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The dirtiest fighter ever

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The dirtiest fighter ever

by Ron Jackson

Billy Smith was one of the roughest, toughest welterweights that ever lived. A fighter in the true sense, he was described as unscrupulous and savage.

Smith, nicknamed Mysterious Billy, was born on 15 May 1871 in Little River, a fishing village in Nova Scotia. He was named Amos, but hated it and early in life started using the name Billy.

His first big time bout was in San Francisco on 7 January 1892, when he met Frank Purcell. (Some records have the name as Purtell and The Ring Record Book has a record of two Smith fights before this: against Ed Harvey and Frank Tebeau).

Smith was taught a boxing lesson by the bigger and more experienced Purcell, but lasted the full ten rounds.

Earlier, Paddy Duffy had become the first American welterweight champion. He reigned from 1888 until his death in 1890. Danny Needham claimed the title, but lost his claim in February 1891 when he was beaten over 76 rounds by Tommy Ryan. When Ryan withdrew before a rematch with Needham, claiming illness, Needham reclaimed the title.

Then, on 14 December 1892, Smith knocked out Needham and claimed the title, even though Ryan was considered as the champion. When news reached Massachusetts that Smith had won the championship, sports writers were baffled.

It was Capt AW Cooke who asked, "Who is this mysterious Billy Smith?" and the name stuck.

Smith then met Tom Williams of Australia in a fight billed as the "world's welterweight championship". It was staged in New York with a purse of $5 000, the winner receiving $4 500 and the balance going to the loser.

The crowd, estimated at 1 500, saw Smith knock out Williams in the second round and "Mysterious Billy Smith" was recognised as world welterweight champion. After his first wife's death, Billy became a heavy drinker who was not averse to saloon brawls. He also began to use dirty tactics in the ring.

Smith and Ryan both claimed the world title after they had fought to two draws. On 26 July 1894, they met for a third time for the welterweight championship. The bout was in Minneapolis, where referee Joe Choynski, a top heavyweight contender at the time, declared Ryan the winner after 20 rounds.

Smith's next important match was against Joe Walcott, "The Barbados Demon". They met in Boston in a fight scheduled for 15 rounds. Smith abused Walcott verbally, butted him repeatedly, wrestled and even shoved an elbow into his eye. The referee did not step in and the bout became even dirtier. Smith actually bit Walcott on the head and the fight ended in a draw.

After three minor fights, Smith signed for a return fight with Ryan. It was scheduled for 25 rounds, with the welterweight championship on the line. The police stopped the fight in the 18th round. It was announced as a draw, but the Ring Record Book listed it as a "no contest".

In January 1896, Smith went to England to set up a fight with Dick Burge, the best 140lb (63,50kg) fighter there. The bout never took place, but Smith easily beat Dido Plumb and Bill Husbands. Unable to arrange any more fights in England, he returned home to fight Kid McCoy, claimant to the world middleweight title.

The fight was set for 18 May 1896, even though Smith had to concede weight. Knees, heads and teeth were used freely, with Smith mostly to blame. The referee eventually put an end to the free-for-all and disqualified Smith.

After the McCoy fight, Smith met Billy Gallagher, who was known as a brawler. Both rushed in at the opening bell and within one minute the dirty stuff commenced.

When Gallagher clinched, Smith used a hip throw to shake him off. Instead of walking around his opponent, he stepped on his head. Smith said later he had not meant to hurt Gallagher; it was meant as a warning.

However, when an enraged Gallagher came at him, Smith repeated the hip throw and stepped on his opponent's face again. The police captain on duty said he would not tolerate such tactics and the referee declared the fight a draw.

This was not the end of it. When the fighters went to fetch their money for the fight a few days later, they met at the promoter's saloon and resumed the brawl.

Smith put Gallagher down with a punch to the head and put the boot in. Then he tried to chew his ear off. Only when someone threw hot water on them, the fighters broke up.

In his next fight Smith knocked out Jim Ryan while his opponent was on his knees. When the referee disqualified him, he knocked the referee cold.

Other reports said the referee was not knocked out, but retaliated and the police broke up the fighting and arrested Smith.

Smith was again matched with Ryan on 25 November 1896 and held his own for eight rounds. Then he lost his head. After fouling Ryan repeatedly in round nine, he was disqualified. Enraged, he took another swing at Ryan and grazed the referee's cheek. The police had to restore order.

Because his reputation started hurting his career, Smith tried to box clean against the ordinary Con Doyle, but broke his arm in the sixth round. He managed to see out the fight in considerable pain to salvage a draw.

He needed time to recover, but still got into some bar brawls and was charged with public drunkenness after spending time in jail.

Ryan had outgrown the welterweight class and the division had no champion. Smith and Matty Matthews were matched for the vacant title on 25 August 1898. For once Smith fought cleanly and in a one-sided fight he won a 25-round decision. Once again, he was acclaimed welterweight champion of the world.

He defended the title against Charley McKeever twice, and against Kid Lavigne, Frank McConnell and Joe Walcott in a fight advertised as being for the welterweight title before losing the crown to Matthews on a knockout in round 19 in April 1900.

He immediately returned to his old habits after not losing as a result of foul tactics for a year and a half. In a non-title fight with Jim Ferns, the referee disqualified him.

After a poor showing against Walcott, with his eyes partially closed and his right ear almost torn off, it was clear Smith was on the decline. He lost on fouls to Jimmy Handler, Jim Judge and Al Neil. In his last fight, on 21 July 1911, he once again lost on a foul - for the tenth time in his career.

His next fight involved guns. Walking down Third Street in Portland, a riverboat captain named Albert Loomis fired four bullets into Smith. He recovered and continued to run his boarding house; keeping out of trouble.

In 1915, at the age of 43, he tried to make a comeback. He failed when Jack Root stopped him in the sixth round.

With the advent of prohibition, he was forced to close his saloon. For the next ten years, he ran "Smith's Good Health Steam Baths". He lived with his third wife, Mae, and after prohibition opened a beer bar that he called "The Champions Rest". There he spent most of his remaining years.

Even in ill health, he knocked down a much bigger man in the pub before he became bed-ridden. He died in a Portland hospital on 15 October 1937.

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