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Articles of 2005

The High Price of Boxing Immortality

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The sweet science certainly has the market cornered on hard luck stories. Tales of boxers experiencing championship-level greatness and ending up penniless is almost cliché. But very rarely do you hear of a town experiencing that same tragedy.

Shelby, Montana, a peaceful community just 30 miles south of the Canadian border, has such a story. On July 4, 1923, all eyes were on this little boomtown with a population of around 2,500 as it hosted a heavyweight title fight between the “Manassa Mauler” Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. Unfortunately, it paid a high price to rent the center of the sports world for a day. Lack of experience in the fight game and poor geography made the town easy pickings for an unscrupulous promoter, who would later brag about leaving the town in financial peril.

The idea to pursue this fight came in February of 1923, when James “Body” Johnson, son of Shelby Mayor James A. Johnson, read a front page headline in the Great Falls Tribune about Montreal’s offer of $100,000 to host Dempsey’s next bout. The Manassa Mauler had only fought exhibitions since defeating Georges Carpentier in July of 1921.

Body Johnson felt that bidding for a fight would bring positive attention to Shelby. The discovery of oil less than a year earlier had made the town one of the more prosperous cities in Montana. If Montreal could grab headlines by offering $100,000, then Shelby could make a name for itself by offering $200,000, almost $2.2 million by today’s standards, for Dempsey to fight journeyman light heavyweight Tommy Gibbons.  Dempsey had made $300,000 for his previous fight with Carpentier in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1921, so it was very likely that Shelby would have been outbid.

Montana law required boxing exhibitions to be sponsored by service clubs, so Johnson convinced the local American Legion to bankroll the fight. Then he wired Dempsey’s manager Jack “Doc” Kearns with the offer.

Kearns responded with the terms of “$100,000 to be part of the purse in event contest is held and balance of $100,000 to be paid me prior to contest as we mutually agree.” Whether it was a stunt or not, the Shelby businessmen could have financed a $200,000 fight and come out in the black.

To negotiate with Kearns, the American Legion brought in its in-state commander, Loy Molumby, Jr. In May of 1923, Molumby, an attorney, went to Chicago to bring Kearns the initial $100,000 payment and discuss the terms of the fight. The only problem was that Kearns had traveled on to New York. When Molumby finally tracked Kearns down in Manhattan, the promoter apologized and agreed to see him only if he had the front money.

Johnson would later insist that the bid for the fight was designed to do nothing more than boost real estate sales. “We were advertising, ‘Shelby, the Tulsa of the West,’ and believing it ourselves,” Johnson wrote in 1966. “Under no circumstances could I reveal to them that anything that might develop was, in fact, intended to nothing more than a publicity stunt.”

The stunt began to turn into a disaster at the bargaining table when Molumby, who had strict instructions to a deal for $200,000, signed a new deal with Kearns for $300,000.

How did this happen? How could a lawyer commit to an extra payment of today’s equivalent of a million dollars when he had no approval to do so? There are several varying stories. The general consensus in Shelby is that Kearns used alcohol to change Molumy’s mind. “People think that Kearns got him [Molumby] drunk and got him to agree,” says current Shelby Mayor Larry Bonderud.

However, according to Kearns, he had always demanded $300,000, and Molumby agreed to the price because of his hardball tactics. When Molumby sat down to negotiate a price, Kearns simply told him, “I ain’t here to play tennis.” Molumby seconded the story as well, telling Johnson, “I signed the contract because Kearns wouldn’t go for less.”

Regardless of how it happened, Molumby also made mistakes in other areas of the contract. In the early days of boxing, to prevent swindling from promoters, fight contracts often had 75% in guaranteed payments, with the other 25% going into an appearance bond. This was very similar to an escrow account. If a fight was cancelled, then the promoter and fighter would lose the bond.

Since Molumby had never negotiated a fight contract, he had no idea about the appearance bond and, in essence, gave Kearns a no-strings-attached $300,000 contract. This left the promoter with no need to promote the fight and gave him the power to cancel it as he pleased.

Shelby also faced another huge obstacle in that the town was not prepared for the thousands of people expected to watch the fight. The town went to work on a 40,000 seat, world-class boxing arena, constructing it in less than a month. An additional railroad track was also put in place.

Temporary hotels were put in to accommodate the huge influx of people. The town’s drive to make the quick changes was impressive but unconvincing. As Dempsey said years later, “How could a small town, with nothing to offer but three rooming houses, one hotel, a train depot and an oil field, possibly entertain the notion of competing with the great cities of the east?”

The first crisis came on June 15, when the second $100,000 was due and the Shelby businessmen financing the fight had only raised $1,800. This was due to ineptness on Molumby and Johnson’s part. After dispatching tickets to brokers all over the country, they assumed that the money would be sent as soon as the tickets were sold. An experienced promoter would have asked for front-end deposits from the brokers.

To get the necessary cash, Johnson, Molumby, and others took matters into their own hands. Molumby, a World War I pilot, flew the group to Montana’s American Legion posts in an attempt to pre-sell tickets. That campaign was cut short when their plane crashed. No one was killed, but many were injured, including Body Johnson, who suffered a broken arm, leg, and shoulder.

Kearns did not have any sympathy for their plight, saying, “You’ve got to pay Dempsey every red cent or you won’t see him at all. Don’t take us for fools, I warn you.”

To make the payment, Mayor Johnson tried many possibilities, including offering 50,000 sheep in lieu of the $100,000. Kearns responded, “What the hell would I do with 50,000 sheep in a New York apartment?”

The second payment was eventually made through fundraising and a $50,000 private loan to Mayor Johnson. However, Kearns, already having $200,000 and fearing that he would not receive his last payment, began voicing his concerns. News reports ranged from Kearns threatening to cancel the match to articles promising a “fight of the century.”

The differing reports caused many of those outside the state of Montana to cancel their train reservations to Shelby, costing the town its chance to break even. “At one time, around June 15, we had nearly $500,000 in advance reservations, and over 26 special trains and parties,” wrote Body Johnson. “Without exception, these were all canceled because of the adverse publicity.”

“The on and off again nature of the fight contributed to the lower than expected turn out,” agrees Bonderud. “The majority of the audience came from the nearby 200 mile radius of Shelby because they new the fight was on again and could make arrangements to attend.  The cancellation of trains by the Great Northern Railway really hurt the gate receipts.”

When Kearns finally accepted that he was not going to make his money, he announced the fight was off. But the oft-silent Dempsey overruled him, later saying, “In my first years with Doc, I did as I was told. He was the manager. I was the fighter. But by the time I got to Montana, I was 28. I wasn’t a boy anymore. I wanted to get back in the ring. I owed that to boxing. I owed that to the fans. I owed that to myself. I told Kearns, whether he liked it or not, I was going to fight Tommy Gibbons.” Kearns then relented, agreeing to take the last $100,000 out of gate receipts.

On the day of the fight, tickets started out at $25 for reserved seats, which is roughly around $280 by today’s standards. However, only 200 people were in the stands to watch the 1:30 pm undercard.

At 2:30, every ticket was marked down to ten dollars, with seating being first come, first serve. All in all, a total of 7,202 paid their way into the arena. Half an hour later, a crowd of 5,000 overran the gatekeepers and rushing into the arena without paying.

The fight commenced around 4:00 and was a lackluster affair by all accounts. The Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer wrote, “Throughout the fight, the 32-year-old Gibbons, like a coyote, kept running and twisting, but got home safely at the end of the chase. He was panting, bleeding but safe when the final gong sounded. The bout was rather like a greyhound and hare affair.”

Dempsey, a little rusty from two years out of the ring, pursued Gibbons but had little luck of finishing up early. “Gibbons turned out to be a fine defensive fighter,” said Dempsey. “He was a perfectionist, not a slugger. For fifteen tough rounds, I could not corner him to score a knockout. Even though I was awarded the decision in the end, I felt that this fight hadn’t done my reputation or my popularity any good.”

Dempsey did not wait around to find out if he was well-liked in Shelby. He quickly hopped a train to Great Falls, Montana, and then went to Salt Lake City the next day.

Kearns had to stay around to count the proceeds. All in all, the fight grossed $80,000. After paying three federal tax agents their cut, Kearns went to the train depot carrying a suitcase full of cash.

When he was told there were no trains leaving the next day, he paid a stationmaster $500 to fire up a locomotive to take him to Great Falls.

Gibbons made no money for the fight, but he did receive a Vaudeville contract. He continued boxing until dropping a decision to eventual Dempsey conqueror Gene Tunney in 1925.

Dempsey, or course, had a few great fights afterwards. He followed up the Shelby debacle later that year with his barnburner against Luis Angel Firpo in a bout that produced eleven knockdowns in only three minutes and 57 seconds.

As for the town that only wanted a little publicity, “The City of Shelby did not have any funds invested in the fight and life went on as usual,” says Bonderud. “The closing of banks, etc., has been greatly exaggerated, and the community is alive and thriving today.”

The stories may have been embellished, but history shows that the banks did close. On July 9, the Stanton Trust & Savings Bank of Great Falls closed, followed by Mayor Johnson’s First State Bank of Shelby on July 10, and the First State Bank of Joplin on July 11. The First National Bank of Shelby went out of business on August 16, leaving the town without a bank.

In the ‘50s, a reporter told Kearns, “I hear you broke three banks with that one [Dempsey/Gibbons].”

“That’s a lie. A contemptible lie,” Kearns responded. “I didn’t break three banks with the Shelby fight. I broke four.”

The arena has long since been torn down, and in its place sits a Pizza Hut and a Dixie Inn. But as Mayor Bonderud said, the town has recovered and looks to take advantage of its infamous story. The city is working to build a Champions Park, which would be inspired by the original arena. The proposed centerpiece is two bronzed likenesses of Dempsey and Gibbons battling it out in the center. Mayor Bonderud hopes to have it finished for the fight’s 85th anniversary in 2008.

Who would have guessed that the infamously bad investment would finally yield dividends decades later?

“If the fight had been a great success, we would not be talking about it now,” says Bonderud. “So its financial failure then is now paying off today with the renewed interest in the fight. We are certainly attempting to capitalize on that now.”

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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