally put down by the Soviet army and the Soviet takeover of the country that followed it. They came to London where the young Joe developed into a talented athlete who became the junior AAA discus champion. Initially he started training at his local youth club to get fit for athletics when he was guided into taking up boxing by the trainer Andy Smith. Bugner then turned professional in December '67, at only 17 and his debut was unsuccessful as he lost to Paul Brown by TKO 3. He rebounded next year however and then scored 13 victories in a row, all but one by stoppage. Standing 6'4 (though some have reported his height as 6'6 even) and with a 82-inch reach, Bugner was an imposing and intimidating sight, equipped also with punching power to boot. But then, in his 15th fight, he met the 9-8-0 fighter called Ulric Regis. Though the fight went the scheduled 8 rounds, Regis suffered a brain injury from Bugner's mighty blows and after the fight slipped into a coma from which he never awoke. An autopsy however revealed he had a pre-existing brain condition that he didn't know about. Shaken, but still decisive not to let this affect his career, Joe was back in the ring already two weeks later and stopped Lion Ven by TKO 5. He never weighed more than 211 before, but in his next fight he came in the ring weighing 220, because his opponent was the gigantic Jack O'Halloran, who came in at almost 247. Bugner took a close 8-round decision, the scoring referee gave it to him by a point. He won a couple more fights before getting upset and losing an 8-round decision to Dick Hall, a 30-8 fighter. Again, it was by a point, only in his opponent's favour.


He rebounded after that with wins over Roberto Davila (RTD4), Manuel Ramos (PTS8) and Brian London, whom he stopped in 5 in London's last fight. He then took on the "Bayonne Bleeder" Chuck Wepner and tagged him frequently until he opened a gash over his right eye in the third which led to the stoppage after the end of the round. Bugner was 11 years the younger man. After a few more victories, he was given a chance to win the Commonwealth, British and European titles against the most popular British heavyweight of that time, Henry Cooper. Cooper was almost 37, 16 years older than Bugner and about 4 inches shorter. He still gave his younger foe a good fight which went the scheduled 15 rounds. After it ended, the sole scoring referee gave had it 73 3/4 for Bugner and 73 1/2 for Cooper, giving Bugner one of the closest victories in history. The crowd booed the decision naturally, but Cooper went straight to Bugner and congratulated him. Afterwards he said to the newsmen "He's a fine young fighter." Joe himself said "I thought I won all right. But Cooper is a great boxer and I learned a lot from that fight." Cooper also said that he would have gone on had he been given the decision but now there was no point. Bugner defended his European belt against the German Juergen Blin by a split decision in May '71, 2 months later. In September he however lost all his belts surprisingly to Jack Bodell, who only two months later would get annihilated in one round by Jerry Quarry. The verdict was 74-72 for Bodell after 15 rounds at Wembley. In November he fought against Larry Middleton, a noted American contender, but was down in the tenth and last round, losing a decision. He returned to fighting weaker opponents for a while after that, before he got the chance to reclaim his European belt against Juergen Blin, who had won it recently. He knocked out Blin in 8 to become the European champion again. He defended it against the 21-0 Rudi Lubbers of Netherlands and won by UD15.


In February '73, on Valentine's Day, he for the first time faced the legend Muhammad Ali in a fight in Las Vegas. Ali was on a comeback trail and had failed to recapture his world title against Joe Frazier. He was an 8to1 favourite and predicted he would knock Bugner out in 7 rounds. But it didn't go that way, however. Ali opened a cut over his left eye in the first round, but Joe took it well and fought well for the remaining eleven rounds, only to lose by a clear but not so wide decision. Ali himself stated that he was capable of becoming a world champion after the fight. This fight got him the respect of the American media and public. In July he again fought a greatness, this time in the shape of Smokin' Joe Frazier himself, who was no longer the champion after getting destroyed by Big George Foreman in his previous fight. This time the fight was at Earls Court arena in Kensington. The fight was even and very good, with both men getting in a lot of leather. Frazier knocked him down in the 10th by a tremendous left hook, but Bugner showed incredible grit and recuperation when he got up and then staggered Frazier at the end of that same round. In the end, the scoring referee Harry Gibbs scored it 59 1/4 to 58 1/2 for Frazier. After this, Joe defended his European belt three more times, before finally receiving a title fight offer from Ali. The fight happened on 30 June 1975, in Jakarta, Indonesia. Unfortunately, it was a bad choice of time and place, as the heat was severe and as a result the fight was very static and Bugner especially did little, although he boxed cleverly. Ali was the more active of the two and naturally got the decision, this time by lopsided scores. Bugner received half a million for the fight and went back home. Early in 1976, Bugner shocked everyone by announcing his retirement from boxing, stating that he no longer felt motivated to fight professionally. Within months however he returned to the ring, expressing his disgust at Richard Dunn's performance against Ali and knocking Dunn out in 1 round, thereby also recapturing the British and Commonwealth belts which Dunn held. In his next fight in March '77, he fought against big puncher Ron Lyle, but his performance was again overly cautious and he dropped a close split decision to Lyle.


Bugner found himself an unpopular man in UK and started fighting more and more in USA. Not just because of him getting the nod over the very popular Henry Cooper, but also because of his sometimes overly cautious approach, he was condemned by the British public as not the type of fighter they wanted. The reason he was so effective against Richard Dunn is that he had gotten angered over the disrespect he was being shown by Dunn and his supporters and he wanted to teach them all a lesson. But once he had nothing to prove or anyone to punish, he became cautious in the ring. He again retired from the ring after the Lyle fight, this time for 3 years, until he came back in 1980 and won a fight against Gilberto Acuna by TKO 6. He again made a layoff for a year before returning in May 1982 and fighting the exceptionally hard-hitting Earnie Shavers. Shavers put him down in the first round, before a cut stopped Bugner in the second round, thus he lost by tko. He then scored four victories by stoppage before facing the son of Joe Frazier, Marvis and losing to the younger man by 10 years in a fight where Bugner looked slow and was outjabbed for 10 rounds. It was his last fight in USA. In his next fight he upset the future European champ, the huge Swede Anders Eklund by MD10, but then dropped a SD10 to another European champion, Norwegian Steffen Tangstad. He then scored three surprising upset victories against James Tillis, David Bey and Greg Page, all on points. By then he had moved to Australia, where he would stay and fight most of his remaining fights. He went back to England for the last time 24th October '87 to fight Frank Bruno, the most popular heavyweight in UK back then. Bugner put on a brave performance against the younger and stronger opponent when he was stopped by TKO at the end of the 8th round. The fight was billed as the biggest all-British heavyweight bout since Bugner-Cooper. But this time, Joe was the old man in the fight. Coincidentally, he was 37, the same age as Cooper when Joe fought him.


Joe then retired for almost 8 years before coming back in late '95 and winning the Australian title by decisioning Vince Cervi. The unlikely comeback at the age of 45 looked successful until March next year when he was stopped by the British Scott Welch by TKO 6. Bugner however continued fighting and then captured the Asian (PABA) heavyweight title that same year with a KO5 of Young Haumona and defending it with a TKO7 of Wasiki Ligaloa, but was then stripped for failure to defend. He recaptured it again by decisioning Bob Mirovic. In July '98 he met James "Bonecrusher" Smith, in a fight for the minor World Federation title. Smith, himself only 3 years younger, was retired with a shoulder injury after one round, thus Bugner became the oldest heavyweight champion at 48. After winning one more fight next year, against Levi Billups by DQ9, he finally retired aged 49 and with a record of 69 wins (41 by ko), 13 losses and 1 draw. He has only been stopped 4 times in his career: once in his first fight, once on cuts against Shavers and twice when he was already well past his prime. In 1979, he turned to acting and starred in a Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill film. He was also hired to train Russell Crowe and help him prepare for the role of James J. Braddock in the movie Cinderella Man, but was dropped midway thru, after Crowe complained Bugner was being too hard on him. Enraged, Bugner responded by calling Crowe "a gutless worm" and "a fucking girl". In the years following his retirement, he suffered from back injuries and also financial troubles, after buying a vineyard in Australia that failed, leaving him in serious debts. It was these financial problems that made him return to the ring at the age of 45. In 2013, his autobiography "Joe Bugner-My Story" was published. He still lives in Gold Coast, Queensland and has three children.

Edited by BoztheMadman
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