". . . The hardest thing about prizefighting is pickin' up yer teeth with a boxin' glove on."
Way out in the Montana cowboy suburb of Shelby, a bunch of the boys were whooping it up one night in 1923 in an all-night saloon (Prohibition hadn't reached into this distant oasis). An oil strike had boomed the town's populace from 500 to 10,000, and the leading citizens were gathered around some Red Eye to discuss the filthy rich vistas that lay ahead. Somebody said why not really put Shelby on the map? Why not get Jack Dempsey to come out and defend his world's heavyweight title against someone like Tom Neil Gibbons?Everybody liked the idea but Dempsey didn't even answer the first few wires. Neither did Gibbons, an aging light-heavy from St. Paul. But the Chamber of Commerce spirit in Shelby wouldn't back down and soon the champion's manager, Doc Kearns, began to smell money in the great outdoors. He said he would bring his boy out for a guarantee of, say, $300,000 plus
50 per cent of the gate in excess of that sum. High-riding Shelby's leading citizens took a deep breath, and maybe some more Red Eye, and started prospecting for investors.
Montana turned out to be crawling with believers-in-the-future. Dirt farmers, sheepherders, cowhands, bankers and the new oil barons put out money in stacks. In no time at all, Shelby had a $200,000 bundle ready for Kearns as evidence of its good intentions. In another twenty days, willing hands threw up a clapboard arena for 40,000all on owings. The fight was staged July 4, 1923, and it turned out to be the blackest day in Montana's history. The expected migration from the sports-loving neighboring states simply failed to occur. Came the broiling noonday sun, there were but 1,500 paying customers sitting under ten-gallon hats in the rickety stands, while a scant 10,000 lounged outside wondering whether a fist fight between
Jack Dempsey and Tom Gibbons could possibly be worth a $20 to 50 scale. Some 6,000 eventually dug into their jeans, but another 4,000 took the more thrifty way and crashed the jerry-built arena even as Internal Revenue agentson hand to put the lock on Uncle Sam's share of the gatefired pistols over their heads.
The battle in the ring didn't help. Dempsey, inactive except for his stage labors since his 1921 defense against Georges Carpentier, toiled through fifteen dreary rounds to a decision. Then he had to be spirited aboard a train for Great Falls because there were hotheads in Shelby who thought he hadn't put out enough muscle and sweat.
Kearns, a fastidious gentleman in money matters, tarried long enough to sweep up $80,000 out of the $201,000 in receipts. It was about all he could carry, what with so many silver dollars in the haul. The wily manager hid out in the cellar of the town barbershop before slipping into the caboose of an east-bound choo-choo under nightfall's merciful cover; his popularity had suffered even more than the champion's. In the wake of Shelby's debacle, mortgage holders seized the lumber from the arena to satisfy unpaid bills, the principal investors went broke, three banks collapsed and the town fell back into its former obscurity; even the oil ceased to flow. John Lardner called the incident "The Sack of Shelby"a suitable epitaph. It couldn't have happened, of course, in any other time than the Lawless Decade. There would never again be a scramble for gold so frantic that the rankest amateurs would undertake to get in with the city slickers and promote a heavyweight title bout. Not in our time, certainly.
DEMPSEY AND THE WILD BULL
"There could be no honor in a sure success, but much might be wrested from a sure defeat."
THOMAS EDWARD LAWRENCE
The thing to do after the Dempsey-Gibbons fiasco was to rebuild the Manassa Mauler's injured name. The best possible party of the second part in this undertaking appeared to be Luis Angel Firpo, the heavyweight champion of South America, who was an inch and a half taller than Dempsey at six-foot-three, substantially wider and heavier and at least as ferocious. Everyone said that a meeting between these two prehistoric specimens would be a throwback to the days when men fought with clubs. So the fight drew 80,000 curious customerssome in minkto the Polo Grounds in New York on September 14, 1923. The fans paid $1,188,603 (ringside sold for $27.50), and went home or back to the speakeasies with no sense of having been cheated. The gladiators used up only three minutes and fifty-seven seconds but put on the most savage prize fight in recorded history. Both men emerged covered with blood and glory.
Firpo, 216-1/2 pounds on the hoof and justly called the Wild Bull of the Pampas, landed the first blows. A left to the
head and a right to the body caused Dempsey's knees to wobble and touch the canvas. This was the wrong way to play with the sensitive champion, of course. He got so angry he knocked Firpo down seven times. Dempsey used all the known combinations, and between knockdowns, instead of going to the prescribed neutral corner, stood over the Argentinian to hit him again as he got up. But for all this awful punishment the hairy Good Neighbor retained enough strength in that round to summon up a fierce right that knocked his tormentor clear out of the ring.Willing hands working in the press delegation pushed the champion back through the ropes at the count of nine, saving his title.
In the second, Dempsey quickly floored Firpo with a series of pile-driving short hooks, but the challenger kept coming.
"He did not rise like a beaten man," said W.O. McGeehan in the New York Herald. "The blood gushed from the battered lips, but the eyes behind the narrow lids were gleaming like the points of white-hot needles. His stout heart was still full of fight." It didn't help. A left and right to the jaw put the Wild Bull down again and it was over.
To this day the Argentine's proud partisans continue to ask the annoying question: Was it fair for those guys in the press row to push Dempsey back into the ring? Well, it was unfair, unsporting and also illegal. At the time, Firpo didn't linger to cry over the million dollar title that got away. He went home, bought some ranches with his new-found wealth, and ran into bad trouble the next year when he came back to fight Harry Wills. It turned out that the Firpo entourage on the steamer included a curvy Latin beauty who was listed as the gladiator's stenographer but actually possessed no skill in the secretarial arts. This rather personal item formed the
basis of a battle by Canon William Sheafe Chase of Brooklyn to get Firpo arrested for perjury, banished from our shores for moral turpitude and jailed for violation of the Mann Act, among other bad things.
The Argentine Brawler either had excellent presence of mind or good legal counsel. He shipped the lovely evidencethe Senorita, that isdown to Havana just as the Canon and a small army of recruits was closing the net around him. The Clean-Living forces couldn't even stop the Wills fight, although they were joined by eager morals crusaders in New Jersey, where the bout had to be held because little old New York didn't want a mixed prize fight. Wills, by the way, slapped Firpo around for the full twelve rounds, beating him badly. There may be a lesson in that, but this author is loath to draw it because he doesn't want to offend any Latin girls.