The tale of a rare and historic scorecard
Occasionally a window opens into boxing’s past and a fascinating historical gem pops into view.
This is one such example – it is the scorecard from a famous world title fight which took place more than 100 years ago.
The card details the complete breakdown of points awarded in the 20-round battle for the world lightweight crown between champion Willie Ritchie and challenger Freddie Welsh on July 7 1914.
It is exceptionally rare to see a scorecard from so long ago because, unlike today, the cards in that era were not made public at the time.
Boxing fans nowadays enjoy the luxury of hearing the judges’ scores read out at the end of a fight which goes the distance and can subsequently dissect the scorecard at their leisure.
This wasn’t the case in the early 20th century - in fact it was only in 1944 that the judges’ scores were announced from the ring for the first time following the Tippy Larkin vs Lulu Costantino fight at Madison Square Garden in an innovation implemented by the New York State Athletic Commission.
When Ritchie, 23, of San Francisco, and British champion Welsh, 28, from Wales, clashed in front of around 10,000 people at the Olympia arena in London shortly before the outbreak of World War One, they did so under the rules of the famed National Sporting Club (NSC), based in Covent Garden.
The third man in the ring, the sole arbiter of point scoring, was Eugene Corri - at the time the most famous referee in Europe (and arguably the world).
Corri was a wealthy, respected and popular London stockbroker renowned for his immaculate dress sense, neatly waxed moustache and a love of expensive cigars.
Known as 'Genial Gene', he boasted friends from all ranks of society, including nobility, and had an unparalleled reputation for honesty and integrity.
Ritchie and Welsh had fought once before, in California in 1911 when Welsh won a points decision, but it was Ritchie who had gone on to become World Lightweight Champion by beating Ad Wolgast in 1912 (Wolgast was disqualified for low blows).
After a handful of successful defences Ritchie was lured to England to defend the title against Welsh by the guarantee of a substantial purse.
It was an intriguing match-up - the aggressive, hard-hitting Ritchie against a more experienced man with a reputation as a clever ring general who possessed excellent defensive skills and fast hands but who lacked a destructive KO punch.
On the evening of the showdown Welsh, a narrow betting favourite, was roared into the ring by his countrymen singing 'God of Our Fathers'.
Contemporary reports suggest the ensuing battle was an absorbing, if unspectacular, affair in which Ritchie was the main aggressor, taking the fight to 'The Welsh Wizard' and landing the harder, more hurtful punches.
Welsh, on the other hand, showcased his ringcraft by effectively dodging and blocking many of Ritchie’s shots while peppering the champion with a greater volume of light but accurate blows and racked up points throughout.
At the end of the bout referee Corri, who had used a pencil to scribble marks awarded each round on the back of his fight programme, proclaimed Welsh the winner on points. His makeshift scorecard, however, remained private.
The decision was not popular with some of the large American contingent in the crowd who felt Ritchie, the more aggressive fighter, deserved at least a draw and that a championship should not change hands in the absence of a decisive victory by a challenger.
Their view was shared by a dejected Ritchie, who later claimed he would have been given the decision had the fight happened in America. Speaking a few weeks later, once back in the US, he said: “Over here [in America] a boxer who makes the fight gets some credit for his aggressiveness and the man who runs away has to do a lot of damage to offset his lack of aggressiveness.
“Over there [England] to make the other fellow miss seems to count as much as clean hitting, even if a boxer has to backstep all the time to make his opponent miss.
“I did all the forcing and Freddie back pedalled. Naturally he was fast enough to make me miss continually, but as they figure fights that way perhaps he had the right idea.
“But there is no question as to how the same tactics would be greeted by an American crowd. I know what they expect of a boxer. If I ran away from Welsh over here [America] as he did in the ring at Olympia they would probably hoot me out of the ring.”
There the matter would normally have rested but in an unusual, and ultimately tragic, turn of events Corri’s marked programme made its way across the Atlantic and into the hands of noted American sportswriter and cartoonist Bob Edgren.
Edgren, who knew Corri both professionally and socially and had the utmost respect for his integrity (he even recommended him to American boxers who went to fight in England), transcribed the scores line for line and figure for figure and published them (as shown) in the New York Evening World in 1919.
The renowned scribe, not a man generally prone to hyperbole, was in no doubt about just how rare a piece of boxing history he had in his hands, writing: “This pencil-marked programme is the most interesting fight document I ever saw.”
The programme showed Corri marked the bout under the NSC’s 'five-point must' system – the winner of any given round got five points and the loser got a proportion of that mark, fractions permitted, at the discretion of the referee. A drawn round meant each combatant got the full five points.
In allocating scores the referee had the following NSC rules in mind: “Marks shall be awarded for ‘attack’, direct, clean hits with the knuckle part of the glove of either hand on any part of the front or sides of the head, or the body above the belt; ‘defence’, guarding, slipping or getting away.”
The rules added: “The referee shall decide all contests in favour of the contestant who obtains the greatest number of marks.”
The clear value that the NSC placed on “getting away” skills suggests that Ritchie may have been correct in claiming he would have won the decision in an American ring where simple aggression was more highly rewarded.
Even so, Corri’s marks reveal that Ritchie was agonisingly close to retaining his world title despite the defensive prowess of his opponent.
The card paints a clear picture of Welsh building a commanding ten-point lead over the first ten rounds but then shows that Ritchie’s sustained pressure saw him storming back in the second half of the fight to such an extent that the men were dead level after 19 rounds of action.
Welsh only wrenched the lightweight crown from Ritchie’s grasp by edging the last round 5-4, giving him victory by a single point overall - 86½ to 85½.
The story of how the scorecard ended up in Edgren’s hands is a fascinating but terribly sad tale in itself.
Following the Ritchie vs Welsh fight Corri gave his marked programme to one of his sons, Eugene Jr, a talented young amateur boxer who was popularly known as 'Toodles'.
Toodles, aged just 13, joined the merchant navy after WW1 broke out and went on to have a truly remarkable career during the hostilities.
Twice he was on ships which were sunk by German submarine torpedoes and twice he survived, although on the second occasion he sustained injuries that meant he spent several months in hospital.
He then became an aviator and was shot down by German aircraft while flying coastal defence sorties - but again he cheated death.
Toodles then went back to sea and served as an officer on the Dwinsk, a British transport ship sent to the US to collect American soldiers and ferry them back across the Atlantic.
While in New York the lad, said to be extremely proud of his referee father, gifted the fight programme to Edgren, before sailing safely back to England.
The youngster’s luck finally ran out when the Dwinsk embarked on another trip to the US to collect yet more soldiers but was torpedoed several hundred miles out to sea in June 1918.
Astonishingly Toodles, still only 16, survived yet again, clinging to a raft for days with several shipmates, but died when a giant wave washed him away before a passing ship came to the rescue of his friends.
His death devastated his famous father, who got the news via a telegram handed to him at the National Sporting Club, and Corri Sr proudly and publicly lauded his son as a “giant” of a man.
The teenager’s bravery and sacrifice rather puts any controversy over boxing scoring, both past and present, into suitable perspective.