Mysterious Billy Smith – More Than Just “The Dirtiest Fighter Who Ever Lived”

“He was always doing something mysterious. Like he would step on your foot, and when you looked down he would bite you on the ear,” Jack “Doc” Kearns speaking about Mysterious Billy Smith.

Often when reading up on the history of this great sport we so love, when reading a little about a certain fighter, the nickname of the individual can pull you in. Elmer “Violent” Ray is one such fighter, as is “Mysterious” Billy Smith. Was Smith as mysterious as Ray was violent? Reading up on the former welterweight champion proves to be quite fascinating.

Born 150 years ago this week, May 15th in 1871, in Nova Scotia, Canada, Amos Smith went on to become not only a two-time world champion – this at a time when the powers that be in boxing recognized the fact that there is only one world and as such only one world champion in each weight class was needed – but also a fighter who was to be referred to as “the dirtiest fighter who ever lived.”

Going pro in 1890, the 5’8” welterweight won the world title in just his ninth fight. Beating Danny Needham by KO in 1892 (the fight fought at the then weight limit of 142 pounds), Smith was given his famous nickname by a reporter of the day, who inquired, ‘Who is this mysterious Billy Smith?’ Smith was indeed a regular one-off. A born fighter, Smith had plenty of saloon brawls, he was allegedly shot three times, he was protective of his unique boxing style, to the extent that he preferred to fight in close to empty arenas, whereby no potential foe could pick up on his moves, and he had an armful of dirty tactics.

To Smith, rules were nothing to care about; not in the ring, anyway. No less than 13 times, Smith was thrown out, disqualified. Proficient at butting an opponent, of using his elbows in a fight, of placing a knee firmly into the stomach or, even worse, the groin, Smith was even unafraid to bite a ring rival. But as dirty as he was, Smith was also tough, incredibly durable and he was powerful. Looking at his record (via invaluable source BoxRec), Smith was ordinary – winning just 35 of 83. But he was far from ordinary.

Legend has it that his 1898 war with “Barbados” Joe Walcott (who Smith fought six times) was one of the most brutal prize-fights ever; with Smith winning a 20-round decision. Smith lost the welterweight title to Tommy Ryan in 1894, this on points over 20 hard sessions. These two also fought more than once, with Smith winning none, drawing three, being KO’d once, and being disqualified once. Smith became welterweight champ for a second time by defeating Matty Matthews for the vacant title, this via 25 round decision in 1898; Ryan having vacated due to weight problems.

Rube Ferns took the crown from Mysterious Billy in early 1900, this by a disqualification victory in the 21st round – in a fight that saw Ferns knocked to the canvas no less than 15 times! Smith loved fighting, he loved to inflict pain and hurt on a man, and he fought frequently – 14 fights in 1898 alone. Smith once knocked out three guys on the same day, this in England.

Who knows what might have happened with Smith’s career had he not been so offended by the rules and regulations his noble art demanded. Smith went out a loser, this in December of 1915 when a 2-2 Jack Root stopped him in the sixth round in Portland, Oregan (Smith’s residence).

In his retirement, Smith ran a saloon called, “The Champion’s Rest.” Smith died at the age of 66, this in October of 1937. Smith had one helluva eventful ring career (a huge understatement), and aside from his many hard, grueling, and savage pro fights, he also boxed a number of exhibitions with the great Jack Dempsey. There was, it seems, no man Smith would not fight if given the chance.

What a shame there is no footage of Smith’s bouts. Reading about this amazing, seemingly half-crazed fighting man can prove to be a most intoxicating ride, however.