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The Dempsey-Gibbons Fiasco: An Odd Duck in Boxing’s Rollicking Summer of ‘23

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This coming Fourth of July marks the 100th anniversary of one of the oddest promotions in boxing history, the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons in remote Shelby, Montana. TSS special correspondent Rich Blake, an authority on prizefighting during the so-called Golden Age of Sports, looks back at that bizarre event.

Around midnight one evening in mid-May of 1923, the 20th Century Limited, crown jewel of American passenger rail travel, came streaking through central New York’s Mohawk Valley en route to Chicago.

Riding in a luxury Pullman car was Jack “Doc” Kearns, a focal point of the sporting world as he attempted to pull off one of the most outlandish sporting schemes ever conceived. A raconteur in a flashy suit, Kearns was the manager of Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion. Throughout that night, the 40-year-old Kearns played cards with scoop-hungry scribes and an old friend, Benny Leonard, then reigning lightweight champion.

Before climbing aboard, Kearns reportedly had arranged for one final meeting with the fight game’s foremost promoter, George “Tex” Rickard, who not only ran Madison Square Garden but also had wangled permission to stage outdoor bouts that summer at the newly opened, 58,000-seat Yankee Stadium.

Garrulous, manipulative, Kearns was sticking it to Rickard by way of an ambitious plot to circumvent the boxing world’s Mecca. Kearns had arranged to stage Dempsey’s next fight – a July 4th championship extravaganza against Tommy Gibbons – in the middle of nowhere. A 34-year-old light heavyweight from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Gibbons was known for his speed and clever tactics.

Rickard didn’t flinch. At age 53, the former gold prospector and casino operator was under siege by headline writers, not to mention state boxing authorities, over a string of sensational scandals, including ticket gouging allegations.

Nevertheless, Rickard was quietly reasserting control over the lease on the Garden (the property was owned by the New York Life Insurance Company) and holding sway over issues such as who should challenge Dempsey for the title, where would that fight be held, and how much the least expensive tickets would cost?

Kearns connivingly outmuscled Rickard (and his hefty cut of the gate) earlier that spring by striking a deal with a group of Shelby, Montana, oil field operators reimagining their cowpoke settlement near the Canadian border as the host of a world-class sporting event.

Kearns insisted on a $300,000 payday, extracting one-third of it up front. Shelby’s residents tapped all possible resources to get the money together and started scrambling to build a giant wooden stadium. All the while, Kearns was still playing the angles.

So, was Rickard willing to match the Shelby offer?

“I wouldn’t pay a nickel to see Tommy Gibbons,” Rickard reportedly said, turning Kearns down.

What eventually played out in remote northwest Montana in that rollicking summer of ’23 remains the stuff of cultural lore, a glorious fiasco that is still talked- about one century later.

***

The decade that roared, as of the midpoint of 1923, was not yet in full-throated form, at least in terms of sheer, unbridled jazz-and-hooch-infused zeitgeist energy.

Dempsey’s exploits dominated headlines. But boxing was teeming with colorful characters and contenders. Talented fighters in every weight class made a living competing in rings found in virtually every city in every state.

To rediscover this specific, fascinating slice of a so-called “golden age” is both an intoxicating thrill-ride and a sobering wake-up call. Boxing dominated society as it never had before, and reflected it, for better and for worse.

An endlessly rich tapestry of pugilistic storylines filled the pages of magazines such as The Police Gazette, The Ring and The Boxing Blade. Two dozen or more sportswriters were on the beat – just in New York City, where every neighborhood had its champion. It was a flag of ethnic pride, as Jack Newfield once explained to PBS. “Rivalries were built on ethnic tension,” he said. “You could get ten thousand people for a fight between two neighborhood heroes.”

Boxing flourished almost everywhere. In New York City, each of the five boroughs had multiple boxing clubs. A regional city, such as Buffalo, N.Y., supported two major boxing events per week at the 10,000-seat Broadway Auditorium. Fighters could earn a decent living in the middle-tier markets all while hoping to catch the attention of some manager or matchmaker in the Big Town. A Boxing Blade issue from around this time chronicled a week’s worth of noteworthy fights in New York and Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia, Buffalo and Milwaukee, as well as in Erie, Pa., Sandusky, Ohio, Newark, N.J., Staten Island, N.Y., Flint, Mich., Wichita, Kan., Springfield, Ill. and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just to list a small sample of locales during one seven-day stretch.

Summertime, the outdoor season – that’s when the brightest stars came out to shine. Fights were staged at ballparks, velodromes and seaside resorts.

After boxing in New York was re-legalized under the liberal Walker Law in 1920, it exploded into a full-fledged industry with its informal headquarters at Madison Square Garden, operated by Rickard. The bulk of his public relations wound up essentially outsourced to a murderers row of syndicated sportswriters – Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice, to name two of the most iconic.

Stephen Dubner, co-author of the popular “Freakonomics” book series, unearthed research by the American Society of Newspaper Editors that showed one out of four readers bought a paper for the sports page. The editors voted Dempsey the “greatest stimulation to circulation in twenty years.”

***

Of course, no retrospective on boxing circa the summer of ’23 can sidestep a fight that should have been – but never was.

Dempsey always insisted he was open to taking on black opponents. The leading heavyweight challenger heading into that summer of ’23 was 34-year-old Harry Wills, dubbed the world’s “colored” heavyweight champion. As such, Wills proved a reliable draw among white audiences, provided he took on a black challenger.

Wills was a burly ex-dockworker from New Orleans, transplanted from the Big Easy to the Big Apple. He was growing old waiting for authorities to force Dempsey to accept his challenge. Frustrated, his career going in circles (he fought Sam Langford at least 17 times), Wills would eventually align himself with a couple of Irishmen. He sought out a new manager, Paddy Mullins, a Bowery bar owner who grew up staging backroom fights, and who was old friends with a Queens promoter named Simon Flaherty who was keen to build a stadium suitable for putting on Dempsey-Wills.

The stadium, situated across from Manhattan in Long Island City, got built, got shut down by the fire department, was refurbished and then re-opened. But Wills’ title shot never happened.

Historians have blamed public sentiment alongside powerful figures such as Rickard (who once supposedly, infamously, told one financial backer the title would be worthless if a black man ever won it) and William Muldoon, the head of the New York Boxing Commission, an avowed opponent of interracial matches in his younger days.

(In Edward Van Every’s biography of Muldoon, “The Solid Man of Sport,” there’s a reference — repeated in Roger Kahn’s biography of Dempsey, “A Flame of Pure Fire” — to a Dempsey-Wills championship match supposedly, at least momentarily, having been made by Rickard who penciled in the Polo Grounds, a sporting coliseum near Yankee Stadium, as a possible location. But the white establishment of 1923 so loathed the thought of a black champion that the idea was quashed. And while the Muldoon-led boxing governing body at one point publicly demanded Dempsey sign papers to fight Wills or forfeit his crown — curiously flouting formal and informal rules forbidding mixed-race bouts — there were also reports that, concurrently, behind the scenes, Albany politicians pressured Muldoon and Rickard to scrap the idea.)

Additionally, Montreal was also considered as a location until, per Van Every, Her Majesty’s government quietly intervened.

Wills had defended what sports pages called his colored heavyweight championship in the fall of ’22 against Clem Johnson at Madison Square Garden (then located on Twenty-Second Street). Wills knocked him out in front of 10,000 fans. Sportswriters were divided on the top contender’s performance. “The giant New Orleans black challenger for the world’s heavyweight boxing title, held by Jack Dempsey, last night battered his way to victory,” the New York Times said.

“That dismal exhibition put up by Harry Wills against Clem Johnson in the Garden may have been the one thing needed to make a Dempsey-Wills bout possible,” the New York Sun said. “Jack Kearns has been telling the boys that Wills has gone back so far that he is not one-fourth as good as he was a few years ago.”

Kearns may have been right, the newspaper added. “But it is possible that he does not pay as much attention to the fact that Wills did not train very seriously for the Johnson affair. With two or three months of real training under his belt, Harry may prove to be a different sort of a fighter.”

So, sportswriters of the day wanted to see Dempsey-Wills and treated “The Black Panther” as a legitimate challenger, stoking curiosity in a bout supposedly the public did not want to see.

As Boxing Scene once put it, citing historian Kevin Smith, Wills’ primary asset was his strength.

“He could move other men around the ring as he pleased,” Smith said.

Considered a top contender for almost seven years, Wills never could fathom or accept being denied a title shot.

“No number one contender could be ignored for that long today,” Smith said. “But the racial tones of that time simply would not allow such a bout.”

Kahn would write that with Rickard, “the issue was money, not prejudice. Or, anyway, money before prejudice.”

***

The scuttling of the Dempsey-Wills match, were it ever really in the cards to begin with, opened the door to a curious chain of events that led to one of the craziest boxing tales of all time.

Loy J. Molumby, an ex-fighter pilot and the cowboy-boots-wearing head of Montana’s American Legion, tracked down Dempsey’s manager in a New York hotel, after being stood-up in Chicago. Molumby carried with him a satchel filled with $100,000. It was the one-third (of the total guaranteed $300,000) that Kearns had demanded up front before he would even discuss such a preposterous concept.

Shelby’s residents tapped all possible resources to get the money together and started scrambling to make arrangements. Roads needed paving. The little railroad depot needed to be expanded. A local lumberyard sprang for $80,000 worth of pine boards for the hasty construction of an open-air octagon.

In 1923, Shelby was a community with “visions – delusions, as it turned out – of boom-town grandeur,” said Jeff Welsch, a Montana sportswriter. Three years earlier, according to the decadal census, fewer than 600 people lived there.

Did we mention there were no paved roads?

An oil strike on a nearby ranch the previous year sparked fantasies of Shelby as the “Tulsa of the West,” according to Welsch.

After giving Rickard a chance to match the Shelby offer, Kearns headed off to rendezvous with Dempsey who was doing some fly fishing on the Missouri River.

The plan was to meet at a training camp being established on the grounds of an old roadhouse on the outskirts of Great Falls, Montana, some 90 miles south of the proposed site of the Independence Day spectacle. The Dempsey faction – Jack’s brother, Johnny, the trainers, and a bull terrier mascot – were preparing the camp. Meanwhile, Kearns put together a deep stable of sparring partners, 17 and counting. Kearns wanted speedy fighters to get the champ prepared for Gibbons, known for being fast with his punches, but Kearns was also widening his talent stable. Red Carr, manager of then-19-year-old Jimmy Slattery, a future light heavyweight champion, would be enticed by an offer from Kearns to send his then-ripening speed boy out to Great Falls, but Red, after giving his blessing, reversed course and nixed the idea.

As for the July 4th heavyweight championship fight staged in the tiny town of Shelby, Montana, it would rank among the most monumental fiascos in the history of sports.

Molumby paid up the second $100,000 installment two months before the fight.

With a week to go, the mayor of Shelby visited Kearns in Great Falls. They only had $1,600 of the final payment. Might he consider accepting 50,000 sheep instead of hard cash?

Dempsey, listless in training, beat, but never dominated Gibbons in a tedious affair witnessed by fewer than 20,000 spectators, half of whom crashed the gates.

The temperature at ringside was close to 100 degrees.

The big takeaway: Dempsey, two years idle from ring activities, failed to knock Gibbons out.

Dempsey and Kearns, along with an armed security detail, fled the scene as fast as they could by private train.

Kearns got out of town with the gate receipts. The banks of Shelby, which had underwritten the event, went bankrupt.

As for Tommy Gibbons, who wound up with nothing, he went on to become the long-serving sheriff of Minnesota’s Ramsey County, home to the State Capitol of St. Paul. As for Dempsey, he would soon journey back east to begin training for his next opponent Luis Angel Firpo, but that’s a story for another day.

Editor’s postscript: The population of Shelby is now a shade over 3,000. The locals no longer consider the fight a civic embarrassment, but rather as something to commemorate. This year, the July 4 festivities will be wrapped around the centennial of Shelby’s “Fight of the Century.” Months of planning have gone into making this Shelby’s grandest Fourth of July ever. Contact the Shelby Area Chamber of Commerce (406-434-7184) for more information.

Rich Blake is a journalist and the author of four non-fiction books, including 2015’s “Slats: The Legend & Life of Jimmy Slattery.”

 

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Denny and Crocker Win in Birmingham: Catterall vs Prograis a Go for Aug. 24

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Matchroom was at Resorts World in Birmingham, England today with a card topped by an EBU European middleweight title fight between Tyler Denny and Felix Cash. Denny was the defending champion and had home field advantage, but Cash, undefeated heading in (16-0, 10 KOs) went to post a consensus 9/4 favorite.

A member of the Irish Traveler community, Cash was making his first start in 18 months. As noted by Tris Dixon, he had a number of distractions during his hiatus, including a bitter divorce. Tonight, he looked rusty and he never did get the chance to establish a rhythm.  In the second round, he suffered a cut on his right eyelid from what was ruled an accidental clash of heads. The cut deepened, and in round five the referee stopped the action and had the ringside physician inspect the wound. On his advice, the bout was stopped.

Owing to the derivation of the cut, the bout went to the scorecards. Tyler Denny was ahead on all three cards: 49-46 and 49-47 twice.

Denny, who improved to 19-2-3, won his second straight inside the distance, an oddity as every one of his first 17 wins went to the scorecards.

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, Belfast welterweight Lewis Crocker advanced to 21-0 (11) with a unanimous but unpopular 10-round decision over Wolverhampton’s Conah Walker (13-3-1). The judges had it 95-94 and 96-93 twice. There were no knockdowns, but Walker had a point deducted in round nine for low blows.

The crowd’s dissatisfaction with the decision (Walker was clearly the busier fighter) was tempered by the fact they got to see a doozy of a fight. At times, notably in the last two rounds, the action was furious.

A rematch is in order, but all indications are that Crocker’s next fight will come against Paddy Donovan who was in attendance. A Top Rank signee from Limerick, Ireland, Donovan is 14-0 as a pro after a decorated amateur career.

Before the main event, Matchroom honcho Eddie Hearn announced that he had come to terms with Jack Catterall and Regis Prograis who will lock horns on Aug. 24 at the new Co-Op Live arena in Manchester, England. In his last assignment, Catterall comprehensively out-pointed former unified 140-pound world champion Josh Taylor while avenging the lone “L” on his record, a highly controversial setback to Taylor two years earlier in Glasgow. Regis Prograis, a two-time world title-holder at 140, has had only bad showing, but that came in his last start when he was thoroughly outclassed by Devin Haney.

Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom

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Results from Las Vegas where Rafael Espinoza Retained his WBO Title in Grand Style

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Top Rank made its first foray to the newest Las Vegas Strip resort, the Fontainebleu, tonight. Topping the bill was an all-Mexican featherweight title fight between Guadalajara’s Rafael Espinoza and Oaxaca’s Sergio Chirino. The lanky Espinoza, at six-foot-one the tallest featherweight world title-holder in history, was making the first defense of the title he won with a shocking upset of Robeisy Ramirez and tonight he looked sensational.

Espinoza, who advanced his record to 25-0 with his 21st KO, had his countryman on the canvas in the very first round, the result of a counter left uppercut. Chirino wasn’t badly hurt, but it quickly became apparent that he was out-gunned. In round three, Espinoza sent him to the canvas again with a four-punch combo climaxed by a short left to the liver, and Chirino would be down once again in the following round, hunched down from a series of punches that caught only air. At this juncture, referee Raul Caiz Jr wisely stepped in and stopped the fight. The official time was 2:45 of round four. Chirino, who came in riding a 13-fight winning streak, declined to 22-2.

Espinoza is expected to have a rematch with Ramirez, provided that Robeisy gets past his Mexican opponent later this month in a match that, on paper, looks like an easy win for the Cuban southpaw. In their first meeting, the unheralded Espinoza was a massive underdog. Based on his showing tonight, he looks no worse than “pick-‘em” in the sequel.

Co-Feature

In a 10-round junior lightweight fight, North Las Vegas native Andres Cortes scored a unanimous decision over former world title challenger Abraham Nova. The scores favored the local fighter by scores of 96-94 and 97-93 twice.

Cortes had the crowd in his corner, but the reaction when the verdict was announced was one of surprise. Nova, who was credited with throwing and landing more punches, was in better condition and seemingly had the best of it in the late rounds. It was the twenty-second win without a loss for Cortes. Nova (23-3), a class act,  was diplomatic in defeat.

Also

In a true crossroads fight (a “pink slip” fight in the words of ESPN commentator Mark Kriegel),Troy Isley, a former Olympian and stablemate of Terence Crawford, out-worked Javier Martinez to win a unanimous 10-round decision. The judges had it 96-92-and 97-91 twice.

The middleweights were well-acquainted, having split four fights at the amateur level. Isley, from Alexandria, VA, improved to 13-0 (5) Martinez, born in Milwaukee to immigrants from Mexico, was 10-0-1 heading in. Both fighters lost a point for low blows after repeated warnings from referee Tony Weeks.

Other Bouts of Note

In an 8-round bantamweight fight that turned zesty after a slow start, Floyd Mayweather Jr protégé Floyd “Cashflow” Diaz improved to 12-0 (3) with a unanimous decision over Tijuana’s Francisco Pedroza (18-12-2). The judges had it 78-73 across the board. Diaz was making his second start under the tutelage of Brian “Bomac” McIntyre. Pedroza lost a point in round six for hitting on the break.

Steven Navarro, a hot prospect from a prominent SoCal boxing family, won his second pro fight with a 6-round shutout over rugged but outclassed Juan Pablo Meza (7-4), a 33-year-old Chilean.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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