Words such as 'great' and 'legend' are all too often misused by scribes seeking to venerate the latest sporting sensation. Few sportsmen or women truly deserve such lustrous accolades; in an age dominated by hype it's easy to lose perspective on the achievements of the people who perform for our entertainment. But one man from boxing's past who fully deserves the lavish praise still rightly thrown his way is the incomparable Welshman Jimmy Wilde.
Often conceding more than a stone, this pale-faced, fragile-looking former pit boy – too small even to be a fully fledged flyweight – demolished the finest fly and bantamweights of his day. He scored a century of inside-the-distance wins from 134 victories (and just four losses) in 148 recorded fights. Few boxers of any country or era commanded a nation's respect like Wilde. The loss of his world flyweight crown to Filipino great Pancho Villa, in June 1923, broke the hearts of fight fans all over Britain.
This isn't a piece about Wilde, however, but one of his devoted fans. A fellow fighter who admired the little Welshman so much that he threw away his own domestic prospects to travel to America, in the hope of bringing Wilde's world crown back home.
Six years younger than Jimmy Wilde, Frank Walter Ash was born in the seaport city of Plymouth, Devon on 27 June 1898. Home of the nationally renowned Cosmopolitan gymnasium – a barn-like arena on Mill Street, affectionately dubbed 'the Old Cosmo' – there were few better places for an aspiring British pugilist to be born. Surprisingly, however, despite attending fight shows at the Old Cosmo, Ash, initially at least, showed little interest in entering the ring himself. His start in the game arrived in unusual fashion at the commencement of World War I, as Ash recalled:
'A couple of my pals joined the Royal Marines. I thought I would like to do the same, so applied for a post as a drummer. I was nearly 16 years old, but well under five feet tall. The drum-major took a look at me and told me to join a gymnasium to build myself up, then I could enlist. So I joined a club, where it was customary for a new member to try his hand at boxing on the first day.'
Accordingly Ash laced on gloves for the very first time and surprisingly trounced his trial opponent. So impressed were the club owners that they tried to persuade him to box at the Cosmopolitan the next night. But Frankie refused, insisting, 'my mother wouldn't let me'. He was pencilled in anyway, and had his first bout – a 'midget' match – over four rounds.
Some sources state that Frankie won his first fight, but his first recorded contest is a defeat to Sam French's Nipper, another local lad, on 27 June 1914. At any rate, this loss was no real setback, for Ash soon notched up a string of local wins, and before long was boxing at Covent Garden's illustrious National Sporting Club.
That was in February 1916, a six-rounder against Tommy Davies (Treherbert) on the undercard of Jimmy Wilde's famous British and world flyweight title clash with Plymouth's Joe Symonds, another Old Cosmo graduate. Wilde beat Symonds but Ash lost to Davies, though he whipped him in a return a month later.
Rise to fame
After that it was mostly wins for Frank Ash, and during the next few years he beat future European featherweight champion Billy Matthews, future British and European bantamweight champion Harry 'Bugler' Lake, and top-liners such as Kid Kelly, Dick Heasman, George Garrard and Teddy Murton. Ash, by then West of England flyweight champion, capped off 1923 with two consecutive wins over top Liverpudlian Billy Hindley.
Ash was high in the running to contest the British flyweight title (left vacant by Jimmy Wilde), and so had every incentive to stay in Britain. But next came an announcement that astounded everybody: Ash said he would sail to America, win the right to fight Pancho Villa, then bring the world flyweight crown back to Britain.
Few gave Ash's ambition any credence. At that time there was only one world champion at each weight, and it was rare for a non-American to get a shot at a world title in the States. Unfazed, 25-year-old Frank left Plymouth aboard the SS Paris on 6 January 1924; and arrived at Ellis Island, New York exactly one week later. In his pocket was a letter of introduction from the Old Cosmo matchmaker to a trusted US agent, and pretty soon he was signed up under the management of Tom O'Rourke and Joe Jacobs.
Fight with a world champ
Determined to prove his worth from the off, Ash's first fight was no easy task: he was matched with former world bantamweight champion and American flyweight title-holder Johnny Buff who, though now slightly past his prime, was good enough to reveal whether the 'limey' would stand any chance against Villa. They met in Jersey City, Buff's home town, and the Britisher comfortably won a majority newspaper decision over 10 interesting rounds. The news was out now: this little English guy could box and was certainly no chump.
Wins over Victor S. Onge and Johnny Lear (Canadian champion) quickly followed, but Ash lost on points over six rounds to future world bantamweight king Bushy Graham. Two more wins – over Frankie Mason (Fort Wayne, Ind.) and Scotty McKeown (New Jersey) – put the Englander back on track, and – to the amazement of everyone back home – a world title fight with Jimmy Wilde's conqueror Pancho Villa was finally arranged for May 1924.
The fight was postponed once because of rain, and almost cancelled a second time when a group of locals sought an injunction to prevent the arena's promoters from holding the fight in the open air, claiming that such events brought undesirables to the area and depreciated property prices. But a Brookyn judge quashed the proposed injunction and the fight went ahead on 31 May.
Finally Pancho Villa
Much to the chagrin of adjacent property-owners, between 10,000 and 12,000 screaming fans braved the cold weather to cram into Brooklyn's outdoor Nostrand A.C. to witness the 15-round world flyweight title fight. What happened next, however, isn't entirely clear.
The Lewiston Daily Sun claimed that Pancho Villa won every round; but the Milwaukee Journal had Ash well in front at the half-way stage, from what it derisively described as 'sprinting backwards, fanning Villa's face softly with the left jab... a typical peek and poke man of the British school', which perhaps shows a lack of appreciation for Ash's more scientific methods. One thing the newspapers agreed upon was that Ash lacked a punch to trouble the champion. 'The Englishman boxed Villa at every turn,' wrote the Lewiston Daily Sun, 'and many times forced the Filipino to miss. His counters landed, but carried no force and Villa was able to meet his man wide open.'
The Filipino tried frantically for a knockout in the closing stanzas, was warned repeatedly for use of a 'back-hand' punch and for hitting after the bell; but, to the Englishman's credit, Villa could not put him down. Ash did well to avoid his foe's formidable punches, and proved skilful and plucky enough to make the champion fight at full pelt through every minute of every round. But, come the last bell, a verdict for Villa was the only one possible.
Ash remained in America for five more months and found his services in hot demand. He had seven more fights, including a draw with future world flyweight champion Corporal Izzy Schwartz, defeats to top-class men Amos 'Kid' Carlin and Benny Schwartz, and finally a brutal first-round KO loss to Panama Al Brown.
That was Frankie's last ever fight on US soil, and he returned to Britain determined to capture the British flyweight crown, which in his absence had been won by Elky Clark, in a match with Plymouth's Kid Kelly, whom Ash had actually beaten in 1923. But the Ash who returned to Britain seemed a shadow of the fighter who had left just months before. Incredibly, he won just one of his next 14 fights. Notwithstanding his rapid decline, he boxed on until 1933, but never again looked like challenging for British-title honours.
Life after boxing
At his best Frankie Ash was a highly skilled craftsman, capable of extending anyone in the world. But he failed to develop a punch with which to hurt the men at the top (he scored just two KOs in 77 recorded victories), and his boxing skills alone just weren't enough to win him a title. It seems he paid a price for cramming in too many hard fights against the world's toughest eight-stone men during his short US stay. Perhaps Ash's US managers were more concerned with money than their fighter's well-being. At any rate, he was never the same again.
After retiring from the ring Ash worked as a welder's mate on Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth, and served as a boxing instructor to several colleges and public schools.
One Christmas Frankie Ash collapsed from cold in the street and was rushed to hospital. Thereafter he entered a Plymouth care home, where he died in 1973.
A very good boy
'Just before I went to America,' Frank once recalled, 'a garage proprietor called at my home in Laira and asked me to take a look at one of the boys he employed; I went over in his car immediately. We had a couple of rounds and I said he would be a good boy, a very good boy.'
The 'boy' was Len Harvey, a future three-weight British champion and two-weight world-title challenger – one of Britain's cagiest and cleverest boxers ever. It was fitting that a ring technician such as Ash should be among the first to discover him.
Alex Daley is the author of 'Nipper: The Amazing Story of Boxing's Wonderboy'. Visit www.nipperpatdaly.co.uk for more information.