Pancho Villa Was Dempsey In Miniature
By Mike Casey
He didn’t look like the explosive flyweight champion of the world
that boxing had come to know. What was wrong with Pancho Villa? His punches
lacked steam and he seemed uncharacteristically reluctant to seize the
initiative. This precocious young Irish kid called Jimmy McLarnin was jabbing
and moving and skating ahead on points.
The puzzled crowd at the Emeryville Ballpark in California
couldn’t quite understand what was unfolding.
Where was Villa’s famous dynamism? Where were the whirlwind
attacks and the bursts of ferocious punching that constituted his glorious
trademark? Pancho’s many thousands of fellow Filipinos in the crowd kept
awaiting the catalyst for the explosion that would set their great hero off and
see him sweep McLarnin away. It never came.
The connoisseurs knew that Jimmy McLarnin was much more than just
another young prospect. He was a revelation, a boy wonder who was still five
months shy of his nineteenth birthday and for whom great things were being
predicted. But Pancho Villa was surely a bridge too far for Jimmy at such a
tender stage in his career. Surely he couldn’t beat the great Villa, not even
with a six-pound weight pull.
Those in the know had been divided before the fight and now it
was the acknowledged dean of sports writers, Damon Runyon, who was beginning to
look as if he had picked a wrong ‘un.
“Pancho Villa is the best fighter of his weight in the world,”
Runyon had said. “He is even greater as a flyweight than Dempsey is as a
As a personal friend of Dempsey, it hurt Runyon to make that
comparison, just as it had hurt him to bet on Luis Angel Firpo against Jack
after being tempted by deliciously juicy odds.
But everyone got the gist of what Runyon was saying and few
doubted that Pancho Villa, a remarkable and charismatic ball of eclectic energy,
was an exceptional talent.
Great fighters can be beaten, however, and Eddie Graney believed
that Jimmy McLarnin was the man to beat Villa in the circumstances. Graney, one
of the foremost referees of the time, had watched both boys in sparring and
said, “No fighter can give McLarnin six or seven pounds advantage and expect to
win. That includes Pancho Villa, flyweight champion of the world.”
So it proved, with McLarnin boxing his way to a ten rounds points
victory that came as a major shock to the crowd at the Emeryville Ballpark.
Jimmy, for all his glowing potential and quick progress through the ranks, was
virtually unknown on the West Coast. He had been an overwhelming second choice
in the betting.
Such was the impact of his triumph that he and manager Pop Foster
were besieged by offers. Yet the lingering spectre of the sluggish and lethargic
Villa wouldn’t go away.
Nobody thought much of it in the early going as the 24-year old
champion sized up McLarnin and did little work. The consensus of the watching
fans was that they were merely watching the lull before the storm. Pancho looked
his usual sinewy and simmering lean self at 115lbs, while Jimmy was coming into
the ring at 121. Fighting bigger opponents was meat and drink to Villa, and his
supporters didn’t attach much importance to the weight difference.
Then the first disquieting signs became evident. There was
something wrong with the champion, something that was clearly evident in his
demeanour and movement, yet impossible to pinpoint. He was making no great
effort to engage McLarnin in what was quickly becoming an oddly quiet duel of
posing and feinting.
Villa’s slothfulness fooled even McLarnin’s cornermen for a
while. They advised Jimmy to hold back and box cautiously, being aware that
Pancho was a ‘flash fighter’ who would follow moments of quietness with sudden
and explosive bursts of punching.
McLarnin, with the impatience of youth, quickly grew tired of the
waiting game. Assuming the role of the aggressor, he jabbed Villa with long,
stinging lefts. Pancho seemed irritable and flustered and his work was ragged
and ill-timed when he was sufficiently riled to lash back at his youthful
tormentor. When Villa rushed, Jimmy’s defensive skills and fleet-footedness
would take him safely out of range. On more than one occasion, Pancho mistimed
his charge completely and fell into the ropes. He would often miss McLarnin with
two or three punches in succession.
Villa was but a shadow of the ferocious buzzsaw that had so
ruthlessly cut through the great Jimmy Wilde just two years before. Pancho’s
temperament was also betraying him as he became increasingly exasperated by his
failure to trap and hurt Jimmy. McLarnin was protecting himself well in the
clinches as he skilfully blocked Pancho’s attempted jolts to the kidneys.
It was all too much for the proud Villa, who finally lost his
temper in the fifth round as he missed with two rights and then back-handed
Jimmy in the face through sheer frustration. That infringement brought a stiff
warning from the referee, but it didn’t produce any improved or constructive
work from Villa as the great mystery continued.
Nobody had seen the Filipino sensation being so comprehensively
outmanoeuvred. He couldn’t outbox the Irish kid or even out-hit him. Jimmy kept
penetrating Pancho’s defence with spearing jabs and checking him with counter
The expectant Filipino contingent watched the rounds drift by in
confused disbelief, forever waiting for their Pancho to open up in earnest and
blow the young Irish upstart from the stage. In fact Villa might just have edged
the third round and that was his lot by the time the race had been run.
Jimmy McLarnin celebrated joyously and was swept off to a number
of victory parties. Pancho Villa said he didn’t feel well. Not too many people
believed the little fellow.
In fact he was suffering from a badly poisoned jaw after having a
wisdom tooth extracted and had not slept for the last two nights from its
terrible and persistent pain. The infection to the jaw had become so advanced
that the muscles had set and could only be relieved by a surgeon.
Famous old referee Billy Roche had a great affection for Pancho
Villa and his flamboyant fighting style. Commenting on the ultimately tragic
sub-plot to the McLarnin fight, Roche said: “Villa never should have been
permitted to go through with that bout. Just prior to the encounter, he had a
troublesome wisdom tooth extracted. Complications developed and Pancho entered
the ring a very sick lad.
“For ten gruelling rounds, he waded into the heavier McLarnin.
The decision went to McLarnin. Villa left the ring and returned to the dentist’s
chair. More teeth were extracted and Pancho was told to return the next day for
further treatment. Instead he threw a wild party, which lasted several days. The
wounded jaw was forgotten, neglected. Blood poisoning set in.
“Pancho, ordered to a hospital, refused to go. The condition
became acute and he was rushed to the operating table on which he died on July
“If Pancho Villa had a fault, it was that he was too game for his
At the hospital in San Francisco, Dr CE Hoffman reported that
Pancho had died under the anaesthetic. Hoffman was preparing to operate when
Villa’s heart stopped beating.
Billy Roche preferred to remember the vibrant and tireless little
killer of the ring who was born Francisco Guilledo and was a mere 80-pounder
when fight promoter and manager Frank Churchill discovered him in the
Recalled Roche: “Pancho Villa packed as much personality into his
little brown body as Jack Dempsey. The boy who popularised the Filipino fighter
was a little Manassa Mauler, a vicious, rip-snorting hooker who went fifteen
rounds at blinding speed and finished apparently as fresh as he started.
“A scant inch more than five feet, weighing 109 pounds at his
best, with a swarthy skin and coal black hair sleeked straight back after the
fashion of a Hollywood sheik, Pancho the Puncho looked more like a doll than a
fighter. But he was built like a Sandow, endowed with amazing strength and
My good pal and boxing analyst, Curt Narimatsu, from the Aloha
State of Hawaii, is a great and enthusiastic student of Pancho Villa. Curt is no
less an admirer of the fighting spirit of today’s Filipino tornado Manny
Pacquiao, but is quick to pour cold water on the suggestion that Manny is
Here is Curt’s assessment. “Pete Sarmiento, another Filipino
fighter and a peer of Villa, put it best when he said that Pancho’s greatest
assets were his speed and quickness. These are Manny Pacquiao’s best assets too,
but Villa was faster and quicker.
“Watch the film of Villa against Johnny Buff. Villa is a
lightning blur as opposed to Pacquiao’s easily discernible punch trajectory and
movement. No, the herky-jerky old film is not the reason for this. It is Pancho
Villa’s innate athleticism.
“Like Manny Pacquiao, Villa was resilient and punch-proof. Unlike
Manny, Pancho was outweighed by most of his foes. Lost in history is the
fountainhead of comparison between Villa and Gaudencio Cabanela. Like Villa, Cab
was outweighed by his Australian foes.
“Cab’s greatest asset was his speed. It’s a cliché, but Filipino/Pinoy
fighters are typecast as fighting chickens, quick movers but with no real power
or definitive wallop. This is a resonant stereotype throughout Asia.
“Villa and Cabanela reversed that myth and so does Manny Pacquiao.
All have wallop, providing that they are fighting guys of their own size.
“I rank Pancho Villa on the cusp of my Top 20 all-time
pound-for-pound greats, in the close company of Charley Burley, Jim Jeffries,
Barney Ross and Jimmy McLarnin.
“As a point of comparison, I would see Villa outboxing Ricardo (Finito)
Lopez in much the same way as Sugar Ray Leonard outboxed Randy Shields. We are
talking about a different calibre of speed and quickness.”
Curt Narimatsu’s mention of Pete Sarmiento is an interesting and
relevant reference. Pete was a fair old scrapper in his own right, packing an
incalculable number of official and unofficial fights into a hectic, twelve-year
career. He was good enough to take Villa all the way before dropping a fifteen
rounds decision to Pancho in their April 1922 fight in Manila. Like Villa,
Sarmiento’s appetite for life was as voracious as his appetite for fighting.
In 1943, long after his career and his money were spent, Pete was
working in a shipyard when he dropped a line to his old pal, Damon Runyon. Damon
quite obviously admired the Sarmiento spirit, writing: “Sarmiento was one of a
group of Filipino fighters who came to the United States in the mid-twenties to
display that racial tenacity and courage that only recently was demonstrated in
fire and blood on Bataan Peninsula.
“Sarmiento was a buzzsaw in action, noted for the fact that he
never clinched. He licked four world champions in non-title bouts, Joe Lynch,
Abe Goldstein, Eddie (Cannonball) Martin and Charley Phil Rosenberg, fought
upwards of 300 battles, made perhaps $300,000 and spent it all.”
The tireless Sarmiento fought some other notables too, including
Tony Canzoneri, Bud Taylor, Benny Bass, Memphis Pal Moore, Carl Tremaine and
Johnny Buff At Ebbets Field
After clearing up the competition in his native Philippines,
Pancho Villa came to America and immediately created excitement and glamour as
he swept to a series of impressive wins in New York and New Jersey. The only
real thorn in Pancho’s side as he steamed towards a championship fight with
Jimmy Wilde was Frankie Genaro, the little New York master possessed of
wonderful boxing ability.
There were not too many men, however, who could outsmart Villa.
Much like Dempsey, Pancho was equally adept at handling fellow punchers and
evasive cuties. Few were cuter than Johnny Buff, who had stepped up a division
to win the bantamweight championship from the great Pete Herman. After
surrendering that title ten months later to Joe Lynch, Johnny returned to his
natural domain of the flyweights to take on Villa at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on
September 14, 1922.
Buff was facing an extraordinary eighteen-year old who seemed the
nearest human equivalent to a typhoon. Although Johnny was a somewhat jaded
veteran by that time, Villa’s victory still stunned the boxing fraternity as he
secured the American flyweight championship with a performance of incessant
Villa dominated the battle from the outset. All coils and
springs, there didn’t seem to be a moment when he was still or idle. While the
cautious and knowing Buff waited patiently for the right openings, Pancho
punched almost continuously, gradually dismantling Johnny with a withering body
attack and hammer-like jabs and hooks to the head.
Buff simply couldn’t get set to mount a meaningful counter
attack. He attempted to thread punches through the oncoming blizzard, but
Villa’s speed and sheer work-rate consistently swamped Johnny’s best efforts.
From the sixth round, Pancho began to try for the knockout, but
Buff still possessed much of his old defensive skill and employed some effective
blocking. The tiring American must have known that his game resistance was only
serving to postpone the inevitable landslide, yet he revived a little in the
middle rounds as he appeared to come through the shock of Villa’s early
But typhoons and hurricanes can be cruelly deceitful. They are
not always through when they appear to be. The storm came full circle and
whipped up again as Villa pounded Buff on the ropes in the seventh round and
then battered him around the ring in the ninth.
In the tenth frame, courageous Johnny finally began to fall apart
as the charging Villa floored him twice. Pancho set up the first knockdown with
a two-fisted attack that saw Buff swept into the ropes and then driven across
the ring. A left to the head toppled him but he didn’t take a count. It was the
second knockdown that was of greater significance and damage. Pancho fired to
the head again and this time Johnny crumpled ominously and required the bell to
save his bacon.
Remorseless, Villa moved up a further gear in the decisive
eleventh round as he hunted his man down and sprang for the kill. Buff was
struck by a succession of hard lefts and rights to the jaw, but then pulled out
one last blow of defiance as he found Pancho’s chin and sent him staggering
back. The respite was no more than a brief interlude.
Villa forced Johnny to the ropes with a series of vicious
uppercuts, finally flooring him for the third and final time in the bout. The
towel came fluttering in from Buff’s cornermen with twenty-seven seconds of the
The one man Pancho Villa could never beat was the tough and
resourceful Frankie Genaro. Frankie outpointed Pancho over ten rounds in their
first meeting at Ebbets Field in August 1922, but the real scorcher was their
return match at Madison Square Garden in March 1923.
Genaro relieved Villa of his American flyweight crown in a
sensational fifteen rounds match witnessed by a capacity crowd. Let us pause to
think about that for a second. A couple of flyweights filling the Garden!
People swarmed around the ring at the finish, and the police had
to clear a path for the boxers to exit the ring.
The tempo of the fight was terrific throughout, but it was in the
last three rounds that the battle reached new heights as the boys exchanged
In the thirteenth round, they shook each other with left hooks to
the jaw, but Frankie had the edge in cleverness throughout the contest and
proved it once again with his elusiveness. Twice Pancho harried him to the ropes
and twice the American steered himself out of trouble. The pace of the fight was
still exceptional as both men fired hard and fast blows to the body.
Villa, a wonderfully never-say-die scrapper, came on strong again
in the fourteenth as he scored with solid lefts to Genaro’s jaw.
The fifteenth round was arguably the most thrilling as the two
little braves raised the bar again and launched sustained body attacks. They
slammed each other to the ribs and then Genaro wobbled Villa with a right to the
jaw. Pancho responded in kind after a clinch and the two men were still trading
at the bell.
The decision for Genaro received the thundering approval of the
hometown fans, but it would be another five years before Frankie would win the
NBA version of the world title.
For Villa, the chance to hit the jackpot came much sooner.
Jimmy Wilde At The Polo Grounds
Jimmy Wilde, the Mighty Atom, was taking a big gamble by coming
back to face the new kid in town. His legend secure but his great talent fast
dissipating, Wilde was no longer the phenomenon of yore. He had been inactive
for two years and five months by the time he defended his flyweight championship
against Villa at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 18, 1923.
Jimmy’s previous fight had been a punishing defeat to the great
bantamweight, Pete Herman, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, from which Wilde
had never fully recovered. Knocked down in the seventeenth round of that torrid
battle, Jimmy had struck his head hard on the canvas and suffered severe
concussion. Despite his lengthy rest, the injury had a permanent effect on his
ability as a fighter.
Wilde met something of a kindred spirit in Pancho, a younger,
natural born scrapper who never stopped punching and seemed blessed with
exceptional reserves of energy.
Wilde in his glorious prime of life would have had a gorgeous
set-to with Villa. As it was, the fading ghost of Jimmy was still able to wage a
morbidly thrilling, life-or-death battle against his cyclonic heir apparent.
Pancho, however, was a revelation that night and would not be
His storming attacks quickly had Wilde in disarray in a frantic
opening round, in which the Filipino’s vicious blows rained in from all
directions. Villa’s clear intent, much like Dempsey’s was to simply destroy the
other man as fast as possible. While reporters and fans recognised quickly that
Wilde was no longer the little wonder of bygone times, Villa’s performance was
still staggering in its commanding nature.
It was a horror night for Wilde, a night on which nothing went
right for the slowly drowning champion. He had to be carried back to his corner
at the end of a torrid second round after being floored by a right on the nape
of the neck, the blow apparently landing just after the bell. Wilde could have
clutched at that straw and made something of it, but didn’t do so. Stupidly
sporting? No, it was simply his way.
It is doubtful, in any case, that any respite would have altered
the complexion or the result of the fight. Wilde was enveloped in a relentless
blizzard of fast and versatile hitting. His face was quickly butchered by the
slashing effect of the oncoming punches as he bled from cuts to his mouth and
cheeks and had his right eye pounded almost shut.
He kept trying to break the rhythm of the perpetual Villa, but
Jimmy’s punches were uncharacteristically light and ineffective by comparison
and no deterrent to the whirlwind that was raging around him.
Repeatedly, it seemed that Wilde would fall as his knees sagged
and his body shook from the punishment he was taking. Villa must have wondered
what he needed to do to bring the curtain down. He kept teeing up Jimmy for the
coup de grace, but simply couldn’t finish the job of hammering the resistance
out of the amazing little Welshman.
At the close of a brutal sixth round, Wilde finally broke as he
almost fell into his corner. He was caught in the arms of his handlers,
thoroughly beaten and almost blinded by the ceaseless hailstorm. The crowd was
now screaming at referee Patsy Haley to stop the slaughter, but Wilde would not
permit his cornermen to pull him out.
Villa knew the moment of his young life had come. He rushed back
into the fray at the beginning of the seventh round to set up the knockout with
a series of fast and powerful lefts and rights to the head. Still Wilde punched
back, pulled along now by sheer instinct and bloody-mindedness. His enduring
resistance seemed to take Villa aback. Pancho broke off his attack momentarily,
as if taking stock and considering his options. In fact he had finally seen the
Jimmy, desperately tired to the point of exhaustion, couldn’t
help but let his guard down and Villa was on him like a springing tiger. An
inside right cross thundered off Wilde’s jaw, and the Welshman was a dead weight
as he fell to the canvas and lay there without so much as a twitch as he was
Jimmy was still bewildered and blinded in the sanctuary of his
dressing room, where he was unable to recognise his wife as she hurried to hug
The big crowd at the Polo Grounds would never forget Jimmy
Wilde’s courage or Pancho Villa’s breathtaking, punching performance. The
Oakland Tribune reported: “The forty thousand who sat in the Polo Grounds and
saw the title pass were so captivated by the exhibition of gameness the little
Welshman gave, that for fully five minutes after it was over they sat there
quiet, waiting for him to open his eyes and come back to consciousness that he
might hear the roar that was their sincere tribute to a genuine fighting man.”
Pancho Villa earned $40,000 for the greatest triumph of his
career, while Wilde’s share of the purse was $60,000. Jimmy was quick to pay
tribute to Pancho. Said the beaten champion, “I simply met my match. I don’t
know whether I shall try to get a return bout.”
He didn’t. Sensibly, he retired. Pancho Villa wasn’t just the new
flyweight champion of the world, he was a magnificent champion at that. It
seemed that the vibrant young tiger from the Philippines would live forever.
Such is life and death.
> The Mike Casey Archives