Before boxing footballers Woodhouse and McKenzie there was Ditchburn and Hoddinott
THE country is in the midst of football fervour. As a nine-year-old, I watched England beat West Germany to win the World Cup in 1966. As I write this, some 55 years later, we have finally beaten the Germans again in the knockout stages of a major tournament.
There have not been many footballers who also boxed professionally, but in recent years two men have broken this mould. Curtis Woodhouse, who played three times in the Premier League for Birmingham City, went on to become British super-lightweight champion in 2014 after beating Darren Hamilton in Hull. “The Driffield Destroyer” won 24 of his 31 professional contests and is the most successful British boxer to have also played football at a high level.
Leon McKenzie played in all four leagues between 1995 and 2013, including spells with Crystal Palace and Norwich City. It was while playing for Norwich that Leon netted seven times in 37 appearances in the Premier League. Leon is the son of Clinton McKenzie, who I think was one of the finest boxers of his generation. I well remember just what an exciting, never-say-die scrapper Clinton was, and his two wars with Colin Powers in 1979 and Des Morrison in 1981 were included in my recent series highlighting the 50 greatest British fights of the 20th century. Leon inherited some of his father’s ring skills and he proved this by winning eight of his 11 professional contests between 2013 and 2017. A York Hall favourite, Leon boxed for both the English and the Southern Area super-middleweight titles, and his boxing career was a good one.
I have managed to find a handful of examples of professional footballers who also boxed for money, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, but only two of them played international football. The first of these was Ted Ditchburn, who was a member of England’s 1950 World Cup squad. During a long and distinguished career for Tottenham Hotspur, for whom Ted kept goal on 418 occasions between 1939 and 1958, he also played for England six times. Recently I uncovered three contests for a young Eddie Ditchburn of Northfleet, boxing in and around Rochester during the early 1930s. Eddie was the son of the Kent champion, Harry Ditchburn of Chatham, who boxed at a decent level before the Great War, winning 19 of his 40 fights. Eddie’s schoolboy bouts were all for pay, and he then quit the ring and became a household name on the football pitch.
Francis “Tom” Hoddinott [pictured above left] came from the Brecon hills and he was a hard man. He learned to box while serving in the army in India, and upon his return he became a professional footballer. Tom was a star player for Watford from 1919. He was picked to represent Wales twice in 1921 in matches against Scotland and England, after which he made a big-money move to Chelsea. He finished his football league career at Crystal Palace in 1926. While playing football professionally, Tom also had a parallel boxing career at middleweight. In the summer of 1919, just before he made his league debut, Tom boxed twice in Maesteg in a 10 and a 12-rounder, winning both on points.
After establishing himself as an international footballer, he then boxed again in 1922, losing on points to Sonny Bird of Chelsea at Fulham Baths. Bird was one of the finest British middleweights of the 1920s and Tom gave him a tough fight. Tom boxed three more times in Wales during the 1920s, winning twice, before he bowed out of the ring in 1930, when he retired in the 10th round of a 15-rounder against Jimmy McMurray at the Victoria Hall in Southend. He won four of his eight contests in total, and he died aged 85 in 1980. The photograph on the facing page shows him sparring with Andrew Newton of Marylebone, another top middleweight of the period.