When it comes to British boxing no other nation has managed to produce boxers like Wales has over the years. Dating back well over 100 years Welsh boxers have been amongst the very best in the world, not just Britain, covering almost all the weights they have managed to put up a considerable challenge on a repeated basis. Though inside the British Isles the top fighters are remembered, they are often forgotten world wide due to few having made it big in the states, the self proclaimed boxing capital of the world. They have mixed speed, power, the fine technique and the heart of champions to often make it to the top of their sport.
The first great Welsh fighter to be well known was “Peerless” Jim Driscoll, an often forgotten fighter from the turn of the century who would have only a handful of losses in over 70 fights and was only stopped once in a career that spanned from 1901 to 1919, in fact it was only in his final fight that he was stopped and that was only by the much bigger Charles Ledoux. Driscoll was born in Cardiff in 1880 and would be best remembered for being the first British Featherweight champion winning the title in 1906. He would later add the Commonwealth title in 1908. He would fight Freddie Welsh in 1910 in a fight for the European Lightweight title though would get disqualified for head butting his compatriot. He would later add the European title in his more comfortable Featherweight division, after which he retired for 8 years. His comeback in 1919 was ill fated and badly advised as he was ill at the time, he would go 1-1-1 I his comeback before retiring. Sadly he passed away aged just 44.
His rival Freddie Welsh is also a forgotten man of the era, the original “Welsh Wizard” was also a man who died remarkably young, just 41. He started his career in 1905 and last fought in 1922 and fought well over 100 fights during those 17 years. Born in 1886 in Pontypridd he was better known for being one of the few Welsh fighters to really make it in America where he was based for almost his entire career. His first major honour was the European Lightweight title that he won in 1909 a title that he held until 1911 making several defences including 1 against Jim Driscoll (see above). He would challenger for the world title against Packey McFarland and fight to a draw. He would later regain the European Lightweight title in 1912 but the best was yet to come. In 1914 he would finally take world honours beating Willie Ritchie for the World title, a belt he would hold for several years making numerous title defences. His reign would come to an end in 1917 losing by stoppage to Benny Leonard, a man he had beaten in a non title fight previously.
A more well known fighter from the early 1900’s is the monster puncher fighter given a huge number of nicknames. Born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1892 he would have his first recorded fight in 1910 though it though to have had 100’s prior to then in the boxing booths that were in Wales. The man born as Jimmy Wilde, though better known as “The Mighty Atom”, “The Tylorstown Terror” and “The Ghost With a Hammer in His Hand” was a monster in the ring. Though sadly his record is one of the debated subjects of boxing he is though to have had either 99 or 100 KO’s in over 150 fights, with over 130 victories. He would go well over 90 fights with out a loss from the start of his career, until finally Tancy Lee beat him in 1915. Lee, like most of Wilde’s opponent was far bigger weighing 10lbs more than the waif thin Welshman. The following year Wilde would win the IBU and British Flyweight titles before facing Lee in a rematch to try and avenge his only loss and win the European title. He would do it in style and knock Lee out in the 11th to avenge the first, and up to then only loss on his record. Later that same year he was universally regarded as the best Flyweight with a win over Young Zulu Kid. Though he lost a pair of fights on points it’s his final 2 fights that he is best know for, the fights with Pete Herman and Pancho Villa, which were both losses. They were both by KO with Herman weighing almost 10lbs more than Wilde in 1921, after 2 years out of the ring he would come back and face Villa who’s victory lead him to becoming a national icon. Wilde would die in the 1960’s aged 78.
However there was a man who became World champion before any of the above, though Percy Jones’ reign was short he was the first Welsh fighter to be “World Champion”. Born in 1892 in the town of Porth, he would fight 52 times winning 46 of them with 27KO’s. In January 1914 he would become the British, European and IBU (World) champion at Flyweight. Though his reign was cut short by weight problems and he gave the title up by the end of the year. Often forgotten due to his competition and short career (1911-1915) he would enlist in the army during the first world war fighting bigger battles than those in the ring. It was this that cut his ring career short as he had had to have his leg amputated, and in 1922 died from trench fever.
After the trio of fighters (Wilde, Driscoll and Welsh) that dominated boxing for the first quarter of a century they would have to wait quite some time for fighters of equal quality. Though Tommy Farr would put up a fantastic fight with Joe Louis and Frank Moody is a forgotten fighter who fought over 200 times though neither were able to win world titles. Jack Petersen would become a British and Commonwealth champion at heavyweight and hold wins over Len Harvey, Larry Gains and Jock McAvoy though fall.
The next real world quality fighter was Howard Winstone, a classy technical boxer who sadly lacked power in punches due to an accident that saw him losing his finger tips. Born in 1939 in Merthyr Tydfil he would be a stand out amateur before turning professional in 1959 and fighting 67 times as a professional. He won 61 of those scoring 27 stoppages and would only lose to 3 men in his career. Having won his first 34 he suffered the first loss of his career being stopped by Leroy Jeffrey in November 1962 yet less than 3 months later he would win his first title the British Featherweight title. He would add the European title later that same year and lose only in a non title fight before meeting Vicente Salvidar the excellent Mexican and one of the greatest featherweights in history, sadly for Winstone there wasn’t the multiple titles there are now, just WBA and WBC…Salvidar had both. The two would clash 3 times with Mexican winning each time, the final one by stoppage. Thankfully for Winstone the Mexican retired in 1967 soon after beating him for the final time and thus the belts were freed. The vacant WBC belt was up for grabs for Winstone when he met Mitsunori Seki in early 1968 and at the 4th time of asking Winstone would finally become a world champion, a position he’d been deserving of for several years. Sadly his reign and career would end soon after wards, as after making a non title defence Winstone lost in July 1968 in his first and only title defence.
Again Wales would have to wait for a great man to come in and although they came close with the tragic Johnny Owen who died whilst challenging Lupe Pintor for the WBC Bantamweight title. The tragic death of Owen’s lead many outside of the sport to call for it to be banned, and although he failed to add his name to great Welsh champions he was a great Welsh boxer who should be remembered for what he was, an exciting young man taken before his time. The Merthyr Matchstick will be immortalised in Wales, if not the world of boxing.
The long wait would have some pretenders such as Steve Robinson who won the WBO Featherweight title and Robbie Regan though no one really accepted him as being one of the best in the world. It probably wasn’t until Joe Calzaghe, the long term WBO Super Middleweight champion, that Wales had actually found their newest boxing hero. After winning the title in 1997 it would be around a decade later that he would give up the title, having won the WBA, WBC and IBF titles during his reign. Though several pretenders from the same camp would also win titles they were never regarded as anything other than alphabet pretenders. Both Enzo Maccarinelli and Gavin Rees would win titles the lose when they faced some solid competition, whilst Calzaghe just kept going until his retirement.
The wait this time doesn’t look like it will be as long as it has been in the past, already Nathan Cleverly is on the verge of a world title fight and there are likely others such as Ryan Evans who could well fulfil their potential.
Notes for the reader:
For readers asking why certain fighters such as Joe Erskine or Eddie Thomas weren’t in, they were deemed “good fighters, not great fighters”.