He only moved up to the division because he was chasing the big money, though, and the question of whether he could have claimed a world title at his natural light-heavyweight will forever remain unanswered.
Petersen was born in Cardiff in 1911 and his father John Thomas – the son of a Norwegian ship’s carpenter from Haugesund who took up boxing and fitness in the Welsh capital – had wanted him to be a doctor.
Instead, the incredibly dedicated Whitchurch man learned to box in a gym above a pub in the docks.
The young Petersen found encouragement from a sparring session with the great Frank Moody, and he enjoyed an excellent amateur career that took him to the ABA light-heavyweight title before he turned professional in September 1931.
He was backed by a professional medical and marketing operation, fronted by his father’s Lynn Institute, and holds the remarkable record of topping every professional card he ever fought on.
Petersen was a man in a hurry, and in the first nine months of his professional career he recorded 18 wins, only six of which went to the judges.
His 19th fight in May 1932 saw him beat Harry Crossley at London’s Holborn Stadium for the British light-heavyweight crown, but in his next bout two months later he was at heavyweight.
The Cardiff man scored a second-round knock-out of Reggie Meen at the Wimbledon Stadium to win the British heavyweight title, a result that left the press struggling to find the appropriate superlatives.
“Twenty years of age, only a boy, but we have found a Carpentier,” said WF Sanderson in the Daily Mail. “We have found a fighter, a lad who hits back when he is hurt, and who will drop any man in the world who is unlucky enough to meet that appalling right-hand punch.”
Petersen was still holding the British light-heavyweight crown, and was in the running for a shot at Maxie Rosenbloom’s world light-heavyweight title, some even suggesting that ‘Slapsie’ Maxie was avoiding the Welshman.
Petersen would continue in the glamour heavyweight class, though, and would go on to secure the Lonsdale Belt, making eight successful defences.
Bigger fights were to come, and on 15 May, 1933, he met Germany’s Heine Muller at Ninian Park in one of the greatest boxing nights ever staged in Wales.
The local boy, still aged just 21, was defending a 22-fight unbeaten record against a veteran of over 200 bouts who had mixed in the highest European and US class and was renowned for his toughness.
An estimated crowd of 40,000 thrilled at the occasion – but the fight was over virtually before they had taken their seats. After two minutes of the first round Petersen caught his opponent with a left to the body followed by a perfect right to the head. The crowd were left in awe as Muller lay draped across the ropes.
Another huge Ninian Park crowd saw Petersen defeat George Cook and an estimated 70,000 watched him beat Jack Doyle in White City.
That bout was controversial, though, as the wild, inexperienced Doyle staggered his opponent before being disqualified in the second for a low blow.
Many say that Petersen was never the same and in his next outing he lost for the first time, Len Harvey winning a controversial points decision to claim the British title.
Petersen recovered and the following year, 1934, was perhaps his best as he won and defended the British Empire title and moved up to sixth in the Ring’s rankings as he sought a challenge for Max Baer’s world title.
Former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was interested in managing the Welshman and asked for a five-year contract, with the option of another five if his fighter won the heavyweight crown.
“If I did not think he had the possibility of becoming champion I would not be willing to waste my time,” said Dempsey.
Talk of a shot at Rosenbloom’s light-heavyweight belt was also still mooted, but as the biggest box-office draw in Britain Petersen saw little value in trying to break into the US market on the terms of US promoters.
But as time went on the ever-game Petersen was soaking up a lot of punishment as an under-sized heavyweight.
Germany’s Walter Neusel – ‘the ‘Blond Tiger’ – would prove to be his downfall, a fighter who was two stones heavier than the Welshman. Petersen would engage him three times and on each thrilling occasion the Welshman’s corner threw in the towel late on.
After the third Neusel defeat he was told that he risked blindness if he fought on, and he retired in 1937 at the age of 25 to open a successful sports shop in Barry. His time as a professional boxer had lasted just six years.
Petersen died of lung cancer on 22 November, 1990, at the Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend, with plentiful tributes paid to him at his death.
- Gareth Jones, “The Boxers of Wales: Volume One, Cardiff” (Cardiff, 2009)
- Bob Lonkhurst, “Gentleman of the Ring: The life and career of Jack Petersen” (Potters Bar, 2001)