Marking the centenary of a tragic and epoch-making night for British boxing, Johnny Basham’s fatal 1913 fight with Harry Price at Liverpool Stadium.
Thankfully ring fatalities are relatively rare in boxing and – when such events occur – the waves of sympathy and support tend to flood over the distraught surviving fighter as well as the tragic loser and his family.
This was far from the experience of Newport’s Johnny Basham, though. When his 21 August, 1913, fight against Harry Price ended with the death of the South African, Basham was left to deal with a prison cell and manslaughter charge as well as his own grief.
The event and subsequent inquest would prove a defining moment in the history of the sport, the continued existence of which was still in doubt as its legal status was in question.
In December 1910, for example, the promoters of the super-fight between Jim Driscoll and Freddie Welsh had to combat attempts to ban it on the grounds that it prejudiced the morality of Cardiff. The president of the Cardiff Free Church Council and the Bishop of Llandaff were amongst the local citizens who signed a petition stating that the bout “would have a degrading effect upon the people”.
In January 1913, Driscoll was again at the heart of controversy when his proposed bout with Owen Moran was banned in case it caused a breach of the peace. An appeal supported by Lord Lonsdale failed to overturn this decision, before the Crown eventually withdrew its objections.
But little of this would have troubled Basham in 1913. ‘The Happy Warrior’s’ boxing career had been on a consistently upward trend since he joined the army and moved to Wrexham in 1911, the popular and likeable welterweight packing out venues in his adopted hometown and in Liverpool.
A recent challenge to Freddie Welsh had fallen through because the Pontypridd great had other commitments, but any disappointment felt by 23-year-old Basham would have been assuaged by his 12 August marriage to Winifred Trader.
Just nine days later he was in confident mood as he faced Price at a packed Liverpool Stadium in a 15-round bout fought with 6oz gloves.
The strong South African, whose age has been estimated at 20, had headed abroad to further his career, engaging in eight recorded fights in the US before moving to Britain.
His first fight in the UK was in the Liverpool Stadium exactly two weeks before the Basham bout, Price losing a 15-round points decision to Jules Dubourg. He reportedly gave an ‘excellent show’, though, doing enough to convince the promoters to engage him for the Basham bout on a fee of £60 – win, lose or draw. Basham was to receive £50 for a win and £40 if he lost.
In a fight that was reportedly fair, clean and closely fought, Basham would later recall the strength of his opponent and how savagely the South African came on in the ninth round. Price’s onslaught continued in the 10th, but Basham claimed he could feel his foe start to weaken and – going into the 11th – the Welshman was 41-39 ahead on referee Arnold Wilson’s card.
Again the South African came out strongly, as Basham would later recall for the “Empire News”: “A right hand [from Price] loaded with high explosives was only avoided by a quick shift on my part, and then I pulled myself together and went in to do my job.
“He turned quickly, wild at having missed. I hit him with a left hand full in the face, and stepping in as soon as my left had connected I smashed a right hand to his chin. Everything I had was in that punch, and down went the South African.
“Game as a terrier, he started to climb up at eight, and was on his feet at nine. Just a quick feint to his stomach and down came his hands. Once again I banged my right to his chin, and down he went, this time he faced the canvas spread-eagled on the floor.”
Contemporary reports claim that Price looked ‘very white and groggy’ after the first knockdown. It was also said that the South African’s legs were crossed at the time of the final punch and that he stumbled. The last blow was not thought to have been excessively violent, but as Price hit the floor his head struck the boards heavily.
The stricken man’s corner team were immediately into the ring as Wilson ended the fight, but the attentions of a ring-side doctor failed to bring Price around and he was taken by horse-drawn ambulance to Liverpool Royal Infirmary.
Meanwhile, a stunned Basham had gone to his seconds to get his gloves removed, only to see two policemen stepping into the ring to take over those responsibilities. They examined the gloves and took them as evidence, before escorting Basham to his dressing room, on to his hotel, and, finally, to Dale Street Police Station.
There the boxer was charged with causing grievous bodily harm and put in a cell with two drunks who had been arrested for brawling, while his friends tried desperately to arrange bail.
During this time doctors battled in vain to save Price, who never regained consciousness and died in the early hours of the morning of a laceration of the brain and haemorrhage of the pleura. A policeman informed Basham in his cell, who said: “I am very, very sorry; he must have been out of condition, because I did not treat him harmfully.”
The Welshman was then taken to court where friends had arranged a solicitor and the £100 bail. Basham had to be smuggled out of court to avoid all the well-wishers who had gathered, and was taken back to Wrexham where another large crowd were waiting to show their support.
The inquest into Price’s death opened on 25 August, and the following day Basham attended the unfortunate South African’s funeral. The Jewish service was conducted in Hebrew, and Basham would recall being particularly disconcerted at one point when a certain statement caused all in attendance to turn around and look directly at him.
After such a traumatic experience, the Welshman would eventually find some solace when the inquest jury read its verdict: “The jury are agreed that it was a boxing match and that death was caused by misadventure, but the jury strongly protest against the practice of the knock-out blow counting as a win.”
Before the Price fight, Basham had fought 11 times in 1913. He took two months out – an age in terms of his boxing career – before returning to face Eddie Beattie, again at Liverpool Stadium.
Some claimed that the Welshman always pulled his punches after the fatality, but there was little sign of this against Beattie. He floored the Scot five times in a 15-round points win, including four times in the third round.
Great achievements still awaited Basham in his career, but of the Price fight he says he could never forget “that stark and terrible tragedy that kept me awake for nights, and made me wish I had never been in a boxing ring”.
For both opponents and proponents of boxing, the fatality is perhaps best summed up by the verdict of the judge at the inquest, whose ruling did so much to ensure that the sport would continue to be practiced legally in the UK.
“To me this has been a clean, boxing contest, conducted on proper lines by two men who have boxed in a proper sporting manner,” he said to Basham. “It may just have happened to you as to the unfortunate man who has been killed. You are discharged.”