Tommy Ryan: The First Welterweight champion to win a Middleweight title

20.05.07 - By Scotty Crouse: Last night, May 19, Cory Spinks become the twentieth current or former welterweight champion in boxing history to challenge for the middleweight title. Ten men have tried and succeeded, ten have failed. Boxing immortals like Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Emile Griffith, Felix Trinidad and Sugar Ray Leonard are some who have accomplished the feat. The names of those who have challenged and failed are equally impressive--Henry Armstrong, Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles and Oscar De La Hoya among them. Some, like ring-greats Mickey Walker, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran failed the first time only to succeed on later attempts.

With such a distinguished list of pugilistic powerhouses it would be very easy to forget others whose names don’t resound as famously, but whose accomplishments are just as significant and who paved the way for the rest. Surely one such individual would be Tommy Ryan, a largely unknown fighter from long ago but the first to become the middleweight champion after already winning the welterweight title. Born Joseph Youngs on March 31, 1870, in Redwood, New York, he changed his name to Tommy Ryan as a young man soon after running away from home. Gaining fighting experience as he traveled about he made the switch from extracurricular fighting to that of professional in 1887.

He challenged for the welterweight title on July 26, 1894 after a professional career of 31 fights, 24 wins, 3 draws, 3 no contests, and 1 no decision (according to the Ring Record Book). Of his 24 wins he had knocked out 22 opponents. The champion at this time was a tough Irish-American fighter from Eastport, Maine named Mysterious Billy Smith. Smith had won the vacant welterweight title by stopping Danny Needham in fourteen rounds on December 14, 1892.

Ryan and Smith fought for twenty furiously competitive rounds, neither giving an inch, until the police finally ended the fight and Ryan earned the decision and the title while Smith vainly protested the outcome.

Ryan kept his belt until 1898, defending it six times. Among his defenses were wins against former champion Jack (Nonpareil) Dempsey (KO 3), rematches against Mysterious Billy Smith (NC 18 & WF 9), and a hard-fought conflict with Tommy West (KO 14) that was one of the bloodiest in history. Along the way he also experienced his first taste of defeat in 1896 at the hands of Charles “Kid” McCoy in a non-title bout which McCoy won by knockout in the fifteenth round. He wouldn’t lose again until 1900 and to the same fighter, this time by six-round decision. Ryan only lost one more fight the remainder of his career which lasted until 1907, on a foul against George Green in 1901.

In 1891 Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Jack (Nonpareil) Dempsey to win the middleweight title. He vacated the title in 1897 to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world defeating James J. Corbett in fourteen rounds.

The newly vacant middleweight title was won by Charles McCoy and promptly relinquished without as much as a single defense so he could fight heavyweights like Fitzsimmons. With the title vacant once again welterweight champ Tommy Ryan claimed the title but wasn’t fully recognized as champ until he was paired with Jack Bonner on October 24, 1898..

Bonner was an experienced fighter of over fifty fights when he fought Ryan. He had fought and defeated Mysterious Billy Smith twice, stopped Dan Creedon, lost to Ryan nemesis Charles McCoy, and drawn with Tommy West. He would be the subject of considerable controversy four months after his fight with Ryan when he was accused of rubbing oil of mustard on his gloves in an apparent attempt to blind West, his opponent. The police were called into the ring, the fight was stopped, and West won on a disqualification.

Not much is known of the actual fight between Ryan and Bonner except that Ryan earned a “clean” twenty-round decision over the soon-to-be nefarious Bonner and won the middleweight crown--the first welterweight champ to accomplish this.

Over the next four years Ryan made four defenses of his middleweight title with wins over Frank Craig (KO 10), welterweight partner-in-blood Tommy West (KO 17), and Kid Carter (KO 6) in 1902. After the Carter fight Ryan put his title on the shelf fighting mostly non-title fights until 1905 when he became inactive for two years. He fought three times in 1907, one an exhibition, and retired as middleweight champion that same year at the age of 37. He never lost either his welterweight or his middleweight titles. He was followed by ring-legend Stanley Ketchel and it has to be one of boxing’s great disappointments that the two never met in the ring. According to the Ring Record Book he finished his career with a total of 109 bouts, 86 wins with 68 knockouts, 9 no decisions, 6 no contests, 5 draws, and only 3 losses.

Ryan was a talented boxer who could punch with surprising power. He was scientific and artistic, but capable of sustained violence and brutality. He was clever enough to have taught James J. Jeffries how to crouch as part of his defensive technique which helped him win the world heavyweight title. He was tough enough to endure seventeen brutally sadistic rounds with Tommy West and come out victorious even after suffering a broken left hand in one of history’s bloodiest fights.

Underappreciated, Ryan deserves honors on any list of all-time greats. During a twenty-year career of 109 fights he lost only 3, two to the same fighter (some records indicate another loss at the very end of his career to a fighter named Harry Forbes). His credentials can stand in any era and he will forever have the distinction of the very first welterweight titlist to challenge and win the middleweight championship of the world.

Article posted on 19.05.2007

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