Q&A: Joe Bugner

By Ray Wheatley–World of Boxing

Former heavyweight challenger Joe Bugner who battled the best heavyweights of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s will turn sixty years of age on March 13 and to celebrate there will be a testimonial held at the Wentworth hotel in Sydney, NSW, Australia next Saturday with his former opponent Smokin Joe Frazier in attendance. Known in Australia as “Aussie Joe,” he holds a solid record of (69-13-1, 41 KOs). Bugner talks to Fightnews and tells of his fights with Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Henry Cooper, Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Jimmy Ellis, James Tillis and James Bonecrusher Smith as well as his fierce sparring session with Jerry Quarry.

You were 21 years of age when you defeated England’s boxing legend Henry Cooper in 1971 via a 15 round decision. Cooper had boxed Muhammad Ali on two occasions and had dropped him in their first encounter. Please tell me about the Cooper fight.

Henry Cooper was not a heavyweight. If he were boxing today he would be a cruiserweight. That is why he never beat any serious heavyweights. I’m being realistic. Along comes a young 21-year-old who beats Cooper and for that reason the British do not forgive me. I am not talking about the fans. I am talking about the British press, the media. Cooper’s claim to fame was when he first boxed Cassius Clay in 1964. Clay poked his tongue out at Cooper and did all if the things that a young brash fighter would have done. Cooper lands a brilliant left hook on the jaw of Clay and drops him. In my opinion it was a very, very lucky punch. Angelo Dundee cut the glove and asked for the glove to be replaced which took about ten minutes, which he needed by the way. Cooper never would have been world champion because Clay was not world champion then. Clay cut him into shreds in the next round. Ali came back a few years later and stopped Cooper in five or six rounds. I was only fifteen years of age then when I saw the Cooper-Clay fight. A few years later I was fighting him.

Your first fight with Muhammad Ali was in Las Vegas in 1973 over twelve rounds in a non-title bout. Were you awed over meeting Ali who was already a boxing legend. You had sparred Ali in 1966. Please tell me about the 1973 Ali fight.

I had visited the USA in 1966 to box Muhammad Ali in the gym to get the exposure. Ali said to me when I met him, “Joe, this is how poor I am.” He took his shoe off and put his finger through a hole in the shoe. I told him we were giving him $10,000 to help him. Ali said, “Thank you but when I finish with you I am going to beat you up so bad that your mother won’t recognize you.” He used all this great dialogue. Here I am talking to my hero. I was awed by Ali. I had sparred him at the famous Gil Clancy gym who had help make Emile Griffith a great world champion, but when I was offered to fight Muhammad Ali in 1973 and I accepted, it sunk in some time later we were going to fight. It was phenomenal to fight Ali. (Bugner lost decision by scores: 57-54, 57-54, 57-52.)

Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier would be your next opponent in 1973. You gave Frazier one of his toughest fights going toe-to-toe in many rounds losing via twelve round decision. Frazier had only lost to George Foreman. Tell me about your bout with Smokin’ Joe.

It was crazy! I had boxed Ali in February or March of 1973 and was now boxing Joe Frazier in June of the same year. Fighting two of the great fighters of that era in a three or four month period…Let me tell you I was pretty scared. I was scared to fight Frazier, I had read about his bouts, his notoriety, his ability to smash fighters not always in the first three or four rounds but towards the end of the fight because his stamina must have been awesome. Many of the fans who were there that night at the fight in London were Australians. When I fought Smokin’ Joe Frazier I was petrified. Frazier was only 5’11” and in my opinion was one of the greatest heavyweight fighters since Rocky Marciano. Prior to George Foreman beating him Frazier was invincible. Frazier hit me with a beautiful right cross in round ten and down I go. He thought I was going to stay down but did not realize I had an iron jaw. After a count of three or four I got up and instinctively threw a hard right hand that caught him flush and thought I could stop him but then the bell rang.

In 1974 you easily defeated former WBA heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis who had defeated Jerry Quarry and Leotis Martin. Could you tell me about the Ellis fight.

Jimmy Ellis was a very small heavyweight who was very capable and very talented. I was not worried about him. I had seen him fight on tape and knew he was only thirteen and half or fourteen stones (196 lbs). I am not being disrespectful but I beat him easily.

Your rematch with Muhammad Ali was in 1974 in Kuala Lumphur, Malaysia. In this fight you were challenging for the world heavyweight title over fifteen rounds. Please give your thoughts on the 1974 Ali fight.

Can you imagine fighting in Malaysia in March? One of the hottest times of the year. They picked Malaysia because at that time Ali was doing all his training in Miami, Florida which is a very hot place like Malaysia. He knew he was fighting a 25 year old from London and thought it would be an advantage to fight in Kuala Lumphur. I went to Malaysia four or five weeks before the fight. It was hell for the first two weeks. I had diarrhea and all the other sicknesses that you could think of in a neutral country with such tropical conditions. Ali arrived there ten days before the fight and he looked in those days magical. He went on with the same dialogue as before saying, “I am going to beat you up so bad your mother will not recognize you.” I knew Ali had taken me seriously because he knew I was not a washed up heavyweight but young and improving. He said to me after the fight, “You have improved but you’re not going to be champion until I retire.” Ali and myself became good friends. I later toured with Muhammad Ali in 1979 with an amateur boxing team.

During the 1970s you and Jerry Quarry were regarded as the two best white heavyweights in the world. Were you ever offered to fight Quarry or did you ever box him in the gym?

Yes, we sparred in a gym in London. He was preparing for a fight and said I had a similar style. Jerry was a nice guy but he had demons coming out of his head. We started sparring in front of all the British Press. I was about 19 years of age and Jerry would trap me in the corners and punish me. After three or four rounds I would go back to my corner and say he is trying to kill me. My trainer told me to throw straight punches, which I did and I smashed him and put thirteen stitches in his head. With that, Quarry came to me and said, “You mother fu**er! Do you realize I can’t take the fight I had scheduled.” I said to him, “I am just trying to defend myself.”

In 1977 you dropped a split decision to heavyweight contender Ron Lyle who had defeated Jimmy Ellis and Oscar Bonavena. In 1976 Lyle dropped George Foreman several times before losing in five rounds of a great heavyweight battle. Tell me about your fight with Lyle.

Ron Lyle nearly killed me. I am not kidding, he nearly killed me. The fight was at twelve noon in Las Vegas (nearly all my fights were during midday in the USA to coincide with the television broadcast back in Europe.) To cut a long story short, Ron Lyle was an ex-jail bird and learned boxing in jail. When I met him he said, “You got no chance of beating me because I am going to kill you.” Here I was at 27 years in the hard world of boxing. The fight went the full twelve rounds. After the bout, I called my brother Bill and told him I could not breathe. I had blood coming out of me. He rang the doctor who called an ambulance and rushed me to the Las Vegas emergency Hospital and they discovered I was bleeding internally. They put me into an ice tank. It took me six months to recover from that fight. Ron Lyle was a punishing fighter and so fu**ing big. He was bigger than me. He kept telling me during the fight, “I am going kill you mother fu**er.” I sacked my manager after the fight after a ten year relationship. He wanted to go to a party after the fight rather than look after my welfare. I had paid him 25% of my purse.

Earnie Shavers is regarded as one of the hardest punchers of all time. You boxed him in 1982 and lost in two rounds because of a severe cut. He dropped you in round one. Please give me your thoughts on Shavers.

Shavers was a great puncher. He put thirteen stitches in my head from one punch. I went down and the referee later stopped the fight. I was told later when Shavers punching power was tested that he was discovered the best puncher of all time.

You would later move to Australia and fight James Tillis in 1986. You were 36 years but still focused on a world title bout. Please tell me about the Tillis fight.

Bill Mordey who named me “Aussie Joe” and was my promoter, wanted me to pick an easier opponent than Tillis but I wanted to fight heavyweight contenders to prove I could still beat the best. In the sixth round Tillis was doing very well against me and Bill told my trainer Johnny Lewis to pick it up which I did and won well on points. I later beat former world heavyweight champion Greg Page and also top contender David Bey before losing to Frank Bruno in England.

In 1998 you won a (WBF) world heavyweight title by stopping James Bonecrusher Smith. Smith had taken Mike Tyson the distance and had held the WBA heavyweight crown.

I was 48 years and won the world title by beating Bonecrusher Smith. Smith was a very good heavyweight but I stopped him in round one when he dislocated a bone in his shoulder. My last fight was against Levi Billups in 1999 who was a very dirty fighter and he was disqualified in round nine. Forget about any rumors that I will fight again. I have hung up the gloves for good.

Joe Bugner has lived in Australia since the early the 1980s with his wife Marlene and enjoys good health and is a regular guest at boxing promotions in Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney and Melbourne.

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