His dream must have seemed so close: the oft overlooked life of Freddie Welsh

Luke G. Williams
23/09/2016 7:16pm

As Anthony Crolla tries to become king of the lightweight division this weekend, Boxing Monthly re-examines the turbulent life and oft overlooked career of Britain’s first lightweight world champion, the great Freddie Welsh.

When the glorious fistic deeds of Britain’s finest boxers are recited and referred to, the name of Freddie Welsh is all too often absent.

Indeed, I have lost count of the number of articles I have read discussing who was or wasn’t the greatest British boxer of all time in which Welsh’s name has not been mentioned once.

For my money, the Pontypridd born stylist deserves far more respect and attention than he has historically received. After all, he was the lightweight champion of the whole world at a time when the status of world champion was far harder to earn than today.

Welsh’s overall record was superb. Although many of his fights were fought in the ‘no decision’ era, which makes his number of genuine wins and losses somewhat difficult to quantify, he only ever officially lost four contests out of 168.*

Even more impressively he was only stopped once in his entire career, a ninth round TKO in 1917 against one of the greatest pound for pound boxers of all time, Benny Leonard, a contest which saw Welsh lose his world title after a near three-year reign.

By the time Leonard stopped him, Welsh was a veteran of more than 150 fights and definitely past his best. Even though the hard-punching ‘Ghetto Wizard’ floored Welsh, though, he couldn’t keep him on the canvas, the Welshman bravely absorbing punishment that would have felled many a lesser man before the referee intervened.

The United Press described the climax to the Welsh-Leonard battle thus:

“[Welsh] arose [from a knockdown], both hands on the ropes, his head unprotected. A dozen times the flailing fists of the eager challenger crashed into Welsh’s chin. Gamely the Britisher stood it. Kid McPartland, the referee, looked appealingly to Welsh’s corner, but the sponge was not forthcoming. McPartland mercifully stepped in and ended it. “

After the fight Welsh showed his innate competitive spirit and fierce fighting pride by arguing that the referee should not have stopped the contest. “There never was a championship decided without a man getting a count,” he protested.

Prior to this bout, Welsh had fought Leonard twice already in no decision contests – with most observers agreeing that each man won one apiece. Going 1-2 with Benny Leonard is no mean feat.

Welsh was also able to boast among his opponents great names such as Jim Driscoll, Willie Ritchie, Ad Wolgast, Abe Attell, Packey McFarland, Johnny Dundee and Battling Nelson, the majority of whom he bested at one point or another. It’s hard to think of many other British boxers who fought such a consistently tough level of opposition.

As well as his considerable pugilistic achievements, the Welsh Wizard’s life story is also among the most colourful and unconventional in British boxing history, albeit with a side helping of tragedy and despair.

Born Frederick Hall Thomas in 1886, Welsh’s background was, unusually, far more ‘middle-class’ than that of many of his pugilistic contemporaries; his father was an auctioneer and he was educated at a grammar and then a fee-paying school.

Welsh was also unconventional in several other respects; for example, he was widely mocked for being a proponent of Bernarr Macfadden’s theories of ‘physical culture’, which emphasised fasting, vegetarianism and other nutritional approaches which were seen then as somewhat wacky.

Welsh’s relationship with British boxing fans and writers was also uneasy. His penchant for kidney punching, while not against the rules at the time, was seen as ungentlemanly, while his elusive, counter-punching style and smooth footwork led to accusations of unmanliness. His lack of a killer KO punch, and the way he often peppered his opponents with numerous head and body shots for round after round, also led to accusations of coldness and sadism.

Like Gene Tunney, Welsh also attracted sneers for his intellectual pretensions - his liking for the works of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen being considered somewhat suspicious by macho members of the boxing corps, as was his dandy-esque dress sense.

Perhaps Welsh’s biggest ’sin’ in the eyes of British observers though was his liking for America, and the fact he spent most of his career Stateside. “Freddie … aped everything American,” sneered one journalist when he returned to the UK. “In manner and in speech; in fact in every way he [became] truly Yankee.”

Welsh’s controversial and messy disqualification victory against Welsh countryman and fan favourite Jim Driscoll in front of 10,000 fans in Cardiff in 1910 also did little to endear him to his home crowd.

Given that the surname he gave himself spoke volumes for his love of his country it was ironic that Welsh did not achieve the popularity he deserved in Wales. Although he always claimed he was unconcerned by this, the barbs must have hurt. “I can’t say that I ever worried much about what people thought or said of me,” he once declared. “I like to be liked, and have often wished that I could be as much loved as Jim Driscoll, say, but I have never been able to bow down to rules and regulations.”

The greatest night of Welsh’s career may have taken place in London – namely when he lifted the lightweight world title against Willie Ritchie in 1914 – but he seemed to be greeted with far more respect and acclaim by American fight fans.

Outside the boxing ring, Welsh led a rich and colourful life. Some claim that he served as the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jay Gatsby in his iconic Jazz Age masterpiece The Great Gatsby.

It is said that Fitzgerald once visited Welsh’s training camp and certainly there are similarities between the Welsh boxer and the character of Gatsby – both men changed their name to disguise their origins, both served in the army in World War I and both were suave, self-made men who ended up living lavish celebrity lifestyles.

Most bizarre of all - and at the root of the rumours that Fitzgerald used Welsh as his model for Gatsby - is that both men were involved in motor car accidents involving a woman named Myrtle Wilson.

Sadly, the denouements for both Welsh and Gatsby were tragic.

Gatsby never regained his lost love Daisy Buchanan and ends Fitzgerald’s novel gunned down and dead. Welsh, meanwhile, saw his hard-earned fortune and marriage evaporate in a rash of poor business decisions, and thus fell into a life of poverty and hard drinking from which he never emerged before he was found dead in a New York hotel in 1927 aged just 41.

Fitzgerald’s ending to The Great Gatsby serves as an appropriate epitaph for the great but tragic Freddie Welsh, as he lay dead, his fortune gone, his pulse silent and those nights of world championship glory long gone:

“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it,” Fitzgerald wrote. “He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

* Stats from Boxrec.com