‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll (1880-1925) is regarded as the finest proponent of the classical, upright style of boxing and a fighter who is always mentioned in lists of the greatest pugilists never to have won a world title.
He was born into poverty in Cardiff Bay to two Irish parents, but his father was killed by a train soon after he was born.
A young Driscoll helped the family’s finances by working as a printing apprentice at the Western Mail newspaper, and also by boxing in the booths. It has been estimated that he had fought over 600 such bouts before he turned professional in 1901.
By 1906 he had lost just once as a professional, and his eye-pleasing style had made him a firm favourite with boxing’s movers and shakers at the National Sporting Club.
It was at this venue that he challenged for his first major title, the British featherweight crown, and the Welshman won the belt with a 15-round points verdict over champion Joe Bowker.
He continued to reign supreme at domestic level, and in 1908 returned to the NSC to win the Commonwealth featherweight crown against New Zealander Charlie Griffin.
Greater challenges awaited across the Atlantic, and in November 1908 he was greeted in New York by a boxing press and public who were sceptical of both his frail appearance and his British style, the locals favouring the all-action US fighters.
That soon changed when they saw the skeletal-like Welshman fight.
He boxed nine times in the north-eastern US, winning seven with two no contests, and the quality of his displays left even the garrulous US press corps struggling to deliver enough hyperbole. Famous US columnist Bat Masterson gave him the ‘Peerless’ nickname.
World featherweight champion Abe Attell stepped forward to take on the all-conquering 28-year-old foreigner in the last fight of his US tour.
The bout at the National Athletic Club, New York, was fought under the no-decision rule, meaning that Driscoll would have to knock out his opponent to win the world championship.
Attell, 24, was from San Francisco, but had built a formidable reputation in America’s boxing heartland of New York. The ‘Little Hebrew’ – like Driscoll a future Hall of Famer – had first become champion in 1903, had reclaimed the belt in 1904, and would reign as champion from 1906-12.
The champion was in serious trouble in the fourth, and the general consensus at the end was that Driscoll had won seven of the 10 rounds, with two scored even.
It was enough to see Driscoll recognised as world champion in Europe, but the no decision rule meant he never officially wore the crown.
The Welshman’s manager, Charlie Harvey, knew the clamour that could be built for a rematch under Championship rules. But Driscoll boarded a ship for Britain the day after the Attell fight in order to perform his annual piece in a charity show for Nazareth House Orphanage, Cardiff.
“I never break a promise,” was Driscoll’s simple reply to Harvey’s howls of dismay, and the fighter received a hero’s welcome in Wales.
Driscoll was at the peak of his powers in 1909, but they waned under the onslaught of his unhealthy, party-loving lifestyle.
Driscoll would never again fight in America, returning to Britain and a huge fight with Freddie Welsh in Cardiff in December 1910.
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 style 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.”
A distraught Driscoll burst into tears, saying: “The referee allowed Freddie to butt me till I couldn’t stand it any longer. I thought I’d let him see that I was a better goat than he was.”
But Driscoll’s career was interrupted for six years as he signed up to fight in World War I, the much-loved champion boxing many exhibitions for the troops and working tirelessly as a personal fitness instructor.
He defied failing health to return for three more fights, using his skills to keep him out of trouble before ending his career with the bravest of defeats to Charles Ledoux in December 1919.
Driscoll died of pneumonia on 30 January, 1925, at the age of 44, and over 100,000 lined the streets of Cardiff for the funeral.
- Gareth Jones, “The Boxers of Wales: Volume One, Cardiff” (Cardiff, 2009)
- Gareth Harris, “Jim Driscoll: The Peerless One” (Pontypridd, 2000)
- Alexander Cordell, “Peerless Jim” (Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, London, 1984)
- Fred Deakin, “Peerless Jim Driscoll: The original Welsh wizard, a biography,” (Crescendo Publications, Stone, Staffs, 1987)