Number 193 – Joe Bugner

Joe Bugner (tied for 192)
Szoreg, Hungary
March 13, 1950
6’4” / 82” reach / 199¾-278¼ lbs
from 12/20/1967 to 06/13/1999 (31y6m)

1-6-0-0(0) against the top ten
0-3-0-0(0) against linear champions
0-3-0-0(0) against hall-of-famers
1 fight for the linear championship – 0-1-0-0(0)

Fights against the top ten: W-UD-15 Henry Cooper, L-UD-15 Jack Bodell, L-UD-12, L-UD-15 Muhammad Ali, L-UD-12 Joe Frazier, L-SD-12 Ron Lyle, L-TKO-8 Frank Bruno

-3 total score (1 + -5 + 0 + 1)

Joe Bugner came around in the middle of perhaps the toughest era in heavyweight history, and ended up leaving at the tail end of the second toughest. The Hungarian born, British-raised, eventual Aussie never really fit in with his adopted homeland of England. A controversial win over perennial contender and British icon Henry Cooper near the end of Cooper’s career gave Bugner a negative image with the British boxing press, and that stuck with him for his whole career.

Joe Bugner, like many ranked below him on this list, was a long-time contender with relatively few wins over other true top-ten contenders. He did generally defeat fringe contenders and gatekeepers without much difficulty, and gave great fighters tough challenges. Tall and long-limbed, Bugner was able to use distance and his physical strength to tie up opponents and prevent damage. He had some power, but rarely hurt his best opponents. He moved well in his youth for a man of his size, and could box as well as slug.

Bugner’s pro career started poorly, losing in December 1967 by 3rd round knockout to 1-3 club fighter Paul Brown. He took 5 weeks off, and came back to notch 18 straight wins over the next year and a half, including 13 knockouts. Most of the wins were against the usual journeymen, including two revenge knockouts over his lone conqueror Paul Brown. In August 1969, the rising prospect lost a narrow decision to Boston veteran Dick Hall. That would be Joe’s only bump in the road for some time. He gradually improved his opposition, including a win over former contender Manuel Ramos, and a brutal stoppage win over retiring long-time heavyweight stalwart Brian London. He trained in the States for his next fight, sparring with such royalty as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, and Jimmy Ellis. The sparring paid off, and Bugner dominated his opponent, Chuck Wepner, outboxing him, slicing him open, and forcing a third round stoppage. Ali himself predicted big things for Bugner after the fight.

Four more wins and a draw followed the Wepner victory, leading up to a clash with the aforementioned British hero, Henry Cooper. Cooper was still considered a credible contender at that point, though he was certainly nearing the end of his long career. In front of a raucous crowd of 11,600 in London, both men took the fight to each other over 15 closely-contested rounds, with the 21 year old Bugner narrowly edging out a close win over his nearly-37-year-old rival. Many British boxing commentators and fans decried the decision, and proclaimed it to be a robbery. Most impartial observers saw a close decision that could have gone either way. For Bugner, though, the decision made him a villain to the many who loved and admired Henry Cooper. From that point on, the young contender could do little right in the British boxing world.

He followed the Cooper decision with another close 15 round nod over Juergen Blin. A fairly wide points loss to long-time British contender Jack Bodell came next. A win and a loss came after Bodell, the loss being a mild surprise against Larry Middleton. Starting in 1972, Bugner went on a tear, with 9 wins in 10 months, including a rematch knockout win over Blin, and a wide decision over then-undefeated Rudi Lubbers.

The Lubbers win was enough to earn Bugner a shot at a comebacking Muhammad Ali. Joe pressured Ali, landed some good shots, and made Ali work, but the decision was a clear one for The Greatest. Nonetheless, Bugner acquitted himself well, and earned respect for giving Ali a tough fight. 5 months later, Bugner took on another legend, this time in the form of recently deposed champion Joe Frazier. Frazier was just 6 months removed from being crushed by George Foreman, and came into his fight with Bugner 6 pounds lighter, and seemingly better focused. It was a close, competitive fight, with Frazier scoring a late knockdown, and Bugner nearly returning the favor in the same round. A few people scored the fight for Bugner, and both men acquitted themselves well. Despite his second straight loss, Bugner demonstrated his class, and won his next eight fights, against mostly solid opposition. A strong decision over Mac Foster, a quick 2nd round knockout over Jose Luis Garcia, and a very wide decision over a rapidly-fading Jimmy Ellis were the highlights of this run.

By June 1975, Muhammad Ali had regained the heavyweight title, and gave the 51-6-1 Bugner a shot in his 3rd defense of his second reign. Ali won a wide decision, and while Bugner had his moments, the crown was never in serious danger of changing hands. A quick blowout of Richard Dunn followed Bugner’s second loss to Ali, which led up to a fight with the strong and dangerous Ron Lyle. Despite both fighters history of action-oriented contests, they both fought surprisingly defensively, and the slightly more aggressive Lyle edged a narrow win over Bugner. A draw or decision the other way would likely have been fair, as the fight was close and difficult to score, though neither man distinguished themselves.

After the Lyle fight, Bugner took some time off. Three and a half years passed, and in August 1980, Bugner attempted a comeback. He was 11 pounds heavier than when he fought Lyle (and his weight would gradually rise through the years as he fought on). A 6 round stoppage over unheralded Gilberto Acuna started off his comeback. Nearly two more years passed, and Bugner came back again, this time against the devastating, albeit badly faded Earnie Shavers. The first round was reasonably close, but near the end, Shavers dropped Joe. In the second, a big punch followed by a headbutt opened a nasty cut, prompting a referee stoppage and giving Bugner a TKO loss. Joe claimed that Shavers was instructed to fight dirty by Don King, though this may have been sour grapes.

The loss did not deter Bugner, though, and he started fighting regularly after that. Four knockout wins over journeymen led up to a 1983 fight with moderately hyped prospect Marvis Frazier. 10 years after Joe Frazier won a close decision over Bugner, Smokin’ Joe’s son used a quick jab to win a dull and fairly wide 10 round nod over the 33 year-old Bugner. Joe would never fight in the United States after that.

2 months in Denmark netted a close win over Anders Eklund and a close loss to Steffen Tangstad. Then three more years of inactivity followed, but Bugner came back strong, winning somewhat surprising decisions in consecutive fights over James Tillis, David Bey, and Greg Page. All three men were a bit past their best, but they were also more recently ranked as contenders than Bugner himself. These three wins in ‘86 and ‘87 led to a fight with up-and-coming British contender Frank Bruno. The powerful but chinny Bruno was too young and too strong for the then-37-year-old Bugner, and stopped Joe in the 8th. This fight seemingly brought an end to Bugner’s long career.

However, 8 years later, in September 1995, Bugner, then aged 45, stepped back into the ring for another shot at fistic glory. A wide 12 round decision in Australia over Vince Cervi started off a run against relative no-names. A knockout win followed the Cervi fight, which was then followed by a stoppage loss against someone named Scott Welch. Bugner kept fighting, and also kept eating. He weighed 254 for the Cervi fight, but was up as high as 278 after that, and would never drop below 260 again for a fight. A few more wins in Australia followed, leading up to a matchup with fellow Senior Circuit member James “Bonecrusher” Smith in July 1998. Smith himself was 281 pounds, and nearly a decade past contender status. Bonecrusher retiring after 1 round thanks to a shoulder injury was anticlimactic, but not surprising. In June 1999, Bugner fought one more time, against journeyman Levi Billups, winning by disqualification in the 9th. Bugner finally hung up the gloves after that.

Assessing his career, one notices that he was never able to beat a truly elite fighter, but while in his prime, he gave them all they could handle. He fought hard, and often well, and rarely embarrassed himself. Despite bitterness toward the British press, Bugner earned his accolades, and deserves notice as a durable contender and an important name for many years.

For your further reading pleasure, here’s a nice interview/retrospective with Bugner from the Ring:

One thought on “Number 193 – Joe Bugner

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