There exists a certain breed of nostalgia that fuels interest in eras long completed in boxing — more specifically, the “Theodore Roosevelt, safari for fun, bending steel beams as a hobby” eras. The ones we generally only have pictures of, if we do at all. The men who boxed then hardly fought in what could be described as a “sport” or “game”; they required a kind of disdain for rules, safety and ethics that is purely alien to us now.
Imagine a man whose rule-breaking and ferocity was too much even for that era.
A 1992 article in The Ring magazine announced Smith as “The dirtiest fighter of all time.” One can likely confirm without video evidence, though: Smith had lost five times by disqualification at the time of his scrap against Kid Lavigne in March of 1899. In one of those DQ losses, this time to Charles “Kid” McCoy, the Boston Herald said, “It looked as if knees, heads and teeth were being used, with Smith most to blame.”
Though things like lineage or even accurate reporting might not have been of the essence in the late 19th century, it’s widely agreed upon that Paddy Duffy claimed the first welterweight championship in 1888. In 1892, Smith became champion himself, but eventually lost to Tommy Ryan with a much more widely-recognized title on the line in 1894.
In contrast to Smith, George “Kid” Lavigne had managed to stay relatively consistent over the course of a dozen or so years of milling. Lavigne seized the lightweight title, but perhaps became known best as the man who killed Andy Bowen in an 1894 bout. But when he and Smith hooked up, Lavigne hadn’t yet been beaten cleanly. Pre-fight, however, Lavigne likened Smith’s style to his own and told a San Francisco reporter that he considered Smith the best welterweight in the world.
Some news outlets reported that the 142 lb. welterweight title was on the line, while others stated the lightweight title would be at stake. The former wound up being the case, though the line between the two titles may have been blurred, in a sense. In either case, the battle was a highly anticipated one, having been marinated and gossiped about for a solid five weeks in the press.
According to the Bay City Times, betting at the time of the fight was even, though Smith was edging toward a favorite ringside as many felt Lavigne was biting off more than he could chew. Indeed Smith proved to be a much tougher out than Lavigne had wanted, and he found himself overwhelmed inside at times early. By round 4, Lavigne’s left ribs were a crimson hue from Smith’s body work in the clinch. Smith was drawing cautions and warnings, though, as he often did. And in round 6, a left hand from Lavigne opened up Smith’s lip.
As both men tired, action appeared to even out, with Smith on the attack, but having difficulty landing clean, while Lavigne countered to only occasional effect. Rounds 12 and 13 amounted to Lavigne’s final stand, and he was able to smash Smith in the mug a number of times as they both reeled and swung wildly. But as an all-out brawl developed in the 14th round, Smith made headway and had Lavigne ready to go. Said the Denver Post, “…[Lavigne] had received a couple of solid blows from Smith on the jaw and was palpably rattled and somewhat groggy.” Lavigne’s corner jumped onto the apron and claimed that their man had been fouled, but the referee called the bout when police interfered, and gave the “decision” to Smith.
They were days with noticeably less clarity, sure. But pulses were quickened all the same, and Mysterious Billy Smith was happy to oblige in speeding up pace.