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Cardiff: A history of big fight nights in the Welsh capital

Joe Cordina formerly trained at St Joseph’s gym in Newport

Welshman Joe Cordina will bid to become Wales’ 13th world boxing champion on Saturday night when he challenges IBF super featherweight champion Kenichi Ogawa.

Cordina, 30, will headline a show in his home city as he bids to follow in some famous footsteps.

There is no denying Cardiff has already witnessed some all-time classics across the capital, the Welsh pantheon of pugilism.

BBC Sport Wales takes a look back at over a century of big boxing events in Cardiff.

Freddie Welsh avoids a left hook from Jim Driscoll
Freddie Welsh avoids a left hook from Jim Driscoll

Freddie Welsh v Jim Driscoll, American Roller Rink, 20 December 1910

Two of the greats of Welsh boxing met at the now demolished American Roller Rink 107 years ago in front of a sell-out crowd of over 10,000.

Cardiff boxer Driscoll and Pontypridd’s Freddie Welsh had found fame on both sides of the Atlantic and will both be remembered as two of the greatest boxers from Wales, but their clash, on paper a perfect mesh of styles, ended in disappointment for Driscoll and his supporters.

Welsh would win the fight via a disqualification decision following excessive use of the head from Driscoll.

Ike Williams
Ike Williams won 126 professional fights between 1940-1955

Ike Williams v Ronnie James, Ninian Park, 4 September 1946

The first world title fight in the Welsh capital, staged at Cardiff City’s former stadium, this was a classic underdog versus champion contest.

After 103 fights, Swansea’s Ronnie James landed a dream shot at American great Ike Williams, with the American coming to Wales to defend his title.

Williams, the world lightweight champion best known for bouts with Sammy Angott, Bob Montgomery, and Beau Jack, was the first defending world champion lured to Wales, with over 30,000 fans cramming into Cardiff City’s home, Ninian Park, a stadium only just recovered from the damage done by bombs dropped during World War II.

Ten years James’ junior, Williams was simply too much for the Welshman, flooring him six times before a body shot ended the contest in the ninth round. James would retire a year later.

Vicente Saldivar v Howard Winstone
Howard Winstone looks to take the fight to Vicente Saldivar during their bout in 1967

Vicente Saldivar v Howard Winstone, Ninian Park, 15 June 1967

Arguably the most famous trilogy of fights involving a Welshman, a generation of fans were enthralled by the rivalry between Vicente Saldivar and Howard Winstone.

Merthyr boxer Winstone had won Empire Games gold in Cardiff in 1958 and, in 1963, had claimed the European title from Alberto Seti, but he had been denied against Mexican great Saldivar for the world featherweight crown at Earls Court in 1965 in the first instalment of this classic pairing.

Winstone’s narrow defeat on points led to inevitable rematch calls and Saldivar, widely regarded as one of the all-time featherweight greats, agreed to come to Cardiff.

A night of controversy ensued, with the Welshman seemingly in control for large exchanges. Saldivar scored a knockdown in the 14th round, but many still felt Winstone had done enough to win the contest on points after a strong start, but referee Wally Thom disagreed, despite seemingly being set to walk towards Winstone’s corner after a ferocious contest.

Winstone’s manager Eddie Thomas called it “the worst decision I have ever seen,” with Saldivar beating Winstone again, decisively, in Mexico City four months later.

Winstone would become WBC champion in 1968, but he never again hit the heights he produced in that second fight with Saldivar.

Lennox Lewis v Frank Bruno
The undercard of Lennox Lewis v Frank Bruno featured the debut of a then unknown newly-turned professional super middleweight boxer named Joe Calzaghe

Lennox Lewis v Frank Bruno, Cardiff Arms Park, 1 October 1993

A damp night but not a damp squib of a fight, Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno fought for the world WBC heavyweight title in front of over 20,000 fans at the Arms Park.

After previous defeats by Tim Witherspoon and Mike Tyson, this was the third time Bruno had challenged for a world title, but he was again denied after being stopped in a one-sided seventh stanza.

Almost two years later, Bruno would finally become a world champion at the fourth attempt after beating Oliver McCall, while Lewis became a three-time world champion and is the last heavyweight to lay claim to the title of undisputed champion.

Robinson v Hamed
Steve Robinson had won his world title despite accepting a fight with just 48 hours

Steve Robinson v Prince Naseem Hamed, Cardiff Arms Park, 30 September 1995

Having won the WBO featherweight against champion Ruben Palacios after accepting the fight at very late notice, Wales’ ‘Cinderella Man’ Steve Robinson saw his dreams shattered by a 21-year-old Prince Naseem Hamed when the Sheffield boxer was at the peak of his powers.

Hamed proved to be a class above Robinson in terms of speed and skill, even if Robinson showed extraordinary heart and courage.

Hostile crowds would become a feature for Hamed towards the end of his career but, as a 21-year old, the way he shrugged off the raucous Cardiff faithful was hugely impressive, with Hamed able to show much of his repertoire over eight one-sided rounds.

Joe Calzaghe
Joe Calzaghe retired as a two-weight world champion who never lost a fight professionally

Joe Calzaghe v Mikkel Kessler, Millennium Stadium, 4 November 2007

After his career-defining display of dominance against American Jeff Lacy, Joe Calzaghe, already a champion for a decade, was at a career crossroads, desperately seeking a mega match to captivate a boxing public on both sides of the Atlantic suddenly wise to his immense talent.

Calzaghe stepped through the ropes at the Millennium Stadium, first against American reality TV star Peter Manfredo Jr in a total mismatch, setting up a clash with Dane Mikkel Kessler that would finally produce an undisputed champion after years of talk.

After being boxing’s best kept secret, Calzaghe was suddenly thrust into the mainstream.

An estimated 50,000 fans, including around 1,000 from Denmark, poured into the stadium for the hotly anticipated contest, no mean feat considering the bout was staged at 3am to satisfy the American TV audience.

With his father and trainer Enzo in his corner and a nation behind him, Calzaghe produced a masterful display on one of his toughest nights, winning a unanimous points decision over Kessler, who would go on to beat Carl Froch three years later.

Calzaghe would never again fight at super middleweight, meaning the Kessler fight stands as the end point of over a decade of domination of the division.

Anthony Joshua v Joseph Parker, Joshua punching Parker square in the face
Anthony Joshua is a former Team GB stablemate and friend of Joe Cordina

Anthony Joshua v Joseph Parker, Principality Stadium, 31 March, 2018

Sell out the big stadium? No dramas. Anthony Joshua did it twice.

Following a difficult stoppage win over a game Carlos Takam in October 2017, the then-undefeated Joshua was moving closer to a unification fight, with New Zealand’s Joseph Parker putting his WBO world heavyweight title on the line against Joshua’s WBA, IBF, and IBO titles.

A capacity crowd of 78,000 descended on the national rugby stadium and they were treated to a contest that saw Joshua taken the distance for the first time in his career.

However, Joshua proved a class above as he always controlled a contest Parker did well to endure, with Joshua awarded a wide 118-110 118-110 119-109 decision on the judges’ cards.

Chris Eubank Jr punching Liam Williams in the face
Chris Eubank Jr is the son of former world champion boxer Chris Eubank

Liam Williams v Chris Eubank Jr, Motorpoint Arena, 5 February, 2022

From a purely sporting standpoint, this fight, a pure grudge match with no major titles at stake, is questionable in terms of making this list, but as they say, timing is everything.

For British boxing, this fight marked the beginning of a return to sporting normality after almost two full years of boxing – like the rest of life – being heavily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

In January 2022 boxing in the UK ceased altogether to allow medics to focus squarely on the pandemic, but Williams v Eubank, a grudge fight that emanated from social media, marked the return of the sport across the UK.

The Motorpoint Arena was full for the first time since since the heyday of one of Wales’ greatest ever, Calzaghe, who drew the sold out signs for a WBO super middleweight title defence in 2001 against Mario Veit.

The biggest crowd in over 20-years and the biggest televised audience on Sky Sports – with over one millions viewers – enjoyed a quality card that culminated in Eubank’s extremely impressive points victory, with Eubank flooring the home favourite four times.

Cordina will hope for a much happier homecoming.

A version of this article first appeared in 2017.

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