Jimmy Wilde: The Ghost With A Hammer In His Hand
By Garry White
Arguably, Jimmy Wilde (132-3-1), the first proper flyweight champion of the world, possessed the greatest and most descriptive nickname in ring history.
At a time when it wasn’t always fashionable for British fighters to adopt ring monikers, Wilde was known as the “Ghost with the Hammer in his Hand.”
The “ghost” related to Wilde’s slight, pale and emaciated appearance. The “hammer” predictably referencing the undiluted power that he unleashed from his tiny frame.
Jimmy Wilde only measured 5ft 2 inches, with a 68-inch reach, and maintained a staple fighting weight of barely 100 lbs. A mark that was almost a stone below the established flyweight limit of 112 lbs. The old fight pictures show a boyish, diminutive and skeletal figure. One that entirely belies a fighter whose official record dictates that he achieved 99 recorded knockouts.
There were probably more but they have since been lost in the midst of time. Wilde often argued that he had fought over 800 times at flyweight and had regularly stepped up to take on bantamweights and featherweights.
The Welshman has every right to be considered as among the greatest pound for pound British fighters ever to have stepped into the squared ring. He could also lay a strong claim to being the outstanding flyweight of all-time.
Founder and long-time editor of The Ring magazine Nat Fleischer, certainly endorsed this view. Fleischer hasn’t been around since the early seventies but it is hard to reserve any further judgment from the intervening 40 years.
Wilde was born in a small village near Merthyr Tydfil in the last days of the Victorian era. Like most others occupied in that time and place his family were employed in the mining industry. Wilde himself later gained employment there where his small stature enabled him to venture into the narrow tunnels that were out of the reach of his broader colleagues.
As a 16-year-old Wilde graduated from the pit by developing his fledgling boxing skills at the fairground booths; taking on all-comers. There he would amaze onlookers as he easily evaded the wild swings of burly 200 lb miners, before knocking them out with fast two-fisted combinations.
He turned professional in 1911 and set about building a remarkable unbeaten record across 103 appearances over just four years, a feat which is still unsurpassed.
Throughout that phase Wilde laid claim to multiple domestic titles at constructed weights up to 100 lbs. The run only ending when he faced Tancy Lee at London’s once iconic National Sporting Club in Convent Garden. Despite weighing in fully dressed, Wilde still gave away 10 lbs to Scotland’s Lee. In a tough, competitive encounter scheduled for 20 rounds the Welshman’s title charge was permanently ended in the 17th.
It was thought that Wilde wasn’t at his best due to a heavy bout of influenza and could be seen being physically sick in the moments before the bout.
Galvanised by this loss Wilde embarked on a stream of inside the distance victories. These included a win over Bermondsey’s former European champion Sid Smith and a British title success by way of a 12th round success over the respected Joe Symonds.
A little over two months later Wilde gained a partial endorsement as world champion by taking the European sanctioned IBU world title from American Johnny Rosner. A victory for which the Welshman received the not insubstantial purse of £2000.
Two months and four victories later – including two on the same bill – Wilde defended his titles against his old foe Tancy Lee. This time, restored to full health and with peerless confidence he knocked the Scotsman out in 11 rounds.
Before the year was out Wilde was crowned as the first officially recognised world flyweight champion. His opponent was the incongruously named Young Zulu Kid. The name may provoke an image of an African warrior but the reality was less impressive in that the “Zulu” was actually an Italian American by the name of Giuseppe Di Melfi. Wilde handed out a beating to Zulu who actually gave away three inches in height and could not match the Welshman’s power.
Unbridled power and savvy ring work were essentially Wilde’s trademark. In an era when fights were scheduled over long distances and the combatants were often static and squared up to each other in the ring centre, his technique was unique and in many ways revolutionary. His diminutive proportions drove a move and hit technique that was significantly ahead of its time.
Lacking the stature to hold, the ghost was instead freewheeling, evasive and able to utilise the jab at will as a countering method. When the opening came the hammer would be launched from his right-hand repeatedly into his helpless opponents.
Ultimately Wilde vanquished all available opposition at flyweight in Europe and stepped up to take on quality performers from higher weight classifications. His most standout victory being a 15 rounds decision victory over New Yorker Joe Lynch, who went on to win the world bantamweight title the following year. Wilde beat him convincingly despite given away 14½ lbs on the scales.
With no one left to take on at home Wilde embarked on a six-month tour of the US from 1920-21. There are many that consider Jimmy as being fractionally past his best by this time, although it wasn’t necessarily reflected in the results, and it was here that his incredible legacy became fully formed. Wilde won 10 of the 11 bouts, with the other being a no-decision affair where the newspapers scored it for his rival.
In 1921 Wilde signed for a then huge £8000 to take on former bantamweight champion Pete Herman. Painfully outgunned Wilde took a terrible beating at the hands of his much bigger opponent. One who was to readily regain his title and be remembered as a divisional all-time great. He was finally saved in the 17th by referee Jack Smith who uttered the immortal words “I’m sorry, Jimmy; I have to pick you up because you don’t know how to lie down.”
There was to be only one more fight two and half years later at New York’s fabled Polo Grounds. Out of a sense of honour and obligation Wilde felt compelled to defend the flyweight title that had been his for seven years.
Now definitely past his best and not fully fit he took on the young Filipino prodigy Pancho Villa. The outcome was predictable with Villa meeting out a 7 round hammering, culminating with Wilde finishing face first on the canvas. With the torch passed on to a new generation the old champion was carried back to his corner and into retirement.
Despite the occasional injudicious investment, Wilde lived a relatively solvent and unflashy retirement back home in Wales. Until one evening in his early 70s as he passed through Cardiff railway station he was set upon and brutally mugged. He lived a further four years but never recovered from his injuries.
This has always felt a spectacularly cruel fate for such a ferocious hearted and dynamic warrior.
I have often wondered if they knew who the little old man was as they beat him. It is almost unbearably painful to consider that they may have done so. But, for the darkness of the night and the faded shadow of nearly 50 years, the outcome would have been very different.