Review of the legendary Jimmy Wilde’s first fight in the English capital four years before he won the world flyweight crown
THERE was a time when any UK boxer who wanted to make a name for himself in the game had to fight in London. The city was home to the National Sporting Club, who ruled British boxing with an iron fist in the early 20th century. Championship belts in eight weights were issued from 1909, and any boxer who wanted to compete for the national crown (immeasurably more prestigious then than it is now) had to do so at the club’s Covent Garden HQ at 43 King Street. Any Brit hoping to make the big break wouldn’t dream of trying without showing their wares in London. In January 1912, an undefeated 19-year-old from Tylorstown, South Wales knew it was time to do just that. The boy had learned his trade in a boxing booth before graduating from the Millfield Athletic Club in Pontypridd for bouts where the loser had no wallet. He fought in the evenings and on weekends while working as a miner on a coal wall during the day. He proved to be a phenomenal batsman and few of his opponents had heard the last bell, but he was still unknown in London. The boy’s name was Jimmy Wilde.
He made his London debut in the Ring, an oddly shaped arena on the east side of Blackfriars Road, just over the bridge that leads south from the City. The former chapel was built circular (“so that the devil has no corners to hide”), but had square protrusions that made it on several sides. The venue had been open for less than two years but already its owner, former lightweight champion Dick Burge, was making rapid strides to establish The Ring as Britain’s premier small hall.
Jimmy’s opponent was a nephew of the reigning British and European champion Matt Wells, who fought under the name Matt Wells’ Nipper. Back in Wales, Wilde had saved up with Colliers to prepare for the fight and had gone to Herne Bay, Kent for additional training. The pair were supposed to weigh 7st (98lbs) on the afternoon of the bout, but Jimmy’s opponent didn’t show up. This, he suspected, was because Matt Wells’ nipper was well above the agreed weight. Jimmy was good at it.
Dick’s wife Bella Burge (who would take over the ring after Dick’s untimely death in 1918) was appalled at her first glance at the pale Welsh boy with the skeleton. She begged her husband to call off Jimmy’s fight and save the boy from being slaughtered. When he didn’t, she begged, “If he can last a lap, pull him out, pay him and send him home!”
The fight didn’t last a round, but it wasn’t Wilde who led to the slaughter. Boxing News reported, “The Welshman wasn’t there to delay matters. He flicked one in the face, which the nipper tried to counter, but Wilde dodged neatly and before Nipper could find him he had hit the head hard with one left and one right. After that, the nipper came in very badly, his opponent simply showered him with hooks, jabs and swings with the utmost ease and confidence.
“The nipper went down. He struggled to his feet three times, only to be sent back to the ground to the loud applause of the audience, who were enthusiastic about the wonderful skill of the little Welshman. “
“I always thought about the fastest way to end a fight,” thought Wilde later.
But this time there was an added incentive. He had to go back to Wales at 7am the next morning to start his mining shift and if the fight had lasted the full 10 rounds he would have missed the last train home.