One of the fight game’s greatest and most unheralded welterweights, ‘The Barbados Demon’ Joe Walcott was a terror in and out of the ring. His on-again/off-again manager Tom O’Rourke called Walcott “one of the hardest men to manage I ever had.” While O’Rourke lamented his fighter’s cavalier training habits, he had to admit that Joe was “so strong that it did not make much difference. He could take an amount of punishment that would have sent a white man to the hospital for repairs.”
Despite the fact that the popular idiom “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is sometimes attributed to Bob Fitzsimmons, who said it before punching above his weight to dethrone heavyweight champion James J. Corbett, Joe Walcott had previously uttered this phrase during his unending quest to take on any challenger regardless of the size differential. Of course, for the five-foot-two Walcott, this was a self-fulfilling wish that was easily and often fulfilled, earning him a reputation as ‘The Giant Killer.’
Characterized as a “physical freak” and “sawed-off Hercules,” Joe possessed nearly supernatural strength throughout his squat, muscular frame which was said to measure 41 inches across his chest and 18 around the neck. He put the immense power he was capable of generating to good use when matched opposite fighters who, on occasion, outweighed him by as many as fifty pounds. For instance, he had to be relieved of his duties as a sparring partner for his stablemate and heavyweight contender ‘Sailor’ Tom Sharkey when Joe “dumped him on his ear one afternoon in the gym,” according to Tom O’Rourke who handled them both at the time. “I was afraid he’d bust one of Sharkey’s ribs or hurt him so badly some other way that Sharkey wouldn’t have been fit to fill his coming engagement in the ring.”
Born in British Guiana, Walcott had grown up in Barbados and ended up in America aboard a steamship on which he had been working as a cabin boy. Overstaying his shore leave while the vessel was docked in Boston, Joe decided to settle in and called Massachusetts home for most of the rest of his life. The teenaged Walcott took odd jobs wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself, finding gainful employment as an elevator operator, piano mover, and porter at a Boston gym where he ultimately traded in his push broom for boxing gloves.
Tearing his way through the welterweight division, ‘The Barbados Demon’ closed out the calendar year 1894 with a knockout of Billy Green, his 31st victory to date which was offset by four draws, two no decisions, and just one defeat. Scrapping his way toward a title shot, Walcott would next make the acquaintance of the recently unseated welterweight king. Over the course of the following eight years, the two would square
off six times in some of the nastiest, bloodiest battles waged by 140-pounders, or fighters occupying any other weight class for that matter.
Boxing history boasts a plentiful cast of characters who, for any variety of reasons, simply refused to conduct themselves within the letter of the law. Some played coy and shrugged their shoulders like chastened schoolboys when confronted with any such allegation, while others gladly chewed up each and every rule book shoved under their nose and spit the mutilated pages right back in the face of the official brazen enough to have pulled it out of their back pocket.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who was the dirtiest fighter of them all? You could rightfully start by looking in the direction of either Fritzie Zivic, Battling Nelson, or Harry Greb. To a lesser extent, Tony Galento, Eusebio Pedroza, Gene Fullmer, and Sandy Saddler were all well-known for incorporating a multitude of nefarious infractions into their fight strategy. Perhaps it is Ad Wolgast, who turned the low blow into something of a belligerent artform well before Andrew Golota made his own clumsy attempts to perfect the craft. And then there is always George McFadden, referred to as ‘Elbows’ for ungentlemanly demeanor that requires no further explanation.
Perfectly sensible candidates, some more than others, and there are a handful of modern-day examples to take into consideration. But ‘Mysterious’ Billy Smith would likely have quite a lot to say about staking his claim to the dubious distinction of all-time greatest ruffian of the prize ring. And, just to prove his point, probably slug you in the windpipe for good measure, not to mention for a good laugh.
Billy Smith came by his enigmatic nickname honestly, so to speak. Other than his penchant for wanton violence, very little of what was presumed to be true about Smith could be accepted at face value, most of all his murky origins. For starters, Billy was not his Christian name. Everyone foolhardy enough to call him Amos, however, is said to have spent the next several minutes collecting their teeth from where they lay scattered around their shoes after they had been crudely extracted by Smith’s knuckles.
Furthermore, while he is commonly believed to be of Canadian nationality, a recently rediscovered article from 1938 written by bantamweight contender Jim Kenrick suggests that Smith was actually born in Birmingham, England on May 15, 1871. Kenrick claimed to have it on good authority that the family emigrated to the United States five years later, first for a brief spell in Pennsylvania before settling down in Maine where the rechristened Billy spent his formative years etching out the trailhead to what would soon become a unique path of destruction. The complicated plot thickens, as a Philadelphia newspaper account from 1893 cites Eastport, Maine as Smith’s place of birth, and Boston as his current hometown.
Billy Smith debuted with a pair of fights in Canada, a draw and TKO victory, although it is in keeping with his shadowy backstory that the precise dates and locations remain a mystery. It took Smith just a little more than twenty-four months, during which he fought two exhibitions against ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey and lost only once—to Frank Purcell in San Francisco, despite flooring his opponent multiple times over the course of ten rounds—to claim the world welterweight title from ‘The Saint Paul Terror’ Danny Needham in brutal fashion. He would lose the title on points to former champion Tommy Ryan in an 1894 bout refereed by Joe Choynski, whom Joe Walcott would dismantle six years later, after having drawn even with Ryan twice in previous contests.
Nothing was sacred inside the confines of the ring ropes to the man whose whatever-it-takes mentality was keen to embrace the use of wrestling, headbutting, kneeing, elbowing, low blows, headlocks, holding and hitting, punching on the break and behind the head, eye-gouging, choking, and biting. ‘Mysterious’ Billy Smith made no effort to conceal his chicanery on March 1, 1895, the night he first came face to face with ‘The Barbados Demon’ in what amounted to one of the most savage displays of poor sportsmanship ever witnessed in a boxing ring.
Despite the fact that Smith was the former champion, Walcott had been made the 7-to-5 betting favorite in this bout to determine who would get the next crack at current titleholder Tommy Ryan. Both men being local fixtures, the majority of supporters that poured through the doors of the Boston Music Hall were there to put their rowdy support of Billy Smith on full display and watch their man empty his entire bag of dirty tricks.
Referee Barney Aaron had his hands full not only keeping pace with the furious action but with the strange goings-on that Smith was responsible for. Walcott built an early lead by concentrating his efforts on a potent body attack, but Smith was intent on clawing his way back into the fight by any means necessary. Besides butting Walcott while verbally berating him on numerous occasions, Smith manhandled ‘The Barbados Demon’ from one corner of the ring to another, elbowing him in the eye in full view of everyone. The referee was forced to issue a warning to Smith for repeated strangleholds, but Aaron was helpless to keep the Mysterious One from gnawing on Walcott’s scalp whenever the two would fall into a clinch during the brief respites of their frantic infighting.
Joe split Smith’s right ear open in the eleventh round with a perfectly placed left hook but his relentless opponent was not easily deterred from rushing forward to continue his own onslaught. Both men bore grisly battle wounds by the onset of the twentieth and final round, but Walcott was clearly the worse for wear due to Smith’s roughhouse antics and resorted to bearhugging his adversary to minimize further damage. A
a partisan chorus of boos erupted upon the rendering of Barney Aaron’s decision of a draw.
The first sequel to the gore-streaked baptism of their blood feud wouldn’t occur until a little more than three years later, with a financial stipulation put in place to discourage a repeat performance. Walcott and Smith would compete for a $2,000 purse and had mutually agreed upon a forfeit of $250 on the part of either fighter committing a foul, though there was no question that this was specifically meant to keep Billy Smith honest. Police Gazette editor Sam Austin was recruited to maintain some semblance of control over the donnybrook on April 14, 1898, at the Park City Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut which was indeed recorded as “the cleanest the Mysterious One had ever engaged in.”
Smith gained the upper hand early on, but Walcott rebounded by virtue of a sustained focus on Smith’s midsection, several of his heavy-handed shots causing Billy to “jump in the air with pain.” A right hand just under Smith’s heart (it seems he had one, after all) took away the Mysterious One’s wind for some time, although the momentum would swing back in his favor after landing a crushing right on Walcott’s ear in the eighth round. The thirteenth through the nineteenth was said to involve hellacious close-quarters combat which stayed within the parameters of the rules and allowed neither fighter to gain the measure of the other for terribly long. ‘The Barbados Demon’ came close to putting Smith on the seat of his pants in the nineteenth round, but both men finished the evening on their feet to have their hands raised in unison. This bout, like their first, also culminated in a stalemate.
‘Mysterious’ Billy Smith reclaimed the welterweight championship in the short span of time between his second and third fights with Joe Walcott by outpointing Matty Matthews over twenty-five rounds at New York’s Lenox Athletic Center on August 25. He made a return trip to the same venue on December 6 to put his title on the line against ‘The Barbados Demon’ who had been avoided at all costs by former champion Tommy Ryan. Walcott, the favorite to win by a 10-to-7 margin, was seconded by George Dixon, Bob Armstrong, and Tom O’Rourke whereas Smith had Harry Tuthill, Billy Needham, Bill Hennessy, and Bob Smith as his handlers.
The champion tore out of his corner with the intention of sending his challenger home early. Smith kept up the aggressive pace which had Walcott fighting off the back foot, unable to get much going in the way of offense as his instincts toward self-preservation took top priority in the early rounds. Joe’s defensive prowess could only do so much against the unrelenting flurry of punches being rained down upon him, one of which caught him flush in the mouth. Blood streamed from Walcott’s smashed and swollen lips, and things were about to get even worse for ‘The Barbados Demon.’
Smith knocked Walcott down in the eleventh and was incensed that the challenger not only got back up but began to give the champion a taste of his own foul-tasting medicine when Billy got a little too rough for Joe’s liking. Bumrushing Walcott, Smith floored him again with a right to the jaw. The fallen Walcott popped right back up without waiting for a count and was promptly deposited back onto the canvas where, this time, he remained for seven seconds before standing upright and somehow surviving the round. Joe would recover his senses enough to put forth an admirable effort and landed many clean shots but was still absorbing two for each punch he dished out to Smith who easily won the 20-round decision.
By the time of their fourth meeting at the Broadway Athletic Club in May 1900, Billy Smith had lost the title to Matty Matthews less than three weeks prior and gotten knocked out in the process. Some say Smith was never quite the same after this vicious loss. However, nothing less than summoning every ounce of his strength and resilience would be required for ‘The Barbados Demon’ to finally conjure up a victory over his ‘Mysterious’ nemesis. Walcott wasted little time in working over Smith’s midsection, the force of his blows producing unsightly welts and discoloration all across Billy’s torso. One particularly devastating Walcott right did severe damage to Smith’s ribcage, possibly breaking one of the bones. Although Billy wouldn’t let on as to the extent of the injury, he was unquestionably handicapped from that point forward, employing steady use of his jab to try and keep Walcott at bay while holding the idle hand to his side to protect against the punches with which Walcott was deliberately targeting the affected area.
Bolstered by a shot of cocaine administered by the club doctor for the purpose of easing his incredible pain, Smith rallied in the seventeenth round, nearly dropping Joe with a powerful right. Seeing the extent to which Smith was suffering, Walcott had mercifully and unwisely eased upon his body attack. Bleeding from the nose and mouth himself, Walcott landed a hard right on Smith’s left ear in the twenty-first round which caused it to swell up almost immediately. The two mutilated combatants slugged it out toe-to-toe in the closing moments and, after twenty-five harrowing rounds, Joe Walcott was awarded the win by referee Charley White with no protest put forth from Smith’s camp.
The Charter Athletic Club in Hartford, Connecticut hosted the penultimate fight between Walcott and Smith on September 24, 1900, only a little more than four months removed from their last war of attrition. Scheduled for twenty rounds, this “battle in which foul tactics prevailed,” according to Nat Fleischer, would be the first one contested by the pair that would fail to last the distance. Smith was clearly devolving into evermore erratic and directionless behavior, not having stepped into the ring for over a year at this point, after reportedly showing up thirty pounds overweight for a
1902 bout with Tommy Ryan in Kansas City in which he was knocked out in the fourth round. All told, he had come up unlucky in his last thirteen fights.
‘The Barbados Demon’ established his dominance within seconds of the opening bell in Hartford and, bereft of a suitable strategy by which to gain an advantage, Smith quite literally used his head to come up with his only viable retaliatory measure, butting Walcott at will. The only mystery left to figure out with regard to Smith was when he might choose to use his fists rather than frowned upon appendages. After yet another instance of a frustrated and clueless Smith employing his skull as a projectile, referee Johnny White roughly pulled him aside to make his displeasure known. Sensing that it was obvious he would get no further cooperation from Billy, White was left little choice but to disqualify the former welterweight champion in the tenth round and award the fight to Walcott.
Matty Matthews traded the welterweight title back and forth with Jim ‘Rube’ Ferns, whom ‘Mysterious’ Billy Smith had knocked down a grand total of fifteen times before losing on a foul in their January 15, 1900 title fight, and Joe Walcott would defeat Ferns the year after to become the new world champion. During his reign, Joe would defeat Billy Smith one last time, in an abridged non-title contest in Portland, Oregon on May 28, 1903, which would end in a fourth-round technical knockout when Smith broke his hand in the preceding stanza and was unable to continue.
Following a seven-year sabbatical from the prize ring, during which he became involved in a shady boarding room operation and opened a saloon called Champion’s Rest, ‘Mysterious’ Billy Smith would claim a victory for the last time in his career by outpointing Al Neill. One month after being disqualified against Jim Cameron for wrestling and holding in November of 1911, Billy was critically wounded during a shootout in the streets of Portland with A.B. Loomis, the captain of a river steamer and new husband to Smith’s former wife.
Ironically, it was Joe Walcott and not Billy Smith who died under mysterious circumstances. Leaving behind four ex-wives and a stable of racehorses, Smith shuffled off his mortal coil in 1937 after being wrestled into eternal submission by chronic kidney disease. Two years earlier, Barbados Joe Walcott, who in retirement made a humble living by sweeping up after events at Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium just as he had long ago cleaned the floors of Boston fight clubs, set out from his sister’s house in Philadelphia for the west coast to meet with a movie producer interested in making a movie based on his life. The theatrical agent with whom he was traveling became ill in Mansfield, Ohio and, the duo having become separated, Walcott checked in at the local police precinct to inquire as to the whereabouts of the town’s colored section so that he might seek shelter there.
Six months later, Joe Walcott was reported as a missing person. It was not until a judicious examination of an unidentified body found dead on the side of the road in Massillon, Ohio—more than fifty miles outside Mansfield—and buried in an unmarked grave in October 1935 that the alleged drifter and hit-and-run victim was later determined to be the former welterweight champion of the world. A tragic demise for the once-feared ‘Barbados Demon’ who slew pugilistic giants and gained revenge over quite possibly the most vulgar fighter known to ever vex his confounded, disfigured opponents.
Robert Brizel. Mysterious Billy Smith, The Dirtiest Fighter Who Ever Lived (Real Combat Media, January 3, 2015)
Monte D. Cox. Joe Walcott, The Barbados Demon: The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall (Cox’s Corner Profiles)
Neil Crane. Fight City Legends: The Barbados Demon (The Fight City, March 12, 2020)
Nat Fleischer. Black Dynamite—Volume III: The Colored Aces (The Ring Athletic Library, 1938)
Arne K. Lang. Whereabouts Unknown, But Quite Dead: The Sad Saga of Barbados Joe Walcott (The Sweet Science, September 10, 2019)
Mike Lockley. Was Mysterious Billy Smith Birmingham’s First World Boxing Champion? (Birmingham Mail, January 12, 2017)
Mysterious Billy Smith (cyberboxingzone.com—accessed at
Mysterious Billy Smith Is Shot In Portland: Former Prizefighter Is Fatally Wounded by Husband of Divorced Wife (Sacramento Union, December 18, 1911)