Through the years of Boxing’s varied history, fighters have always come in different shapes and sizes, but few have seemed so unsuitable for their pugilistic employment as a pale waif called Jimmy Wilde. Born in Merthyr Tydfil Wales, on May 15, 1892, Wilde stood just 5’ feet 2” and a half inches and during his fighting career weighed between 95 and 108 pounds. Wilde was not just short in stature, but frail in build, with a sunken in chest and visible ribcage, scrawny legs and pipe-stem arms that seemed barely strong enough to hold the weight of the boxing gloves placed upon his hands. Jimmy’s appearance was capped by a pale and hollow face that seemed to be that of a child rendered old before his time. Hence, his most well known nicknames were ‘The Ghost with a hammer in his hand’ and ‘The Mighty Atom’.
As a fighter, Wilde was a sight to behold. He fought with his hands at his sides and often crouched and feinted, which served to make him seem even more diminutive. Wilde was fast of foot and hand, and rather than block punches the normal way, he would dodge shots with a slight move of his head, or sway of his upper body.
It was Wilde’s punching prowess that was the most astonishing thing about this little man. Throughout his boxing career, Wilde would stun spectators with his ability to knockout opponents often far heavier than himself. The secret of Wilde’s punching was an almost uncanny sense of timing, coupled by his precision and speed of punch.
Wilde often knocked opponents out with punches that travelled mere inches.
Long before he had retired, Wilde had become a living legend, due to the combination of his unconventional appearance and his dynamic fighting ability.
Despite his size, and frail build, (at 12 years old he weighed barely fifty-six pounds), Wilde grew up with dreams of becoming a boxer and engaged in frequent street-fights. He idolized fellow Welshman Freddie Welsh, who was making a name for himself boxing in America, (and would go on to win the World lightweight championship.) Yet, Wilde seemed destined to follow his father into the mines instead and started along this grim path after leaving school at just 12 years of age. Fate then took a hand and brought Wilde together in the pits with an old mountain fighter Dai Davies. While working the coal seams alongside Davies, Wilde listened to his stories of the legendary bareknuckle fights in the mountains, which would often last for dozens of rounds and hours at a time.
Davies would also give Wilde the only formal boxing lessons that he ever received, when the two of them would spar together in the older man’s tiny bedroom, with his furniture piled up upon the bed to give the two men standing room. Wilde’s relationship with Davies served to make what seemed a frivolous and unlikely dream of becoming a professional boxer, a possible reality. Wilde would also marry Davies’ daughter, Elizabeth.
If there was any doubt of Wilde leaving the pits in favour of boxing, then an accident when he was 15 years old decided things. One day while working in the mine, Wilde tripped and fell underneath the steel ropes upon which the coal-laden trucks would run. He found himself pinned down, as the steel rope ripped into his leg. By the time he had finally freed himself and crawled away to safety, Wilde’s calf was torn down to the bone. At first, it was feared that Wilde would lose the lower portion of his leg, such was the depth of his injury, but slowly he started to recover, although he would spend months convalescing on crutches, while his wound healed. The accident served to make up his mind that his future lay in boxing, rather than the hazardous realm of the pits.
When he was 16 and sufficiently recovered from his accident, Wilde joined the boxing booth of Jack Scarrott and was soon demolishing men sometimes twice his size. It was around this time that Wilde married Dai Davies’ daughter Elizabeth. Wilde’s new wife was at first dead against his following a career in boxing, in any shape or form, and Wilde had to promise to give up his hopes of pugilistic fame and glory in order to gain Elizabeth’s acceptance of his marriage proposal.
However, in the early months of their marriage Wilde continued to box in the booths on the sly, but was soon found out by his sharp-minded wife. The ructions this discovery caused ran on for some months, until Wilde’s wife came to realize how successful her husband was in the booths and that this line of work carried far more hope for them and their future together, than a life reliant upon the mines.
Eventually Elizabeth would become one of the first ‘boxing wives’ to be found regularly at ringside, supporting her husband, and she was also known to help him with sparring, wearing a metal breastplate, as he worked on his defence and footwork, by dodging and ducking the punches coming his way from her.
Wilde’s appearance would often lull prospective opponents into a false sense of confidence, while spectators would cry out in protest at seeing the skinny man climbing up into the ring to fight it out with a man seemingly more than twice his size.
Usually within a few minutes, the protesting spectators would be suddenly stunned into silence and then just as quickly burst into applause, as the latest hapless opponent was either carried or helped back to their corner, wondering what it was that had just hit them.
Wilde soon outgrew the booths and looked to make his name in the more conventional boxing arena by officially turning professional on December 26, 1910, with a 3- round no-decision match against Les Willaims. Just as he had done in the booths, Wilde was soon knocking out all comers with astonishing regularity, despite often giving away a stone or more in weight.
At this time, there was no official flyweight division, although perversely, there were many formidable fighters of that size operating. Britain especially, was overflowing with little men of great talent, but Wilde defeated them one by one.
For the first three and a half years of his career, Wilde fought exclusively in Wales, but eventually word of his performances reached London, and he was invited to show his wares in Britain’s boxing centre. When Wilde appeared in London, the promoters were so shocked at his frail appearance that they refused to let him fight at first and only did so after much cajoling by Wilde and his manager Ted Lewis. Once Wilde was allowed in the ring, he became an overnight sensation in London.
In 1913, Wilde took part in 33 contests, without a defeat. After fighting multiple opponents every day in the booths, taking on an opponent a week was almost too easy for Wilde in his prime. On January 1, 1913, Wilde won the British Paperweight championship by stopping Billy Padden in 18 rounds. The paperweight title had a weight limit of 98 pounds and was a pre-curser to the Flyweight division, with its limit of 112 pounds.
Wilde was a big name now and with every victory, his reputation grew. When WW1 broke out in 1914, Wilde joined fellow fighters Johnny Basham, Jem Driscoll, and Freddie Welsh, amongst others, in enlisting as an instructor. These boxers were part of a group of fighters known as ‘The Khaki Boxing Squad. He eventually became a Sergeant Instructor, but Wilde was still able to box, fighting twenty times in 1915 and ten times in 1916.
On January 25, 1915, Wilde suffered a rare defeat, when Tancy Lee stopped him in 17 rounds, in their battle for the newly introduced British and European Flyweight titles. Wilde went into this contest while suffering from an illness that had rendered him bedridden in the days before the fight, but Wilde would not hear of pulling out of the match. By the fights conclusion, Wilde had been so badly battered that one of his ears was almost detached from his head. Some versions of Wilde’s boxing record shows this as being his first defeat in 95 official professional contests, others have it as his 3rd defeat, if we take into account two obscure 6 rounds point’s defeats in 1911 to a Dai Davies and a Dai Jones. Either way, Wilde was almost a total stranger to defeat, to an astonishing degree.
Wilde soon bounced back from the Lee defeat, and on February 14, 1916, he defeated Joe Symonds in 12 rounds to win the British Flyweight championship (Symonds having won the title from Tancy Lee.)
Even with the war raging on, Wilde defended his titles, gaining revenge over Tancy Lee on June 26, 1916, when he stopped Lee in 11 rounds and added the European Flyweight crown to his British title. Years later in his autobiography, Wilde was to offer an insight into what those days were like when battles in the ring gave spectators relief from the grim battle raging outside the ring.
“The Boxing world suffered as any other during the War. For some time it was almost melancholy to enter the doors, knowing who would not be there, and sad when one entered the ring, to see scarred faces of men who had suffered badly”.
On September 18, 1916, Wilde became the first official World Flyweight champion, when he stopped Young Zulu Kid in the 11th round. After almost a decade of destroying everyone in his path, Wilde was now officially a world champion.
Wilde’s main problem now was that he had more or less fought himself out of competition, and his fistic activity dropped down in 1917-1918, partly due to this reason.
Wilde’s fame had spread internationally and in 1920, he went to America and did a very successful tour, and fought a number of fights, becoming an instant hit with the American fight fans.
Wilde was 29 years old and in semi-retirement when he got the offer in early 1921 to fight the brilliant World bantamweight champion Pete Herman. It was to be Wilde’s first fight in eight months. Not such a huge layoff for these days perhaps, but for a fighter who had been as active as Wilde was in his prime, those eight months off would prove to be disastrous. The two men fought on January 13, 1921, and a combination of Herman coming into the fight far heavier than had previously been agreed, (Wilde ended up giving up around 20 pounds to Herman) and Wilde’s encroaching age and inactivity, resulted in an out of sorts Wilde being given a fearful beating. The much bigger and sharper Herman took the best that Wilde could muster, and finally forced a 17th round stoppage defeat, after the referee Jack Smith had finally seen enough and literally dragged a pitifully beaten Wilde away from Herman’s fists, saying as he did so, “I’m sorry Jimmy, I have to pick you up, because you don’t know how to lie down.”
The beating by Herman should have indicated the end of Wilde’s amazing career, and for a while, it looked as if it had, as he recuperated from the defeat, and settled in comfortably into non-boxing life for over two years. But, Wilde still officially held the world Flyweight championship and in 1923, he received an offer to travel to America and defend it against Pancho Villa in New York. Part of the reason Wilde took the Villa fight was the wish to end his career in a blaze of glory, rather than with the Herman defeat. Another reason was the not insubstantial £15,000 purse offered to Wilde.
Villa was actually a replacement for Frankie Genaro, who was the first proposed opponent for Wilde’s defence. While Genaro was a clever and fast boxer, Villa was a pocket dynamo, and a whirlwind of fists and aggression, not the ideal opponent to be taking on after two and a half years of inactivity.
Despite his long layoff, Wilde went into the match with Villa underestimating his little Filipino foe, but soon realised that he was in trouble in the first round, when he was very nearly overwhelmed by the Filipino’s furious attack. In the 2nd round, Wilde used all his experience and gameness to try to get a grip of the contest, and ride the storm coming his way, and while he lost the round, he managed to negate some of Villa’s attacks. At the end of the round however, any chance Wilde had of turning the fight around was taken from him by a savage blow that Villa threw clearly after the bell sounded to end the round. The punch caught Wilde square on the chin and sent him down heavily. Somehow, Wilde’s seconds dragged him to his corner and managed to revive him enough to send him out for the 3rd round. Why Villa was not disqualified for his foul blow was debated for many years after this fight.
Wilde came out for the 3rd, but was out on his feet, and simply fighting from instinct. For the next 5 rounds, Wilde took one of the worst beatings ever seen in modern times, with only his fighting heart and instinct pushing him on. Round after round he came out and barely able to hold his hands up, and went forward into Villa’s merciless fists.
The end finally came in the 7th round, with Wilde being counted out face down on the blood-splattered canvas. After the fight, Wilde was in a coma for hours and unaware of his surroundings for weeks afterwards. It would be months before he would be anywhere near recovered from the Villa beating, and his memory would remain impaired for the rest of his life. Unsurprisingly, Wilde never fought again.
Wilde’s final record was 132(101koes)-6-2 his tally of 101 knockouts… an astonishing achievement for a fighter of his size.
While in the years since there have been great flyweights such as Benny Lynch, Pascual Perez, Miguel Canto, and Ricardo Lopez, it is hard to deny Wilde his place at the top of the flyweight tree. Even when comparing him to Jimmy Barry, who fought before Wilde as a Bantamweight, before the Flyweight division had come into existence.
Wilde was a punching genius, who on his best day would have been a good pick over anyone one within the 100 to 112 pounds range.
‘The Mighty Atom’ remains the mightiest mite ever seen in the ring, even to this day.