• December 12 down the years

The Brain versus the Beast

The sporting events of December 12 down the years
Nigel Benn shows his power against Nicky Piper © Getty Images

Brain v Beast, they called it, as Nigel Benn defended his WBC super-middleweight title against Welshman Nicky Piper, who had a Mensa rating of 153. He could box a bit too, and had a five-inch height advantage - but slimming down from light-heavyweight didn't help his punching power, which Benn had in abundance. Piper lasted until the 11th round before Benn knocked him down with a left hook, and the referee stopped it soon afterwards.

The least surprising award of all time. Muhammad Ali was named BBC Sports Personality of the Century.

Will Carling was born. England's most successful rugby union captain, he led them to 46 wins in 59 matches, both world records at the time, three Grand Slams, and the 1991 World Cup final. But there were failures too. He should have overruled Brian Moore and ordered close-range penalties to be taken against Scotland in 1990, when a Grand Slam was lost. And the jury will always be out on Carling the player. He tackled his weight and scored the odd try, but that outside half-break became less and less convincing, and he did little on the Lions tour of 1993 after being overlooked for the captaincy.

The last day of the European Short-Course Championships, in which British swimmers picked up seven gold medals, three of them by James Hickman. He won the 100 and 200 butterfly and the 200 individual medley, while Mark Foster won the 50 freestyle, Graeme Smith the 1500, Adam Whitehead the 200 breaststroke, and Sue Rolph the 100 free.

Dean Macey was born. Canvey Island's finest, Britain's best decathlete since Daley Thompson, he was rarely uninjured for long. In the circumstances, Deano did all he could. He finished fourth in two Olympics, and was unlucky not to have won the bronze in 2000, when Erki Nool should have been disqualified in the discus instead of winning the whole caboodle. Macey won silver and bronze at the World Championships before winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

In front of only 2,000 spectators, the first rugby league match between Great Britain and Australia took place on QPR's ground at Park Royal in London. Britain led 14-5 at half-time, but Jimmy Devereux scored three tries for Australia in the second half. With five minutes left, 'Dally' Messenger kicked his fifth goal to put Australia 22-10 ahead, only for Australia to concede a daft penalty for obstruction in the last minute. Ernie Brooks had played well at half-back but missed some easy kicks at goal. Now he made up for them by knocking over the equalising goal. Having got out of jail, Britain locked the Kangaroos in it, winning the next two matches to take the series. ---- On the same day, Australia's rugby union players lost to Wales in Cardiff. ----

Fiona May was born. In 1988 she became world junior champion at the long jump, but she wasn't happy with the support she wasn't getting from British athletics, so she married Gianni Iapichino and competed for Italy instead. After that, the successes arrived mob-handed. European indoor champion, world indoor champion, twice world outdoor champion. She won two silver medals at the Olympic Games and was angry at being beaten in 1996 by someone who'd served a four-year ban for taking drugs (see December 25 1971). May's personal best of 7.11 metres would still be the British record if she'd stayed.

Britain's Alan Rudkin had no luck in world title fights. This was his third attempt at the bantamweight belt, and as usual he had to fight away from home and against a class act. In 1965 he'd gone 15 rounds in Tokyo with that tremendous little buzzsaw Fighting Harada. Four years later, he lost a split decision to Lionel Rose in Melbourne. Now, in California, he faced Mexico's Rubén Olivares, a harder puncher than Harada or Rose. The fight was stopped in the second round after Rudkin had been knocked down three times. The following year, he went back to winning British, Commonwealth, and European titles.

Tracy Austin was born. A champion tennis player in her teens, her ground strokes and youth brought back memories of Little Mo Connolly (born September 17 1934). Austin still had her teeth in braces when she became the youngest singles player to win a professional tournament, at Portland in Oregon only 28 days after her 14th birthday. She was only 16 when she won the US Open in 1979, and she regained the title in 1981. In those two finals, she'd faced the great champions of her time, winning in straight sets against Chris Evert, who was trying to take the title for the fifth year in a row - and recovering from losing the first set 6-1 against Martina Navrátilová to win the next two on tie-breaks, the second by seven points to one. With her brother John, she won the Wimbledon mixed doubles in 1980 before her career was wrecked by injuries probably caused by playing too much too young.

Philip Neame was born. The only man to win the Victoria Cross and an Olympic gold medal. He won the VC during the First World War and the gold in shooting at the 1924 Games - in the running deer double shot team event, no less, when Britain beat Norway by a single shot.

15-year-old Australian Shane Gould (born November 23 1956) broke the world record for the 1500 metres to become the only swimmer, male or female, to hold the world best at every freestyle event (100, 200, 400, 800, and 1500).

Alf Shrubb was born to be the greatest runner in the world. If there had been any individual distance races at the 1904 Olympics, there's no doubt at all that he would have won them all. In that year alone, he set records that lasted 12 years (2,000 metres), 18 and 24 years (three miles and ten miles, both of which needed Paavo Nurmi to break them), and 21 years (two miles). Shrubb set 11 world records in a single race and retained the International (now World) cross-country title. He would have been favourite in the 1908 Olympics too, at home in London, if he hadn't turned pro. A miniature giant.

Ed Sanders died during a professional boxing bout when he was only 24. Two years earlier, he'd won the Olympic heavyweight gold. His opponent in the Final, Ingemar Johansson of Sweden, was so wary of Sanders's punching power that he was disqualified for being too passive and his silver medal was withheld until 1981. Johansson turned professional too. Less than five years after Sanders died, he won the world heavyweight title.

Gale Sayers's rookie season with the Chicago Bears was legendary. One of the great running backs, he covered 2,272 yards and scored 22 touchdowns, including six in today's game against the San Francisco 49ers. On a muddy pitch that should have hampered his sprinting, Sayers scored with four rushes, from distances of one yard to 50, plus an 80-yard pass reception and an 85-yard punt return. His six touchdowns equalled the NFL record. The Bears won 61-20.

Iolanda Balaş was born in Romania. Not just the most successful high jumper of all but the most dominant athlete in any track and field event, year ahead of her time. The first woman to go over six feet, she won the Olympic gold medal in 1960 and 1964, set 14 world records, and was unbeaten in 140 competitions in a row, a world record that still stands. The amazing thing is that her style was ridiculously inefficient: she almost hurdled the bar. If she'd been taught something like the straddle or Fosbury Flop, she might still hold the world record today. No exaggeration: she was that far ahead. There's a stadium named after her in Bucharest. But 'her' is a problematic word here. There was always something unreal about this six-footer with the outdated style - and when mandatory gender testing was introduced, she suddenly sat out the 1996 European Championships, where she was expected to win the title for the third time in a row. Balaş's final world record of 1.91 metres, set in 1961, wasn't broken for ten years.

It was tough on Chris Evert that three of the Grand Slam tournaments were staged on fast courts. On clay, she won the French Open seven times to Martina Navrátilová's two. On grass, the figures were reversed - with the odd exception like today. In the final of the Australian Open, Evert won the first set, but things looked familiarly bleak when Navrátilová took the second 6-2: she'd come from a set down to beat Evert in the previous year's Final. But Chrissie's groundstrokes held up this time and she took the third set and the title. Navrátilová regained the title in 1983, Evert won it the year after that before normal service (yup, pun intended) was resumed in 1985, when Martina beat Chris in the Final again.

Émerson Fittipaldi was born in Brazil. Jacky Stewart's greatest rival after the death of Jochen Rindt, he won the Formula One drivers' championship in 1972 and 1974 (Stewart in 1971 and 1973). Before Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, he was the youngest F1 champion: 25 years old in 1972. He moved on to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1989 and (at the age of 46) 1993, when he held off Britain's Nigel Mansell. After the 1993 race, he drank a bottle of orange juice. Nothing too controversial in that, you might think. He was just advertising the orange groves he owned in Brazil, and anyway he was thirsty after a hard race. But it mattered enormously to those sensitive souls in America. Fittipaldi was only the second driver since 1936 not to drink a bottle of milk after winning the 500. He was booed at every race afterwards, even when he returned for the 2008 Indy. Tells you more about the hecklers than the heckled.

'Terrible' Tim Witherspoon had just defended his WBA heavyweight title by stopping Frank Bruno. Now he faced James 'Bonecrusher' Smith, whom he'd outpointed over 12 rounds the previous year. This fight didn't last quite that long. Tim was truly terrible: looking flabby round the middle, he spent more time getting up than staying up. Smith came out throwing bombs and knocked him down three times in the first round before the referee stopped it. Witherspoon carried on boxing until 2003, but never again for a world title.

In Sestriere in northern Italy, the great Alberto Tomba made light of a rib injury to win the slalom, the first World Cup race ever held under floodlights.

Henry Armstrong was born on 12.12.12, the number of a mighty beast. With the iffy exception of Barney Ross (born December 23 1909), he was the only boxer to hold three world titles at the same time, and he did it when titles were full titles. None of your 'super' this and 'junior' that. Hurricane Hank won the featherweight belt in 1937, then leapfrogged the next division to take the welterweight championship from Ross before coming back down to pick off the lightweight crown. He even fought a draw for a version of the middleweight title. A physical freak, Armstrong had such a slow heartbeat that his warm-ups were often longer than his fights - and he was happy for his fights to go the full 15 rounds. He made 19 successful defences of the welterweight title, beat sixteen world champions, and fought 180 pro bouts in all. Whatever's next up from 'legend'.

In the Inter-Zonal final, effectively a Davis Cup semi-final, the USA met Italy in Perth, Australia. This was one of the weakest American teams in recent history, but the courts were grass, which didn't favour Italy's great touch player Nicola Pietrangeli. Sure enough, he lost 13-11 in the fifth set to Barry MacKay. Italy trailed 2-0 after the first day but won the doubles. When 19-year-old Chuck McKinley made the error that lost the match, he threw his racket high in the air and it landed among the Italians in the crowd, who kept it as a souvenir. On the third day, Pietrangeli scraped a win against Earl Buchholz, who came back from two sets down. Finally, the giant Orlando Sirola used his big serve to beat MacKay in three hard sets. For the first time since 1936, the USA didn't reach the Challenge Round, which ended on December 27.

Alvin Kraenzlein was born in the USA. In 1900 he became the only track and field athlete to win four individual gold medals at the same Olympics, two of them in events that aren't in the Games any more: the 60 metres sprint (in a world record time) and 200 metres hurdles. He also won the 110 hurdles and the long jump - though his team mate Meyer Prinstein (born December 22 1878) had something to say about the timetable of events. Kraenzlein revolutionised high hurdling by introducing the straight-leg technique that's still used today.

Australian swimmer Michael Klim broke his own world record for the 100 metres butterfly. This new one lasted until 2003.

Ferenc Csík was born. Before the 100 metres freestyle final at the 1936 Olympics, American world record holder Peter Fick was looking over his shoulder at the Japanese, who were looking over theirs at him. But they should have paid more attention to the young Hungarian in the outside lane, with his wide shoulders, strong legs, and some pedigree in the event: European champion in 1934. Unnoticed by the opposition, Csík came through to take the gold in a personal best. He's still a hero in Hungary, and not just for his sporting achievements. He qualified as a doctor and died helping a wounded man during an air raid in the Second World War, which ended just a few weeks later.

John Daniell was born. His debut for England at rugby union was a bit of a disaster (Wales scored six tries to two in 1899) but he survived it to win six more caps. England weren't good enough to win the Championship at the time, but Daniell helped them beat Ireland three times and Scotland once. He went to become an England selector and president of the RFU.