WHILE grainy, colourless footage shot with archaic cameras can never do justice to the likes of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Joe Louis, at least we have glimpses of their fighting lives preserved on film. So spare a thought for the countless boxing heroes who preceded the age of film and photography. Without visual proof of their existence, from a modern perspective their careers can seem like fairytale legends, akin to the stories of Greek mythology. Unlike the protagonists of those ancient Greek fables however, these men were real. To know about them we rely on written accounts. But how many modern fights fans have the time or tendency to leaf through decaying centuries-old newspapers in search of nuggets of information about bare-knuckle boxers?
One writer who does is Lawrence Davies, and his efforts have spawned three meticulously researched books on Welsh pugilism. The first, Mountain Fighters, explored the lives and times of those bare-fisted hard men who fought on the mountains of Wales when prize-fighting was an illicit activity. The second, Jack Scarrott’s Prize Fighters, focuses on an influential boxing booth showman who assisted such legendary figures as Jim Driscoll and Jimmy Wilde on their paths to glory.
Davies’ latest tome is even more ambitious. The Story of Welsh Boxing: Prize Fighters of Wales (Pitch Publishing) starts in the early 1700s, when pugilists fought with sword and staff, and concludes over a century later. The book charts the exploits of fighters you’ve probably never heard of – men such as “Paddington” Jones, Jack Rasher, Ned Turner and William Charles – and it reveals some fascinating stories.
One poignant account is of the death of Ned Davis, known as “the Wrexham Champion”, at age 38. Davis, a master butcher and grazier by trade, was in his fighting pomp in the 1790s. At 6ft and athletically built, he possessed an imposing physique for the day, and his fighting abilities earned him a place in Pierce Egan’s classic prize-ring compendium Boxiana.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Ned was known as a gentleman. At Chester racecourse, he reputedly rescued Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, a well-known patron of pugilism, from a group of ruffians. Seeing the baronet in danger, Davis charged through the crowd and flattened the would-be assailants to Williams-Wynn’s relief and delight.
Davis’ end came tragically and dramatically. Whilst on an errand to purchase some cattle, he stopped at a pub just outside Wrexham, where a pair of brothers, prompted by some imagined slight, set about him. Ned quickly dealt with his two attackers and resumed his journey. Unwisely, he stopped at the pub again on his return trip that evening. This time the brothers and three more siblings lay in wait, along with 56 other men – mostly workmen in their employment.
Davis was forced to fight his way out of the pub, retreating onto a grass plot behind it. There he challenged and battered three of the brothers in quick succession before tackling the other two together. Whilst Ned was grappling with the brothers, a workman “planted a terrible blow on his kidneys” and as a result of this and presumably other blows landed in the fracas Ned lost his life. The Story of Welsh Boxing is filled with absorbing accounts far removed from the fight milieu of today.
For most Welsh boxing fans the country’s ring history begins in the days of Welsh, Driscoll and Wilde. But as Davies proves, the true start date of Welsh pugilism was at least two centuries sooner. The book is well produced, and to help readers with the often puzzling prize-ring lexicon, there’s a glossary of pugilistic terms among the appendices. Searching for something with a little more substance than your run-of-the-mill boxing biography? Then give this a try.