‘I would’ve beaten Ali’ – How rough Hackney upbringing prepared John Gardner for greatness

Born in London Fields, former British, Commonwealth and European boxing champion John Gardner talks about his career in his new book - including coming up against Muhammad Ali.

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John L Gardner, Boxer, wins the European heavywieght title against Belgium's Rudi Gauwe at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 22nd April 1980

It’s December 1980, and the British Boxing Board of Control have got a problem. A British fighter, John Lewis Gardner, has signed a contract to fight none other than Muhammad Ali in Hawaii next spring for a huge purse. A mismatch, the board fears.

“We have made our position quite clear,” says the then-BBBC secretary Ray Clarke. “This fight should not go ahead.”

“Thanks to that f*****g psycho, the ring was child’s play”

But Gardner is no mug, the European champion no less, and has already gone toe-to-toe with ‘The Greatest’ in a three-round exhibition bout at the Royal Albert Hall three years earlier. He’s not the problem in the BBBC’s eyes. Ali is.

“We don’t think Ali should go back into boxing ring again,” Clarke says. “We are not worried about Gardner’s ability to take the fight.”

John L Gardner v Ossie Ocasio of Puerto Rico at Wembley 17/03/1981
March 17th 1981

Eventually the board got their wish. Ali, who was by now approaching 40 and had just lost by stoppage for the first time in his career, against Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, was not granted a licence and the fight never went ahead.

“I really believed I could beat him,” says Gardner, in his new book, The Forgotten Champ, co-written with journalist Nick Towle. “With my fast pressing game and swarming rhythm, I’d be too busy for him in his old age.”

While Gardner’s career was tainted by the cancellation of a fight against an old man, it was partly inspired by a beating from one – his own. Born in London Fields in 1953, Gardner’s early childhood was plagued by regular hidings from an abusive father.

John L Gardner after beating Ossie Ocasio of Puerto Rico at Wembley
March 17th 1981

“Thanks to that f*****g psycho, the ring was child’s play,” Gardner writes. In one particularly harrowing incident, he recalls how his father attempted to drown him in the kitchen sink, only for his “heroic” mother to intervene, scalding her husband with a pot of boiling peas.

Life away from the home wasn’t much better. “I hated myself, hated school, hated home, hated life,” Gardner admits. “I was a mama’s boy, a friendless, fat little f****r.”

His abnormally large size had mothers warning their children to stay away from him, worried he might spell trouble. While others played in the streets, Gardner roamed London Fields alone, chasing a football up and down, pretending to be his hero, Chelsea’s Peter Osgood.

“I really believed I could beat [Ali]. With my fast pressing game and swarming rhythm, I’d be too busy for him.”

A football was something of a luxury. This was 60s Hackney, and in Gardner’s struggling neighbourhood “no one had any money and only one family owned a car”. In the book’s early chapters, he talks of bathing in his brother’s dirty bath water and using yesterday’s newspapers as toilet roll.  

The community was also plagued by the legalisation of betting shops in 1961, adding gambling to the list of ways that workshy fathers like Gardner’s might fritter away the family purse.

While his mother worked 15-hour days, Gardner spent his time running betting slips back and forth to the bookies. In later life, he laughed at the state of it all. When “flash” young American boxer Michael Dokes boasted of bathing in $20,000 worth of champagne, Gardner joked that he’d spent as much, and then some, in one day on the horses. At the time though, he needed a way out.

Given that Gardner ended up in the ring with Muhammad Ali, it should come as no surprise to hear that he got one. A friend of his brother had a boxing trainer father and after just a few sparring sessions, Gardner’s talent was clear to see and a glittering career followed.

John Gardner
“I never wanted to be a champion” says Gardner (right)

“I never wanted to be a champion,” says the man who went on to be exactly that, on British, Commonwealth and European fronts. “But I did want a bit of respect, and I was into the birds.”

Such an East End sentiment seems particularly befitting of ‘The Hackney Rock’, a fighter who blossomed in the ring but was made in “The Manor”.

All quotes taken from The Forgotten Champ, available to buy now from WarCry Press UK.