Editor’s Note: To many Africans who grew up in the 60s and 70s, he was the baddest man in boxing.
HOGAN “KID” BASSEY was one of the great ambassadors for African sport, both during a two-year reign as world featherweight boxing champion and afterwards when he served as Nigeria’s director of physical education and coached the national amateur team.
One of five children, Okon Bassey Asuquo was from Calabar on the south- eastern edge of Nigeria near the border with what is now Cameroon. He was still at school when he turned professional, although his early bouts were never recorded.
In 1949 he won and lost the Nigerian flyweight title, and by 1951 he was both Nigerian and West African champion at bantamweight. But like many Afri-can boxers at the time he realised that if he wanted to earn any kind of living from boxing, it made sense to travel to England.
He took the boat from Lagos to Liverpoool at the end of 1951, found himself digs and made his British debut with a fourth-round stoppage of Ray Hillyard in January 1952. He proved so popular with British fans that he made 19 appearances in that first calendar year.
In November 1955 Bassey won the British Empire featherweight title in Belfast by knocking out the Irishman Billy “Spider” Kelly with a perfectly delivered right hook in the eighth round.
After retaining the Empire championship with a 15-round points win over Percy Lewis from Trinidad at Nottingham in April 1957, he was included in the negotiations which followed the retirement of the world champion Sandy Saddler.
Bassey fought Cherif Hamia, a French-Algerian, for the vacant title in Paris in June 1957. He was on the floor in round two, but picked himself up and slammed away until the 10th when Hamia, who was the pre-fight favourite, folded and was rescued by the referee.
Bassey was greeted heroically in Britain and Nigeria, relinquished his Empire title, enjoyed a couple of non-title paydays before his old fans in Nottingham and Liverpool, and was invested as MBE at Buckingham Palace.
Eventually, he travelled to Los Angeles to defend the worldchampionship against a Mexican, Ricardo “Little Bird” Moreno, on a rainy night in April 1958. Moreno was a sensational fighter with 29 knockouts in 33 fights, who was mostly responsible for drawing a crowd of 20,000 fans to Wrigley Field.
George Biddles, his manager, negotiated hard and Bassey grosssed $70,000 – a record for a featherweight champion. Storms kept ticket sales down, but just when it seemed as if the promoters Cal and Aileen Easton were going to take a financial bath, the weather eased and $50,000 worth of tickets were sold in the last two hours before the show.
Biddles always said when he saw Moreno spar in a headguard that looked like a crash helmet he suspected there must be something wrong with the Mexican’s chin. Moreno turned out to be heavy-punching, dangerous but technically crude, and Bassey used his speed and clever boxing before opening up to knock him out two seconds before the end of round three.
Bassey returned to the United States in September 1958 for a non-title fight with the veteran former champion Willie Pep at the famous Boston Garden. Pep was 36 but, knowing this was his last chance to clinch a championship fight, he drilled himself into magnificent shape.
For five rounds, Pep was dazzling. Slowly, however, Bassey took over and in the ninth he put the old master down with right hands. Pep proudly struggled up, but the referee waved it off. The fight increased Bassey’s profile in the States, and he and Biddles stayed on with their wives, mixing in personal appearances with two non-title wins in New York and Hollywood.
Eventually, when he settled down to a serious fight it was for a guaranteed $45,000 against Davey Moore, the leading contender, in Los Angeles in March 1959. Bassey, still only 26, boxed badly. He was behind on points and cut over both eyes when he retired at the end of the 13th round. He was criticised for not continuing. Even the ringside doctor, Tommy Hard, said he could have boxed on. Today, he would not have been so harshly treated, but in 1959 champions were not expected to quit.
In a rematch in August 1959, Bassey again retired, this time after round 10. “Yes, I am beaten,” he said when a disgusted Biddles called the referee to the corner. “I do not want to go on.” He never boxed again.
Bassey was appointed director of physical education by the Nigerian government in 1963, and for many years was a major force on the amateur scene, once putting his name to a teaching manual, Hogan on Boxing. In 1980 he accompanied the Nigerian team to the Moscow Olympics.
Okon Bassey Asuquo (Hogan Bassey), boxer: born Calabar, Nigeria 3 June 1932; twice married (eight children); died Lagos 26 January 1998.
By Bob Mee, www.independent.co.uk/