The Great & Forgotten Tommy West and His Wars with the Barbados Demon

By Matt McGrain on October 22, 2012
The Great & Forgotten Tommy West and His Wars with the Barbados Demon
A glance at Walcott’s record indicates the high regard in which Tommy West was once held.

They breed them tough in the valleys; the mining towns where before was the even more brutal law of farm or die…

As a Scotsman this is not an easy thing to say, but Wales has perhaps the proudest history in all of boxing. Currently, just over three-million people reside in Wales, rather fewer than reside in Iowa and millions fewer than reside in Scotland—forty-five million fewer than live in England. Nevertheless, the Welsh can dominate any list of the greatest fighters to hail from the United Kingdom. You could arguably cram Jimmy Wilde, Jim Driscoll, Joe Calzaghe and Freddie Welsh into a top ten leaving the other countries that make up the union to squabble over just six remaining places. They breed them tough in the valleys; the mining towns where before was the even more brutal law of farm or die. None of these men, however talented, however brilliant, were as tough as Tommy West.

Nor can any of them match his best, for at his best, West beat one of the most formidable fighters ever to draw breath, a man so savage he was nicknamed for Hell, The Barbados Demon Joe Walcott, the defining blood and guts warrior for the generation that defined blood and guts. If you want to ask which of these great Welsh fighters grabbed the best scalp, the answer is West. To do it, he had to endure the unendurable and outfight a short stick of granite weighing in under the welterweight limit that had slugged it out and won against Joe Choynski, a puncher that flattened heavies with terrifying regularity; had fought on even terms with a larger Sam Langford; and who, in spite of a sometime vulnerability to the greatest boxers in the world had thrashed a number of them, including Young Peter Jackson and Mysterious Billy Smith, even boxing a draw with the peerless defensive genius Joe Gans. Heavyweight contenders, brilliant lightweights and anything in between, Walcott hunted them down and broke them in half. He may be the greatest puncher to have ever lived.

Tommy West first tangled with him in January of 1894 in what seemed to be little more than an exhibition won handily by Walcott over the then twenty-one-year-old Welshman although it is was reported in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle that West landed only one punch of note—and broke his arm. Despite this setback, 1894 seems to have been something of an arrival for West, who suffered no more recorded defeats and was engaged as a sparring partner for some notables, amongst them Joe Choynski, Mysterious Billy Smith and, intriguingly, Barbados Joe Walcott. By 1896, West was being labelled by some as the Midwest’s premier middleweight due to solid work done throughout ’95 in the state of Illinois, but what was to be his breakout year did not begin auspiciously for the Cardiff man as he was bounced off the canvas six times on the way to a humiliating two round loss to the great light heavyweight, Kid McCoy. It should be pointed out that McCoy was on a thirty-five fight unbeaten streak that would carry him all the way to heavyweight contender Tom Sharkey in 1899, but West was understandably discouraged. It is also understandable that when Walcott’s opponent for his December ’96 engagement, Dick O’Brien, pulled out at the last minute, they hunted down West to replace him. 

Tough, but not too tough. Good, but not too good. 

So last minute was West’s substitution that the crowd only received the news when they arrived at Boston’s Marlborough Club, many walking out in protest, while those that remained booed lustily into the eighth round as sporting men offered one another 20-1 on a West victory. These odds were not generous.  West was barely in the fight and it was speculated—not for the last time with these two in the ring—that Walcott was holding back from delivering the knockout blow as a disorganized West tried desperately to overcome his apparent stage fright during the first few rounds. Walcott showed disdain for his opponent, splitting his nose with jabs in round two and grabbing him “by the neck” and throwing him to the floor in third accord to The Saint Paul Globe, but his punching seemed limited to jabs to the face and rights to the body. According to that same newspaper, West drew a share of the fourth and fifth rounds whilst The San Francisco Call disagrees, naming the seventh the first round where West is able to impose himself, but both papers agree that by the end of the eighth round, Walcott was spitting blood as West introduced what was to be the defining punch in their long series: his straight left. 

West had overcome his stage fright and recognized two things. Firstly, he held a serious reach advantage over the legend with which he shared the ring. Secondly, that legend was mortal, evidenced by the blood West himself had drawn from him. After the ninth, a round awarded to the late substitute by most sources, the crowd came to its feet and roared him on, as they would for the rest of the fight. According to the Daily Eagle, “Thereafter it was a case of continual ineffectual rushing by Walcott and well placed jabs by West.” The excellent CyberBoxingZone acknowledges West’s toughness but writes him off as “not a polished boxer.” This is how he is generally regarded by boxing history’s eye, if he is regarded at all. This is an underestimation. West was a superb boxer, an adaptable counterpuncher who was about to develop a special line in hybrid pressure-fighting and defensive control of range.

Just how well it would serve him against Walcott became apparent in the thirteenth when, after blocking a series of right hand swings, he double-jabbed the Demon back to the ropes and “caused his knees to buckle” (Daily Eagle) with a “right-hand hook to the jaw” (New York Sun).

By the sixteenth Walcott looked desperate and he twice shoulder-charged West, who, by far the coolest man in the house, jabbed his man back into position even as the crowd rose as one to claim a foul. Walcott was swinging wildly now whilst West sent in lefts and rights to his unprotected head. In the seventeenth, the incredible realization of the pressure West had brought to bear against his all-time great opponent on just two hours’ notice seemed near, as West first forced him back, then dropped him to the canvas with a chopping right hand, laying him out “flat on his back” according to The Sun. “It looked like a knockout,” wrote The Daily Eagle, “but Walcott rose weakly and saved himself by staying close until the gong sounded.” The Call wrote that he was “saved by the bell.”

West’s tactics of jabbing and moving coupled with determined countering to almost every punch Walcott had landed since the tenth round had brought him to the cusp of what would have been, and likely would have remained until Mike Tyson’s stoppage by Buster Douglas, the most sensational knockout win in boxing history but it was not to be. Walcott showed the stuff that makes a great in the eighteenth, determinedly and doggedly stalking West to the body whilst shipping punishment to the head. Although he likely lost the round, he renegotiated rules of engagement to something that suited his stature, protecting his own body, denying West the variety that had defined his attack. 

At the beginning of the nineteenth round the two shook hands ring center. This is important because it was speculated in some quarters that Walcott was spared what should have been the final round, the twentieth, due to his by then desperate condition. The fact that the fighters met as though for the final round before the nineteenth suggests that negligence rather than a more nefarious influence saved Walcott from having to box that twentieth round. Whatever the details, both the timekeeper and referee signalled the end of the fight at the end of nineteen, a decision protested by neither man. A draw was the result.

Would that extra three minutes have been enough for West? It’s impossible to know, but what is sure is that a man regarded in some quarters as a “third-rater” going in was now regarded as one of the world’s best. A career high payday of $500 was now the tip of the iceberg—and a rematch was all but guaranteed.

It came sooner rather than later. Walcott took a month out then boxed a tame six-rounder with Bobby Dobbs before resting a further two months. West knocked out the more formidable Charley Johnson in seven rounds and in March the two were brought together for a third time, once again in New York but this time at the Broadway. “Stonewall” West had by now earned both the respect of the boxing press as well as a boxing nickname to be proud of and Walcott opened as only a 2-1 favorite. Quite the re-dress given the odds for their second encounter, but it was not enough. The San Francisco Call:

“Tommy West…defeated Joe Walcott, the hitherto invincible welterweight…Walcott was giving away a lot of weight and though he fought gamely, his colors were fairly lowered. He was badly punished whilst West had not a mark.”

Those who today paint West as a tough lacking in skill need to pay heed especially to the last line. Joe Gans himself did not the job that West did in March of ’97 of neutralizing Walcott’s unparalleled offense and nor had any fighter, not even the great Kid Lavigne, laid quite so much leather upon him. It was not a close fight.

Unfettered by the nerves that had hindered him the second fight, he lay down a marker in the very first round, “West staggered Wolcott [sic] with a beautiful left smash in the jaw, which sent the colored boy through the ropes.” (The Sacramento Record-Union). Settling into his game plan in the second, West sought the smaller man’s body before moving off as Walcott attempted a counter-rush and jabbed on the break every time Walcott clinched. When the Demon began his pursuit in the third he used a more educated pressure, but over and again West was able to counter him with the right hand. If Walcott landed during infighting, West hopped back onto his bike, slashing out with that tormenting left. When trapped on the ropes as he was in the fourth, the Welshman relied on that tough streak to get him out of trouble, going like-for-like with the great puncher, generally targeting the mouth. Joe was setting “a lightning pace” according to The New York Sun, but West, although boxing more conservatively, was having the better of these rounds. Blocking and heavy countering matched to brilliant footwork being used to dictate range kept him out of serious trouble whilst allowing him to lead often as Walcott struggled to impose himself. A sudden rush nearly cost him dear in the ninth, when after landing a pair of hard lefts upstairs Walcott ran onto a hard counter-right and “clinched to save himself” (The Sun).

In the eleventh, Walcott finally forced West to flat-out fight in earnest and they traded brutally through the fourteenth, but the fighting was very even and it was West, not Walcott, who “pounded his man almost to a standstill” (The San Francisco Call) in the thirteenth. In the fourteenth, Joe was warned for fouls and with the 3,000 strong crowd bellowing its approval, West began to take over. Driving home two right hands after staving off a roaring assault at the opening of the fifteenth, West staggered Walcott for the third time in the fight. Walcott seemed positively desperate in the seventeenth, trying to retake the role of aggressor on the inside, but West outfought him even there, bringing blood gushing from his nose. Although he finished the twentieth “full of fight” according to more than one newspaper report, Walcott had been beaten out of sight and the Brooklyn Eagle detected not a dissenting voice when West’s arm was raised in victory.

It was an astonishing victory, a near-domination of a fighter who would never be so completely defeated again in such a manner. So wide was the margin of victory that some historians have questioned the validity of the decision. If there was foul play at work it included not only the fighters and referee but also the 3,000 strong crowd who greeted the decision with unbridled joy, among them District Attorney Alcott, who was sitting ringside and declared that he saw “nothing to find fault with” where the fight was concerned. Nor was there any whiff of uncertainty concerning the decision in any of the day-after newspaper reports seen by this writer. Controversy did lie ahead, however.

Though there was some speculation in the press that the beating Walcott absorbed would mean the end of his career, at least atop of what was an astounding pound-for-pound heap, it takes more than a mauling from even the sturdiest of Welsh pit-bulls to keep a fighter like Walcott down. The following year, the two would be matched again. Walcott would suffer another setback before then, retiring after twelve in a rematch with Kid Lavigne, cramps apparently costing him as he struggled to force his squat frame into the 135 lb. class for a final time. West, for his part, was the busier of the two, a newspaper decision over Jack Bonner the highlight. Looking to form, West was to be favored, but it was Walcott who dominated the six-round fight and seemingly at something of a canter, using maximized aggression in tandem with a savage a body attack and his new pet punch, a tight right uppercut on the inside. According to The New York Sun, West did not win a round, though other reports have it a slightly closer affair.

Nevertheless, memories of West’s unheralded domination of the later rounds in the two longer fights between them would not go away and so six months after his astonishing knockout victory over Joe Choynski, Walcott was matched with West once more. It was to be one of the most controversial fights of the era. 

Whatever West’s reputation now, it is clear it was very different in his own time as The Washington Times preview of the fight described him as “clever middleweight Tommy West.” 

“In their respective careers neither man has met a tougher opponent than the other,” was the pre-fight opinion of The New York Sun. A glance at Walcott’s record is enough to indicate the high regard in which West was by now held—it was also the first time he would start as a betting favorite.

But not for the first time, these two appeared to be on their way to shaking off those odds. Walcott fought aggressively with the rushes that West had become so adept at countering, but he was tending to throw only one or two punches at a time rather than trying to force West to exchange. This limited the Welshman’s countering opportunities. “Walcott took his time for a change,” wrote The Washington Times of the sixth round. “West prodded him in the body with the left. Walcott smashed West in the body and Tommy bounded off a ringpost.” Walcott seems to have found a way to force West to lead more before he was ready to do so. In each of their longer fights, West had put off leading until Walcott was depleted and unable to take advantage of his own countering opportunities. Now the Demon was pressuring the space as much as the man and West no longer held tactical superiority. By the end of the tenth, he was in trouble. The Saint Paul Globe:

“There was plenty of infighting in the tenth and Walcott seemed to revel in this kind of work. West stabbed him in the face twice with the left and cut Walcott’s mouth…Walcott got West to the ropes and put two hard lefts into the body, right in the pit of the stomach. These blows sent West to his corner much weakened.”

But at the beginning of the twelfth, Walcott refused to take his feet, claiming an injured arm. It was a claim he would make again in his career, against Honey Melody (LTKO12) and Frank Childs (LTKO3), and although we don’t concern ourselves here with the legitimacy of those injuries, they are overshadowed by the verdict surrounding his quitting against West. Referee Charley White:

“Walcott was not injured. He quit deliberately and it was my candid, confirmed opinion that he was actuated in quitting by some dishonest motive. I believe Walcott was encouraged to act as he did by some persons closely connected with him.”

Strong words, but they were supported by the ringside physician who also dismissed Walcott’s supposed injury. Whatever the value, West now held a second win over Walcott. Perhaps it is no less than he deserved given the shortening of their second fight from nineteen rounds to twenty in a fight he was dominating. After all, a big final round may have made a difference in that fight.

Walcott did extract some measure of revenge from West, beating him in London over fifteen rounds in 1902, but by this time Tommy was all but washed up having fought in March of 1901 one of the most brutal bouts in boxing history. His June of ’98 confrontation with the great Tommy Ryan was as horrific as anything that had gone before. In a terrifying seventh round Ryan’s lips were split, West’s nose was broken, his right eye was closed, his forehead was split open in two places as was his cheek. According to one newspaper “West’s corner looked like a slaughterhouse, so much so that some persons near the ring were nauseated and had to leave.” The Welshman had come within a single second of true boxing immortality in the second round as he twice decked Ryan, once for the count of nine. The middleweight championship of the world was on the line. But Ryan, every bit as special as Walcott in his own way, boxed back, all but tearing West’s face from his skull with the precision punching that made him great. The fight, unquestionably amongst the greatest of all time, rumbled on into the seventeenth round, both men crimson in one another’s blood until no less savage a personage than Terry McGovern tossed in the sponge, protecting West from further punishment in his role as second. 

And so West became the ultimate nearly man. Twice within a punch of stopping the unstoppable Walcott he was also a fraction of a second from lifting the middleweight title. On such slender cogs do boxing legacies turn. But those savage victories over The Barbados Demon taken in tandem with his heroic efforts versus Ryan and several draws with Billy Smith speak of a fighter worth remembering rather than one so easily forgotten. West will likely never be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but perhaps we can acknowledge that there are one or two who have been that he could have spanked.

And of course, one that he did. 

Matt McGrain is a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings board.

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  1. Springs Toledo 03:50pm, 11/05/2012

    Bravo, Matt McGrain. Where have you gone, Tommy West?

  2. Santa Cruz Jim Crue 06:53am, 10/23/2012

    Another great story. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Matt McGrain 04:57am, 10/23/2012

    hahahahaha yeah i’ll second that

  4. Pete The Sneak 04:39am, 10/23/2012

    Matt, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If they taught History like this back in High School, I would not have had to attend sumer school every year to pass the damn thing. Heck, I think I would’ve aced the sucker. Great story and read. Keep em’ coming man. Peace.

  5. Matt McGrain 03:43am, 10/23/2012

    Tough is one word for it friend.  “West prodded him in the body with the left. Walcott smashed West in the body and Tommy bounded off a ringpost.”  West’s fourth confrontation with Walcott, where The Demon seemed to find a solution was a terrible ordeal for the Welshman.  Only the sheer hell Ryan inflicted upon him overhauls it as a bad day at the office.  Taking to the ring with these guys on a total of eight occasions is insane, however well he did in some of those encounters.  West makes the great (to me) Gatti seem like a bit of a softcock by comparison and I don’t know if I’ve seen a ballsier fighter than Arturo box in colour.

  6. Mike Casey 01:14am, 10/23/2012

    The great Walcott was indeed a demon - and Tommy West was a great fighter too who must never be allowed to disappear in the mists of time. Nice article, Matt - and a sober reminder of how tough these guys had it!

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