Africa’s Kid crowned king
When Hogan "Kid" Bassey won the world featherweight title in 1957 he caused a sensation.
More than half a century later, Bassey is still remembered and revered as the first Nigerian to become a world boxing champion.
And the story of his career is still one of the most enduring in African sport.
In the first article of a new series on SuperBoxing, we look back on the career of one of Africa’s finest fighters. The articles, all written by RON JACKSON, have appeared in Sports Talk on SuperBoxing. Boxing enthusiasts can collect them as part of a treasure chest of charming stories and valuable information.
Bassey won the title in Paris on June 24 1957 when he stopped Cherif Hamia in the tenth round. It was the culmination of a journey that began in a village called Ufok Ubet in Eastern Nigeria, where Bassey was born on June 3 1932.
The village was near Creek Town in an area called Calabar where Bassey had to help with the work on the family's small farm when he was still a little boy in a poor family.
He soon learned to fight when he was sent to fetch water from as communal tap where there were always bullies trying to jump the queue. Fighting them off brought out a natural talent – the ability to use his fists.
He was eleven years old when he was sent to live with an aunt in Lagos. That was where he began boxing at a local club. He was 16 when, in his first professional fight, he challenged for the Nigerian flyweight title.
He eventually won the title when he defeated Dick Turpin over 12 rounds in 1949. Soon afterwards he won the Nigerian bantamweight title when he defeated Steve Jeffra.
There was little money to be made by boxing in Nigeria so Bassey decided to try his luck in Britain. With financial help of a few friends, he arrived in a cold and damp Liverpool in December 1951.
In his first fight abroad, in January 1952, he stopped Ray Hillyard. He kept busy and had 18 fights in his first year in Britain. He won 14, and lost on points to John Kelly, Frankie Williams and Pierre Cossemyns, all good boxers.
In 1953 Bassey had ten fights, including a stoppage win over the highly rated Spaniard Luis Romero.
After a six-month holiday in Nigeria, Hogan returned to Liverpool decidedly heavier. He moved to featherweight and beat Sammy McCarthy, who had been unbeaten in his 28 previous fights.
CROWNED AT KING’S HALL
On November 19 1955 he fought John Kelly, an Irishman, for the British Empire featherweight title. They met in Kelly's back yard at the King's Hall in Belfast.
Kelly had won their previous fight, in April 1952, on points. This time it was a different story.
In his book Bassey on Boxing he wrote: “When I stepped into the Belfast ring I realised how alone I was in the vast hall thronged by Irishman. The cheer that Kelly received when he went to his corner was almost frightening.
“Plans can so easily go awry, and they nearly did that night. It was the bugbear of all boxers, the cut eye. It happened in the fifth round. My greatest fear was that the referee would stop the fight.
“As I stepped towards the middle of the ring for the seventh round I knew I had to go in and fight. He [Kelly] had become a little over-confident ... As he came in, I feinted to throw a left hook and, just as I had hoped he would, he swayed to his left.
“I put everything into a right cross that crashed against Kelly's jaw like a trip-hammer. I knew he had no chance of beating the count. Actually Kelly was down for five minutes before he fully recovered. I was the new British Empire champion.”
THE SOUTH AFRICAN CONNECTION
In 1956, taxation nearly crippled boxing in England and some small halls closed down. Bassey, by now a married man, was unable to get enough fights to make a living and found a job as a motor mechanic's assistant in Liverpool.
In September 1956, he fought a young South African featherweight, Alby Tissong, who had been boxing in Britain for several years.
They met at the Liverpool Stadium, where Tissong had put up some fine performances. Bassey won on points over eight rounds and reporters described the fight as an “epic”.
Shortly afterwards Bassey broke up with his long-time manager Peter Banasko and joined George Biddles from Leicester.
Biddles began negotiating for Bassey to fight Elijah Mokone, the SA featherweight champion, but Bassey was refused permission to enter South Africa.
A fight with Flash Elorde from the Philippines also fell through and Bassey became so despondent he considered giving up boxing.
But then Sandy Saddler, the world featherweight champion, retired and the search began to find for a new champion.
Biddles wrote to the British Boxing Board of Control to stake Bassey’s claim. But the board ruled that Bassey had to defend his Empire title against Percy Lewis. Bassey retained the title on April 1 1957.
Then he had to fight a Puerto Rican, Miguel Berrios in an eliminator in Washington. Bassey was given almost no chance but he won on points over 12 rounds after being knocked down in the first round.
FIGHTING FOR THE WORLD TITLE
On May 24 in 1957, at the Palais des Sports in Paris, he fought a Frenchman, Cherif Hamia, for the world title.
After a quiet opening round, Bassey was knocked down in the second when Hamia caught him with a vicious right cross to the jaw.
Hamia immediately tried to repeat the feat, throwing the right time after time while Bassey boxed sensibly. The Frenchman began to weaken and in the tenth round Bassey connected with a left hook to the jaw.
To stop himself falling, Hamia grabbed Hogan around the shoulders and both went down. Bassey was up immediately, but Hamia was forced to take a short count.
He was really in no condition to fight on but the referee let it continue. The Frenchman took a beating and was about to go down again when the referee stopped the bout.
Hogan Bassey was the featherweight champion of the world, at a time when there were not four or five versions of titles in every division.
Bassey needed a rest and went back to Nigeria. Thousands of supporters welcomed him home at Ikeja Airport. There was no rest for him. Everywhere he went, he received a hero’s welcome.
He was even awarded an MBE when he was included on the British queen’s honours list.
On his return, Bassey fought in two non-title bouts, beating Victor Pepeder on points and gaining revenge over the Belgian Cossemyns early in 1958.
He then had to defend his title against a hard-hitting Mexican, Ricardo Moreno. They fought in Los Angeles on April 2 1958.
Moreno went straight after Bassey when the bell rang but the champion did not back off. They slugged it out in the first two rounds but in the third Bassey sent Moreno down and out with a left to the chin. It was the first knockout defeat for the challenger.
Bassey received only four thousand pounds from the winner’s purse of 25 000 pounds after expenses and income tax had been paid.
Bassey then had four non-title fights, stopping Jules Touan in the seventh round and the legendary Willie Pep, well past his best by then in the ninth before points wins over Carmelo Costa and Ernesto Parro.
In his second title defence he fought Davey Moore in March 1959. The first five rounds went according to plan. Bassey was well in the lead and Moore had suffered a cut on the cheek.
At the end of the sixth round, just as the bell went, Bassey dropped his hands. Before he could turn away Moore hit him with several punches to the face, opening two cuts near his eyes. Hogan was so dazed his trainer had to lead him to his corner.
Bassey always believed those punches after the bell cost him the fight and the title. He came to his senses only in the 13th round when Biddles asked for the fight to be stopped because of the cuts.
Bassey tried to regain the title in August 1959 but Moore stopped him in the tenth after Bassey had been cut again.
Moore died on March 23 1963, two days after losing his title in a fight with Sugar Ramos.
Bassey retired after a ten-year career with a record of 74 fights, 59 victories, 13 defeats and 2 draws.
He was appointed director of physical education by the Nigerian government in 1963 and for many years devoted himself to amateur boxing. He also put his name to a teaching manual titled Hogan on Boxing .
In 1980 he was part of the Nigerian coaching team that trained the country’s fighters for the Moscow Olympics.
Bassey died in Lagos, Nigeria, on January 26 1998 at the age of 65.