Ranking the Top 6 Welsh Fighters of All Time
One of the best servants of Welsh boxing in recent years, Gavin Rees retired this week after winning a farewell fight against Gary Buckland.
Rees was part of a golden era for boxing in the principality, and at one point in 2007 Rees, Enzo Maccarinelli and Joe Calzaghe all held world-title belts.
While Rees would certainly make a long list of the best-ever Welsh fighters as a British, European and WBA titleholder, he is edged out by three fighters from the era of eras for Welsh boxing, which occurred around 100 years ago.
"Wee" Willie Davies and Tommy West spent most of their careers fighting tough opposition in the U.S. but were Welsh-born. Davies was a top flyweight who never quite got a full world-title shot; West got that honour as a welterweight and middleweight but came up short.
Going into the post-war period, Colin Jones managed a draw with Milton McCrory in a 1983 bout for the vacant WBC welterweight title but lost a rematch as well as a further title shot against Donald Curry.
At a similar time, Johnny Owen lost his life in the cruel aftermath of his challenge to Lupe Pintor's WBC Bantamweight Championship in 1980. Owen was just 24, and Hugh McIlvanney famously wrote of the shy young fighter that "it is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language."
More recently Maccarinelli, Steve Robinson and Nathan Cleverly have had extended WBO title reigns but without really proving themselves to be truly world class.
Maccarinelli and Cleverly will come again, with one going down a division and the other going up. In addition, both Lee Selby and his brother Andrew may one day challenge the all-time greats.
For now, though, here are the six absolute best Welsh fighters in history.
6. Percy Jones
Record: 50 wins, 3 defeats, 3 draws
Years Active: 1911-1916
Weight Class: Flyweight
Best Win: Eugene Criqui in 1914
Percy Jones' place in Welsh boxing history will always be secure because he was the first man from his nation to hold a world title.
He captured the flyweight world title with a 20-round decision win over London's Bill Ladbury in January 1914.
His finest hour came in March of the same year in his first defence against Frenchman Eugene Criqui. Criqui had won a nontitle fight that, incredibly, came less than three weeks after Jones' title bout with Ladbury—a result that set up a return with the title on the line.
With the benefit of a full training camp, Jones set the record straight against Criqui, winning another decision over 20 rounds.
The Welshman struggled to make weight, and that contributed to him losing to Joe Symonds and Tancy Lee later that year. He forfeited his title on the scales, having failed to get down to the 112-pound limit against Lee.
Jones then sought to campaign at bantamweight, but World War I intervened. His last meaningful bout was another win over Ladbury in 1915 before he suffered serious injuries during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
He would never box again, ultimately losing a leg two years later before succumbing to the long-term effects of poison gas in 1922.
Just how great a boxing career Jones would have had is open to debate, given he didn't box past the age of 23. The fact that Criqui went on to win the world featherweight title two divisions up in the early 1920s suggests Jones could have replicated his world-beating feats as a bantamweight.
5. Jim Driscoll
Record: 53 wins, 3 defeats, 5 draws (plus 8 "newspaper decisions")
Years Active: 1901-1913, 1919
Weight Class: Featherweight
Best Win: Abe Attell in 1909
Jim Driscoll never actually became world champion despite beating featherweight kingpin Abe Attell in a bizarrely stipulated no-decision contest, whereby he could only claim the title by knocking out the American.
Driscoll had won the British and Commonwealth featherweight titles by 1908 and avenged his only loss up until then, when he traveled to the USA to challenge the world's best.
After nine wins in the U.S., including three over top contenders in 10- or 12-rounders, Driscoll got the chance to fight Attell in New York. Even though his opponent had won the featherweight title by decision, Driscoll was denied that opportunity because of the no-decision rules.
Legend has it that—with Driscoll's manager and public opinion demanding another bout with Attell under normal rules—the fighter nonetheless took a boat back to Wales the next day because he had agreed to star in a charity show at a Cardiff orphanage.
Within the U.K., Driscoll was thereafter billed as the world champion but didn't receive that recognition in the U.S., despite earning the nickname "Peerless Jim" from legendary cowboy and U.S. newspaperman Bat Masterson.
Driscoll did return to the U.S. in 1910 but lost his only bout before illness forced him to return home. He never got a proper world title shot, although he did add the European title to his collection in 1912 before effectively retiring a year later on the eve of his 33rd birthday.
Driscoll edges out Percy Jones, whom he helped train, because he beat the top fighters both in Europe and America, thus proving himself the best in his world at his peak.
4. Howard Winstone
Record: 61 wins, 6 defeats
Years Active: 1959-1968
Weight Class: Featherweight
Best Win: Mitsunori Seki in 1968
Howard Winstone became the first Welshman to win a world title after World War II, when he stopped top Japanese fighter Mitsunori Seki in the ninth round at the Albert Hall to claim the WBC featherweight crown in 1968.
The title had become vacant on the retirement of Mexican legend Vicente Saldivar, against whom Winstone and Seki were the only title challengers who had gone the distance.
Winstone turned pro just before his 20th birthday rather than wait to compete in the 1960 Olympics because he needed the money.
He quickly enjoyed success, becoming British champion at age 22 before adding the European title in 1964 at age 24.
Saldivar managed to get a shot at world champion Sugar Ramos before Winstone, and the belt changed hands in late 1964, setting up a showdown between the new king and the Welshman a year later.
In the first of three bouts, Saldivar got the decision in London, but the fight was close enough to justify a rematch less than two years later at Cardiff's Ninian Park.
Winstone dominated the first half of the fight and would have won had he not been knocked down twice in Round 14, which swung the fight for the Mexican. Even so, the partisan fans in Wales thought their man had done enough to get the nod.
A third match in Mexico City saw Winstone at less than his best, and his manager eventually threw in the towel in Round 12. Even so, the Welshman had proved to be the Mexican's toughest foe, and given that Saldivar is considered one of the all-time best featherweights, Winstone must be up there as well.
The Welshman finally got his hands on a world title by beating Seki, but both men were past their best, and Winstone lost his first defence later that year against Jose Legra before retiring.
3. Freddie Welsh
Record: 74 wins, 5 defeats, 7 draws (plus 81 "newspaper decisions")
Years Active: 1905-1917, 1920-22
Weight Class: Lightweight
Best Win: Benny Leonard in 1916
Welsh actually turned pro in the USA—his real name was Frederick Thomas, but he took a ring name to emphasise his roots.
Despite fighting the lion's share of his career in America, a number of Welsh's most important wins came in the U.K. In 1909 he won the British and European titles, adding the Commonwealth title by beating Australian champion Hughie Mehegan in London in 1912.
After beating Mehegan, Welsh was recognised as world champion by the British bodies, but he would have to wait two years to get a chance to unify with the recognised American world champion.
By 1914 that man was Willie Ritchie, and he was coaxed over to fight at Kensington Olympia, where Welsh claimed the title with a 20-round decision win.
Welsh would never fight at home again and embarked on an incredible number of fights, including 21 in his first year as champion, many of them non-title bouts, to maximise the income from his championship.
The lightweight's best year came in 1916, when he beat two top contenders—Charley White and Benny Leonard.
Leonard had previously beaten Welsh and would do so again and decisively by ninth-round stoppage in 1917, which marked the end of the Welshman's reign. Leonard would hold the title for more than seven years and become one of the greatest champions, so the fact that Welsh was able to register a win over him reflects well.
Welsh ranks third here because he held the undisputed world title for three years at a fiercely competitive time and ran up many good wins.
2. Joe Calzaghe
Record: 46 wins in 46 fights
Years Active: 1993-2008
Weight Class: Super middleweight
Best Wins: Mikkel Kessler at super middleweight (2007) and Bernard Hopkins at light heavyweight (2008)
Joe Calzaghe is a consensus pick as the best super middleweight of all time, although that is admittedly a young division, and current fighter Andre Ward may challenge for that unofficial title before his time is up.
Calzaghe's career is a strange one to assess: On the one hand, you have the undefeated ledger including 22 world-title fights and wins over legends Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones.
On the other hand, you have the accusation that he fought inferior opposition for many years, avoiding risks and only taking on Hopkins and Jones when they were past their prime.
You do have to remember that as much as Calzaghe can be accused of avoiding opponents, they can be accused of avoiding him. In the late 1990s, he had the WBO super-middleweight title after beating Chris Eubank and defending against Robin Reid.
He did not manage to organise unification bouts against German IBF champion Sven Ottke or American WBA champion Frankie Liles, although notably those two never fought each other as well.
Despite holding a title since 1997, Calzaghe was little known in the U.S. until he fought Jeff Lacy in 2006. The American was the betting favourite, even though the bout was in Wales, but Calzaghe picked him apart so easily over 12 rounds that the world took notice.
From then on, his career moved up a gear with another big title unification the next year against Mikkel Kessler. In 2008, Calzaghe moved up a weight class in 2008, beating Hopkins and Jones before retiring.
For his long unbeaten reign and being recognised as the best fighter in two weight divisions, Calzaghe edges out Welsh, and with more time for perspective, he may eventually be revised up to being the all-time No. 1 from his country.
1. Jimmy Wilde
Record: 132 wins, 3 defeats, 1 draw (plus 8 "newspaper decisions")
Years Active: 1911-1921, 1923
Weight Class: Flyweight
Best Win: Tancy Lee in 1916
In addition, he is perhaps one of only three British fighters who have a claim to have been pound-for-pound the best in the world, along with Bob Fitzsimmons and Ted "Kid" Lewis.
Wilde was recognised as world flyweight champion from 1916 until 1923, although he was inactive at the weight for two years before dropping the title.
What makes his achievements particularly incredible is that for many years he weighed in below 100 pounds when the flyweight limit was 112 pounds. With today's proliferation of weight classes, he would probably have ended up as a four-weight champion.
He only lost three of his 141 fully sanctioned contests, the first coming in 1915 when he got a chance at Tancy Lee's European version of the world title but was stopped in Round 17.
Lee then lost to Joe Symonds, and in 1916 Wilde beat Symonds for the belt and then knocked Lee out after 11 rounds in London. Later that year he unified world titles by beating American recognised champion Young Zulu Kid.
In 1919 Wilde traveled to North America, where he put together an excellent record against the top American and Canadian challengers, bringing his career KOs to 99.
A declining Wilde who had taken serious punishment over the years from much bigger opponents finally lost his global crown to the future great Pancho Villa in New York in 1923.
For the length of his reign, his pound-for-pound greatness and the way he dazzled American crowds and pundits alike, Wilde stands strong as the best Welsh fighter of all time.
All fighter records from BoxRec.
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