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Gunboat Smith

When coloured boxer Jack Johnson won the World Heavyweight Title from Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908, it started a race to find a white boxer to regain the title. In the early 1900s white people could not accept that a black man should hold the ultimate title of World Heavyweight Champion, so managers from around the globe went to work trying to find a white heavyweight to restore the Title to the white race.

Many managers came up with boxers from around the world, but most of them were easily exposed as useless inside the ring. And many of the hopefuls fell by the wayside very quickly, leaving only a few that might stand a chance of regaining the title to the white race.

A fighter out of Philadelphia in the USA by the name of Edward Smyth seemed to be one of the better prospects, better known by his fighting name of Gunboat Smith. He turned professional in 1909 and over the next three years climbed his way up the fistic ladder, winning far more than he lost and gaining experience on the journey. Over the next couple of years Gunner started to show he had learnt his trade well, beating some of the leading lights in the heavyweight division.

His first significant win was against Frank Moran on points over 20 rounds at the Dreamland Rink in San Francisco, then three months later knocking out Britain’s main heavyweight hope Bombardier Billy Wells in 2 rounds at Madison Square Garden. Gunner hit his peak in 1913 going undefeated against the world’s top boxers, including the likes of Jess Willard, George Rodel, Fireman Jim Flynn, Carl Morris and the great Sam Langford.

In 1914 Gunner form dipped alarmingly losing more than winning, dropping a fight to George Carpentier by disqualification in the 6th at Olympia in London. Sam Langford got his revenge with a knockout in three rounds and Battling Levinsky beat him on points. Gunner tried to rebuild his career and get back to his best, taking on lesser fighters to boost his confidence. But every time he stepped up to the more elite fighters he came up short, losing far more than he won, falling to fighters such as Jack Dillon, Kid Norfolk, Jack Dempsey, Billy Miske, Harry Greb and Harry Wills.

The Gunner retired in 1921 after 12 years of fighting, leaving a record of Won 81 Lost 45 Drew 14, a total of 141 bouts. Not a great record on paper, but one that becomes much more impressive when you take into consideration that he fought the very best of his era.

Gunner Smith died in 1974. I corresponded with him a year or so before he passed away but his wife use to write the letters for him as he suffered with arthritis in the hands. He did manage to sign a nice photograph and answer a few questions for me. He said the best he ever met was the great Sam Langford, in his words he said “The Best of All of Them.”

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