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Yesterday’s Heroes: A brief history of German boxers in British rings

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WITH the war still raging in Eastern Europe, it is hard to imagine a time when a Ukrainian will again step into the ring with a Russian. After the two world wars spread across Europe in the 20th century, relationships between Britain and Germany were much the same.

Germany did not have a long tradition of boxing by the time that the first world war broke out in 1914. There had been only a sporadic number of shows that had taken place over there and no German boxer of note had come to the fore. The first German boxer that I can find taking part in a contest in the UK was Peter Gotz, a top-class wrestler, who engaged in a number of bouts with the gloves in 1909. By 1912 an Anglo-German Sporting Club had been established in Berlin, and a handful of British boxers fought over there, including Jack Roberts of Drury Lane, a high-class fighter at the time. By 1914 German lads were starting to appear in British rings, particularly in London, but the war put a stop to that.

Hans Breitenstraeter, a heavyweight, was starting to make waves in the early 1920s and quite a few British heavies went over there to fight him, including Tom Cowler, Harry Drake and Harry Reeve, but UK fight fans were still not ready to watch a German over here. That changed on December 29, 1924, when two Germans appeared on a bill at the Victoria Baths in Nottingham. One of them, Erich Ziemdorf, was matched with an Italian, Franco Vitale, in the top of the bill contest over 15 rounds.

Many in attendance will have served on the Western Front, and, despite the enmity that still existed for many, these two lads got a warm reception. Italy had originally been our enemy during the recent conflict before switching sides, and so to match a German with an Italian was a brave move by the promoter.  Earlier that evening, the first German to step into a British ring since the war, Walter Funke, thrashed the Irish middleweight, Pat McAllister, in another 15-rounder.

Within a matter of months, many other German lads followed. By 1927, when Ted Sandwina made his UK debut, relationships between the two countries within the boxing ring had become normalised. Two other trailblazers were Franz Kruppel and Hans Lincke, who boxed regularly around Britain, particularly in the North East where they made Sunderland their base, in the late 1920s.

Sandwina was a sensation during the few years that he based himself in London. He eventually embarked for the States to try to fulfil his ambition of winning the world heavyweight title only to eventually fade into obscurity never having come close, but he paved the way for the next generation of German heavyweights to take the UK by storm during the 1930s. These included Hein Mueller, Erenst Guehring and Hans Schoenrath and, most notably, Walter Neusel.  And then came the second world war.

The accompanying press photograph of Leo Starosch, seen in a losing 1954 bout with Johnny Sullivan at Preston erroneously states that he was the first German to appear in a British ring since 1945. A much better claim can be made for Werner Wiegand, another heavyweight, who came to Harringay Arena in December 1952 to box Johnny Williams.  A month previously Wiegand had outpointed Tommy Farr in Dortmund, but he was no match for Williams, the British and Empire heavyweight champion, who knocked him out in the fifth round.

BN stated confidently that Wiegand was “the first German-born boxer to appear in a British ring since 1939.” I have found an earlier one. Eight months previously, on a Fred Ashton promotion at the Royal Hall, Harrogate, Eric Polensky lost a six-round points verdict against Gateshead’s Ronnie Iveson. Either way, it took a full seven years before UK fans were ready to watch a German fighter, one more than it had back in 1924.

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