DON COCKELL ON MY DOORSTEP

When I first moved to London, just over two years ago now, I rented a flat in Streatham. 

For anyone geographically oblivious: Zone 3, South West London. Near Brixton and near Tooting, very close to Balham and not far from Clapham.

I had no friends (pantomime sympathy required! No stress, I have loads now…) and spent my time reading and checking out local pubs. One of the women I worked with was 72 years old. A remarkable woman named Tina, still going strong! It was only when talking to her partner ‘Rolly‘ that I realised his passion for boxing. His father was a bookie in East London and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of sports in the 50’s – 70’s. The detail in the stories ‘Rolly’ would share put my articles to shame. Charismatic and passionate – always.

“Did you know Don Cockell lived here? There’s a plaque outside his house in Balham!”

I had heard of Cockell, barely. 

‘Rolly’ went on to tell me Cockell lived “no more than a free-kick from our local!”. A beautiful turn of phrase! 

I became intrigued and carried out some research. Don was the original ‘lamb to the slaughter’. A decent boxer, a tough Cockney and a big man in his prime. He travelled to the US to face the unbeaten (and unbeatable) Rocky Marciano.

In California at the time of their bout, it was impossible to be disqualified for hitting an opponent with illegal low-blows. So, Marciano, used this loophole to his advantage and brutalised Cockell through nine rounds. He held the top of Cockell’s damaged head and punched him clean with his free hand. He roughed the Balham native up at every opportunity, sickening the challengers team. Still, Cockell kept coming. 

Journalists in the US were shocked and almost saddened by Cockell’s bravery! Marciano himself was very open in admitting he “hit him harder than I ever hit anybody!”

Alas, the purpose of this article is not to replay Cockell’s infamous fight with Marciano in 55′. The purpose is to focus on the danger involved in risky matchmaking, even now. Fighters being sent to win fights in situations not far estranged from the lottery. 

This past weekend, many worried about the well-being of Tony Bellew as he stepped up in weight to face David Haye. Fans and pundits questioned Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Sport’s decision to pair the Scouser with devastating puncher Haye. 

Now, we all know what unfolded! Drama, injury, heart and an underdog story to remember! On this occasion, the consequences of risky pairings had been avoided. However its threat looms large.

Steve Bunce touched on this previously when looking at Paul Smith’s lunge at Andre Ward in a fantastic piece for ESPN – check it out if you haven’t. The proud sibling of three other British champions was carved up by Ward and outclassed abroad. 

Nathan Cleverly facing Sergey Kovalev was a similar situation. Cleverly was the champion on this occasion, but Kovalev was a wrecking machine and derailed the Welshman’s career for a period afterwards as he barely looked the same fighter. It was a dangerous fight for a man in ‘Clev’ who has never punched destructively.

Matthew Hatton faced Canelo.

Gavin Rees faced Adrien Broner.

These are just some recent examples of fighters being sent into nigh-on-impossible fights overseas. Now, understandably, promoters make these fights with faith in their own charge. As well as dollar signs ringing in their ears!

Fighters are stubborn. They always think they can win. Former champions will always chase titles in seemingly impossible circumstances. It’s all they know! Don Cockell had a heart in proportion with his physique. But he was never going to win.

Managers and trainers, for me, should be the judge and jury. They see their fighters every day, they study footage of their opposition repeatedly and they know the fight-game. 

I understand a certain level of loyalty. I understand the brotherhood forged in the gym and the promises that can be made regarding ‘throwing in the towel’. Rose tinted glasses are never more evident than in fight week, press conferences and interviews. Talking a good game is just as important as sticking to one.

Also, let me state, I am in no way claiming I could do a better job when it comes to matchmaking or providing truly winnable fights for boxers of a certain calibre. It is much easier to say from the knowledgable position of an armchair. (Or the tiny chair I’m sitting in on a plane!)

The question posed is: Will sacrifice always outweigh patience and pride

We deal with a sport of machismo. Men fighting each other and never backing down. The ‘top dog’ mantra of boxers in similar divisions is stronger now more than ever. Scared to turn down a challenge and seem afraid or vulnerable. Scared of being ridiculed on Twitter by a fickle fanbase. 

Also, it is worth noting that a boxer’s career is short and perilous. Taking chances and daring to upset the odds is not a character trait I’d frown upon! It is one to be admired in a sense. Sense being the key word.

It was refreshing to see fan favourite Dave Allen replying to a tweet from Lucas Browne by saying ‘With all due respect, I’m not ready for you. All the best.’ Dave knows the game. He knows how it works and most importantly he has a fantastic self-awareness, which is rare.

It’s very easy to forget about fighters like Don Cockell. It was 62 years ago he faced ‘The Rock’ and much has changed. Don was sent there as a victim. He was sent there to pick up some money and see how long he could last. Was he ever the same fighter again? Certainly not. Is he mentioned amongst the greats at either light-heavy or heavyweight? Not by anyone I’ve ever spoken to. 

Cockell had courage in abundance. He was game and believed he would win. 

The people who looked after him should have known better.

Don Cockell, Balham’s own. Right here; on my doorstep.

Craig Scott