The brilliantly named Johnny Basham (1889-1947) is one of the most prominent figures from the first golden age of Welsh boxing.
‘The Happy Wanderer’ was the first welterweight to win the Lonsdale Belt and also claimed the European title, but his ambitions to go further were thwarted by the great Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis.
Basham was born in Newport to an English father and Irish mother, but ‘Laughing’ Johnny proved very popular in north Wales. He moved to Wrexham when he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1912 and fought many of his major bouts in Liverpool.
Having learnt his trade, Basham’s form improved noticeably from mid-1910 on and he became a very difficult man to beat, combining a classic straight left with speed around the ring, superb footwork and a cool fighting brain.
A six-month blip with a number of losses in 1912-13 was overcome but – as his career began to get back on track – tragedy struck.
A 21 August, 1913, fight against Harry Price ended when Basham KO’d the South African in the 11th. Price’s head struck the canvas heavily and he would die from the injuries.
Basham was arrested on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm then charged with manslaughter, but the Welshman found considerable sympathy from the public at large.
He was acquitted by the magistrate who deemed that the bout had been fair and sporting, a verdict that helped to secure the future of boxing.
During World War I, Basham was a sergeant and physical training officer in the army. He served with five other fighters who became known as the ‘Famous Six’ – Basham, Jim Driscoll, Jimmy Wilde, Dick Smith, Pat O’Keefe and Bombardier Billy Wells.
Sustaining a boxing career was difficult, but the Newport man was able to keep fighting and in December 1914 he overcame an early, heavy knock-down to stop Johnny Summers and win the vacant British welterweight title.
He kept winning and in October 1915 got a shot at the European title against a man he had beaten twice before, Albert Badoud. The French-based-Swiss upset the odds, though, claiming a ninth-round stoppage win in Liverpool.
After that setback, Basham would go undefeated for the rest of the war, and in September 1919 he finally claimed the European belt with a win over Francis Charles.
In his next bout he took the Empire belt off Matt Wells then – after a successful defence against Fred Kay – prepared for the mighty challenge of Lewis.
In June 1920, ‘the Kid’ was a former world welterweight champion and the reigning British middleweight king. Basham’s British, European and Empire welterweight belts were on the line, but he had to give up all three when Lewis stopped him in the ninth.
The Welshman put up the bravest of fights in a rematch, but Lewis again proved too strong, stopping Basham in the 19th of 20 rounds.
The defeated man chose to move up to middleweight the following year, where he beat champion Gus Platts over 20 rounds to take his British and European belts.
But Basham’s nemesis Lewis had followed him up to middleweight and would again take his belts from him, triumphing with a 12th-round stoppage.
The Welshman’s career was now winding down, and he would not win another fight. A 1922 defeat to future world light-heavyweight champion Mike McTigue saw him stay out of the ring until 1924, when he lost to fellow Newport man (and Welsh rugby international) Jerry Shea at the Pavilion Theatre on Stow Hill.
Basham would not fight again for five years, and it seems appropriate that in December 1929 he was tempted out of retirement to lose to the man he could not conquer, Ted Lewis.
‘The Happy Warrior’ faced a difficult retirement as he had frittered away his considerable earnings, and he continued in the booths until his late 40s.
He moved back to Newport, battling poverty and failing health but reportedly retaining his sunny disposition to the very end.
Towards the end of his life he made a programme for BBC Wales alongside Eddie Thomas and Cliff Curvis and, according to the host GV Wynne Jones (Geevers): “Johnny Basham was a sorry figure and almost destitute and, as unfortunately happened, was to die in poverty within a month.”
A seizure took the life of arguably Newport’s finest boxer in 1947, when he was aged just 56.