WHEN the Lonsdale Belts were first awarded in 1909, the first three all went to Welshmen. Freddie Welsh of Pontypridd won the first ever belt contest when he beat Johnny Summers at the National Sporting Club to pick up the lightweight title on 8 November 1909. In February 1910, Jim Driscoll of Cardiff beat Seaman Arthur Hayes to win the featherweight championship. The third Welshman, Tom Thomas of Carncelyn, won the vacant middleweight title in December 1909 when he knocked out Charlie Wilson of Notting Hill in two rounds on December 20, 1909. Both Welsh and Driscoll are legendary fighters who are still well-remembered today, but what of Thomas?
Sadly, Tom Thomas is virtually forgotten but he was a great fighter. I suspect that the main reason that few know of him today is because only 20 months after he became the second Lonsdale belt-holder, he died aged just 31.
Thomas started out in his native South Wales in 1899 and he quickly established himself as the best middleweight in the valleys. He lived on an isolated farm just a few miles away from Pontypridd and, while he was not a miner himself, most of the lads he had to battle against in the many Welsh rings around at that time were.
He first came to prominence in 1903 when he won a middleweight competition at the National Sporting Club, and he remained in London for the rest of that year, picking up useful wins against some of the capital’s better middleweights. He returned to Wales in 1904 for four contests, all of which he won inside the distance. His experience in London told him that this was the place to be if he wanted to progress to the championship and so, in 1906, he based himself in London to pursue these ambitions and within the year he had beaten Pat O’Keefe to become the British middleweight champion.
Over the course of the next five years, until his untimely death, Thomas was plagued by rheumatism. This illness pretty much destroyed his aspirations to become the world middleweight champion. He was matched against Willie Lewis, Harry Lewis and Eddie McGoorty, all of whom were leading American contenders at the time, but in each instance his training was disrupted by his illness. In writing his obituary, John Murray, the editor of BN, stated that “He simply could not train. He was scarcely able to move about, and so was compelled to cry off, to his own bitter regret. Unfortunately for Tom, he grew to dislike publishing the real reason for being compelled to refuse contests. He had been so often obliged to explain that rheumatism had attacked him again that he commenced to be afraid that people might suspect he was only putting this forward as an excuse”.
Despite suffering so badly from an illness that usually afflicts people when they are much older, Thomas still managed to rack up some very decent victories, and in the 16 contests that he fought after becoming champion he lost only two, against Jim Sullivan in November 1910, when he lost his title, and against Bandsman Rice in his last contest, when Tom was disqualified in the 18th round of a 20-rounder at Wonderland, Whitechapel. All but one of his victories during this period came by stoppage and most of them lasted only two or three rounds. He was taken the distance by Bartley Connelly, another decent American, in a 20-rounder at Liverpool in 1908.
When he won the belt, he did so with clinical precision as the BN report reveals, “Thomas, with a left hook to the chin, sent Wilson backwards across the ring. Tom jumped after him and smashed the right on the point, and Wilson spun round and dripped flat on his back with arms extended. The fatal count commenced”.
Poor Tom Thomas, at the time of his death negotiations were underway to match him with Billy Papke. That would have been interesting.