Monday 24 January 2011, 12:25
Wales has produced many great boxers over the years but none was more respected and loved than Peerless Jim Driscoll, the Cardiff featherweight who once gave up the chance of winning the world title because he had made a promise to take part in a charity show for his local orphanage.
Jim Driscoll died on 25 January 1925, aged just 44 years old, and as his funeral cortège wound its way towards Cathays Cemetery over 100,000 people stood silently on the streets of Cardiff to pay their last respects to a man who had captured their hearts.
Jim Driscoll was born in Cardiff on 15 December 1880. His father was Cornelius Driscoll, his mother Elizabeth, and like many children of the time Jim's early life was one of deprivation and more than a little hardship.
Jim used his skill as a boxer - despite his frail appearance and diminutive size - as a way out of the 'poverty trap'.
From an early age he fought in the boxing booths that most fairgrounds ran in those days, knowing that the only way to make a little money was to stay out of the way of the big "haymaking" punches of his opponents and therefore win in the ring. His reputation began to grow and spread.
He fought his first professional fight in 1901 and, despite his reputation as a superb defensive fighter, he actually won his first 10 fights by knockout. Standing at just five feet four inches, Jim Driscoll knew that, even as a featherweight, it was speed and consistency of punching, rather than the weight of his blows, that were going to win him fights. And win he did.
Out of a total of 77 fights in a career that lasted 18 years, he won 58 and lost only three. This was in the days when the "no contest" rule was in place - in other words, no knockout, no result.
In 1910 Jim Driscoll became the first featherweight to win a Lonsdale Belt and then decided to try his luck in America.
Despite the scepticism of the American sporting press, most reporters considering him too slight and frail to succeed, Driscoll had nine fights in the USA and won seven of them. The other two were no contests. The Americans took him to their hearts.
In 1910 he fought Abe Attell for the World Featherweight Title. With the "no contest" rule in place it was always going to be a difficult ask for the 28 year old Welshman, whose style was based on skill and speed rather than the brawling and heavy punching that were commonplace in American professional boxing at the time. And so it proved.
He totally outclassed Attell but despite winning seven of the scheduled 10 rounds (two of the remaining three being judged draws) he could not knock out his opponent and the match was ruled a no contest.
The day after the fight Jim Driscoll took a boat for home. He had been offered a re-match with Attell but, having already pledged to make an appearance at the Nazareth House Orphanage Charity Day in his home town of Cardiff, Driscoll knew he could not let the youngsters down. "I never break a promise," he declared. The chance to fight for the World Championship never came again.
Jim Driscoll, having come out of poverty, loved the party lifestyle. He enjoyed the trappings of fame, although he never allowed his success to turn his head.
There are those, however, who say that the partying and good times were contributory factors in his early death but this has never been proved, one way or the other.
Driscoll's boxing career was exemplary - apart from one occasion. This was when he was matched against Freddie Welsh. The spoiling tactics of Welsh so infuriated Driscoll that by the tenth round he had totally lost his composure and headbutted his opponent. Quite rightly, Jim Driscoll was disqualified.
The advent of World War One interrupted Driscoll's boxing career. Like thousands of others he joined up and was employed as a PTI during the war years.
After the war he attempted to re-start his career but ill health was already dogging him. He fought only three more times, finally retiring in 1919.
Driscoll never forgot his roots and remained inordinately fond of his home town. He used to train at the Cardiff Boys Club at the bottom of St Mary's Street - for many years there was a statue of him on the site - and was a great supporter of the Nazareth House Orphanage.
In the years after the war he contracted consumption and his final days were a desperate battle against this dreaded disease. It was a fight he was to eventually lose, dying on 25 January 1925.
Peerless Jim Driscoll, as he was known throughout the boxing world, remains one of the great Welsh sporting heroes.
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