Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Was Freddie Welsh the Great Gatsby?

Was the inspiration for The Great Gatsby really a boxer from Pontypridd? That's the fascinating theory posited by Andrew Gallimore in Occupation Prizefighter: The Freddie Welsh Story.

Gallimore's biography of Wales' first boxing world champion is a terrific read with the author unearthing many new facts about the enigmatic pugilist. We learn of his essentially middle-class upbringing; his precarious life as a hobo in north America; and his arduous struggle to become lightweight champion of the world.

All the great scraps are covered in detail: his win over Abe Attell; his infamous domestic dust-up with Peerless Jim Driscoll; the world title triumph over Willie Ritchie; battles with Ad Wolgast; and ultimate defeat to the great Benny Leonard.

We see Welsh changing his name, reinventing himself as an intellectual boxer who enjoyed reading Ibsen and Maeterlinck. We learn of his idiosyncrasies - his vegetarianism and friendship with an alternative lifestyle guru. But most of all we see him win fame through sheer hard work and strength of will.

When Welsh loses his world title we observe the flip side. The rapid disappearance of glamorous acquaintances. The painful slide back to obscurity and poverty. And tragically for Welsh, death in a squalid hotel room in Hell's Kitchen. Welsh's story is, of course, the classic pursuit of the American Dream and what happens when it all turns sour.

But what of the link between Welsh and The Great Gatsby?

F Scott Fitzgerald certainly met Freddie Welsh and is said to have sparred with him for 3 rounds. They also had a mutual friend in the writer Ring Lardner. There are superficial similarities between Welsh and the character of Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald's most celebrated novel - both are sportsmen; both changed their names and reinvented themselves; both rose from nowhere to become wealthy; both lived on Long Island in luxurious properties; both had intellectual pretensions; and both had extensive libraries.

The clincher for Gallimore though concerns an auto crash Welsh suffered in 1924. The person he exchanged details with was one Myrtle Wilson. If you've read The Great Gatsby (1925) you'll know the denouement features a car crash in which a certain Myrtle Wilson is killed. It's intriguing stuff.

Gallimore's exhaustively researched biography is the first proper account of a teenager who left Pontypridd and conquered the fistic world. In a career largely conducted in America - where historically British fighters have proved notoriously fallible - Welsh beat every major Stateside challenger on his journey to the top. You'd be hard pushed to find a British boxer who has been more successful in Uncle Sam's backyard. Occupation Prizefighter tells the full story for the first time and whether you're a fight fan or just interested in the Jazz Age you'll enjoy this book.

Occupation Prizefighter: The Freddie Welsh Story by Andrew Gallimore is published by Seren.