Tommy West-Tommy Ryan III: The Most Vicious Bout in Boxing History


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By Matt McGrain

It was reported in the early days of 1905 that former welterweight and middleweight contender Tommy West was shot five times by a man named Paul Mullan in a dispute about boxing no less. He survived and lived for another quarter of a century.

Undoubtedly former welterweight and middleweight champion Tommy Ryan, one of the greatest fighters of his and perhaps any other era, heard of West’s misfortune and although his reaction is unrecorded, it can be stated almost undoubtedly that Ryan did not number among those to have registered surprise at his survival.

Ryan had already tested West with artillery.

West stood those bombardments like a lighthouse in a storm. Born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1873, by the early 1890s he was fighting for pay in and around Boston and Portland, Oregon, as he tried to master the savagery that so suited his warlike heart. His incomplete record reports early tussles with so many top names as to make him seem an experienced fighter in his prime: the vicious “Mysterious” Billy Smith; the terrifying “Barbados” Joe Walcott; the huge punching Joe “The Terror” Choynski; the brilliant Charles “Kid” McCoy. West’s results against this massed rank of genius were not good, but it is hard to imagine that any fighter in all of boxing history fought so intense an apprenticeship. It carved a fighter out of rock, as tough as the ancient slate of his home-country. Battered, cut, strafed relentlessly by a series of murderous opponents, here was a man ready to take it to give it.

So well learned were these lessons that West, surprisingly and unfairly lost to history for the most part, became perhaps the chief dance partner to the deadly Walcott, who remains a name mentioned among the most feared punchers of all time. He even bested “The Barbados Demon”, a man Ryan failed to meet, on two occasions.

West, in pursuit of money and glory, would fight literally anyone. It was inevitable, then, that he would cross fists with Ryan.

By any measurement, Ryan is one of the very finest boxers to have lived. For a decade he had an argument for being the best in the world pound-for-pound, beginning in 1891 when he lifted the world’s welterweight championship before departing for the middleweight division, where he also became a champion.

West ran him as close as anyone and was only a second away from taking his middleweight title.

They met for the first time in 1898 at the Lenox Athletic Club in New York City. West, by this point, was in his prime. In 1896 he had boxed a draw with Joe Walcott; in 1897 he went one better and bested the Demon. By the time he took to his training camp for Ryan I, down in Coney Island, he was noted as both a maker and breaker of greats.

Ryan trained in his hometown of Syracuse.

Astonishingly, West seemed the favorite among gamblers; they felt that his “great punching abilities, his cleverness and his gameness” would see him win out. In part, this was due to the sense, erroneous, that Ryan had “gone back.” In truth the then middleweight champion was in the midst of an unbeaten run that stretched back to 1896 and would continue into 1901. West was likely not helped in his bid to best the champion by a bizarre training camp incident two days before the fight. West was training with a wrestler, not unusual in that time, but this particular wrestler was apparently less than pleased with supposed liberties taken in sparring and “took up a club and beat West over the head with it.” West reassured press that the trouble would “not interfere” with his forthcoming business with Ryan.

Ryan meanwhile arrived comparably intact the afternoon before the twenty round contest and quietly made a display of his condition which was reported as perfect. This may have been the determining factor. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported a case of an “extremely scientific boxer, who was in condition, against a slugger, who was out of condition.” Ryan needed that conditioning. After lively early exchanges defined by Ryan’s left hook to the body, he was dropped twice by West in the eighth, first by a straight left and then in one of the many hotly contested and foul-ridden clinches; “he came up laughing” according to one report and rushed West, driving him to the ropes and then through them with a right hand; West was up at two but the fight was to all intents and purposes decided in that savage round.

“Ryan made a chopping block of West in the thirteenth and fourteenth round,” reported The New York Tribune. It was Ryan’s feared precision that did the damage in those final two rounds as he targeted over and again the injuries he had inflicted. In an unusual turn, the referee rescued the Welshman from further punishment.

West was much admired in the aftermath for the heart he had shown, an attribute valued even more then than now; but the fight was neither well attended nor close and Ryan’s superiority had been clearly demonstrated. Nevertheless, a strange thing happened: not one, but two rematches were staged.

The first, just six months later and was little more than a spar. The crowd booed, the fighters hugged it out, and reporters spat venom in single paragraph articles decrying the two as timewasters.A no-contest was the result. That the trilogy should be completed seemed unlikely in the extreme but West forced Ryan’s hand the old fashioned way – by winning.

Between their first fight and their third, he fought eighteen combats and lost just two, to future heavyweight challenger Jack Root and to the wonderful light-heavyweight Jack O’Brien, both over the six round distance. Neither result hurt him,and wins over the likes of Dan Creedon and Joe Walcott (who withdrew with a suspicious injury) elevated him. Ryan, meanwhile, was running out of challengers to his middleweight crown. The fight was made for March 4th, 1901 and was to be staged in Louisville.

West, by now wearing the moniker “Stone Wall” trained locally and no assaults against his person were recorded. His conditioning was perfect and so was a match for Ryan, who trained an hour away in West Baden.

Once more the two men spent the first round feeling each other out and once again Ryan deployed a body attack in an attempt to neutralize West’s aggressive rushes, but whereas the challenger had struggled to resist that early violence in their first contest, here the weeks of training made a difference. Ryan had run into the Stone Wall. In the second round West deposited the champion to the canvas once again, but this time Ryan did not laugh. In fact, some reports have him “almost out”, including The Saint Paul Globe, which wrote that “Ryan took the full count.”

He recovered, he rallied.

Here then was the poised classic, the irresistible force and the immovable object. Ryan, brilliant, had spent years dominating what was placed before him using a combination of footwork and accurate punching to break resistance. West was cruder but was more thoughtful, I think, than he was generally given credit for by this point in his career. When they turned to the savagery that had defined the eighth round of their first fight two rounds earlier in this, their third, it was Ryan who emerged with the first wound, a split cheek. Blood poured from the cut and by the round’s end “his breast was crimson” according to the wire report. What was to become perhaps the most vicious title fight in history had begun in earnest.

Either at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh, one of the booming right hands West used as a perpetual equalizer against more skilled opposition landed flush on Ryan’s nose and more blood flowed. West, unmarked, must have looked upon his red-smeared opponent and begun to imagine the belt at his waist; but just as West is perhaps a little undersold as a boxer, Ryan is perhaps undersold as a blood and guts warrior. He steeled himself and by the end of that seventh round West was nursing a broken nose. One eye already closing courtesy of the stinging Ryan jab, he found himself in as desperate a situation as it is to imagine for a fighter of his kind: hurt, bleeding, and at the mercy of a laser-guided puncher who could land a hook on a humming-bird.

It is unclear when those spectators directly at ringside began to feel nauseated by the bloodbath unfolding before them but it is a fact that a number of them left the Louisville Auditorium nursing queasy stomachs before the fight was finished. It may have been around the end of the eighth. By then, Ryan’s lip had been split and West was evacuating his veins as though Ryan had opened an artery. He wore two livid gashes on his forehead and his right cheek had been ripped open.

Between rounds, the ring announcer was shepherding the blood around the ring with a mop.

Violence attracts violence. At some point around the tenth then featherweight champion Terry McGovern, perhaps the most concentrated vessel for violence ever seen in a boxing ring, climbed the steps and began to advise West upon tactics. If anyone had the stomach for such an abattoir it was he.

It is likely that the wire report’s claim of “a dozen wounds” decorating West’s countenance is exaggerated, but The Topeka State Journal reported that his corner resembled “a slaughter pen” and that the two men fought in “pools of blood.” All eyewitnesses agree that by the twelfth both men were “covered in blood.” They fought on.

But this was Ryan’s game. In the first contest he had targeted West’s injuries which were far from as gruesome; here he targeted West’s nose mercilessly. West bulled forwards and in, winging and raging at his man, but he did not have Ryan’s unerring jab and Ryan’s wounds went, for the most part, unpunished. As West returned to his corner he was shadowed by the ring announcer who swabbed the area around his feet even as fresh blood fell.

There is an intriguing suggestion that by the seventeenth round, Ryan himself was beginning to fade but West’s condition was desperate. He felt for Ryan in a fog, lashing out at his tormentor when hit and feeling for him in clinches. A figure emerged from the spit-buckets and copper ringside, sponge in hand. It was Terry McGovern. He stepped to the ropes and raised a hand. He may have hesitated. He was, after all, more accustomed to seeing the most terrible sights the ring had to show than any white man in history. In the end though, he tossed up the sponge. A relieved and blood-soaked referee stepped between them and announced Ryan the winner. The surface of the canvas was covered from corner to corner in blood formerly belonging to both men.

“I did the best I could,” a stricken West told the crowd after his rescue. “But in the last two rounds I was almost blind and could barely see where Ryan was.”

The modern ring is sanitized in comparison to this madness.West’s show of resilience and durability will never now be overhauled and even in that pre-World War One era there is little to compare; the awful condition Stanley Ketchel finished his single loss to Billy Papke in comes to mind, but little else. But he is not just a brave loser. A close look at West’s resume reveals an undervalued fighter who matched many of the very best of his era at three different weights and he was rarely embarrassed. More often superstar opposition, win, lose, or draw, fixed him with a queer look and hoped, perhaps, not to be set the task of breaking him again. Tommy Ryan put it best and is deserving of the last word.

“Tommy West is a great fighter,” he told pressmen as he nursed his own injuries and a broken right hand. “Much better than I thought.”

Painting: : "In the Slaughter House" by Lovis Corinth (1893)

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Great article, Matt about two largely forgotten fighters. By the way, when are we going to get the fifty best bantamweights and the Lord of the flies?