Place of Birth - Merthyr Tydfil
Date of Birth - 15th May 1892
Passed Away - 10th March 1969
Record - 131 wins (99 KO’s), 3 losses, 2 draws, 13 no-decisions
Greatest Accomplishment - Becoming the first universally-recognized world flyweight champion
Wilde was born in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, a town with origins dating back to 1000 BC. It had nearby sources of coal, iron ore and limestone, which made it a prime location for the ironworks industry. Wilde’s father was a coal-miner. At the age of 12, Wilde moved with his parents to Tylorstown and was soon working in coal mines himself. Because he was small, he was able to crawl into narrow passages and it was a tough, dirty job that could break a man’s spirit. When he reached sixteen, he became involved in boxing booths that were part of carnivals and was notably successful.
Wilde’s birthplace - Merthyr Tydfil
In the boxing booths he could earn more money in a single day than he could for working a week down coal mines. However, it was a gruelling regime in which he could take part in more than twenty fights a day. Whilst these fights were not recorded, it is estimated that he could have had over eight hundred bouts altogether in the booths and this would have been obviously significant in shaping him into the fighter he was to become. In 1909, at the age of 17, he got married and later had two sons; David and Verdun. On 26th December 1910, he made his professional debut, facing Les Williams in a no-decision bout over three rounds. It was staged in Pontypridd.
Over the following year, he embarked on an incredible schedule, often boxing two or three times a month and remained unbeaten (though he was held to a draw twice).
Despite his small stature, Wilde possessed amazing speed and power. He was willing to face anyone in any location and simply tore through most of his opposition. By 1914, the quality of his opponents was rising considerably and on 16th November that year he outpointed the highly-regarded Joe Symonds over fifteen rounds in London. During the next month, on 3rd December, he stopped the talented Sid Smith in the 9th round in Liverpool. His forward march came to an abrupt halt on 25th January 1915 when he suffered his first loss. In a contest for the vacant British and European flyweight titles, Tancy Lee scored a 17th round KO over him at the National Sporting Club in London. Despite this setback, Wilde picked himself up and ploughed on. He beat Smith again on 20th December the same year, also at the NSC.
Wilde at home with his wife and sons
He knocked out Joe Symonds in the 12th round of a rematch, once again at the NSC, on 14th February 1916. At this stage, Lee had vacated the British title and Wilde won it with his latest victory over Symonds. Just over four months later, on 26th June, he had an opportunity to avenge his defeat by Lee. Their rematch was at the same venue as their first encounter and this time Wilde gained the upper hand. He scored an 11th round KO and won the European title as well.
Wilde was now the British and European champion and retained both these titles against Johnny Hughes on 31st July 1916 via 10th round KO in London. He was almost certainly the best flyweight in the world and there was only one more step for him to take. The NSC had established the flyweight division in 1909 but since then no bout had materialized which was deemed as being for the world championship. In New York City, a worthy adversary had been making a name for himself. The exotically-named Young Zulu Kid was generally considered to be the best in the USA in the 112 lb division and he had been mixing in respected company, with names such as Monte Attell, Pete Herman and Johnny Ertle appearing on his record. However, many of the Kid’s fights had been at bantamweight and a considerable number of others were no-decision affairs, with only an unofficial ‘newspaper verdict’ being given, which essentially protected a boxer from suffering any actual losses. His real name was Giuseppe Di Melfi and he was originally from Italy. His record at the time was 18 wins (with 8 KO's), 13 losses, 5 draws and 45 no-decisions. It should be noted that some of his losses had come against the likes of Memphis Pal Moore (three times), Herman and Ertle, all of whom were top bantamweights, and also Johnny Rosner (twice), a formidable flyweight.
Wilde doing push-ups in training
The big showdown with Young Zulu Kid took place at Holborn Stadium, London, on 18th December 1916 and in a brilliant performance Wilde won with an 11th round KO to become the recognized champion of the world. Over the next 3 years, his star continued to shine and he scored victories over high-class opposition such as Joe Lynch and Memphis Pal Moore. He boxed outside of the UK for the first time on 6th December 1919 when he faced Jackie Sharkey in Milwaukee, USA, in a no-decision bout. Notably, he engaged in a rematch with Young Zulu Kid on 12th April 1920 in Ontario, Canada. It was a no-decision contest and he continued on a tour of the USA and Canada for the rest of the year. Some of these fights were at bantamweight.
On 13th January 1921, back in London, he took on former world bantamweight champion Pete Herman, who was supremely talented and is regarded by many historians as one of the best bantamweights ever. He was approximately 14 lbs heavier than Wilde, and when Wilde discovered how large the difference in weight would be, he was reluctant to go ahead with the fight. However, the Prince of Wales was present and according to some reports, he persuaded Wilde to fight. Other reports indicated that Wilde simply felt an obligation to box because the Prince was present. Whatever the case, he absorbed a beating by Herman and unfortunately succumbed in the 17th round. After this loss, Wilde remained inactive and there appeared to be no immediate worthy challengers for him at flyweight. But during the following year, a number of quality contenders began to emerge, including the USA’s Frankie Genaro and the Philippines’ Pancho Villa. In 1923, Wilde was offered £13,000 to defend against Villa; this was a huge sum in those days and too much of a temptation for him to resist.
Villa (left) and Wilde pose before the start of their contest
The Wilde-Villa clash was scheduled for 18th June 1923 at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Over 20,000 fans packed the stadium to see the great champion, though by this stage, Wilde was past his peak and somewhat ring-rusty. Sadly for him, the multi-talented Villa was too much for him and finished him in the 7th round. He took such a beating that after the fight he did not recognize his wife.
Wilde’s reign was over and he wisely never fought again. He lived well in retirement and went into business with a cinema chain. He also wrote a sports column for the ‘News of the World’ newspaper. There were stories that he was a keen gambler, a habit which his wife, Elizabeth, did not approve of.
In what was a terrible shame, he was mugged at a railway station in Cardiff in 1965 and did not recover. He spent the last four years of his life in a hospital called Whitchurch.
Many boxing fans and historians consider Wilde to be the greatest flyweight of all time and in his prime he was simply mesmerizing. Known as the ‘Ghost with a hammer in his hand’, he would surely have been successful in any era.