Men have been throwing hands at one another since the dawn of time way before the ancient Greeks accepted the sport as an Olympic spectacle in BC 688. In a time where we have seen our fair share of great fighters embark on their own legacies as the sport of boxing has evolved into the one we see today.
Prominently standing out in the crowd of greats from the past draws the slight figure, a slip of a man, pale in complexion, one which belies his achievements in a boxing ring, the man I am referring to is William James Wilde.
Born 1892 in to the small mining community of Quakers Yard, Jimmy followed in his fathers footsteps from an early age making the natural progression into the coal mining industry where it was because of his small frame he was able to become a crucial part of the team, allowing him to crawl through gullies unable to pass by his fellow man.
This was a job which put food on his mothers table but ultimately it would be but a short stop on his road to greatness where young Jimmy found his calling aged sixteen at the local fairground boxing booths, fighting on a nightly basis where he would entertain those watching with his toughness and ability, all the time able to knock down much larger men than himself, most of which weighed in excess of 200Ibs of the local hard man wanting to try his hand at the time.
In 1910 Jimmy married the love of his life Elizabeth an ever-present figure who if rumours are to be believed acted as a sparring partner for some of Jimmy’s biggest of fights later on in his career, they were blessed with a child the same year.
Record books suggest that his professional career debuted in a win over Ted Roberts in 1911 which took place in Pontypridd, although boxing historians recount that it was four years prior to this encounter that he did, in fact, make his start within the sport.
Teddy Lewis, reserve captain of the local rugby club in Pontypridd was given the nod to manage Jimmy on his road to recognition as Wilde took to boxing like a duck would to water, racking up 103 bouts undefeated whilst taking the British title before eventually losing in 1915 to Tancy Lee, a bout which he took while enduring a bad case of the flu, succumbing in part to the illness via 17th round stoppage. This was to be his only loss in twenty-three contests leading up to his world title shot. In that time he fought and beat a high calibre of opposition, winning the British and IBU titles against Joe Symonds, then defending the title against Johnny Rosner three fights later. What followed was the accompaniment of the European title in a revenge mission against Tancy Lee in which the Scot was put out of his misery in the eleventh.
Unheard of in today’s version of the sport, Jimmy incredibly fought twice in the same day on May 13th, 1916 where he defeated both Darkey Saunders and Joe Magnus neither of which lasted even four rounds at Woolwich Dockyard, but all eyes were now on the World crown, the man standing in his way of being recognised as the very first World Flyweight Champion was Young Zulu Kid, a Brooklyn resident by Italian decent in a fight which many anticipated as being a great encounter at the time.
Rosner who had been defeated by Wilde gave his take on the man who stopped him, going on to say “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.”
In truth, Jimmy standing at just 5’2 was too much a fighter for Young Zulu kid on the night of the 18th December who after taking a stinging left hand was made to cling to the ropes before the Welshman unloaded a series of body shots which dropped him to the canvas in the eleventh. The writing was on the wall, Young Zulu regained his feet but was met with right and left hands which signalled to the kid’s corner to throw in the towel without a count being administered. Jimmy Wilde was now a world champion after 118 contests, he stood centre ring with a smile, hand held aloft knowing he had created history.
This was the pinnacle of a true great, the word Legend is branded around all too easy in this day and age but when referring to Jimmy Wilde, the word Legend doesn’t really do him justice.
He fought on having twenty-two more contests, winning all but three on his way to retirement, the most brutal of which came at the hands of future hall of fame Bantamweight Pete Herman, where the small Welshman gave up over 20Ibs in weight to the American, but unlike in the past Wilde was unable to neutralise the advantage of the bigger man, slowing down due to age and activity, Herman seized his moment stopping Wilde in the seventeenth round in devastating circumstances.
Wilde was never the same fighter afterwards but returned for one more payday for a shot at Pancho Villa at New York’s Polo Grounds. The fire which burned so bright within the pale skinny man from the Welsh valley’s had since extinguished as he left the boxing ring the way in which he said he had always wanted, face down, sadness filled his homeland whose residents got the news knowing that he was a shell of the man he once was, defeated by a younger more able fighter on the night.
Since moving away from the sport, Wilde tried his hand at a number of enterprises each without the merits that he had come to expect as he once did with his boxing career.
In 1965 Wilde suffered a mugging at Cardiff’s bus depot, an act of cowardice from youths which took the remaining years from Jimmy both in terms of physically but with more drastic emotionally implications, leaving Jimmy unable to remember anything from his past.
His wife Elizabeth died in 1967 and two years after Jimmy followed taking his last resting place in Whitchurch before he was buried in Barry Cemetery.
This is a story of triumph and tragedy, a story of a man who overcame such adversary to become one of boxing’s greatest, not only of our time but all time, ushered through the ages as “The Ghost with the Hammer in his Hand” or simply “The Mighty Atom” the two monikers he would go by.
Perhaps he is best remembered by the words of former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney who said simply, “Jimmy was the greatest fighter I ever saw.”