June 18, 2013, marks the 90th anniversary of one of the great Welsh fight nights in the US, Jimmy Wilde v Pancho Villa at New York’s Polo Grounds.
Jimmy Wilde had amazed North American fans in a stunning 11-fight tour in the period 1919-20 but – in contrast to so many tales of early twentieth-century Welsh boxing in the States – this bout would end in a painful defeat for the Welshman.
Wilde, arguably the greatest Welsh boxer of all time, had reigned as world flyweight champion since 1916.
‘The Ghost with the Hammer in his Hand’ had earnt a fearsome knock-out reputation, having stopped many more men than the 99 known KOs on his official record.
By the time of his first US visit in 1919 he was already past his best, though, and his decline was hastened by a vicious loss against Pete Herman in London in 1921.Wilde had made a career out of defeating bigger, heavier men, but bantamweight Herman came in way over the agreed limit, and it took the Prince of Wales to persuade the Tylorstown man to enter the ring in front of a full house at the Royal Albert Hall.
The Welshman endured a horrible beating that ended in the 17th when he was punched through the ropes, his head cracking on the concrete floor.
Wilde suffered severe concussion and it looked unlikely that he would fight again, but he was still officially world champion and he would be tempted back two-and-a-half-years later to face the latest young pretender.
The challenge he had accepted came in the truly formidable shape of a man who rivals Wilde as the greatest flyweight of all time – Francisco Guilledo, better known by his fighting name of Pancho Villa.
The Filipino was widely regarded as the best Asian fighter of all time, although in recent years the formidable Manny Pacquiao has led many to reassess their opinion.
His earliest known fight was in Manila in 1919, and after a remarkable two-and-a-half years laying out opponents in the Philippines the phenomenon was brought to the United States.
Victories over the likes of Johnny Buff and Abe Goldstein bolstered his reputation further, and the clamour grew for the 22-year-old to face the already-legendary Wilde.
A huge £13,000 purse tempted the Tylorstown man across the Atlantic, where he initially thought he would be facing Frankie Genaro.
“I was not perturbed [to be fighting Villa], although I knew Villa had a reputation for tremendous fighting,” said Wilde in his 1938 autobiography “Fighting was my Business“.
But the Tylorstown man was troubled by his advancing age and, more particularly, the rustiness that was the inevitable result of his long absence from the prize ring.
Still, 20,000 fans eagerly turned out at the Big Apple’s famous Polo Grounds venue to get a glimpse of the old master against the young pretender.
Amongst them was the great trainer Ray Arcel, who had worked the undercard and was eager to witness Wilde at first hand.
Arcel was impressed by the 31-year-old, who fought using the principles he had always followed – staying in range, avoiding clinches, swaying and sliding in snake-like fashion, and always seeking the opening to land his hammer blows.
The surviving video shows a frenetic, brutal, all-action clash in which Wilde appears to be giving as good as he gets, if seeming to take more punishment than we would expect from the master craftsman.
“The gong went and Villa came like a tiger,” remembered Wilde. “He almost overwhelmed me in that first minute, but I knew his method of fighting and believed I would beat him.
“Villa slogged – there is no other word for it – and I kept him at a distance with a right and left, continually jabbing it out.”
The decisive moment came at the end of a round said by Wilde to be the second, but by Arcel to be the sixth. It should be noted that Wilde’s book was penned 15 years after the fight when the Welshman was suffering from severe bouts of memory loss. The surviving video is inconclusive, showing three unnumbered rounds. Wilde appears to be doing well in the first of them but to struggle badly in the second, then get stopped in the third.
This is how Arcel described the incident and the bout: “I saw one of the greatest clashes in ring history. Giving away pounds in weight and 10 years in age, Wilde traded punches with the fiery Pancho.
“It was a classic and the huge crowd rose to the game Welshman. Up to the sixth round Jimmy was holding his own. Then, when the bell rang for the end of the session, Jimmy dropped his hands and turned to his corner.
“At that very moment Villa let a sizzling right-hander go. It cracked Wilde clean on the chin. His eyes glazed as he fell into the ropes, then on to his face. His seconds rushed up and assisted him to his corner. But the damage was done, and Jimmy was in a bad way as he sat on his stool.
“It was here, I thought, that his seconds might have saved the day. They made only feeble protests.
“Had they set up a squawk that could have been heard a mile away, the referee would have been bound to do something. He might have been kidded into disqualifying Villa. The commotion would have given Jimmy a much-needed rest. And at least there would have been doubts cast on the legitimacy of Villa’s victory.
“But, no. They let their fighter come up for the next round, and he was knocked cold by the hurricane-hitting Filipino. I vowed I’d never let a fighter of mine be caught that way.”
In his book, Wilde says that – after the late blow – his chief second Benny Williams was more concerned with bringing him round than calling for a foul, but that the crowd was furious. He claims not to have remembered the rest of the fight, while his wife Elizabeth – who was also furious at the failure to call for a foul blow – says her husband fought on “in a coma”.
The video of the final round shows Wilde still swinging, fighting the only way he knew, before being caught by a huge left from the challenger.
Despite being out on his feet, the great champion let off a left-right combination before a delayed reaction to the hook saw him drop as a dead weight on his face, his anxious seconds then sprinting across the ring to help him.
Wilde was near death and had no memory of the next three weeks, being unable to even recognise his wife. He would never fight again, and remained angry that he had been allowed to take such a sustained beating in the fight – something he felt contributed to his poor health in retirement.
Villa would reign as champion until his tragically early death two years later from a tooth infection.