BOXING, more than most sports, seems to generate a lot of debate about who was greater than whom. Would Muhammad Ali have beaten Mike Tyson? Was Marvin Hagler better than Carlos Monzon? Who was the best of The Four Kings? Normally, I like to stay away from these discussions because they seem to lead to quite a lot of vitriol. I do recognise that, with advanced training techniques and dietary preparation, modern fighters have an advantage over their counterparts of 100 years ago. However, I also feel that yesterday’s heroes came from tougher times and there were many more fighters around that one had to beat to get to the top.
Considering just who was the best of British, I would say that Ted Kid Lewis was our best out-and-out fighter, Ken Buchanan our best boxer, Lennox Lewis, the man who has achieved the most, against the best, in the modern era and, if one is looking for the most exciting fighter, then look no further than Nigel Benn. Perhaps the best of the lot, though, was Jimmy Wilde.
Wilde constantly features highly in these lists, although I suspect that there are many younger fans, with no particular interest in archaic ring history, who wonder why this should be. It is often claimed that Wilde had 600 professional fights. This is palpably untrue. He was a booth fighter, so he would have crossed gloves with at least 600 men, but most of those would not have been professional boxers. His detailed professional record is quite unclear and there are many different versions of it. Some of these contain inaccuracies and others exclude some important bouts, including a loss. He had well over 100 contests and he won the great majority of them inside the distance. The man could hit with either hand. Not for nothing was he known as “The Ghost with a Hammer in his Hand”.
He often weighed far less than his opponents, even though he competed, for the whole of his career, in the lightest division. When he beat the American, Johnny Rosner, in 1916 in a world flyweight title contest, he weighed 7st 2lbs (100lbs). He knocked out future British bantamweight champion Tommy Noble in 1916 when conceding between 18 and 20lbs, while against future world bantamweight champion Joe Lynch in 1919, Wilde took a close verdict when fighting with a 14lb disadvantage. One of his most remarkable feats was to give Joe Conn around two stone (28lbs) in weight and four inches in height in 1918 and to comprehensively outbox him before stopping the Londoner in 12 rounds.
Conn was a top-line featherweight at the time and in his next bout he met Tancy Lee for the British title and lasted until the 17th round. Before the Wilde contest he had won 12 on the trot and among his victims were three men who at one time held a British title – Sid Smith, Tommy Noble and Curley Walker. He had also beaten Welsh feathers Danny Morgan and Idris Jones inside schedule and both men were of the highest calibre.
The idea of matching Wilde with Conn came from promoter Jack Callaghan. The show was held at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC. It was not a natural match and I suspect that it was carefully contrived to allow Wilde to demonstrate to a large London audience just how versatile he was in being able to beat a much heavier man.
I have some excellent photographs of the fight – one of which is reproduced here. Just look at the difference in size. Consider also Conn’s face after being hit by Wilde’s left hook. The body language is also revealing. Wilde looks like the aggressor, with Conn appearing reticent. The greatest-ever British fighter? It’s Wilde for me.