THERE was a time when every boxer from UK shores who wanted to make his mark in the game needed to fight in London. The city was home to the National Sporting Club, which ruled British boxing with an iron fist in the early 1900s. From 1909, it issued championship belts at eight weights, and any boxer who wanted to fight for the national crown (then immeasurably more prestigious than it is today) would need to do so at the club’s Covent Garden HQ at 43 King Street. Any Brit who hoped to hit the big time would not dream of trying without showing his wares in London. Back in January 1912, an unbeaten 19-year-old from Tylorstown, in South Wales, knew it was time to do just that. The kid had learnt his trade on a boxing booth before graduating to the Millfield Athletic Club in Pontypridd for bouts where the loser got no purse. He fought in the evening and at weekends, while working as a miner at a coal face during the day. He was proving a phenomenal hitter and few of his opponents had heard the final bell, but in London he was still unknown. The kid’s name was Jimmy Wilde.
His London debut was at The Ring, a curiously shaped fight hall on the east side of Blackfriars Road, just beyond the bridge going southward from the City. The former chapel had been circularly built (“so that the devil would have no corners to hide in”), but had square projections that made it multi-sided. The venue had been open for less than two years but already its owner, ex-lightweight champ Dick Burge, was making rapid inroads into establishing The Ring as Britain’s premier small hall.
Jimmy’s opponent was a nephew of the reigning British and European champion Matt Wells, who fought under the nom de guerre Matt Wells’ Nipper. Back in Wales, Wilde had sparred with colliers to prepare for the bout, and had gone to Herne Bay in Kent for extra training. The pair were supposed to weigh in at 7st (98lbs) on the afternoon of the fight, but Jimmy’s opponent didn’t show. This, he suspected, was because Matt Wells’ Nipper was well above the agreed weight. Jimmy was well inside it.
Dick’s wife, Bella Burge (who would take over The Ring after Dick’s untimely death in 1918), was horrified by her first glimpse of the pale Welsh lad with the skeletal frame. She pleaded with her husband to cancel Jimmy’s fight and save the boy from being slaughtered. When he didn’t, she implored: “If he can last through one round, pull him out, pay him and send him home!”
The bout did not last a round, but it wasn’t Wilde being led to the slaughter. Boxing News reported: “The Welshman was not there for delaying matters. He flicked one in the face, which the Nipper tried to counter, but Wilde sidestepped neatly, and before Nipper could find him he had scored heavily with a left and right to the head. After which the Nipper came in for it very badly, his opponent simply showering hooks, jabs and swings on him with the utmost ease and confidence.
“Down went the Nipper. Three times he struggled to his feet, only to be sent down again amid vociferous applause from the onlookers, who were moved to enthusiasm by the wonderful display of skill given by the little Welshman.”
“I always pondered on the quickest way of finishing a bout,” Wilde later reflected.
But this time there was an added incentive. He needed to get back to Wales to start his colliery shift at 7am the next morning, and if the fight had gone the full 10 rounds he’d have missed the last train home.