Ronnie James (1917-77) was amongst the finest fighters produced by Swansea and was involved in the first world title fight ever to be held in Wales.
A huge draw with boxing fans in the 1940s, James came up short at world level – but he had already lost his best boxing years to non-descript bouts during World War II.
He had made his debut at the industrial horror that was the Mannesmann Hall, Plasmarl, and he fittingly fought on that venue’s last bill in November, 1941, before it became a Home Guard depot.
James served during the war and was rescued from Dunkirk with the help of another famous Welsh boxer, Glen Moody.
The war-weary Welsh public were treated to a huge James show at a bomb-damaged Cardiff Arms Park in August 1944, when over 30,000 attended to see him face champion Eric Boon for the British lightweight title.
There was a somber beginning to proceedings with a three-minute silence for Maurice Turnbull, Wales’ first Test cricketer who had been killed in action several days before. When the action got going James was well in control, dropping Boon eight times before finally landing the knock-out blow in the 10th.
After the war, promoter Jack Solomons thought he could cash in on James’s enormous popularity as he had the idea that the Welshman could have the beating of the great Ike Williams.
Williams, one of the greatest lightweights of all time, was enticed to defend his title in front of 45,000 of James’s fans at Cardiff’s Ninian Park on 4 September, 1946 – Wales’ first world title fight.
The build-up was encouraging for the challenger as Williams complained about conditions in the ration-starved UK and made outrageous demands to secure fruit juices and oranges to help his preparation.
Solomons’s build-up was even more problematic as torrential rain in the fortnight before the bout threatened to wash out the entire event.
Williams, whose preparations had appeared entirely lacklustre, barely made the weight, having to run around Ninian Park to lose the final 20oz.
But James hadn’t fought at the 9st 9lbs lightweight limit for two years and was badly weight-drained himself, while he was also giving away 10 years to the 23-year-old champion.
It was quickly evident that James had stepped into a different class, and Williams knocked him down seven times – more times than the Welshman had ever been down in his career. The slaughter was ended in the ninth, the first time that James had ever been knocked out.
The honest challenger would admit that a rematch would have been pointless, although he felt that he would have had a better chance against Williams five or six years earlier, when James felt he was at his peak.
James had three more fights, first travelling to Australia where he gained a disqualification win over Tommy Burns in Sydney Stadium.
He returned to Neath Drill Hall for a win over Mick Gibbons, setting up a huge all-Swansea affair against Cliff Curvis at the Vetch Field.
James – who is reported to have been unwell in the build-up – was on the canvas in the third, and his corner threw in the towel in the seventh round. It would be his last fight.
He emigrated to Australia where he worked as a referee and as a masseur for a rugby league club.
- Huw Richards, ‘Mannesmann to Maccarinelli: Boxing in Swansea’, in Peter Stead and Gareth Williams (eds.), “Wales and its Boxers: The Fighting Tradition” (Cardiff, 2008), pp. 177-92