The Ghost With a Hammer In His Hand
07.01.05 - By MIKE CASEY: I thought of little Jimmy Wilde recently as I watched a documentary about a wonderful cinematic discovery made in the town of Blackburn in the so-called Black Country area of northern England. Sealed in barrels in a photographic shop, untouched and unseen for more than 70 years, were 800 original nitrate negatives of pioneer film makers, James Kenyon and Sagar Mitchell.
Article posted on 07.01.2006
Mitchell and Kenyon ran a late Victorian and Edwardian film company and shot various film projects long before Hollywood was born. Among other things, they captured what is believed to be the first moving film of the Manchester United soccer team in the opening years of the twentieth century.
The film collection was acquired by the British Film Institute and painstakingly restored to its original glory. The results are astounding.
Shot expertly by men who knew their business, the films have the precision and clarity that is so cruelly absent from most of the old fight films from the same era. No crude hand cranking, no skips and jumps, none of the high speed antics that so unfairly ridicule the skilful fistic artists of those bygone days.
Why did I think of Jimmy Wilde? Because one of Mitchell and Kenyon’s most innovative and inspired ideas was to film ordinary working people going about their business, as they walked the streets and poured from the brutal workshops of the factories and the mines.
In one marvellous sequence, we see men stopping off at little beer stalls to quench the thirst of long and punishing shifts. Most of them are big fellows with barrel chests and the foaming moustaches of the day, looking far older than their years. We learn that many will be fortunate to see their fiftieth birthdays as a result of their humdrum existence and the many illnesses that prevailed at the time. Many others will simply drink themselves to death in their desperate attempts to alleviate the monotony of their frequently gruesome lives.
This was life in northern England a hundred years ago, just as it was life in a thousand different places across the great American landscape and in Jimmy Wilde’s heartland of the Welsh valleys.
It is essential to establish the harsh canvas on which Wilde would paint his numerous masterpieces, for it was a minor miracle that he survived his environment, never mind the punches of the many illustrious opponents who would outweigh him.
Jimmy Wilde was a phenomenon, and I am not one to use such powerful and emotive words lightly. What other superlative is there for such a wondrous little fellow? Frail of physique and almost sickly in appearance, Jimmy seemed ill equipped to live the extraordinary life he did. By the time he was through, he was a living legend.
Standing little over five feet tall and weighing a hundred pounds, he worked the mines, worked the boxing booths and then became arguably the greatest pound for pound fighter in boxing history.
To this day, he remains a virtual shoo-in for the top spot among the all-time flyweights. He is probably the only fighter who unites the generations of boxing fans whenever the top ten lists of each weight division are debated and compiled. Arguments rage all the way down to the flyweights, where the business of the day is usually confined to establishing the running order of those from second to tenth.
Jimmy Wilde was known as the Mighty Atom, the Tylorstown Terror, or perhaps more appropriately, The Ghost With a Hammer In His Hand. All three nicknames were earned and underscored by ferocious punching power, which never seemed to logically match up with its diminutive source.
From where did Wilde generate such power and acquire such fierce determination and fighting heart? For those answers, we need to examine his progression to the role of professional boxer and his tireless application thereafter. For Jimmy’s deadly hitting was educated, religiously practised and perfectly timed. As good as he was, he worked for hours to make himself better. His hand speed was exceptional and he quickly learned how to heighten the force of his blows by feeding off the momentum of his opponent.
Jimmy Wilde was born in May 1892 in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, and was twelve years old when his family moved to Tylorstown. It was here that Jimmy got his first dose of the tough life in the coalmines. Like so many others, he yearned for a way out, but the hard work served a useful purpose in adding steel to his slight frame and much needed strength to the little arms that would so often be likened to pipe stems by the fight reporters of the day.
Wilde’s true vocation was beckoning, and at the age of sixteen he went to try his luck in the local boxing booths. He quickly discovered that luck was one thing he rarely needed in his natural element of the boxing ring.
He fought literally scores of fights against much heavier men, astounding onlookers time and time again with his destructive punching and ever improving technique.
Unfairly, in what were much more superstitious times, Wilde also acquired the reputation of a physical freak. People gasped in awe at the little dynamo, but were equally afraid of him. He couldn’t be real, surely. As Jimmy continued to wreak havoc on those men daring enough to step up and challenge him, so an ironic turnabout occurred. No longer did people worry about whether Wilde was big enough or fit enough for such tough and bruising work. The welfare of his opponents became the issue.
Let me nail the myth right here and now that there was anything freakish about Jimmy Wilde or his punching ability. This fact was rightly and eloquently explained by one of the greatest boxing journalists ever in the hugely knowledgeable Jimmy Butler.
Butler, in today’s parlance, was something else. He loved his boxing and was as familiar with the underground circuit as he was with the establishment. It was one of Jimmy’s pleasures to seek out illegal fights throughout London in the hope of spotting potential talent. He knew all the hot spots, and most of the bouncers and doormen knew him. He only needed to tip his hat and exchange some pleasantries to gain entry.
Such gathering would take place in any makeshift and convenient place, as they do to this day: in warehouses, on old industrial sites, in secretive little ‘lock-ups’ beneath the railway arches or in remote areas out on the tracks. If you have ever seen the Charles Bronson movie, Hard Times, you will have an idea of the scenario.
But Jimmy Butler didn’t just love his fights. He loved his fighters. He got to know them, got to know their way of fighting and followed them tirelessly throughout their careers. He was a close acquaintance of Wilde, as well as other such greats as Sam Langford, Jim Jeffries, Owen Moran and Jim Driscoll.
Butler watched Jimmy Wilde in training and understood what he was seeing. He wrote of Jimmy, “Wilde has often been described as a fighting freak. But he was not. A pugilistic marvel –yes. A glove fighting genius – yes. But a freak – definitely no. Jimmy Wilde was more, much more, than that.
“There was nothing freakish in his devastating punch, amazing though it was. The whole secret of it, as Jimmy himself told me, was in the correctness of the timing.
“For hour after hour, in the days before he was champion, the former pit boy would practise punching, until he had cultivated a sense of judgement of distance and timing that bordered upon the uncanny.
“There will never be another Jimmy Wilde. He was the greatest gamecock boxing will ever know.”
Mastering the various disciplines and the many subtleties of his trade enabled Jimmy Wilde to make fast and awesome progress when he made the transition from the boxing booths to the professional ranks in the winter of 1910. Astonishingly, he went unbeaten in his first 101 outings, compiling that record in the breathtaking space of just over four years.
The streak began quietly and almost anti-climatically when his professional debut against Les Williams was declared a no contest after three rounds at Pontypridd in Wales. The date was December 26, aptly known as Boxing Day in the United Kingdom.
Then Wilde caught fire, piling up knockout victories with the hitting power of a man twice his size. He took on all comers, ripping the European flyweight title from Eugene Husson in 1914 on a sixth round knockout and frequently engaging in catch-weight contests in which he was ridiculously outweighed.
News of Jimmy’s destructive power shot around the boxing globe with such resonance that potential opponents all the way up to lightweight began to steer a wide berth of the little terror.
When the streak was snapped by the speedy and ruthless Tancy Lee in 1915, Wilde was not at all well going into the fight. Not for the first time in his career, he refused to offer his poor condition as an excuse for his performance. Lee stopped him in seventeen rounds for the British title, and such was the damage done to Wilde’s right ear that someone in his entourage wanted to sever it with a knife.
Jimmy got well, bided his time and avenged the loss in 1916 when he stopped Lee in eleven rounds. Wilde was now reaching the glorious peak of his career and he ascended the world flyweight throne later that year when he battered his way to an eleventh round victory over Young Zulu Kid at the National Sporting Club in Covent Garden.
For once, Jimmy was facing a shorter opponent in the determined little American warrior, who stood just four feet ten inches. Not surprisingly, though, the Kid was heavier than Wilde and much more muscled and thickset.
Young Zulu could fight too. Setting up a rushing attack, he was all over Jimmy in the first round and for a good part of the second, until Wilde stopped him in his tracks with an uppercut and floored him with a quick succession of heavy blows. Only the bell saved the Kid, but he was undeterred by the turnaround and resumed his strong offensive in the third. Jimmy, however, now had the measure of his man and the contest began to take on a distinct air of inevitability as the more punishing punches repeatedly came from the Welshman.
It would be noted many times throughout Wilde’s career that the resistance of his opponents would quite noticeably drain once they had sampled his terrible power. In the eleventh round, Wilde drove Young Zulu to the ropes with a powerful left hook to the jaw and decked him with a series of debilitating body shots. A final series of smashes to the jaw prompted the Kid’s seconds to throw in the towel.
Outweighed by 20lbs!
There was one fight in 1918, at Stamford Bridge in London, which was a perfect microcosm of Jimmy Wilde’s career and the mountains he scaled.
Joe Conn was a hard and skilful featherweight battler from London’s East End, who dwarfed Jimmy when they met at mid-ring for the referee’s instructions. The Stamford Bridge arena was swelled to capacity for the fight, and the general consensus was that even the exceptional Wilde had bitten off more than he could chew.
Muscular, beautifully conditioned and with a string of quality wins to his name, Conn went smoothly about his business and quickly began to mark up Jimmy’s face with the accuracy of his punches. Wilde’s lips were soon trickling blood and an old eye cut was opened.
That was when Conn reaped the whirlwind. Jimmy’s innocent little eyes suddenly clouded as he launched his counter assault with such fury that Conn could do little to hold back the tide. Head and body shots rained in, but always with cleverness and calculation, much in the way that Marco Antonio Barrera would go to work some eighty years later.
By the tenth round, Conn was shattered. Six times he was pounded to the canvas, and the knockdown tally had reached nine by the time the eleventh round was completed. These were much less forgiving times, in which fighters frequently shipped atrocious punishment before they were mercifully rescued.
Poor Joe Conn, a bloody mess, was driven to the canvas another four times in the twelfth round before the referee had finally seen enough. Wilde hadn’t just won a fight. He hadn’t merely thrilled his transfixed audience. He had scared people and sealed his reputation as a terrifying fighter.
The end game for Jimmy Wilde began to play out in 1921, when he met the great American bantamweight ace, Pete Herman, at the Royal Albert Hall. In that fight, Jimmy would suffer an injury that would set the clock ticking on his career.
He had taken a step too far against the brilliant Herman, to whom he was conceding nearly twenty-eight pounds in weight. Jimmy was throwing the dice against a man of outstanding talent and ferocity, who still stands up as one of the greatest bantamweights in history.
Herman was a hurricane of a fighter when in full flow, yet Wilde astonished the crowd with his bravery and evasive skill as he defied Pete for sixteen rounds. In the seventeenth, Jimmy made a rare tactical error. Anticipating a feint from Pete, Wilde was caught flush by a terrific right to the chin. The blow knocked him through the ropes and catapulted him to the floor, where he struck his head heavily. He was severely concussed, and the permanent effects of the injury would carry through to his heroic stand against Pancho Villa two years later.
Against Herman, Jimmy got up. What else did he ever do in the face of adversity? He got up to be knocked down again and protested bitterly when referee Jack Smith grabbed his arm, signalled the end and hauled him back to his corner. The compassionate Smith playfully castigated Wilde for not knowing how to stay on the canvas.
But Jimmy Wilde was all but done. His slender frame and fighting heart were running on empty and the blow to his head had quickened the pace of his decline. He notched a final win against Young Jennings in front of his adoring Welsh fans, before travelling to New York for his showdown at the Polo Grounds with the human tornado that was known as Pancho Villa.
The loss of Jimmy’s powers that brutal night was all too evident. All at once, it seemed, he had been stripped of his speed and skill and his almost uncanny sense of anticipation. Even the famous, hammer-like punch had been spirited from his gloves. Wilde traded on little more than raw courage against the ferocious onslaughts of Villa, who would become a legend in his own right.
But how Wilde fought at the Polo Grounds. How his little body spat defiance. Nat Fleischer, founder and editor of The Ring magazine, wrote of Jimmy’s performance, “Never, since Battling Nelson was counted out on his feet in forty rounds by Ad Wolgast in 1910 in California, did a champion pass more gloriously than did Wilde that night.”
Still the outcome might have been different if Jimmy hadn’t behaved so honourably after being floored at the end of the second round by a big right that caught him on the nape of his neck. Most ringsiders agreed that the punch had arrived after the sound of the bell and Wilde had to be carried back to his corner. But he didn’t protest. He didn’t cry foul and demand the decision. He fought on as he always did, even though his courage did little more than to toss him straight back into the eye of the storm.
Villa kept hustling and charging and firing, and the effects of the blow sustained in the Pete Herman fight had robbed Jimmy of his once sublime ability to judge distance and evade incoming fire.
Fight fans are hardy people. They pay their money and expect to see two warriors giving their all, but only the disturbed want to see a noble man hurt beyond reason. Such was Wilde’s plight by the close of the sixth round that the tough New York crowd was urging referee Patsy Haley to stop the fight. Haley went to Wilde’s corner as Jimmy sat there bruised and bleeding and got the answer he expected. Wilde insisted on being counted out if that was the way it had to end.
For a minute or so in the fateful seventh, Jimmy breathed his final act of defiance by attacking Villa with what little he had left. His effort was unforgettable but it was akin to a man throwing a snowball at a raging inferno. Mercifully, it wasn’t long before Wilde got his wish to exit in the traditional way. He was counted out face down.
A mighty champion had finally fallen, his glittering career over. Yet it would be too easy and too much of a cliché to say that Jimmy Wilde looked like a little boy lost on that torrid New York night, for that was the great deception about him throughout his rip-roaring journey: the man who looked like a little boy, frail to the point of appearing puny, the unlikeliest of ring killers.
The toughest women wanted to rush Jimmy home and feed him a hot meal. The toughest men had the good sense to avoid him like the plague.
MIKE CASEY is a boxing journalist and historian, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and founder and editor of The Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for boxing historians and fans. www.grandslampage.net
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