The ninth in a series of real-life Outlaw heroes
‘Peerless’ Jim (Jem) Driscoll (1880-1925) is still regarded as the finest proponent of the classical, upright boxing style, and a fighter who is almost always included in lists of the greatest fighters of all time.
He was also one of the very best never to have won a world title.
The youngest of four children, he was born into poverty in the Newton district of Cardiff, South Wales, to Irish parents, his father being killed by a train before Jim reached his first birthday.
As a youngster, Driscoll contributed to the family finances by working as a ‘Printers Devil’ at the Western Mail newspaper, which was where it is believed he first became interested in boxing, often sparring with the other apprentices, using newspapers wrapped around their fists as gloves.
Most weekends and evenings, he supplemented his earnings by taking on all comers in the Boxing Booths around South Wales, which were run by Jack Scarrott.
At 17, he was earning a sovereign a week from boxing.
Driscoll was simply breathtaking.
He was such naturally gifted fighter, that Scarott came up with the idea of tying Jim’s hands behind his back and offering a gold sovereign to anyone, who could climb into the ring with him and land a single punch on his nose within one minute.
Nobody managed to win the money.
Although records were rarely kept, it has been estimated that he had fought more than 600 Booth bouts, against men of all weights and abilities, before he turned professional in 1901.
By 1906 he had lost just once as a professional, and his attractive style had made him a firm favourite with boxing’s money men at the National Sporting Club in London.
It was there, that he fought for his first major title, the British featherweight crown, and the Welshman won it easily following a 15-round points verdict over the champion Joe Bowker.
He completely dominated the featherweight division at domestic level, and in 1908 he returned to the NSC and added the Commonwealth featherweight title when he defeated New Zealander Charlie Griffin.
In November 1908, he sailed for America, where he was prepared to take on all comers, but although his reputation preceded him, when he was met in New York by the boxing press and public, they were visibly shocked by his frail appearance in the flesh.
Their initial reservations changed almost as soon as the Welshman stepped into the ring though, as he easily won seven of the nine fights he participated in, the remaining two, being ‘no contests’, which meant that only a knock-out would decide the winner.
The faultless displays he exhibited during his time in America, left even the notoriously critical US sporting press struggling to find words adequate to describe the sheer quality of his ring craft.
The famous newspaper columnist, Bat Masterton dubbed him ‘Peerless Jem’, a name which stuck with him throughout his career.
Abe Attell, world champion at the time, only agreed to meet Driscoll in the ring if it was a non title bout, which was agreed and they met on the 19th of February 1909 in New York.
Attell, 24, was from San Francisco, but had built a formidable reputation in America’s boxing heartland of New York.
Known as the ‘Little Hebrew’, or the ‘Little Champ’, Attell had first become world champion in 1903, had reclaimed the belt in 1904, and would reign as champion from 1906-12.
Despite the fact that Driscoll was suffering from pleurisy, Attell scarcely managed to lay a glove on him, and he won by a wide margin – although he was unable to knock Attell out and the fight ended in a ‘no decision’.
The champion was in serious trouble in the fourth, and the general consensus at the end was that Driscoll had won seven of the 10 rounds, with two scored even.
It was enough to see Driscoll recognised as world champion in Europe, but the no decision rule meant he never officially won the title.
The Welshman’s manager, Charlie Harvey, knew that the American public were hungry for a rematch, but Driscoll boarded a ship for Britain the day after the Attell fight in order to perform his annual exhibition in a charity show for Nazareth House Orphanage, in Cardiff.
“I never break a promise,” was Driscoll’s simple reply to Harvey’s pleas for him to stay, and the fighter received a hero’s welcome when he returned home to Wales.
Driscoll was without a doubt, at the peak of his power in 1909, but even his natural abilities were starting to show the effects of his reluctance to train and his unhealthy, party-loving lifestyle.
He had two further wins in London in 1910, but illness affected the build-up to his US return, where he was matched against Pal Moore in Philadelphia and he lost the newspaper decision.
Jim Driscoll would never again fight in America, and returned to Wales, where he began to prepare for a much-anticipated fight with Lightweight Champion Freddie Welsh (Fredrick Hall Thomas) in Cardiff in December 1910.
The media attention was intense and the atmosphere in the packed American Roller Rink in Cardiff was electric, but the fight itself proved to be something of an anti-climax.
Driscoll’s classical English style did not mix well with Welsh’s American-style brawling, and following a bad tempered and dirty nine rounds, Driscoll was disqualified in the tenth round for a series of blatant head-butts.
Newspaper reporter James Butler said: “It was the only time I saw Jim Driscoll not in complete control of himself in the ring. So bitter was the hatred by the 10th round that the finest boxer this country has ever produced was rushing in red-eyed like a man gone berserk.”
A distraught Driscoll burst into tears following the fight, saying: “The referee allowed Freddie to butt me till I couldn’t stand it any longer. I thought I’d let him see that I was a better goat than he was.”
Returning to his favourite NSC venue in 1912, Driscoll claimed the European featherweight title with a comprehensive win over Jean Poesy.
Driscoll’s career was interrupted as he had enlisted in the army at the start of World War I, and following being ‘slightly gassed’ at the start of the second battle of Ypres, which affected his already bronchial chest, he ended up in the hospital at Arras, suffering from asthmatic attacks.
He was later drafted into an elite company comprising of physical training instructors under a Captain James Logan, along with other boxers, Johnny Basham, Jimmy Wilde, Bombadier Billy Wells, Dick Smith and Pat O’Keefe.
The six fighters fought exhibition bouts for the Army all over France and throughout Britain, where they worked pretty much non-stop.
He became very close to Johnny Basham, from Newport, Wales, who was also a Sergeant, and they were regularly summoned to calm upset in the ranks, as most of the ordinary soldiers were prepared to listen to the well liked and respected boxers, ahead of their superiors and the MPs who only had served to inflame the situation.
During this time, it was estimated that he fought over 12,000, three-minute exhibition rounds, taking on all comers of all weights, against both amateur and professional fighters.
Eventually, his health broke under the strain, and a recurrence of his chronic bronchial troubles and an ulcerated stomach sent him back to Britain.
His toughest fight of all though, was the battle he fought with his health, which was rapidly failing, but he courageously returned to the ring for three further fights, relying on his still considerable skills to keep him out of trouble, before ending his career with the bravest of defeats to the younger and fitter Charles Ledoux in December 1919.
Ledoux played tribute to his beaten opponent following the fight, expressing his great regret over vanquishing a man who he respected and admired so much.
‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll died of pneumonia on the 30th of January, 1925, aged 44, and as his funeral cortège wound it’s way towards Cathays Cemetary, more than 100,000 people stood silently along the route through the streets of Cardiff, to pay their respects to a great man, and a fighter who arguably, was the greatest featherweight of them all.
South Wales has produced many great boxers over many years, but none was more respected and loved than Peerless Jim Driscoll, the Cardiff featherweight who gave up the chance of winning the world title, simply because he had made a promise to take part in a charity show for his local orphanage.