The Original Explosive Thin Man
By Mike Casey
Young Rosner, a fearless and ambitious bantamweight from New
York, had a simple plan. He would make his name by going over to the United
Kingdom and knocking out that skinny little Welsh fellow, Jimmy Wilde.
Oh, the Kid had heard all the stories. He had heard the excited
ramblings of people who said that Wilde could punch pound-for-pound like no
other fighter alive. But this was a mite who looked half starved and seldom
weighed more than a hundred pounds. How dangerous could he possibly be? Maybe a
gust of wind would blow him away before the Kid arrived.
Simple plans sometimes work because their simplicity is their
very strength. They fail when their simplicity is simply too good to be true.
After being battered ceaselessly and finally knocked out in the eleventh round
at the Liverpool Stadium, Kid Rosner had somewhat revised his opinion of Jimmy
“Why, this Wilde is on top of you all the time,” said the stunned
Kid. “He’s a skinny, tired looking duck, and you’d think he couldn’t fight a
lick. But when he starts! Oh, boy! Say, Zulu Kid is pretty fair, but he’ll come
home licked just the way I did.”
The breathtaking stories just kept coming about Jimmy Wilde, who
was boxing’s first explosive thin man long before another lean legend was born
in Alexis Arguello.
Early in the Great War, Captain Tom Flanagan began to fashion an
impressive reputation for his athletic work with the Canadian troops and his
talent for spotting good class boxers in the making. Captain Flanagan was posted
to England to introduce his training methods to British troops and brought along
some of his finest first class boxers.
To drum up interest, the good captain organised a tournament in
which the Canadian boys would pit their wares against the British Army
champions. Another simple plan, another good idea. Except that one of his flock
was drawn to fight Jimmy Wilde. Jimmy had made eight unsuccessful attempts to
join the army, failing each time because of his diminutive size. Finally he was
taken on as a boxing instructor.
Prior to the short and brutal confrontation, Captain Flanagan
gave his boxer the only honest pep talk he could. “Go along smoothly until the
last round and don’t get Wilde mad. Then in the last round you can fight your
head off. There isn’t much danger that you’d be knocked out in that round and
you’ll have a possible chance of slipping one over. Anyway, you’ll have the
honour of going the limit with Wilde and that’s good enough.”
The Canadian boy listened to these words and saw their sense. He
followed the game plan, boxing cautiously in the first round and faring well.
But he couldn’t keep it up. The frail and pale figure of Wilde was just too
tempting a target. One good shot would surely bring him down. Why waste time
with the foxy, tactical stuff?
The Canadian boxer saw his chance in the second round and struck
Jimmy Wilde with a big swing. Captain Flanagan was heard to groan in the corner
and mutter, “It’s all off.”
It was. Wilde knocked the Canadian cold.
“You should have done what I told you,” Flanagan admonishment his
The young Canadian’s response was similar to that of so many
others who had been shattered by the Welsh wonder. “He looked so easy, I thought
I had him.”
When Jimmy Wilde finally came to America in 1919, with an already
formidable trail of knockout victims strewn by the wayside, there was great
excitement. Boxing writer Robert Edgren issued a stark warning to any remaining
optimists who might have thought that little Jimmy was easy meat.
“The English invasion of America is on. If anyone doesn’t take it
seriously, just let him talk to any Englishman about Jimmy Wilde, who is leading
the invasion. He’ll get an earful. There are Englishmen who think James can lick
“And there isn’t an Englishman living who believes for a moment
that any American, Frenchman, Australian, Swede, Dane or Chink within ten pounds
of Wilde’s weight has any right to go into a ring with him unless insured
against sudden death.
“Wilde’s boxing style is much like Jem Driscoll’s. Jem was master
of the one-two punch, which is also Wilde’s speciality. Wilde hits like
lightning with his following right hand and delivers most of his knockouts in
“For a little fellow, he carries an astonishing punch. He starts
deliberately and gradually works up speed until he is fighting like a streak,
with no let-up, round after round until his opponent caves in. He is apparently
Some time ago, 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.
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.
What made me think of Jimmy Wilde as I watched those wonderful
old pictures? Well, 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
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
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
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 Jem
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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