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Shelby’s Folly

Jack Dempsey Tommy GibbonsThe Crowd Went Wild…and Banks Failed

One of the most fascinating stories in the history of boxing was hatched over a several month period in the spring and summer of 1923 in the tiny hamlet of Shelby, Montana.

Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest personalities of that era (that’s him in the white trunks), came to Montana in that long ago summer to defend his title against a tough Irishman named Tommy Gibbons. Shelby barely survived.

The story of Shelby’s brief brush with international sports celebrity is ably told in a new book – Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown by Jason Kelly. The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Kelly’s book is both rich 1920’s American history and a cautionary tale about what can happen when a gaggle of slick promoters, a few local Chamber of Commerce-types and a big-time sporting event converge in a town, well, way out in the sticks.

In 1923, Shelby was a wind swept spot on the Montana map not far south from Glacier National Park. The young town was trying to make a go of it as a center of oil and agricultural production, but Shelby was hardly on the way to anywhere. A wealthy local businessman and his big thinking son thought Shelby had the potential to be “the Tulsa of the Northwest” and they hatched the idea to stage a heavyweight title fight in Shelby in order to put the town on the map. It worked, although not the way they intended.

The Montana hotshots found willing players in Dempsey and his flamboyant manager Doc Kearns. Kearns always sported a wild wardrobe, including dark blue shirts and yellow ties, and he and his celebrity fighter were eager to go anywhere, even Shelby, for a guaranteed $300,000 pay day.

After much haggling the big fight was set for July 4, 1923. Local promoters imported, at great expense, thousands of board of feet of lumber to build a massive, 40,000 seat outdoor arena and arranged for a nationwide ticket sale effort. The idea was that special trains would carry fight fans, willing to pay a King’s Ransom of $50 for a ticket, from as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Tommy Gibbons moved his wife and family to Shelby and set up a training camp. His only compensation – a little cash to offset training expenses and a shot at the champion’s title. Dempsey, after doing a little fly fishing on the Missouri River, set up his camp in Great Falls about 50 miles away.

Meanwhile, the financial plans of Shelby’s fight promoters went seriously south and the locals were having trouble coming up with Dempsey’s upfront fee as ticket sales lagged. At one point Kearns was offered 50,000 head of sheep in lieu of the cash he’d been guaranteed. He replied, “Now just what the hell would I do with 50,000 sheep in a New York apartment?”

Eventually, with Kearns holding the bout for ransom, the fight did come off, with most of the 40,000 seats empty and many fans sneaking in without paying anything. Dempsey, on a brutally hot afternoon, went the 15 round distance with Gibbons who had become a favorite of the local press and public. There is some great film of the bout that gives a sense of the arena and the crowd in Shelby, as well as the brawling style of the two fighters.

When he returned years later to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of the big fight, Gibbons was treated as though he had won the Shelby showdown. “I always get a kick out of those people,” Gibbons said. “To them, I won the heavyweight championship.”

Dempsey remembered years later that the Montana folks hadn’t liked him quite so much.

“For the first and only time, I was more worried about getting hurt by the crowd than by the guy I was fighting,” Dempsey said. “I got a pretty good blast when introduced. The crowd was hollering and raising hell. I looked around for my bodyguard, a colorful New York character named Wild Bill Lyons, who packed two pearl-handled pistols and used to talk a lot about his days in the West. Wild Bill was under the ring, hiding.”

Dempsey retained the world heavyweight title until 1926. He was a sports celebrity to rival Babe Ruth or Red Grange in the sports mad 1920’s and 1930’s and he lived out a long and profitable life as a former champ until his death at 88 in 1983.

Gibbons, like Dempsey a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, never won the big title, but did go on after his impressive ring career to serve four terms as the Sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota where, by all accounts, he was enormously popular and effective.

Shelby didn’t fare so well. As Kelly writes, “For years afterward, people would say to Kearns, ‘You and Dempsey broke three banks with one fight.’ He considered that a misinformed slur. ‘We broke four,’ Kearns would respond, correcting the record.”

The chief local promoter lost thousands of dollars and the merchants who were hoping to make a killing on the big crowd didn’t.

The colorful villain in Kelly’s fine little book is Dempsey’s manager Doc Kearns who the great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray eulogized in 1963 as the last of his kind of boxing shysters.

“There must be a no-limit crap game going on in the Great Beyond today,” Murray wrote upon Kearns’ death, “Or a high-stake poker game with a marked deck. Or some kind of graft. Otherwise, Doc Kearns would never have left here.”

Then, obviously with Shelby, Montana in 1923 in mind, Murray added, “Maybe there’s a nice little town that should be bilked. Or a nice little guy whose pockets are leaking money and he trusts people.”

Poverty in America

Homeless_Vet_With_FlagThe Poor Get Poorer

“The moral test of government,” Hubert Humphrey once said, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

By that measure, we are failing. The Great Recession has ripped another huge hole in the fabric of America life and the poverty rate, as reported this week, is at a 15-year high and expected to go higher in 2010. More than 43 million Americans, one in 7 in the country, now officially live in poverty. Those numbers take us back to 1959 when about the same number of Americans were officially poor. The numbers are considerably worse for African-Americans and Hispanics, with a quarter of all Hispanics and 36 percent of African-American children living in poverty.

The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, notes that poverty rates have been on a steady upward trend line since the late 1970’s. The Institute’s director, Dr. Timothy M. Smeeding, told the New York Times that the poverty numbers would be a lot worse if many people hadn’t had someone to move in with during the recession. The Times also noted in its front page story that the temporary aid – the stimulus and extension of unemployment benefits, for instance – that has been so controversial in Congress, has undoubtedly “eased the burdens of millions of families.”

Meanwhile, the debate rages in Washington over whether to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The Miami Herald has put together a helpful Q-A format report on just what is involved with the great 2010 debate over taxes. It is worth a look if you are as confused as I suspect most of us are about the generally out of touch rhetoric about “tax cuts.”

One takeaway, extending or ending the Bush cuts for the wealthiest Americans – families with adjusted gross income of $250,000 or more – impacts about 2.9 million Americans. Or, put another way about 40 million fewer people than are reported living in poverty.

In point of fact, the very, very rich pay taxes at significantly lower rates that most other Americans because so much of their income is in capital gains and dividends. The IRS has reported that the wealthiest 400 taxpayers in the United States in 2007, paid about 16.6 percent of their income in taxes.

Also worth considering: America’s income gap has been steadily growing since the late 1970’s. One wonders if there is any correlation between that fact and the steady increase in poverty in the same period?

“Each of America’s two biggest economic downturns over the last century has followed the same pattern” argues Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich in a recent essay.

“Consider,” Reich wrote, “in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America’s total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928—with 23.5 percent of the total.”

It is difficult – maybe impossible – to maintain for long a cohesive, forward-moving country with such a vast gap among the haves and have nots, with so many out of work, out of opportunity, worried about the next meal, the next need to visit the doctor or the next pair of shoes for the kids.The reality of this fact – the bleak circumstances of our fellow Americans in the shadows – is mostly lost in the current political debate over tax cuts, deficits and the struggling economy.

As The Guardian noted – you gotta love those Brits – “in a strange paradox, the party that is accused of doing too little to combat the crisis is poised to suffer heavy defeats in the upcoming mid-term elections by the party accused of doing nothing at all.”

It was hard to miss the paradox – or is it irony – of the “jump” of the Times story on poverty, which began on Friday’s page one and ended next to the Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany’s and Tod’s ads on page three.

Macy’s was touting an animal print mink jacket for $4,995 and Tod’s had a really nice purse for $1,495. Marketing to the one percent, I guess.

An Argentine Icon

firpoDempsey vs. Firpo – A Fight For All Time

Only the most die hard American sports fan is likely to recognize the name Luis Angel Firpo. In Argentina, he is a national icon thanks, in part, to one big fight and one amazing painting.

In 1923, Jack Dempsey was the biggest name in sports. The heavyweight champion of the world took a backseat to no one, not even the great Babe Ruth.

In 1923, Luis Firpo, nicknamed “the wild bull of the Pampas,” was handsome, strapping, 6′ 2″ heavyweight contender who had made a name for himself by beating, among others, former champ Jess Willard. On September 24, 1923, Dempsey and Firpo met before 80,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York. The fight was over inside of two rounds, but what a brawl it was.

Within a few seconds of the first round, Firpo knocked Dempsey down with a hay maker, but Dempsey bounced back to knock the Argentine down an unbelievable seven times. (No three knockdown rule and no neutral corners in those days.) Firpo somehow survived the onslaught and kept pn punching. Just before the end of the first round he hit the champion so hard that Dempsey fell through the ropes and out of the ring. Dempsey landed on the press table.

That moment – Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring – is captured in George Bellow’s famous painting.

Amazingly, somehow Big Jack pulled himself back into the ring and the round ended. The slug fest continued in the second round with Dempsey finally knocking Firpo out to retain the championship. Firpo pocketed more than $150,000 for the fight, a lot of money in 1923. He went on to fight a while longer, but used his smart business sense to parley his boxing skill into a fortune. Luis Firpo died in 1960, but is well remembered in Argentina where statutes have been erected in his memory.

The Bellow’s painting hasn’t hurt either man’s reputation either. Firpo is the only man to ever knock Dempsey out of a boxing ring. Dempsey was tough enough to take it and still prevail. The picture has been reproduced a million times. If I ever own a place where you could get a beer and shot, I know what would hang behind the bar.

There you have the Argentine roots of the one of the greatest boxing matches of all time and the origin of a painting the Smithsonian ranks as an American masterpiece.

Poverty in Idaho

That Could Be MeFood Stamp Usage, Crisis Assistance Stretch Providers; Families Try to Cope

Boise State Radio, the NPR station covering much of southern Idaho, has produced a remarkable series of stories this week focused on how the nation’s economic trials have impacted Idahoans.

It is the kind of journalism we sadly see too little of these days – no shrill political debate, none of the simple slogans that often tend to simplify an issue to the point of distortion. The station’s news staff has touched a raw nerve with this material – a young woman talking about not wanting to use food stamps, but having no choice and homeless families out of work and nearly out of hope.

The series – That Could Be Me – is available on line, at a website that lists a number of resources for those folks who often get attention only when unemployment numbers or food stamps usage is reported.

[Full disclosure: the station asked me to moderate a roundtable discussion with various providers and others who are trying to offer services and make sense of the enormous increase in poverty over the last year. The roundtable discussion airs several times over the next few days. It was a sobering experience to begin to understand the impact of what is happening.]

The 149,000 Idahoans using food stamps right now – that’s a 40% increase – aren’t welfare queens or shirkers, they are parents who have lost a job and in many cases have had to seek assistance for the first time in their lives. At the same time, public sector assistance has been stretched to the point of breaking and great organizations like the Salvation Army and Genesis World Mission lack the resources to fill the growing gap, much as they try.

For those of us who have it pretty good in this awful economy – a job with benefits, a comfortable safe place to live, never a wonder about where the next meal will come from – BSU Radio’s series is an uncomfortable wake up call. Thousands and thousands of our neighbors are really hurting. They need to be brought into the sunlight of public attention, not left in the often forgotten shadows of grinding poverty. This reporting does just that.

BSU Radio News Director Elizabeth Duncan and her team have given us all the evidence we need to realize that we all have a responsibility in this time of national trial.

All of the panelists who participated in the roundtable agreed, all of us need to know more about what living with poverty means, how it can impact an entire generation of children, how government budgets are woefully inadequate, how the very fabric of a community is frayed. This series is a good start. It will sober you up to the reality of a life of poverty in Idaho.