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When Boxing Was Big on the Fourth of July: A TSS Classic

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We’re going way back, but there was a time when the Fourth of July was a big day for boxing in the U.S. The high-water mark, according to BoxRec, was set in 1922 when there were 67 shows spread across 27 states. In that year, the holiday fell on a Tuesday.

Two of the most historically significant fights were staged on the Fourth of July. In 1910, in a fight that “marinated” for almost five years, Jack Johnson successfully defended his world heavyweight title at the expense of former champion James J. Jeffries. Measured by the amount of newsprint expended on this story as it developed, Johnson vs. Jeffries was the biggest single-day sporting event in the history of man. In 1919, Jack Dempsey dethroned Johnson’s conqueror Jess Willard, the first big bang in the Golden Era of Sports. And although it didn’t move the needle, how appropriate in hindsight that Joe Louis began his pro career on the Fourth of July.

During the early years of the 20th century, promoters often hitched their events to other events – county fairs, carnivals, race meets, national conventions of fraternal organizations, and so forth. One might call these festival fights. The 1931 show in Reno featuring Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun was an example. It was, in many ways, the quintessential Fourth of July boxing show, a window into western Americana.

In 1931, Reno (the “Biggest Little City in the World”) was home to about 20,000 people. Twice that number swarmed into Reno on that year’s Fourth of July. “Special trains by the score, automobiles by the hundreds and airplanes by the dozen poured into the famous divorce metropolis from the Pacific Coast. From the sandy wastes of Nevada came prospectors on burros, cowboys on horseback and ranchers in buckboard wagons,” said the correspondent for the United Press.

The race meet was in progress and there were sundry other activities arranged to make the day special, but the big shebang was the prizefight.

The spearheads of the promotion, Bill Graham and James McKay, owned the Bank Club, Reno’s biggest casino. Business was booming now that Nevada had legalized gambling, not that it made much difference in Reno where gambling was wide-open before the new law took effect.

Graham and McKay had made their fortunes running gambling saloons in Nevada mining towns and could afford to commit big dollars to the promotion. They brought in the great ring announcer Dan Tobey from Los Angeles (520 miles away) to serve as the master of ceremonies — Tobey was the Michael Buffer of his day — but their big coup was getting Jack Dempsey involved. Dempsey was retired, having last fought in 1927, but the Manassa Mauler was still a towering personality and his involvement ensured good national newspaper coverage. For advertising purposes, he was named the actual promoter, the makeshift wooden stadium erected in the infield of the thoroughbred track was named for him, and he would serve as the bout’s referee.

At this stage of their respective careers, Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun were borderline journeymen. Baer’s best days were ahead of him, but he had lost three of his last five. Uzcudun had lost four of his last seven beginning with a 15-round setback to Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. But Baer was still recognized as a man with a pulverizing punch and the pairing was smart from a geographical perspective. Baer had cultivated a strong following in northern California, Reno’s primary tourist market. Uzcudun, who had his early fights in Paris, hailed from the Basque region of Spain.

The Reno area was home to many people of Basque descent, and Uzcudun, nicknamed the Basque Woodchopper, had a ready-made fan base. It was 11 pm on June 4 when Uzcudun arrived in Reno on the Southern Pacific to set up his training quarters, but despite the late hour, thousands were reportedly at the rail terminal waiting to greet him.

Baer arrived a few days later. It was customary in those days for the headliners in a big show outside a major metropolis to arrive in the host city several weeks before the event. They held public workouts and were squired around town to press the flesh to goose the gate.

With the city about to be inundated by a great throng, the Chamber of Commerce undertook a campaign to discourage price-gouging. The District Attorney cautioned homeowners renting beds to visitors to exercise caution when accepting checks, “particularly checks drawn on banks in other cities.” Those that came by rail and could afford a berth in a Pullman car brought their own hotel rooms. The Pullmans were diverted to a side track where they sat until the excursionists were ready to leave.

There was never a dull moment in Reno, a place where gambling houses operated around the clock. Reporters had plenty to write about besides the big fight. The cantankerous mayor, E.E. Roberts, was quite a character. To boost tourism, he “advocated placing a barrel of corn whiskey on every corner of the city with a dipper attached and a sign directing all favorably inclined to drink as much as they pleased.” Prohibition was still in effect and this didn’t sit well with federal prohibition agents. On June 30, the day prior to the start of the racing meet and four days before the big fight, agents from the San Francisco office descended on the city, raiding 19 saloons and arresting 37 people for violating the Volstead Act. By most accounts, this barely dented the city’s saloon industry.

The Fight

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Although no title was at stake, the bout — billed as the “Battle of the Sagebrush” — was scheduled for 20 rounds. It was a messy affair fought on a sweltering day where the temperature at ringside climbed into the mid-90s. “On occasion they butted like goats,” said a ringside reporter.

The match, which lasted the full distance, struck some reporters as vicious and others as rather tame – there were no knockdowns — but on two matters everyone agreed: it was a closely contested contest and both Baer and Uzcudun exhibited great stamina. By and large, Baer landed the cleaner punches but Uzcudun, who had a famously awkward style, a peek-a-boo defense grafted to a low crouch, stubbornly pressed the action and was commended for his tenacity.

At the end of the 19th round, referee Dempsey, the sole arbiter, leaned over to a group of reporters and told them that he would award the fight to the man that had the best of it in the final round. That proved to be the Basque Woodchopper, who had attracted most of the bets in the betting shed built adjacent to the arena.

The attendance was listed at 18,000, but it would be reported that only 9,260 paid. Looking back 10 years later, an attendee recalled that “gatecrashers by the hundreds swarmed over the racetrack fences and infiltrated from all angles. There just weren’t enough cops, ushers, and guards to handle them.”

The promoters reportedly lost money, but the visitors must have been good spenders because Dempsey was back in Reno with another Fourth of July prizefight the following year. The 1932 promotion, pitting Max Baer against King Levinsky in the main event, was a big disappointment, playing out in a half-empty stadium, but at least those in attendance could say that they got to see a future heavyweight champion in action. Not quite two years later, Baer massacred Primo Carnera at an outdoor arena in Queens, igniting a short- lived title reign. (Rising heavyweight contender Joe Louis would subsequently defeat all three of the Reno headliners, knocking out Levinsky, Baer, and Uzcudun, in that order, in consecutive bouts.)

Reno’s second “Battle of the Sagebrush” was a would-be extravaganza that fell flat, the fate of most holiday festival fights, a development that the late, great sportswriter John Lardner attributed to “chuckleheaded boosterism.”

That’s a story for another day. In the meantime, here’s wishing everyone a Happy Fourth of July.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a reprint of a story that ran on these pages on July 2, 2018.

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Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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Johnny Famechon was a Hero in Australia Where Willie Pep Had a Bad Night

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Willie Pep was good at boxing. He wasn’t so good at math. Ah, but hold the phone; we are getting ahead of ourselves. This isn’t a story about Willie Pep, but about former world featherweight champion Johnny Famechon who passed away last Thursday, Aug. 4, in Melbourne, Australia, at age 77.

Famechon was five years old when his parents left his birthplace in Paris and settled in Melbourne. He came to the fore in an era when boxing was still a mainstream sport and home-grown champions were national idols. The locals turned out in droves for the parade in Johnny’s honor when he returned to Melbourne after taking the featherweight crown from the Cuban-born Spaniard Jose Legra in a big upset at London’s Prince Albert Hall.

HeraldSun

Famechon’s Welcome Home Parade

Famechon’s first title defense came against Japan’s Fighting Harada. They met in Sydney, Australia, on July 28, 1969.

At age 26, Harada was a battle-tested veteran. He previously held world titles at flyweight and bantamweight and would be remembered as the only man to defeat the great Brazilian boxer Eder Jofre, a feat he accomplished not once, but twice.

Only two boxers in history – Bob Fitzsimmons and Henry Armstrong – had won world titles in three of the eight classic weight divisions. Harada, who entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995, was bidding to become the third.

Team Harada insisted on a neutral referee. The British promoters chose Willie Pep. A legend in the sport, Pep had previously shared a ring with another Famechon, having out-pointed Johnny’s uncle Ray Famechon in a featherweight title defense at Madison Square Garden in 1950.

Some thought that Pep would favor Fighting Harada. American referees put a higher premium on aggression than did their foreign counterparts and Harada was a little buzzsaw who rarely took a backward step. But others thought that Pep’s selection favored Famechon, an elusive counterpuncher with whom the Connecticut “Will-‘o-Wisp” could identify; their styles were similar.

Pep had been the third man in the ring for four previous title fights, three in Jamaica and one in Brazil. But this fight would be different. He would be the sole arbiter. If the fight went the full 15 rounds, Willie Pep would be the judge and jury.

During the bout, Famechon scored one knockdown, sending Harada to the canvas in round five, but Harada scored three, knocking Famechon down in rounds two, 11, and 14. The last of the three knockdowns was the harshest, but Famechon made it to the final bell.

The fight ended in a clinch. Immediately upon separating the fighters, Pep raised both of their hands, a signal that the fight was a draw.

Fighting Harada’s handlers were outraged and demanded to see the scorecard. A policeman at ringside was empowered to give it a look-over (Australia had no boxing commission). What the policeman found was that there was indeed a discrepancy. However, it was the opposite of what Team Harada anticipated!

The fight was scored on the antiquated system whereby the winner of a round was awarded five points and the loser four points or less. In the case of an even round, both fighters got five points.

After 13 rounds, Fighting Harada had amassed 59 points on Pep’s card. He won the 14th round, giving him an aggregate total of 64 points. But when Pep added up the numbers “59” and “5” in the column where he kept the aggregate total, he came up with “65.”

Oops.

When Pep signaled that the fight was a draw, people stormed the ring from all sides. Newspaper reports said the belligerents were about evenly divided. Famechon, the Aussie, was the crowd favorite, but Fighting Harada was well-backed in the betting markets, a very big industry in Australia. Many were even angrier when Famechon was summoned back to the ring to have his hand raised.

The Famechon-Harada fight aired live on Japanese television. In Japan, there was a great outpouring of outrage. Pep had been instructed to score a round 5-4 if the round was narrow and 5-3 if there was a clear-cut winner. Despite the knockdowns, Pep scored every round 5-4 or 5-5. In the revised tally, he had Famechon winning 6-5-4 in rounds.

“Harada loses to referee” was the headline in Japan’s leading sports daily. Willie Pep made no friends in Australia either. There were shouts of “Yankee go home” as he left the ring.

Famechon and Harada met again five months later in Tokyo. One would assume that Fighting Harada proved superior and got a fair shake, winning the third title denied him in Sydney. But don’t assume.

Harada was well ahead after ten rounds but faded. On the deck in round 10, Famachon returned the favor three rounds later, knocking Harada down hard with a perfectly placed left hook. Harada was in dire straights when he came out for round 14 and Famechon put him away.

Harada never fought again and Famechon left the sport six months later after losing his crown to Vicente Saldivar. Johnny was only 25 years old, but had crammed 67 fights into a nine-year pro career and said enough is enough.

Famechon’s post-boxing life took a tragic turn in 1991 when he was hit by a car while out jogging on a Sydney highway. He spent several weeks in a coma and several years in a wheelchair but eventually recovered most of his motor skills and regained his speech to the point where he could serve as a boxing color commentator on television. In 2018, a larger-than- life statue of Famechon was unveiled at a public park in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston where he was a longtime resident.

For the record, Johnny Famechon finished his career with a record of 56-5-6 with 20 KOs. We here at The Sweet Science send our condolences to his loved ones.

Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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Fast Results from Fort Worth Where Vergil Ortiz Jr Won His 19th Straight by KO

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In a match pushed back from March 19, Vergil Ortiz Jr moved one step closer to a mega-fight with Terence “Bud” Crawford or Errol Spence Jr or Boots Ennis with a ninth-round stoppage of England’s feather-fisted Michael McKinson. The end came 20 seconds into round nine when McKinson appeared to injure his knee as he fell to the canvas, an apparent residue of the body punch that put him on the deck late in the previous stanza. To that point, Ortiz had seemingly won every round.

It was the 19th win inside the distance in as many opportunities for Ortiz who resides in nearby Grand Prairie and was making his first start with new trainer Manny Robles. McKinson was undefeated heading in, but had scored only two knockouts while building his record to 22-0.

Ortiz, ranked #1 at welterweight by the WBA and the WBO, pulled out of the March 19 bout after being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a muscle disorder associated with over-training.

Ortiz’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, says that Ortiz will fight the winner of Errol Spence vs Terence Crawford next assuming that the fight gets made, and if doesn’t get made, Ortiz’s next fight will be with one or the other. The WBA, which stamped tonight’s fight an eliminator, may push to have Ortiz fight their secondary title-holder, Eimantas Stanionis.

Co-Feature

Houston’s Marlen Esparza (13-1, 1 KO) successfully defended her WBA/WBC world flyweight title with a unanimous decision over plucky 4’11 ½” Venezuelan southpaw Eva Guzman who had won 14 straight coming in, albeit against soft opposition. The judges had it 98-92 and 99-91 twice.

Guzman (19-2-1) was game, but just didn’t have the physical tools to overcome Esparza whose lone defeat came at the hands of talented Seneisa Estrada.

Other Fights of Note

In a 10-round match contested at the catchweight of 150 pounds, Blair “The Flair” Cobbs rebounded from his first defeat with a career-best performance, a wide decision over former WBO 140-pound world titlist Maurice Hooker. It was the second straight loss for Hooker who returned to the ring after a 17-month hiatus and came out flat. Cobbs put him on the canvas in the opening frame with a combination and decked him twice more with straight lefts in round two.

Things got somewhat dicey for Cobbs in round five when he suffered a bad gash on his forehead from an accidental head butt, but Hooker, who had stablemate Bud Crawford in his corner, hesitated to let his hands go and couldn’t reverse the tide. The judges had it 96-91 and 97-90 twice for the flamboyant Cobbs who improved to 16-1-1 (10). Hooker, a consensus 5/2 favorite, lost for the third time in his last five starts and slumped to 27-3-3.

In the opener to the main portion of the DAZN card, Uzbekistan’s Bektimir Melikuziev (10-1, 8 KOs), a super middleweight growing into a light heavyweight, dominated and stopped overmatched Sladan Janjanin. Melikuziev put Janjanin down with a body punch in the opening minute of the fight and scored two more knockdowns before the bout was halted at the 2:18 mark of round three.

This was Melikuziev’s third fight back after his shocking one-punch annihilation by Gabriel Rosado. Janjanin, a well-traveled Bosnian who fought three weeks ago in Massachusetts, declined to 32-12 and was stopped for the eighth time.

Also

Chicago welterweight Alex Martin (18-4, 6 KOs) overcame a first-round knockdown to win a unanimous decision over 38-year-old Philadelphia journeyman Henry Lundy. The judges had it an unexpectedly wide 98-91, 97-92, 97-92.

Martin was coming off a points loss to McKinson and this bout was his reward for taking that fight on short notice. Lundy (31-11-1) has lost five of his last seven.

Floyd “Austin Kid” Schofield, a lightweight who appears to have a big upside, advanced to 11-0 (9 KOs) at the expense of Mexican trial horse Rodrigo Guerrero whose corner wisely pulled him out after five one-sided rounds. It was the ninth straight loss for Guerrero (26-15).

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Conlan Wins His Belfast Homecoming; Breezes Past Lackadaisical Marriaga

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“The Return of the Mick” was the label attached to tonight’s show at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The reference was to local fan favorite Michael “Mick” Conlan who returned to his hometown in hopes of jump-starting his career after suffering his first pro loss in a brutal encounter with Leigh Wood.

In that bout, a strong “Fight of the Year contender, Conlan was narrowly ahead on all three cards heading into the 12th and final round when the roof fell in. Wood, who was making the first defense of his WBA world featherweight title on his home turf in Nottingham, knocked the favored Conlan unconscious and clear out of the ring.

This was the sort of fight that can shorten a man’s career. Hence the intrigue in Conlan’s homecoming fight tonight against Miguel Marriaga. On paper, the Colombian, a three-time world title challenger, was a stern test considering the circumstances.

To the contrary, Marriaga had no fire in his belly until the final round when he hit Conlan with a shot that buckled his knees. But, by then Conlan was so far ahead without overly exerting himself that there was virtually no chance of another meltdown.

While Conlan won lopsidedly, the scores – 99-89 and 99-88 twice – were somewhat misleading. True, “Mick” had Marriaga on the deck in rounds 7, 8, and 9, but the punches that put him there did not look particularly hard.

Conlan, 30, improved to 17-1 (8). Marriaga, 35, declined to 30-6.

After the fight, Conlan expressed the hope that Leigh Wood would give him a rematch.

Other Bouts of Note

In an entertaining 10-round welterweight scrap that could have gone either way, Belfast’s Tyrone McKenna (23-3-1, 6 KOs) rebounded from his defeat in Dubai to Regis Prograis (TKO by 6) with a hard-fought unanimous decision over 33-year-old Welshman Chris Jenkins (23-6-3). The judges favored the local fighter by scores of 97-94 and 96-95 twice.

Jenkins, a former British and Commonwealth title-holder, had the best of the early going, working the body effectively while frequently finding a home for his uppercut, but he could not sustain his advantage.

Thirty-four-year-old Belfast super middleweight Padraig McCrory who got a late start in boxing, scored the most important win of his career with a fifth-round stoppage of Marco Antonio Periban, a former world title challenger. McCrory had Periban on the deck three times – once in the second and twice in the fifth – before the bout was halted at the 2:14 mark of round five.

It was the fourth straight win inside the distance for McCrory who improved to 14-0 (8 KOs). Mexico’s Periban, who returned to the sport in April after missing all of 2020 and 2021, fell to 26-6-1.

Highly-touted welterweight Paddy Donovan improved to 9-0 (6) with an 8-round unanimous decision over Yorkshireman Tom Hall (10-3). The referee scored every round for Donovan, an Irish Traveler trained by Tyson Fury’s bosom buddy Andy Lee, the former world middleweight title-holder.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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