As part of a series looking at the history of the most prominent Welsh boxers during World War I, we consider the experiences of Johnny Basham.
Johnny Basham is unique amongst the boxers featured in this series in that he was serving in the army before the outbreak of World War I.
The Newport man had a sluggish, mixed start to his professional boxing career, but joining the forces in 1911 helped him find the discipline to improve.
His Wrexham-based regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, actively encouraged his ring career, and he built up a large, loyal following, fighting regularly at the Liverpool Stadium.
His employer’s patronage continued after the outbreak of hostilities on the continent, and in December 1914 Basham claimed the British welterweight title with a stoppage of Johnny Summers at London’s National Sporting Club.
He continued to fight throughout the war, picking up the Lonsdale Belt outright and adding the European crown to his collection. A March 1915 win over Matt Wells at the London Opera House was the first time a promoter had organised a ‘big spectacular’ since the beginning of the war.
Basham believed that boxing saved his life
Despite such successes it seems certain that the war cost Basham career opportunities. He never took his talents to the USA, and would never win the world title that his ability may well have merited.
However, Basham himself believed that boxing saved his life, saying that his Lonsdale Belt kept him out of the front line. In his first defence of the British title Basham defeated Tom McCormick – who was killed in action in France in 1916.
Basham secured the Belt with his May 1916 win over Eddie Beattie, a victory which sparked wild celebrations in Wales. What’s more, the fighter says that: “My officers told me that I had done a great thing for the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and for many a long day after my win over Eddie Beattie I had what was known in the army as ‘cushy days’.”
The fighter was, indeed, something of a celebrity. A barracks sparring session he took part in with author/poet Robert Graves was recalled in the latter’s autobiography Goodbye to all That.
Basham was later drafted into an elite corps of army physical training instructors under captain Bruce Logan. The so-called ‘famous six’ fighters – Basham, Jim Driscoll, Jimmy Wilde, Bombardier Billy Wells, Dick Smith and Pat O’Keefe – toured Britain, taking on all-comers in military boxing booths.
The six were eventually split up, although Basham and Driscoll stayed together when they were sent to France.
The two famous fighters avoided the front line as they were based in St Pol, the HQ of the gymnastics staff under Colonel Campbell.
“There were many other well-known boxers there,” recalled Basham. “It was our job to show the boys the right way to do the physical jerks (how they blessed us).
“Time and time again we would make long journeys in the night in order to box an exhibition for some of the boys who had been wounded and who preferred seeing Jim and I do our stuff to taking the ‘number nines’ that the medical officer used to hand out!
“At this gymnastics job I had a fair run round, Amiens, Arras, Albert, Poperinghe, etc, etc, were all visited by Jim and I.”
Driscoll and Basham, both sergeants, were regularly sent to calm upset in the ranks, the troops proving ready to listen to the boxers when MPs could only inflame the heated situation.
The popularity of the two was recalled by author and boxer Norman Clark. In his All in the Game he recalls meeting them in France where he sparred with Basham, Clark praising his opponent’s boxing skills and his jovial character.
On another occasion Basham sparred with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII who was touring the troops.
It was a widely held belief that sparring with untrained soldiers eroded the skills of a professional
Towards the end of the war Basham returned to Wrexham where, reportedly, he helped to cure drunkenness in the ranks – anyone found in an inebriated state was ordered to do three rounds with the British and European champion!
The joy and laughter that Driscoll and Basham found amidst the horrors of war-time France seems undeniable, but the conflict also took its toll.
The boxers had to take on all-comers in the booths, men of all sizes, weights and abilities. Many did not know how to pull a punch, and their primary motivation was to claim that they had been able to knock over the great Basham or Driscoll.
There was also a widely held belief that sparring with untrained soldiers eroded the skills of a professional, leading them to lose precision and sharpness, and pull punches.
Some suggest that, by the end of the war, as a result of fighting inferior opponents Basham had developed a tendency to over-use his right hand and to neglect his most potent weapon, his sublime straight left.
Whether or not that is true, he remained a formidable foe. In his first nine fights after the war he claimed eight wins and a draw, adding the Commonwealth title to the British and European crowns he successfully defended.
Then, in June 1920, he ran into Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis.
Perhaps the war had chipped away at Basham’s skills, or perhaps the ‘Kid’ – regarded by many as Britain’s greatest ever fighter – was simply too good.
But the Newport man lost all four of his classic encounters with Lewis, meaning that he missed out on the chance of becoming Wales’ fourth world champion.