Joe Erskine (1934-90) was one of the most talented and popular heavyweights Britain has ever produced, but his weaknesses came in his lack of power and fragile skin.
Despite the many successes of his career, in the words of Paul Johnson: “He always seemed to be on the crest of a slump”.*
Erskine was born to a fighting family in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, and his father was a booth fighter. An outstanding all-round sportsman, Erskine lived on the same street as rugby league legend Billy Boston, who was six months his junior.
A single draw was the only blemish against the first 25 fights of his career, before he faced Henry Cooper as each man closed on the British title, the first of what was to be an epic series of encounters between the men.
The Welshman triumphed to set up a huge bout with another fast-rising young Welsh heavyweight, Newport’s Dick Richardson.
The local rivals clashed before an estimated 35,000 crowd at Cardiff’s Maindy Stadium, and the thrilling bout did not disappoint.
Big-punching rough-house Richardson sent Erskine to the canvas for the first time in his career in the fifth, but the Cardiff man was in control for much of the fight and won a wide points verdict.
Three months later the 22-year-old Erskine was back at the Maindy Stadium to fight for the vacant British heavyweight title, the first time that belt had been contested in Wales.
His opponent was another Welshman, former British champion Johnny Williams from Barmouth (the title had become vacant following Don Cockell’s retirement).
The fans were again out in numbers – despite the drenching they received from the heavy August rain – and they were rewarded as local hero Erskine claimed the crown on points.
The new champion went unbeaten for 30 fights, but he was crushed in the first round when he stepped up to world level against Nino Valdes.
On the comeback trail, Erskine successfully defended his British crown against Cooper, and in 1957 added the Empire belt to his collection. He also sought the European crown, but was stopped by Ingemar Johannson in the 13th round of a brave challenge.
Erskine’s problems with cuts cost him dear as he lost his British and Empire belts in a stoppage defeat to Brian London, but then came one of the best wins of his career.
The Welshman took on and outclassed future world light-heavyweight Willie Pastrano, the performance prompting Pastrano’s trainer Angelo Dundee to insist that Erskine would have been a world beater if he had just been a bit bigger.
In the meantime, Cooper had taken the British title from London, and he would again meet Erskine in the most famous – and controversial – of their encounters, on 17 November, 1959.
The champion was left dazed early in the fight when he was climbing from the canvas after a stumble to the floor. As he rose, Cooper stepped in with a vicious left hook that sent the Welshman crashing back down.
Erskine battled on bravely, but the fight ended horrifically in the 12th when Erskine was knocked out and left draped over the ropes. In the memorable BBC commentary of the fight, Harry Carpenter exclaimed that “he’s arched there like a bow over the bottom ropes”.
Because the fight was so controversial a rematch was inevitable, but by now Erskine’s career was in decline and he was stopped in the fifth.
One more glory night would follow, though. The Cardiff man headed to Toronto to face George Chuvalo, with the Canadian expecting an easy win that would lead him into a shot at world champion Floyd Patterson.
Erskine’s skills flummoxed the tough, lumbering home fighter from the outset, and after the frustrated Chuvalo had unleashed a series of head-butts he was eventually disqualified in the fifth.
The unexpected victory helped build up a fifth and final showdown with Cooper, but the Cardiff man lost on cuts.
Erskine fought on for over two years before retiring in 1964. He met personal and financial problems in his post-fight days, but remained a hugely popular figure in Cardiff and vast numbers attended his funeral in 1990.
*In Peter Stead and Gareth Williams (eds.), “Wales and its Boxers: The Fighting Tradition” (Cardiff, 2008), p.142