Boxing returns to the Royal Albert Hall for just the second time in 20 years tonight. That in itself is a cause for celebration – the fact that the headline fight, local boy Anthony Yarde against America’s Travis Reeves, is a show-stopper in itself, is in many ways just a bonus.
This is a special place, with a special history for pugilism. Yarde, who has no shortage of stories of escaping gangs and knife crime on the mean streets of Hackney in his youth, has never been inside the hallowed hall at Kensington Gore. Yet between its nights of classical, rock and pop concerts, ballet, opera and two decades of Eric Morley’s Miss World contests, some of boxing’s finest and fieriest have graced its luscious interior.
Strangely, the Royal Albert Hall might have been designed specifically for boxing, given its elliptical shape and the closeness of the seats, and it certainly has “wow factor” on a fight night.
Its first foray into boxing was on Dec 11, 1918, pitching a British Empire team against the American Services. That night, the King’s Trophy was won by “Bombardier” Billy Wells, the renowned heavyweight, who outpointed Joe Beckett over three rounds.
The sport gained a royal stamp of approval in 1921 when the Prince of Wales witnessed events ringside as “Mighty Atom” Jimmy Wilde, the 5ft 2in world flyweight from Merthyr Tydfil who is regarded by many as Britain’s greatest ever pound-for-pound boxer, lost in the 17th round to Kid Herman, who was a stone heavier.
Gaining popularity as a venue, in the late Twenties and early Thirties the Italian giant Primo Carnera fought there six times, and one contest, against the Briton George Cooke, brought in £14,000, one of the largest box-office takings the hall’s management had ever known.
The venue, with a capacity of 5,500, was popular with a group of leading British post-war promoters, including Jack Solomons – who called it “the cosiest arena in the world” – Harry Levene, Mike Barrett and Mickey Duff, and has been used latterly by Frank Warren, who promotes tonight’s event.
Over time, a phalanx of British greats have marked a moment there, including Howard Winstone, Sir Henry Cooper, John Conteh, Frank Bruno, Naseem Hamed, Joe Calzaghe, Lennox Lewis and Ricky Hatton.
Lewis fought Glenn McCrory there in September 1991; Bruno made his debut there and fought there 15 times, winning every visit by knockout; Cooper fought there twice in the 1950s and had a brace of appearances in the Sixties.
There was even a night in Decembers 1951, when notorious gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, with their elder brother Charlie, all appeared on the same bill.
And in May 1979 Muhammad Ali said farewell to London in an exhibition bout entitled “The Magic of Ali”.
There should have been another little moment of history there tonight, as Nicola Adams, the double Olympic gold-medallist, was scheduled to fight for a world title for the first time. Sadly, she is injured, but the card includes another young heavyweight in Daniel Dubois, who could within a couple of years join Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder at the summit.
Either way, Yarde is in for a special night. “I’ve never been there and I didn’t check it out because I want it to wow me,” Yarde (below) told The Daily Telegraph. “It’s all preparation for when you reach the main stage. Things are meant to surprise you.”
It will, Anthony. He will feel the ghosts of Ali, Cooper, Carnera and Wilde on his shoulder as he takes his first steps into the old place – and should relish every history-soaked moment.