Pacquiao-Hatton: Sequel to epic fight
An exciting young Filipino icon, in America to seek fame and fortune in boxing, fights an immensely popular counterpart from the United Kingdom in a high-profile fight before a large crowd in a major U.S. city.
2009? No, 1923.
The Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton fight on May 2 in Las Vegas is a sequel to a legendary event that took place 86 years ago at the old Polo Grounds in New York City, where Hall of Famers Pancho Villa and Jimmy Wilde faced one another before more than 20,000 fans.
Some details differ. Villa, whose real name was Francisco Guilledo, was only 21 and not as established as Pacquiao is today. Unlike Hatton, Wilde, the “Mighty Atom,” was one of the greatest fighters of all time but past his prime.
But the magnitude of the event — which took place as The Golden Age of Sports was taking hold — was comparable.
“You have to realize how big boxing was then,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar. “You didn’t have to compete with other sports. There was baseball, period, end graph. ÔÇª And here comes Wilde. He hadn’t fought in two years yet people still believed in his old magic. He had 99 knockouts and weighed 99 pounds.
“By that time, he was old (31), used up. Villa had every advantage – age, size, he’d been more active. Take your pick. Yet it drew 20,000 outdoors in the middle of summer.”
Villa was born in 1901 in the central province of Negros Occidental only a few years after Americans introduced boxing to the Philippines during the occupation of the islands following the Spanish-American War.
The 5-foot-1 dynamo reportedly sailed to nearby Iloilo at 11 to find work but found boxing instead, later moving to the hub of the sport in Manila, where he won flyweight championships and caught the eye of Philippines-based promoter Frank Churchill because of his swarming style.
Villa, apparently named after the Mexican revolutionary, didn’t have Wilde’s power — he was 68-6-3, with 19 knockouts, going into the fight — but overwhelmed his opponents with aggression and had a sturdy chin. He was never knocked out.
In 1922, the famous promoter Tex Rickard, who could recognize an attraction halfway around the world, invited Villa to fight in the U.S. and he quickly developed a large following. That year, he stopped Johnny Buff to win the American flyweight championship and the future looked bright.
Meanwhile, in Wales, Wilde appeared to be at the end of a career that many believe to this day makes him the greatest British fighter ever.
As many fighters did, he started out battling all-comers in carnival booths even though he was only 5-foot-2¾ and weighed less than a 100 pounds. He reportedly fought more than 20 men – some twice his size – in a single day on many occasions.
As a professional boxer, he was without peer. He was 137-4-2 — with those amazing 99 knockouts — going into the Villa fight even though he almost always was at a weight disadvantage.
“Physically, he didn’t measure up,” said Patrick Myler, a British boxing historian and author. “He was a small flyweight. He had natural ability and ÔÇª astonishing power for such a little fellow. I think some descriptions of him are exaggerated. He has been made out to be a leprechaun; he wasn’t that small.
“He was diminutive, though, with tons of courage, skill and power.”
In 1923, Wilde still held the world flyweight title he had won seven years earlier. But the years of battle had taken their toll on the little man, who hadn’t fought since he was savagely beaten by much-heavier bantamweight champion Pete Herman in 1921.
Still, Rickard reportedly offered him a whopping $65,000 to defend his belt against the fast-rising Filipino at the Polo Grounds, the site of the famous Jack Dempsey-Luis Angel Firpo fight a few months later. Wilde couldn’t resist.
Alas, the 20,000 fans — many chanting “Villa! Villa!” throughout — witnessed a mismatch.
Wilde showed some of his celebrated boxing skill early in the fight but ultimately collapsed under the pressure of Villa’s relentless assault.
Villa put Wilde down with a crushing right hand at or after (depending on the source) the bell to end the second round, badly dazing the Welshman, but the veteran continued to slug with the younger, stronger man before finally falling flat on his face as a result of a vicious flurry and was counted out in the seventh.
Wilde never fought again.
“When I think about it, I get a tinge of sadness,” Myler said. “Wilde was past his best; he’d been out of the ring for quite a while. I don’t think it was a fight he should’ve taken. I’m sure there must’ve been a great amount of mourning over the decline of such a great fighter. ÔÇª
“He had a marvelous record, though. He’s considered the best British boxer of all time. Some people make noise about Joe Calzaghe but he couldn’t hold a candle to Wilde.”
In the Philippines, people apparently went bonkers. The country had never known a sporting hero like Villa and enthusiastically embraced him when he returned the following year. He was given a parade in Manila and was invited to the Malaca├▒ang Palace, where American Governor-General Leonard Wood hosted a reception.
He then returned to a hero’s welcome in Iloilo and his hometown in Negros Occidental, much as Pacquiao is received in his hometown of General Santos City.
Tragically, the euphoria was short lived. This reportedly is what unfolded:
Villa had returned to the U.S. to prepare for a fight against the great Jimmy McLarnin in San Francisco in the summer of 1925. In the days leading up the fight, he developed an ulcerated tooth yet went ahead with the bout. Somehow he survived 10 rounds and lost a decision.
Days later, he went to a dentist to have the bad teeth extracted and then ignored the dentist’s advice to rest, instead carousing with friends. Soon, the infection spread to his throat, which then degenerated into a more-serious infection called Ludwig's angina.
He was admitted to a hospital for surgery, slipped into a coma and died the next day, on July 14, 1925. He was 23.
“It’s difficult to compare fighters from different eras,” Myler said when asked to compare Villa and Pacquiao. “The trouble with Villa is that his career was cut short; he probably didn’t realize his full potential. I think he would’ve achieved a great deal more, though. It was tragic.”
Wilde lived a longer life but also met with a disturbing demise.
The great champion wrote a newspaper column for many years, often caustically deriding the modern fighters of that time. “He probably felt that no one measured up to himself or the boxers of his era,” Myler said with a laugh.
When he was 72, he was beaten up by a gang of thugs at a Cardiff, Wales, railway station, — undoubtedly going down swinging — and never fully recovered. He slipped into dementia in the final years of his life and died at 77 in 1969.
These aren’t the endings we would’ve wished for such heroes. Their spirits live on, though, as we look forward to another memorable battle between a dominating Filipino and a proud Briton.
Michael Rosenthal’s boxing column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]