By Miles Templeton
BEFORE the First World War, Wales was a real force in international boxing. The game was, of course, dominated by America, but with Britain, France and Australia also producing world-class fighters, Wales more than held its own.
The first three Lonsdale Belt holders were all from Wales, with Freddie Welsh winning the first, Tom Thomas the second and Jim Driscoll the third. Jimmy Wilde, surely the best flyweight the UK has produced, commenced his career in 1911. At welterweight, Johnny Basham won the British title in 1914 and the Empire title five years later. There were any number of hard men boxing within the valleys and coal mines of South Wales who would ultimately pass their skills on to the next generation, leading to men like Frank Moody, Tommy Farr and Cuthbert Taylor in the 1920s and 1930s.
The first belt-holder, Freddie Welsh, was born in Pontypridd but he left for the States as a very young man to pursue a professional career. He had his first contest in 1905 in Philadelphia, the city that he based himself in for most of his career. He eventually won the world lightweight title in 1914, decisioning Willie Ritchie over 20 rounds at Olympia, Kensington. After learning his trade in America, he came back to Wales for the first time in 1907, staying for 10 months and winning all 10 of his contests. He also took time out to face Jim Driscoll in a six-round no decision at the St Mary Hill horse fayre, just north of Cowbridge. There were two booths at the fayre that year and the two met in the one belonging to Frank Gess, and their boxing was excellently received by those lucky enough to witness it.
Welsh returned to the UK in 1909, picked up the European and then the British titles, and then beat the great Packey McFarland at the National Sporting Club. Driscoll had travelled in the opposite direction in 1908, crossing the Atlantic to undertake a very successful tour of America that culminated in a 10-round no decision contest with the great Abe Attell. Driscoll outboxed the American and the newspaper decision went his way. He returned to the UK, defended his British featherweight title twice, winning the Lonsdale Belt outright, and then all talk was of a legitimate contest, to be held in Wales, between Welsh and Driscoll. This was a huge fight, perhaps the most important, and the most evenly matched of any British bout in the years leading up to 1914.
It was natural that Cardiff, the Welsh capital and Driscoll’s hometown, should host the event. The regular venues in the city at the time were the Badminton Club and the Palace Theatre, but neither venue was anywhere near big enough and so the American Skating Rink, built just two years earlier and situated on Westgate Street in the heart of the city, was chosen.
Ten thousand people turned up to watch the contest, a huge crowd for an indoor event at that time, and the odds were very much in favour of Welsh. The weigh-in took place on the day, as was the custom at that time, but the two could not agree on a time. Driscoll wanted it at one o’clock, and Freddie an hour later. In the event Driscoll won this little spar and Welsh decided that he would enter the ring an hour late to regain the advantage. There was no love lost between the two.
The contest proved unsatisfactory with BN describing the affair as “a wild, vicious, disappointing, disastrous duel.” After 10 rounds of roughhouse tactics, Driscoll, whose “lips rose with savage ire, his eyes flamed with fire and his jaws gnashed with impotent wrath” head-butted Freddie and got thrown out. It is a tragedy that the two never fought again. Driscoll contracted tuberculosis and died in 1925. Freddie died just two years afterwards, in abject poverty.