Marking the centenary of Freddie Welsh winning Wales’ second world boxing title with his victory over Willie Ritchie at Olympia on 7 July, 1914.
Freddie Welsh‘s long-awaited shot at the world lightweight title marked the end of an exhaustive pursuit of the crown that had seen the Pontypridd legend criss-cross the Atlantic, maintain an outrageous PR campaign and inject himself into the world of high finance.
The ‘Welsh Wizard’, aged 28 at the time of the fight, had been the leading contender for the title – ranked second in prominence only to the heavyweight crown – for much of the previous six years.
He had been due to face then-champion Ad Wolgast for the title at the Vernon Arena, Los Angeles, on 30 November, 1911, a bout that could have made him Wales’ first world champion.
On the eve of the bout, though, Wolgast was rushed to hospital with acute appendicitis.
Instead of his dream bout, Welsh faced a little-known, last-minute stand-in called Willie Ritchie. Welsh ground out a 20-round victory, but faced criticism for not stopping the San Francisco youngster.
Welsh’s PR campaign included the concoction of a story that he had been kidnapped in Mexico
The Pontypridd man had an agreement to fight Wolgast on his return, but the champion repeatedly evaded him. Instead, on 25 November, 1912, Wolgast took what most saw as an easy defence against Ritchie.
It went to script for the ‘Michigan Wildcat’ in the opening rounds, but as the fight wore on the younger, fitter, stronger challenger began to take control.
Ritchie dropped the champion twice before, in the 16th round, a desperate Wolgast was disqualified for two low blows.
It seemed to Welsh that he was the natural challenger for the new champion who he had already beaten convincingly, but Ritchie had other ideas, demanding an outrageously large purse for a potential fight then – every time Welsh got close to meeting his demands – moving the goal posts.
Although he continued fighting and winning at the highest level, both in Britain and the US, the Pontypridd man got little support from the American press, which seemed to hold the view that he was past his best.
Welsh employed a PR agent and worked relentlessly to keep himself in the headlines, his campaign including the concoction of a story that he had been kidnapped in Mexico!
Meanwhile Ritchie’s options narrowed. He was unconvincing in his first four fights after winning the title then, in May 1914, he was lucky to walk away with the belt after barely surviving a 10-round mauling from Charley White in a no-decision bout.
The only acceptable options open to the champion for his next defence were a rematch with White or to finally give Welsh his chance.
The Pontypridd man had been busy courting some of the richest sports-loving Londoners and it was this that would eventually win him his opportunity as he was able to offer Ritchie the largest guaranteed purse.
Welsh had secured an enormous guarantee of $40,000 for a title fight at Olympia. Ritchie was holding out for $50,000… until the debacle of the White fight gave Welsh the opportunity to drop the champioin’s fee to $25,000, plus $1,500 expenses.
Even so, Welsh would make nothing from the fight – he would have to rely on the money he could earn should he become champion. He was happy to make that gamble, boarding the liner Imperator in New York to head to Britain with the line: “I am now entering the final lap of a six-year race.”
He was given a huge reception in Wales as he made his way to his training camp in Porthcawl. Basing himself in Victoria Road, Welsh’s weight preparations were helped by a heatwave as he sharpened up with the support of training partner Boyo Driscoll.
The fight became the main social event in London in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of World War I
Ritchie, meanwhile, prepared in Brighton, and surprised his opponent’s camp when he agreed on the choice of the popular English official Eugene Corri as fight referee.
Despite his mauling by White, the American press remained firmly behind their champion. Many of them felt that the US had ‘lost’ the heavyweight title when Jack Johnson became the first black man to claim that crown, and to now see the lightweight belt going to a Briton was felt to be unconscionable.
The coming fight was equally hyped in London where it became the main social event of the weeks leading up to the outbreak of World War I.
Excitement in Wales was hardly less intense, and a huge exodus of fans followed the challenger on the train from Cardiff to Paddington.
Welsh’s wife Fanny and his newly born first child Elizabeth were, meanwhile, dashing to join the challenger at ringside, having arrived in Fishguard on the Lusitania at 5am on the morning of the fight – they would reach Olympia in time for the 17th round.
The crowd of over 10,000 at the arena was a veritable who’s who of the London social scene, with aristocrats filling the expensive seats and Welsh’s legions of female fans causing a stir amongst the boxing fraternity.
American fans were also out in force, helping to make Ritchie an early favourite in the betting before the influx of Welsh supporters saw their man installed as a seven-to-four-on favourite by first bell.
Those same supporters built the fervent atmosphere as Welsh songs filled the arena, something that must have resonated with Dai Roberts.
The well-known Caerau welterweight – who had fought Jimmy Wilde and sparred with Welsh – was serving as a second in Ritchie’s corner.
If he had any thoughts that he was on the wrong side, his unease would have quickly grown after the opening exchanges.
By the end of the first round the challenger had a huge grin on his face. He had been boxing like the master he was, but also bossing the close exchanges, making a mockery of the belief that Ritchie would be the bigger puncher.
Matt Wells described the challenger’s dominance as being akin to ‘a racehorse challenging a donkey’
The champion was taking terrible punishment from Welsh’s cultured left and was bleeding heavily by the third round.
World welterweight champion Matt Wells – who had defeated Welsh in 1911 – described the challenger’s dominance as being akin to ‘a racehorse challenging a donkey’ (Pontypridd Observer, 22 August, 1914).
There were arguments to be made for Ritchie having won the sixth round and the 13th, but little else. When the two went toe-to-toe for an outstanding final round, there was no doubt over who would go on to claim the verdict.
The inevitable announcement of the new champion was greeted with huge cheers followed by a rousing rendition of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, before Welsh was carried back to the dressing room on the shoulders of his adoring fans.
Meanwhile, the Western Mail newspaper’s ringside phone relayed the news to huge crowds outside its offices in Pontypridd, Cardiff, Swansea, Merthyr, Newport and other south Wales towns.
Ritchie, who would fight on until 1927 and be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1962, was devastated at ringside, but initially took the defeat with good grace.
He did claim, though, that he had been dazzled by the strong arc lights that had been set up for the benefit of the film cameras, an excuse that he felt justified a call for a rematch which he believed he could win as, he said, he had more power than the new champion.
By the time Ritchie got back to the States, he was claiming that he had won the fight and had been robbed of his title – a stance that left a legacy of American boxers who would refuse to defend belts in Britain because they believed Ritchie’s tale.
He had made no money directly from the fight as the gate did not even cover Ritchie’s guarantee, but he would later profit from the film rights, while offers of magazine articles, books and music hall dates were soon flooding in.
There would later be talk that Ritchie’s guarantee was actually arranged by Arnold Rothstein – the man who had fixed baseball’s 1919 World Series.
If there was money to be made from a betting scam, though, it would seem more likely to have revolved around a defeat for Welsh – who did later claim that he had refused an offer of £50,000 ($250,000) to throw the fight.
The new champion spent a week living the high life at the Waldorf hotel before returning to Wales, where huge crowds cheered his car as it made its way from Cardiff Central to Pontypridd and then on to Merthyr.
Plans to profit from his popularity in Britain would soon be scuppered by the outbreak of the war, though, and Welsh quickly headed back to the US where he would spend the duration of the conflict.
The Americans – who did not recognise the belt held by Wales’ first world champion Percy Jones – initially acknowledged Welsh for his achievement in becoming – as they saw it – Britain’s first undisputed world champion since Dick Burge, whose reign ended in 1896.
Welsh was determined to profit as much as he could from his title, though, and as he exploited the no-decision rule to keep hold of the crown until May 1917 his popularity began to wane.
Given the struggles he had endured to secure the belt, it is easy to sympathise with his pragmatic approach to his reign.