I’ve crossed paths with many during my time following and being involved in the world of boxing. This happens face-to-face and virtually, depending on the circumstances. As all may or may not know, boxing is probably the oldest sport in the history of the world, though variations of boxing have evolved over the years. There is no question, though, that while it may not be a sport as popular as it was 100 years ago, it is still a national pastime for many countries. Whether it’s John L. Sullivan and his feats to make boxing a legal and widespread sport in the United States, to Les Darcy taking on any willing challenger brave enough to take a trip across the world to Australia. As you move further back in history many of the boxer’s own individuals stories were the stuff made for movies.
This is the case in the author Brian Duncan’s debut book, The Ice Punch, the story of Welsh boxers Leslie Williams and David ‘Dai’ Bowen who tragically passed away aboard RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. In The Ice Punch, Brian chronicles the journey of the two fighters as well as their backstories that led them on the path to America. 86Boxing had the opportunity to interview Brian exclusively on the release of his new book and what led him to a path in boxing.
First and foremost, how have you been given all that’s going on in the world, Brian?
Brian: Well, it is a tough and uncertain time for everyone, and like most, I am just trying to make the best of it. Keeping my family safe has been the most important thing.
Now, I know we have a particular subject that we want to cover here today but knowing you as the boxing mind that you are, could you tell me what are your earliest memories as far as what got you into boxing?
Brian: I spent a few years in and around boxing gyms when I was younger, and I remember in an old gym, on the wall, there were posters of some old guys, Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson, guys like that. I remember wondering about these fighters, what did they have that made them last the test of time.
Now, I must give credit where credit is due. I’ve gradually learned more and more about boxing over the years as I’ve engaged individuals who’ve studied and learned about the fighters of yesteryear. I have to credit you wit really being the catalyst for my introduction to fighters like Harry Greb, who essentially has the best resume of all time and fought from the mid-1910s through the mid-1920s. What sparked your interest in fighters like Greb and that particular time period?
Brian: It was the golden era. A time when fighters fought every other week, sometimes more. I’ve always been fascinated by why most top ‘Pound for Pound’ lists are littered with guys from this time, like Harry Greb, Benny Leonard, and Sam Langford. When I started looking into Greb and the guys he fought, and the guys that wouldn’t fight him, and the conditions in which he fought, I was hooked. I’m friends with some Greb authors and historians and guys who know a lot about him, and our conversations over the years about Harry means he is always on my mind. I’ll continue to boost him for as long as I can.
As far as the fighters who are out there now, present time, who are some of your favorites to watch and why?
Brian: I like a few guys. I really enjoyed watching the GGG versus Canelo fights with my brother. I’m a big fan of Linares, he’s a slick fighter. Tyson Fury is entertaining, and I like Josh Taylor also, and Lomachenko is frighteningly brilliant. I’d like to see Ryan Garcia step up as he looks to have all the tools.
As you know, I could go on forever with us discussing boxing, both past, and present. But, we are here for a very special occasion. Now, having a dialogued with you in the early stages I must say that I’m am truly proud and excited to have the opportunity to be the first and exclusive interviewer for your soon to be released new book, “The Ice Punch.” I recall you speaking on it early on which has been well over a year at this point, but who is this book about, and what lead you to this particular story?
Brian: The Ice Punch certainly has been a long time in the making. It centers around two boxers from Wales, who I accidentally came across one night and who I learned had sadly perished on the Titanic. I had a few conversations about them with a couple of boxing brains who I truly respect, and in the end, it was something that made an interesting story (hopefully) and a story that I was going to tell myself.
Given the iconic nature of the Titanic in general, it’s essentially a ship that is now both famous and infamous in history across the world. Add on the fact that there was a movie made about it, I’d bet that at the very least in namesake, Titanic is known on all continents. Yet, when you first mentioned this story it was eye-opening and very new to me. Things tend to get buried in history when dealing with iconic subjects, but how were you able to run across this story in particular?
Brian: I was sitting with my two sons and we were watching a documentary about the Titanic and her victims. It went through a few names and then it mentioned Leslie Williams and Dai Bowen as boxers from Wales. I thought, “what? I haven’t heard of this before,” so I started digging. It was fascinating as I learned along the way they had dealings with some big names like Jim Driscoll and Freddie Welsh, and were on course to fight each other at one point. I always wondered how these two relatively unknown fighters wound up on the grandest of ships. It’s a remarkable tale of events.
I don’t want to spoil the book of course, but could you tell me why these two fighters were on the Titanic? Where were they going?
Brian: In Pittsburgh, Frank Torreyson, a major figure in the fight game, was in contact with a Welsh correspondent named Charles A Barnett. Barnett documented his communications with Torreyson in the weekly publication known as ‘Boxing’. Torreyson had a few names in mind but ultimately it was Barnett’s decision. He chose Bowen and Williams, and they were heading to Pittsburgh to make some money and fight in front of the great ‘Steel City’ crowds.
Given the timeframe, how was it when you were going through research and, I would imagine, piecing together the number of articles and other information given that this happened so long ago?
Brian: As you can imagine, when you start searching through old newspapers and enter keywords like Titanic, you are swamped with information. It seems coverage in the press back then was far greater than today and I very quickly had thousands of articles on Leslie and Dai and the Titanic, and after sorting them out in chronological order, I had a better idea of what actually happened.
As far as the fighters involved, were you able to determine or track down where their lineage lies? Did they have kids or others withing the family from what you gathered who knew of their historic family members?
Brian: I didn’t track down any living relatives, but I did get all the census records from when they were both born until they both lost their lives. I talk of both boy’s families, for example, Williams was married, with a young child, and his wife was actually pregnant at the time of the disaster. If there are living relatives, I hope my book falls into their hands, and I have people waiting to share in Welsh groups so I’m hoping it gets to the right people.
After having gone through this massive task, doing all of the research, and gathering all of the facts, was there anything that you still had a question on? Rather, are there still any questions you may have regarding the lives of the individuals based on having spent such a great deal of time researching them?
Brian: Not now, but there was during my research. A lot of newspaper articles listed them as 2nd class passengers and reported the boys were training and using the gym onboard the ship to stay in shape. I thought this was strange and probably unlikely, but that I may not find out the truth. Then, I got some lists of the passengers and other details and they were actually traveling on 3rd class tickets. I then had some very deep conversations with a friend, Titanic historian, and author/co-author of 3 Titanic books and he opened my eyes to the immigration laws of the time which meant the boys would have had very-very little chance of gaining access to the gym. Even the 2nd class passengers were given tours but that was about as far as it got. Also, if they were training and sparring, etc, as pro athletes, it would have drawn attention, especially if they weren’t allowed in the gym so, therefore, they used some of the open decks. So it was about taking a fair stance and putting everything together to try and really understand what they were doing. Now, I think I managed to cover everything in the book.
There are elements of this story that make it a sort of ‘feel good’ story, but ultimately we know the Titanic and the majority of its passengers suffered a sad fate. Where you able to find any reactions to the passing of the two fighters?
Brian: Yes. Their lives and the celebrations of their lives were covered in local Welsh newspapers. There was a great Gymkhana and Assault-At-Arms held to raise money for their families. Luckily, I managed to find the balance sheet for this event along with all the participants, etc. It’s all included!
This has been fascinating, Brian. So, what are the plans as far as the release date of the book, and will it be in both hardcopy and digital format?
Brian: It’s on Amazon now, just very recently been added and there are paperback and eBook versions available. I also have some copies which I am happy to sign and send to anyone that is interested!
This interview was originally conducted on August 10, 2020.