By 26 January, 1914, Wales’ boxers had already built a formidable reputation across the globe, but it was not until that date that the country could claim its first world champion.
Percy Jones’ 20-round points victory over London’s Bill Ladbury at the National Sporting Club saw the flyweight succeed where the likes of Tommy West, Freddie Welsh and Jim Driscoll had failed in their quests to enter the history books.
The diminutive Jones was born to a Treherbert mining family and raised in Porth, where he would upset his mother by sneaking away to the boxing booths to learn his chosen trade whenever he had the chance.
His first recorded professional fight was in 1911, a six-round draw with Young Roberts. Jones won a rematch, as his speed and punching power quickly built a formidable winning record.
Forty-one straight victories led the Rhondda man to his date with destiny against Ladbury, a tough New Cross man who had won the title against Sid Smith the previous June. Also at stake were the British and European crowns that Ladbury had won in the same fight.
The unfortunate Jones was never fully able to capitalise on his title
Jones fought out of a crouch, whilst the champion competed in the classical, upright British style. It was soon evident that Jones’ boxing skills were superior as his flicking left hand took control, but the Welshman was already struggling with the weight problems that would beset him after his title victory, having had to lose 6ozs at the weigh in.
Ladbury was strong and powerful as he targeted the body, and as he came on strong Jones needed the sublime footwork, sharp left and outstanding defence that he had learned in the booths. Allied to that, the challenger’s dangerous right rocked Ladbury in the fourth, but as he tried to finish it in the fifth the Rhondda man was wobbled himself.
It was a mark of Jones’ skill that he never had to resort to spoiling tactics, the bout being noted for its speed, its dearth of clinches and all-round quality.
Jones briefly dropped his opponent in the 16th, but the game Ladbury kept pushing forward and the challenger’s weight problems saw him suffer in the championship rounds. Jones was dropped heavily in the 19th, but somehow rallied before the fervent crowd and was able to hang on for a narrow points victory.
Despite his huge achievement, the unfortunate Jones was never fully able to capitalise on his title and failed to win the place in the public consciousness that was achieved by contemporaries Driscoll, Welsh and Jimmy Wilde.
Weight problems – exacerbated by an ankle injury – meant his title was not on the line when he lost his next fight the following month, French great Eugene Criqui inflicting Jones’ first defeat. The champion did manage to get back down to flyweight for a March 2014 rematch with future Hall-of-Famer Criqui, and he defended his belt with one of his greatest performances, a 20-round points victory.
He would never make flyweight again, though, Jones losing his belts outside the ring then seeing his career shattered by World War I.
Wales’ first world champion joined the forces and continued to fight in low-key bouts, but was wounded in the leg and gassed at the battle of the Somme in 1916.
He refused to take a stretcher and dragged himself back to safety, but the mud got into the wound and left him with blood poisoning. After nearly 30 operations, Jones’ leg was amputated in 1918.
The fighter never fully recovered and was recorded as being in a somewhat pitiful state as he was presented as a hero to Welsh post-war boxing crowds. With his weight reduced to just 4st 2lbs, Jones died of trench fever on Christmas Day, 1922, one day short of his 30th birthday.