“The greatest fighter I ever saw,” recounted Gene Tunney.“"The greatest flyweight boxer ever," remembered Nat Fleischer. “The gamest little fighter to ever put on gloves,” said British Pathe. Not bad for a tiny coal miner from Tylorstown in the Rhondda Valley.
South Wales at the turn of the twentieth century was about as an unappealing place as one could imagine. It was ground zero of the industrial revolution and as London enjoyed the benefits of steam engines and machine tooling, young men like William James Wilde were sent into the earth to fuel it.
The heat of a Victorian coal face is unimaginable and its hardships long abolished. The world into which Jimmy Wilde entered into while still only a child must have seemed like a scene from Dante’s inferno. Small and emaciated, he proved skilled and nimble and thus he was forced to work in the most abhorrent conditions in the most claustrophobic and airless area’s of the mine. Jimmy was sent into the cracks and gullies most human beings could not fit into, he tunneled deep into the earth alone in search of new seams.
Taking up boxing at 16, he found getting punched was a mild alternative to the subterranean terror of his adolescence. Like many of the age he cut his teeth in the boxing booth’s set up at fairgrounds. This is where essentially anyone could bet their money and fight for a crowd. Jimmy would routinely battle huge men two hundred pounds and despite never tipping the scales at more than one hundred pounds, he mostly knocked them cold.
Although many historians believe Jimmy to have been fighting for a living as early as 1907, engaging in possibly hundreds of bouts, his official ledger begins in 1911 when he was picked up by manager Teddy Lewis. Though simply the reserve captain of the local rugby club, Pontypridd RFC, he had visions of greatness for Jimmy that few could have thought would ever come to fruition.
The next few years however, Jimmy grew into his body and in 1913 he had arguably one of the most dominant years ever in professional boxing. He toured Britain and had twenty nine bouts, winning them all. Standing only five foot two, he possessed a punch that for a less than eight stone man seemed almost completely unnatural. Twenty of the men that faced him in 1913 were unable to go the distance, stopped by his freakish power.
As the world descended into war in 1914, Jimmy didn't skip a beat, this time twenty one bouts, sixteen stoppages. Every man worth his salt in Britain had been steamrolled by the now infamous “Mighty Atom” but like every man of the age, the Great War, would come to define the next few years of Jimmy’s life.
He joined the army but was used not as a soldier in the trenches but as a tool of boosting morale at home, as well as in the fields of Flanders. He taught the troops hand to hand combat, touring bases, all while continuing his own career. By mid 1915 he was 94-0 the longest active streak in the history of boxing, winning and retaining the British title in the process.
This streak though came at a cost, his work for the army and regular fighting meant that by the time Jimmy faced Tancy Lee he was absolutely exhausted. Lee at the time of the fight was 10 years his senior and outweighed him by 10 or more pounds. Jimmy’s streak was broken as the crafty vetran survived an early onslaught and managed to stop Jimmy in the 17th round of a scheduled twenty round bout. Ring side observers described Jimmy as having no energy not being his normal self.
The War Office though saw opportunity in Jimmy’s defeat. The bout had been a rip roaring success and the ‘Tylorstown Terror’ had become a national hero in defeat. The public admired how the smaller man fought, battling to the end.The British fascination with routing for an underdog, cheering a comeback, was as present in 1916 with Wilde as it was with Farr in the 40’s, Copper in the 60’s and Bruno in the 80’s. This led to him being promoted as such, a hero on the comeback trail.
Few however, have quite come back in the way that Wilde did. He knocked out Joe Symonds for the British title, Johnny Rosner for the IBU Flyweight title and then revenge over Tancy Lee for the EBU title.
His return bout with Lee was Jimmy as his most ferocious, his most devastating. He used his incredible head movement to stay inside the pocket and unleash hell on Lee whenever he would try and attack. He was illusive and terrifying in equal measure, Impossible to find until he struck. He became the ‘Ghost with the Hammer in his Hand’.
With this, the little Welshman became a superstar, vindicated, he was back. As Britain emerged from the bloodiest year of the First World War boxing emerged with a new boxer leading the pack. Imbuing their hopes on Jimmy, they willed him to take on the world.
First was ‘Young Zulu Kid’ the American flyweight champion in Holborn stadium. This fight was to decide the inaugural world flyweight title. This was a bonafide mega fight. Jimmy was 116-1-1 and Zulu kid was billed as a fearsome puncher, who like Jimmy, could knock out men far larger than himself. Zulu however, was absolutely no match for Jimmy, wherever he moved the fists of the Atom greeted him. For eleven long rounds he resisted the onslaught, but no man could last in there forever. It was like fighting a threshing machine, impassable and unrelenting.
In the 11th Zulu crumbled, the victim of a barrage of bombs delivered with devastating accuracy and dynamite power. Jimmy Wilde was now the best fighter in the world. The fascination of the public may have been with Willard and Dempsey but as the Great War came to a close no one would dare challenge Wilde’s status as the pound for pound king.
Joe Lynch in 15, Memphis Pal Moore in 20 , Battling Al Murray in 8 and Mickey Russell in 7. The best that Britain and America had to offer, not one bested the ghost as Jimmy breezed through his magnificent prime. He fought with the courage and skill to make Owain Glyn Dŵr blush, a Welsh folk hero whose exploits would last a thousand years.
He became one of the most popular sporting figures of the day and he caught the attention of the most popular figure in Britain. Edward David Windsor, the Prince of Wales and the future king Edward the eighth was England's darling. More popular than the rest of the royal family combined. He loved boxing and Wilde in particular, attending several of his bouts between 1919 and 1921.The media attention surrounding their link up, only led to increased love and affection for the world Flyweight champion.
The painting of the two shaking hands in the center of the ring, Edward in full military regalia and Jimmy in his boxing shorts became widely reprinted and increased Jimmy’s status immensely. Their final bout as a prince/pugilist double act would not however, yield the same success.
In 1921 Wilde took on the American world Bantamweight champion Pete Herman, who outweighed Jimmy on the night by at least twenty pounds and was a fearsome puncher. Jimmy, although only twenty nine was an old twenty nine. Coal mining, booth fights, military career and 134 professional bouts had taken a toll on his body that he could no longer sustain against a bigger man.
Herman on the other hand was fresh, powerful and in front of 10,000 wild Wilde fans he went to work, methodically chopping at the body of the flyweight champion. Jimmy fought predictably bravely but was ultimately lacking the magic he possessed as a younger man.
Despite Jimmy’s flaws that night, he still fought with trademark heart, lasting seventeen rounds before he was stopped. "I can sincerely say that Herman beat me because he was the better boxer” Jimmy would say after, with a humility that did not match the skills and bravery he showed in the ring.
Although Jimmy was aware he was finished, the allure of the bright lights tempted him back. One last bout in 1923 was scheduled to take place against the Phillipino slugger Pancho Villa. Named after the marauding Mexican revolutionary, he fought with expected zeal. Jimmy was a shell of himself and was knocked out in the 7th round.
This spelled the end for the Mighty Atom, who although defeated, was still a legend, especially in South Wales. He wrote three best selling books:Hitting and Stopping: How I Won 100 Fights,The Art of Boxing and his autobiography Fighting Was My Business. He opened the Mighty Atom cafe on Barry seafront but as he faded from view his businesses began to fail.
His death was a tragedy. Poor and in failing health, Jimmy was mugged outside Cardiff train station in 1965 when he was 75years old. He was badly beaten and never recovered. Wales’ great hero betrayed. An icon who shined so bright taken away with disregard and cruelty.
Despite his tragic demise, Jimmy is still remembered in boxing as a game changer, an innovator, whose work put the little men on the map. He was the first flyweight to draw big crowds, he laid the foundation for all the great fighters to come.
Dedicated to the Memory of Jimmy Wilde.
Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx
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