Lee Groves

Ten notable U.S. vs. U.K. welterweight title fights

March 20, 1976 – John H. Stracey TKO 10 Hedgemon Lewis, Wembley, London, England 

It had been 105 days since Stracey shook the boxing world with his off-the-floor sixth round TKO over Jose Napoles in Mexico City. Though many thought Stracey was walking into the lion’s den, the fighter felt the comfort of familiarity for two reasons. First, he competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and thus felt comfortable competing at the mile-high altitude. Second, he sparred with Napoles as the champ prepared to fight Ralph Charles in March 1972 and found he could hit the Cuban-Mexican with jabs whenever he pleased. Happily for Stracey, that truism held firm when he and Napoles met for the championship and the result was the greatest triumph of his boxing life.

His victory created worldwide headlines and at home, he became an instant celebrity. With the approval of the WBC, manager Terry Lawless and matchmaker Mickey Duff chose Hedgemon Lewis to be their man’s first challenger and on paper, it was a solid but safe choice. On the positive side, Lewis was a former amateur standout (two national titles in the mid-1960s) who picked up the New York version of the welterweight title by outpointing Billy Backus for the second time in December 1972. Lewis also held wins over future junior middleweight king Oscar Albarado (UD 10) and fringe contender Johnny Gant (UD 10) and through his first 56 fights, only three men had defeated him: Ernie Lopez (TKO by 9, TKO by 10), Adolph Pruitt (UD 10) and Napoles in two previous cracks at world honors (UD 15, TKO by 9). On the negative side, Lewis had fallen on hard times recently as he came into the Stracey fight off back-to-back draws against Carlos Palomino and Harold Weston. Also, Lewis was 24 days past his 30th birthday, which, during that era, signaled the start of fistic decline.

An electric crowd poured into Wembley’s Empire Pool to cheer on its champion but once the opening bell sounded, Lewis gave them reason to be concerned. Knowing Stracey had a habit of starting slowly, Lewis seized the initiative by pushing the champion back, pumping both hands to the body and nailing him with well-timed crosses to the jaw. His jabs continually speared Stracey’s face, which occasionally betrayed his discomfort. For all of Lewis’ early success, however, none of the challenger’s punches threatened to upend him. Stracey rode out the storm by maintaining a high guard, jabbing frequently and waiting for Lewis to reveal counterpunching opportunities. Those chances began to show themselves in the round’s final minute when Stracey began to penetrate the guard with sharp right hands.

The fight assumed a more expected pattern in round two: Lewis circling clockwise and catching Stracey with light, straight blows and Stracey stalking behind harder combinations. With the crowd bathing him in decibels, Stracey asserted command starting in round three by forcing a hotter pace and making Lewis defend against something every second of a given round. Stracey expertly shifted from head to body and back again while the backpedaling Lewis mustered occasional spurts.

The difference in energy could be seen at the start of every round as the sprightly Stracey consistently met Lewis three-quarters of the way across the ring. By round six, Lewis’ jab still had plenty of speed but lacked its earlier sting while Stracey’s consistent body attack had drained the challenger’s legs. A right to the side of the head visibly hurt Lewis in the seventh, prompting the champion to belt him with combinations for the remainder of the round. Lewis’ heart – and Stracey’s lack of one-punch power – enabled him to survive.

The challenger performed somewhat better in the eighth and the first half of the ninth but his mini-rally ended after a combination capped by a looping left sent Lewis tottering toward the ropes. Stracey unleashed a tidal wave of punches that would have finished most other fighters but Lewis, knowing his third title opportunity would likely be his last, refused to give in.

Determination alone can take a fighter only so far and Lewis reached his limit in the 10th. After Lewis backed toward the ropes to catch a breather, Stracey swooped in and fired a 10-punch fusillade that left the challenger sitting on the ropes. The series of flush, unanswered punches reminded some of the Napoles finish but this time, Stracey’s adoring public was able to bask in its native son’s triumph firsthand.

The fight represented a “last” for both: it was Stracey’s final victory at the world championship level (Palomino would dethrone him three months later) while Lewis never fought again. Each, however, put forth an effort befitting the occasion and few who saw it will ever forget the bout’s savage intensity.

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