Chasing Wales’ first world boxing title

As we celebrate the centenary of Percy Jones claiming Wales’ first world boxing crown, who were the seven men who could have beaten him to that landmark achievement?

Tommy Ryan (Photo: Wikipedia)

Tommy Ryan was the victor in the first two world championship bouts contested by a Welshman, twice beating Tommy West (Photo: Wikipedia)

Percy Jones became Wales’ first world champion on 26 January, 1914, when he defeated Bill Ladbury to claim the flyweight crown. I’ve come up with a list of seven men who had the opportunities to beat Jones to that historic landmark – if you know of any more, post at the bottom of the page…

John O’Brien

Cardiff’s John O’Brien learnt his trade as a bare-knuckle and booth fighter, and he was regarded as the best middleweight in Britain in the period 1891-5. The chance of world glory beckoned, but plans to send him to New Orleans to face world champion Bob Fitzsimmons were scuppered when O’Brien was struck down by sciatica and kept out of the ring for two years. The Cardiff man was not the same fighter when he returned, and he lasted a total of three rounds in two unfortunate showdowns with Frank Craig, who was recognised in the US as the ‘coloured middleweight champion of the world’.

Tommy West

Cardiff Bay’s Tommy West spent most of his career mixing it at the highest level in the United States, where he earnt a reputation as one of the most determined and rugged operators in the sport. The Welshman fought a host of the early legends of the gloved game, and his record boasts of shots at the world middleweight title in 1898 and 1901, and at the welterweight belt in 1902.

Hall of Fame-fighter Tommy Ryan proved too strong for him in the first of those showdowns in the Lenox Athletic Club, New York, on 18 December, 1898, stopping West in the 14th round after a brutal clash. Their next title showdown – in the Auditorium, Louisville, Kentucky on 4 March, 1901 – was an even more hellacious affair. West dropped his opponent twice in the second round, apparently leaving him close to being stopped, but the bloodied champion battled his way back, breaking West’s nose. According to one newspaper, “West’s corner looked like a slaughterhouse, so much so that some persons near the ring were nauseated and had to leave.” West lasted until the 17th round of a bout described by Ring magazine as being amongst the 20 greatest of all time, before his cornerman, ‘Terrible’ Terry McGovern, finally threw the towel in.

The Welshman’s final ‘title shot’ has less credence to it. He faced Joe Walcott – another old, formidable foe – in a bout at London’s National Sporting Club on 23 June, 1902. It was billed as being for the world welterweight crown, but both men were overweight and West – in his penultimate fight and way past his best – suffered a clear points defeat over 15 rounds.

Tiger Smith

Tiger Smith, aka James Addis, is the least deserving of a place on this list. He merits a mention because his April 1907 clash with the great Sam Langford at the National Sporting Club was billed as being for a world crown. This seems somewhat strange as ‘the Boston Tar Baby’ Langford is renowned as perhaps the finest fighter never to have won a world title. As a double reason to question Smith’s position as a man who could have been world champion, the Yorkshire-born Merthyr man was badly outmatched against the mighty Langford. He was stopped in the first minute of the fourth round.

Jim Driscoll

Jim Driscoll statue in Cardiff

Jim Driscoll statue in Cardiff

Jim Driscoll’s tale of world title woe is amongst the most famous in Welsh boxing history, and his name is regularly included in lists of the ‘greatest fighters never to have won world titles’. ‘Peerless’ Jim had long been a favourite on the British scene, but he won his famous nickname on a sublime 10-fight tour of the USA in 1908-9. The Cardiffian’s American masterclass culminated in a clash against world featherweight champion Abe Attell at the National Athletic Club, New York, on 19 February, 1909.

Attell’s title was on the line, but as the bout was fought under the no-decision rule Driscoll would have to stop the champion to claim it. That was about the only thing the Welshman failed to manage. He is said to have had Attell in serious trouble in the fourth and to have won seven of the 10 rounds, with two scored even. It was enough to see Driscoll recognised as the world champion in Europe but not in the US.

Still, his performance ensured a clamour for a rematch fought under Championship rules. But Driscoll had agreed to return home to fight a charity bout for Nazareth House Orphanage in Cardiff, so he boarded a ship the day after the Attell bout, leaving his distraught manager Charlie Harvey with the immortal line: “I never break a promise”. In keeping his word, Driscoll secured the undying love of the Cardiff community… but he never again had the chance to challenge for a world title.

Tom Thomas

Tom Thomas claimed Wales’ first Lonsdale Belt in 1909 and was set to test his abilities on the world stage. Waiting for him was the formidable ‘Michigan Assassin’ Stanley Ketchel, regarded by many as the greatest middleweight of all time. Yet it was a mark of the reputation that Thomas had established that many felt he would have had a chance of victory.

Prospects of the mouth-watering showdown taking place were abruptly ended when Ketchel was murdered, Thomas turning his attentions to the formidable new champion – Ketchel’s old rival Billy Papke. But the ring-rusty Welshman – plagued by rheumatism and weight problems – suffered his first professional defeat in an eliminator for the right to face Papke, a British title clash with Jim Sullivan. The latter lost to Papke in June 1911, while Thomas – who was in the process of trying to arrange his own bout with the ‘Illinois Thunderbolt’ – was struck down by pneumonia and died in August of that year.

Freddie Welsh

Freddie Welsh’s name and career seems always intertwined with that of Jim Driscoll, and the two could perhaps argue over which of them should feel the most aggrieved at not being able to name themselves as Wales’ first world champion. The Pontypridd lightweight enjoyed a high-profile career as a major star on both sides of the Atlantic, but when he was in his prime he was repeatedly denied a shot at the world crown.

His long pursuit of the title was finally set to be rewarded on Thanksgiving Day 1911 when he was due to face champion Ad Wolgast in a mega-bout at LA’s Vernon Arena. On the eve of the fight, though, Wolgast was rushed to hospital with acute appendicitis.

Welsh was forced to take a non-title bout against Willie Ritchie and, despite an almost perfect record in the next three years, would not get his world chance until July 1914. On that occasion Ritchie was again Welsh’s opponent, and the Pontypridd man’s win saw him become Wales’ second world champion, six months after Percy Jones had become the first. Welsh’s active, three-year reign as champion would include three wins over the man who had escaped him in 1911, Wolgast.

Eddie Morgan

Eddie Morgan had won the Welsh flyweight title and was close to a shot at the British crown when dreams of world glory lured him across the Atlantic in 1912. The Morgantown man impressed in three New York fights – including one against future two-weight champion Johnny Dundee – but was denied a shot at world featherweight king Johnny Kilbane.

Morgan returned home to chase the British crown, but was back in the States in 1914, where he built up to two no-decision contests against the champion Kilbane. Under the no-decision rules, Morgan would have to stop his opponent to take the belt from him and become Wales’ third world champion (after Jones and Welsh’s 1914 triumphs).

The first fight was in the National Athletic Club, Philadelphia, on 23 January, 1915. US journalists claimed that Kilbane won the six-round bout while British reporters said the exact opposite, but all agree that it was a stunning fight. A similar showdown followed the next month, but the victory seems to have been more clearly in the champion’s favour.

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