The grandson of a mountain fighter, he was born Frederick Hall Thomas in Pontypridd in 1886.
His upbringing was more middle class in character than that of many of his contemporary fighters – he was the son of an auctioneer, who later took the name Freddie Welsh to hide his prize-fighting from his family.
As a young man he was not above brawling on the streets of the tough valleys town, and at the age of 16 his adventurous character saw him travel to North America, the first of many trips he would make across the Atlantic.
It is sometimes difficult to tell the facts of Welsh’s life from the imaginative tales he used to spin to press and public, but in his second spell in America from 1904 he spent six months riding the rails as a hobo, before landing a job with the Macfadden Institute in New York.
There he taught physical fitness and new age health treatments, values he would live by and propound for the rest of his life.
The Pontypridd man met his wife Brahna Weinstein (who became known as Fanny Weston) at this time, but the young couple struggled for money and Welsh – having previously fought as an amateur – took to the professional ring in 1905.
Fighting in the lightweight division that was second in prestige only to the heavyweights, Welsh rapidly rose up the rankings.
After a successful spell back in the UK, Welsh returned to the States to embark on a long quest to become world champion.
His ring skills were accompanied by a true flair for self-promotion – pretending he had been kidnapped in Mexico and that he was about to take part in a trans-Atlantic balloon race were amongst the stories he spun to the media.
‘The Welsh Wizard’s’ fights were proving huge draws, a 1908 win over Abe Attell touted as the biggest bout in the US in 1908.
After his return to Britain in 1909 Welsh’s winning run continued and he secured British and European titles.
He was greeted by enormous crowds in Cardiff and the valleys, enthusiasm that helped set up one of the biggest fights in Wales’ history.
On 20 December, 1910, he faced a fellow Welsh fighter who would, like Welsh, go on to enter the boxing Hall of Fame – ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll.
The media spotlight was intense and the atmosphere in the packed American Roller Rink in Cardiff was bouncing, but the fight itself proved to be something of a damp squib.
Driscoll’s classical British style of boxing failed to gel well with Welsh’s American-style brawling, and – after a fractious, dirty nine rounds – Driscoll was disqualified in the 10th for a series of blatant head-butts.
Contemporary newspaper reporter James Butler said: “It was the only time I saw Driscoll not in control of himself in the ring.
“So bitter was the hatred by the 10th round that the finest boxer this country has ever produced was rushing in red-eyed like a man gone berserk.”
Welsh himself said later: “I can’t say that I ever worried much about what people thought or said of me.
“I like to be liked, and have often wished that I could be as much loved as Jim Driscoll, say, but I have never been able to bow down to rules and regulations.”
At this time Wales had never had a world champion, but Welsh looked like getting the opportunity to be the country’s first when he was lined up to face champion Ad Wolgast at the Vernon Arena, Los Angeles, on Thanksgiving Day, 1911.
But on the eve of the fight the champion was rushed to hospital with acute appendicitis, and Welsh would spend another exhaustive three years chasing the crown.
In 1914, a huge purse guarantee finally tempted new champion Willie Ritchie to risk his title against Welsh, the challenger securing a comprehensive 20-round points win at London’s Olympia Theatre.
In the States, Welsh embarked on an astonishing, exhausting schedule of fights against all the leading contenders.
Having been forced to wait so long for his chance, the new champion was determined to make as much money as possible from the belt and so controversially exploited the ‘no-decision’ rule that meant he had to be stopped in one of the 10-round bouts to lose his title.
Welsh outclassed most opponents in any case, but the punishing schedule – including 21 fights in his first year as champion – began to wear him down and injuries mounted.
The champion refused to slow down and he began to lose a number of newspaper decisions, notably to the fast-rising Benny Leonard in a big-money bout at Madison Square Garden.
The ‘Ghetto Wizard’ would, like Welsh, go down as one of the all-time great lightweights, thanks to his superb technique, lightning speed, and a flawless fighting heart and mind.
But Welsh prepared himself well for a rematch with 20-year-old Leonard in front of 15,000 at the Washington Park Sporting Club, Brooklyn, producing a glorious display to outclass the New Yorker over 10 rounds.
With the champion struggling to survive no-decision bouts against fighters he would previously have outclassed, Leonard was now generally regarded as the best lightweight in the world, and his backers eagerly put together the third showdown with Welsh.
The New Yorker, now 21, had learnt from their previous encounters and started patiently, targeting Welsh’s body rather than his head.
By the eighth the 31-year-old champion’s guard was dropping, and early in the ninth an overhand right caught Welsh near the ear, sending him reeling.
Leonard followed up furiously, knocking his opponent to the canvas three times before the referee finally stopped the bout.
There was controversy over the fact that the count was carried out when Welsh was still on his feet – but the fact that he was unconscious and draped over the ropes tended to settle any serious debate!
He retired a wealthy man, but unfortunate business decisions cost him his hard-earned fortune and he made an undistinguished comeback three years later.
High living contributed to the break-up of his marriage and, after a number of health problems, Welsh was found dead in his Manhattan apartment in 1927, at the age of 41.
He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997.
- Andrew Gallimore, “Occupation Prizefighter” (Bridgend, Seren, 2006)
- Gareth Jones, “The Boxers of Wales: Volume Two, Merthyr, Aberdare and Pontypridd (Cardiff, 2011)
- Gareth Harris, Freddie Welsh: World Champion Lightweight Boxer, Pontypridd Legend(Pontypridd, Coalopolis Publishing, 2004)