FIGHT TOWNS—Reno, Nevada: Jack Johnson and the Powder Keg of Jim Crow America

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(Photo: Associated Press)

“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” —Jim Jeffries before his match with Jack Johnson.

“Don’t rush, Jim. I can do this all afternoon.” —Jack Johnson taunting Jeffries during the fight.

Jim Jeffries’ nose was broken, his face was scrambled, and his body was covered in drops of his own blood. He was pulling himself to his feet—something he’d never had to do before in his career—to go back out to face a man faster than him, stronger than him, better than him. The almost entirely white crowd in Reno fell silent, having seen the former champion knocked down by Jack Johnson, the first black man to be crowned World Heavyweight Champion.

Some urged Jeffries to get to his feet. Others probably hoped the man they referred to as the Great White Hope would stay down rather than take any more punishment from Johnson. As Jeffries used the rope to help himself up, Johnson stood to the side, ready to resume his attack. As soon as Jeffries was vertical, Johnson laid into him, sending him through the ropes with a left.

Around the country, news of the fight was coming in over telegraph wires. White crowds received the news silently. Black crowds received it joyously. The fact of the result would soon sink in, and by that night, the country would be swallowed by a wave of violence, including some of the biggest race riots in American history.

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Site of the Johnson/Jeffries fight today.

The fight was never supposed to be in Reno. It was scheduled for San Francisco, which at the time (and in spite of the devastation of the 1906 earthquake) was still the boxing capital of the world. But rumors of a fix in the fight, national movements against the sport of boxing, and the controversy surrounding Johnson got the governor involved. The fight was banned in California.

The promoter moved it to Nevada, the only state where prizefighting was legal. Reno was chosen because it was a railroad hub. Construction workers had three weeks to construct a stadium that could hold over 15,000 people. Jack Johnson set up his camp at a resort called Rick’s Roadhouse, while Jeffries set up at nearby Moana Springs. The crowds that poured into Reno moved between the two camps to watch the fighters train, then spent the rest of their days drinking and gambling in the wide open town.

Few expected Johnson to win, and those who did kept their mouths shut. This was about far more than a boxing match for the spectators here. For many, this fight was about restoring what they saw as the natural order of the races.

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Jack Johnson

The man who had upset this order was a tall, strong, unbelievably fast fighter from Galveston, Texas named Jack Johnson. He began boxing in 1898, and within five years had won the title of Colored Heavyweight Champion. But the unified title eluded him. Not one of the white heavyweight champs would agree to meet a black fighter for the title. Not John L. Sullivan. Not Jim Corbett. Not Jim Jeffries.

Jeffries, an enormous boilermaker from Los Angeles, was the man holding the title in 1904. He was a brutal puncher, who broke the ribs of several men he fought, and was considered extraordinarily fast for a man of his size. But he refused to fight a black man for the championship. Johnson repeatedly challenged him to a title fight, and many newspapers supported Johnson as the number one challenger. But in 1905 Jeffries retired, claiming that there were “no more heavyweights left for me to meet.”

Johnson continued to win fights and waited for his chance. That chance finally came in 1908 when the new champion, a Canadian fighter named Tommy Burns (real name: Noah Brusso) agreed to meet Johnson for the title in Sydney, Australia. The fight was a rout. Johnson stood nearly six inches taller than Burns and outweighed him by 25 pounds. He battered Burns for 14 rounds until police stopped the fight.

With that victory, Jack Johnson became the first black fighter to lay claim on the title that many considered the greatest prize in sport. As such, he likely would have received massive backlash from the white public no matter what he did. But Johnson’s complete disregard for the demented social contract of white supremacy made him public enemy number one. Johnson made no secret of his numerous relationships with white women. He publicly flaunted his wealth, appearing in expensive clothes and speeding across town in fast cars at a time when few people even owned a car. Whites were outraged, and likely terrified of what Johnson’s reign as champion signified for the future.

They began asking, and then begging, for Jim Jeffries to return to the ring.

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Jim Jeffries

But Jeffries had retired to his alfalfa farm and ballooned to over 300 pounds. He was happy there, and asserted that he had no interest in fighting again. Promoters began training white fighters exclusively for the purpose of beating Jack Johnson. They became known as “White Hopes,” and Johnson dismantled them one after another. Still, many white fans, grasping desperately for a shadow to cast over Johnson, claimed that Johnson was not the legitimate title-holder, since Jeffries had retired undefeated. Until he beat Jeffries, went the argument, Johnson wasn’t really the champ.

The pressure kept coming down on Jeffries to take the fight against Johnson. “The White Man must be rescued,” wrote Jack London. Finally, after nearly two years of pressure, and with an offer of somewhere between 40 and 75 thousand dollars dangling in front of him, Jeffries came out of retirement and began to train.

Johnson wasn’t worried, claiming Jeffries would never be able to regain his fighting form of six years earlier. And despite Jeffries losing over 70 pounds and looking every bit the muscle-bound monster of earlier times by the day of the fight, Johnson would prove to be right.

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Johnson stands over the battered Jeffries in the 15th round of the fight.

Jeffries went down again, his third knockdown of the fight. Having been forced to his feet and pushed into the ring after the second knockdown, he’d absorbed more punishment from Johnson. When a hard right to the head crumpled him, it was clear the end had come. He was reaching for the ropes when his cornermen rushed into the ring, ending the fight and preventing Jeffries from being counted out.

There could no longer be any dispute. All the arguments were exhausted. Jack Johnson was undeniably the greatest fighter in the world.

The crowd shuffled out of the stadium and Johnson went to celebrating. Some toasted him, and even Jim Jeffries saluted his abilities, admitting that in his prime and at his very best, he could never have beaten Johnson.

But many whites around the country were less inclined to be so civil. Or even to be human.

The reports began to come in that night. 6a00d8341c630a53ef0133f20d5fcd970b-piThere was unrest spreading around the country, turning quickly into outright assaults and murder.

In Uvaldia, Georgia, a gang of armed white men opened fire on a railroad camp, killing three black workers.

In Shreveport, Louisiana, a white man shot a black man in the face after an argument over the fight.

In Houston, a white streetcar passenger slashed a black passenger’s throat after he shouted “Hurrah for Johnson!”

In New York, a white gang set fire to a black tenement and attempted to block the exits so no one could escape.

In Pueblo, Colorado, a riot between blacks and whites became so massive that the entire police force had to be called out to stop it.

And in Chicago, a white man attempted to break into Johnson’s home to kill him.

In all, there were riots in over fifty cities around the country. At least twenty people were killed, and possibly many more. Hundreds were injured. It was one of the largest incidents of mass rioting in U.S. history.

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From the L.A. Times

No American sporting event ever created such a catastrophic reaction. Across the nation, the fight had become symbolic as a battle between the races for control of the country. Narrow-minded blowhards shouted the news that this was the first salvo of a long race war. Those who had been on top for so long, who had enjoyed a position of privilege over their fellow man, were not only afraid of losing their status, but of the revenge that they were certain would be taken on them if the social order was overturned.

Jack Johnson’s life continued to be an insult to this twisted order.

In 1912, with no prospects of defeating him in the ring, an effort was spearheaded to defeat him outside of it. Using trumped up charges of transporting a women across state lines for “immoral purposes” (a law known as the Mann Act ), the government launched two cases against Johnson. The first case, involving a woman named Lucille Cameronwhose mother claimed had been lured by Johnson’s “hypnotic powers”collapsed when Cameron refused to testify (she later married Johnson). The second involved a former lover of Johnson’s named Belle Schreiber, whose time with Johnson occurred long before the Mann Act even took effect. But the case came to court anyway, aided tremendously by Schreiber, who was threatened with jail time if she didn’t cooperate.

An all-white jury convicted Johnson. He was sentenced to a year in prison. The decision was handed down by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who would later become Commissioner of Baseball, where he successfully prevented any black player from joining the major leagues during his lifetime.

Johnson fled the country, title in hand, and stayed on the run for nearly eight years. In the middle of this, he lost his title to a massive Kansas cowboy named Jess Willard, who didn’t beat Johnson so much as he stayed vertical until an out-of-shape Johnson wore himself out beating on him. No black fighter was given the right to fight for the heavyweight title for the next 20 years.

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Decades after his legendary fight with Jim Jeffires, a play based on Jack Johnson’s life made its debut on Broadway. It was called The Great White Hope, and it was subsequently turned into a critically acclaimed film. Both the play and film starred a young actor named James Earl Jones in a star making turn. In the audience for the play one night was a fighter who, like Johnson, had become a social pariah for his refusal to follow the social mores of the time. His name was Muhammad Ali, and he would bring everyone he could to see the play in the coming weeks, apparently telling Jones, “You take out the issue of white women and replace it with religion, that’s my story!”

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James Earl Jones “spars” with Muhammad Ali on the set of the play The Great White Hope, 1969. (photo: Associated Press)

The play revived interest in Johnson’s life and career, and in the atmosphere of social rebellion of the late 1960’s, he came to be viewed as an anti-authority figure who took on a schizophrenic and poisoned establishment and, at least for a time, claimed superiority over all of them.

Reno’s history as a major boxing destination began and ended with the Johnson/Jeffries fight. While Nevada had hosted boxing matches for years, from brawls in its silver mining camps to major fights in towns like Carson City, Reno wasn’t a big enough draw for another major fight. In 1911, prizefighting became legal in New York again, and the big town’s population, proximity to other major cities, and status as a major center for an emerging medium called radio made New York the capital of boxing for decades.

In the early 1960’s, boxing started to make a comeback in Nevada, but this time it was in Las Vegas, as a larger part of the instant city’s overall spectacle. With multiple venues geared specifically for events like major fights and a built-in machine to turn over the gambling money that came flowing in for every match, Las Vegas soon became the most important city in the boxing world. Reno, which developed its own gambling-fueled economy, would never be able to match the revenues of its neighbor to the south, and therefore would never be a player on the boxing scene.

But for one day in 1910, it had the attention of not just sporting enthusiasts, but of the entire world. All of it fixed on two fighters in a hastily constructed arena who put on arguably the most socially significant sporting event in the country’s history. A fight we can look back on today as a symbol for the coming destruction of the Jim Crow social system in America.

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FIGHT TOWNS—Detroit: The Resurrection of the Kronk Gym

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A visit to a legendary spot in the boxing community as it fights, once again, to hold on to tradition.

When I say it’s good that the Kronk is open again, one of the fighters shrugs his shoulders.

“We’ll see,” he says.

In Detroit, nothing gets taken for granted. And why should it? This town was the engine that drove the American economy, a city as grand and unstoppable as the massive finned machines it turned out of its numerous auto plants. This is where Joe Louis trained. Sugar Ray Robinson. Where Barry Gordy formed a tiny record label called Motown, whose driving, joyous sound blasted great music by great artists onto trans-oceanic airwaves.

Then, in July of 1967 the city burst into flame. Long simmering racial tensions exploded, then exploded again. Mitt Romney’s dad ordered in the National Guard and President Johnson called out the 82nd and 101st airborne. There were tanks in the streets and some 2,000 buildings burned. For five days a near state of war existed in this great city, and when it was over forty-three people were dead and over 1,100 were injured.

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National Guard troops and firefighters during the ’67 riots. (photo: Reuther Library)

The story for years has been that “white flight” from Detroit began with those riots. The reality is that, while the riots were certainly an accelerant, the process  was already underway in the years after World War II. In  1950, the population of Detroit was nearly 2 million people, with whites making up about 84 percent of that. By 1960, seven years before the riots, nearly 350,000 whites had left the city limits. By 1980, that number was over a million.

When people say Detroit was never the same again after the riots, it’s true. It’s also a way of deflecting the ugliness of what was already going down here long before 1967. 800px-White_sign_racial_hatred.What happened in Detroit that summer didn’t come out of a vacuum. Suburbs with “White Tenants Only” signs. Police carrying out indiscriminate raids in black communities. The long-standing segregation of northern cities did not escape Detroit, and despite the success of the auto industry, the city was already losing jobs to the suburbs. As the moneyed classes of the city moved into the outlying areas, they took pieces of the city with them. The suburbs remained affluent, and Detroit became a national punchline, an example of a city where everything was and would always be wrong.

So the noncommittal answer I get when I talk about the Kronk being back makes perfect sense. Detroit has been declared dead. Detroit has been declared reborn. Neither are really true. The city survives, just like the gym that produced one of its greatest trainers and one of its greatest fighters. And as for what comes next, well, we’ll see.

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The third incarnation of the Kronk is located in the basement of the Fountain of Life Church on Mettetal Street, and from its fearsome reputation, it’s a surprise to walk into such a modest little space. You don’t get the sense of what’s going on in here until you look around at the walls, taking in the posters and the photos of famous champions. This gym wasn’t just a proving ground for the great fighters of Detroit, it was a beacon for champions from all over the country.

There was a reason for that, and his name was Emanuel Steward.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Detroit, Steward was a fearsome young fighter, winning 94 of 97 fights as an amateur and taking the national Golden Gloves Championship in 1963. After passing on the chance at a professional career, he became an electrician for Detroit Edison, and might never have gone back to boxing if it hadn’t been for his brother James, who convinced Emanuel to take him to the nearby Kronk Recreation Center and show him some moves.

The original Kronk boxing gym was located in the recreation center’s basement. Built in 1921 and named after city councilman John Kronk, the old building sits abandoned today. The windows are knocked out and the brick is sprayed with graffiti. A playground behind the building is covered in overgrown grass. I stopped there to look at it and, to my own shame and discredit, I took a few photos. I’m not sorry I went to see the place, but it was wrong of me to take the pictures and I erased them minutes later. It’s not my place to show pictures of abandoned temples like this. I watched people do this for years in New Orleans, riding through the neighborhoods in air-conditioned busses with tinted windows, snapping photos of the New Orleans they saw on TV, taking home souvenirs of devastated neighborhoods as their driver droned on like they were doing a tour of the zoo.

The original Kronk Recreation Center is destroyed, and will likely never have the funding to get fixed up. If you’re a disaster pornographer, you can go take photos of it and post them on your Instagram and call them art. If you’re a boxing fan, stay away. Read about it. The old place, I’m sorry to say, is gone.

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Six months after Emanuel Steward’s first session with his brother, James was a Detroit Golden Gloves champion. Shortly after, Emanuel was asked to be the head coach of the Kronk’s boxing program. He took the job at a salary of 35 dollars a week and began one of the most impressive runs of success of any trainer in history. He was named U.S. National Coach of the year in 1977. In 1980, he coached Hilmer Kenty to a title shot in the lightweight division, where Kenty became the first world champion boxer from Detroit since Joe Louis. Over the years, Steward would train a multitude of champions, from Lennox Lewis to Michael Moorer to current linear heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitchko.

But of all the champions Steward worked with, none was more closely associated with him, or with the Kronk, than Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.

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Thomas Hearns with Emanuel Steward. (photo: Boxingfutures.com)

Tommy Hearns. The Motor City Cobra. The Hitman. A tall, wiry kid who didn’t look like a fighter when he first entered the gym. He came in because he wanted a way to fight back against bigger kids who kept stealing from him. His first day in the ring, a better fighter broke his nose. Hearns straightened it out and came right back. Eight years later, he won his first professional title.

He was an extraordinary fighter, preposterously tall and thin, with long arms that gave him a reach advantage over almost anyone in his weight class. A fighter with those natural advantages often develops as a pure boxer, a quick moving dart thrower who depends on outpointing their opponents and keeping them at bay with their jab. What separated Hearns was that, in addition to his boxing skills, he possessed a right hand punch that could separate any normal human being from the planet. It was brutal, demonic. He would hit good fighters, even great fighters, and they would fold like a tent. He scored one of the greatest knockouts in history when he floored Roberto Duran in Las Vegas with a punch you could feel through the TV screen. At the time, Duran (one of the five greatest fighters ever to put on the gloves) had never been knocked out in 82 professional fights. Hearns totalled him in the second round. The knockout punch is impossible. It’s the only punch I’ve ever seen that looks just as fast in slow motion as it does at regular speed.

The knockout punch comes at 0:35. It is not for the faint of heart.

It was the partnership of Steward and Hearns that made the Kronk an internationally recognized name in the boxing community, but it was the conditions that made the fighters who came out of it so strong. Steward liked to crank up the heat in the basement of the building to over 90 degrees. Fighters would pour sweat as they trained. Steward would move through the haze, offering encouragement, dispensing advice. It was the kind of place that fighters would call magic, and mean it.

And, as noted, the original is gone. Like the old 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach where Muhammad Ali cut his teeth, like Joe Frazier’s gym in North Philadelphia, the original had to be replaced when the situation became untenable. In 2006, thieves stole the building’s copper piping. With no money coming in to replace or repair what needed replacing and repairing, the building closed, and the gym moved to a storefront in Dearborn, continuing with the original Kronk name.

That the Kronk survived its original shutdown was largely due to the force and reputation of Emanuel Steward. But when Steward passed away in 2012, the second location went with him.

It took three years to find a new home. Then, this past Memorial Day, with Tommy Hearns on hand, the Kronk quietly reopened in its new location at 9520 Mettetal Street.

When I walk in, four months after the grand opening, there are about five fighters working in the ring, including Lanardo Tyner, one of Floyd Mayweather’s top sparring partners. I ask Tyner if I can snap a photo of him at work for my blog.

“Yeah,” he says. “You come all that way you gotta get that shot.”

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Lanardo “Pain Server” Tyner works the bag in the new Kronk gym.

Also in the gym are a pair of brothers, Brandon Cayce and Tobias Wiggins, both of them fighters since they were kids. Cayce gets in the ring against Lanardo Tyner, and holds his own against the pro until he takes a big shot that puts him to one knee. He comes out of it fine, with a little blood on his nose, and a desire, like a lot of great fighters, to get back in the ring. He’s an amateur fighter, but here at the Kronk he gets to step in the ring with an established, title-winning professional who has sparred regularly with Mayweather, which puts him just one degree away from the man many consider the best fighter of his generation.

His brother, Tobias, is in the gym for the first time. He tells me he’s been fighting a long time, but never took it seriously. Today, he feels, is the beginning of a change in that mentality.

“My brother said he was coming out today,” he says. “Well, I wasn’t doing anything. So I came out.”

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Tobias Wiggins on his first day at the Kronk.

Sometimes it starts like that. Then the first day turns into the fifth day, which turns into the fifth week, and pretty soon you’ve built up a habit. Every one of the greatest fighters to ever put on the gloves had their first day in the gym, and something about that day made them keep coming back. They get beaten up and beaten down, and they walk right back in.

It’s impossible to separate the story of Detroit from that of the Kronk, but that story has taken on a familiar tone among the tellers. People like to espouse the popular narrative of the city that surrounds this gym: that it’s the tragic center of a tragic story, a once great city that will never be great again. But great cities like Detroit have much in common with the fighters they produce. They take their shots. They get off the mat. They straighten out their nose and they come back swinging.

This city, and this gym, have greatness in their bones. Only a fool would count them out.

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The Kronk Gym is located at 9520 Mettetal Street on Detroit’s west side. They have a website here and a Facebook page here.

FIGHT TOWNS—San Francisco: The Fight That Made Wyatt Earp Famous

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How many movies have there been? How many books? How many people have ventured to a nothing little town in Arizona to stand on the spot where they think the most famous gunfight in American history took place?

Simple portraits of a seemingly uncomplicated man dominate our understanding of Wyatt Earp, and his official record is mixed up with the mythic canvas of the American West. What few people know today is that Wyatt Earp first became a national figure not for his exploits as a lawman, but for a controversial decision he rendered as a referee for a boxing match in 1896; a decision so infamous that it figured prominently in his obituary 33 years later.

The Fighters

Boxing was walking a tenuous line of legality in the late 19th century. New York had just legalized the sport, but would outlaw it again in 1900, putting San Francisco in the position of being boxing’s capital. But even San Francisco was having trouble pulling off its fights. One legendary fight between San Franciscans Jim Corbett and Joe Choynski had to be held on a barge north of the city to prevent police interference.

In 1896, Jim Corbett was recognized as the Heavyweight Champion of the World, having taken the title from Boston strongman John L. Sullivan in New Orleans four years earlier. But with Corbett considering retirement, promoters started looking for a successor, holding bouts that were billed as title fights, even though they would not be recognized as such later.

The most impressive attempt at making a title fight happened in February of that year. prizefight canvas arenaInfamous Texan Judge Roy Bean organized a “title fight” between Irishman Peter Maher and Bob Fitzsimmons, the former Middleweight Champion of the World. Since prizefighting was illegal in Texas, Bean held the fight on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande River. Fitzsimmons knocked out Maher in just 95 seconds, within view of a group of Texas Rangers whose authority to stop the fight ended at the water’s edge.

But Fitzsimmons’ title wasn’t confirmed at the time, perhaps due to the controversial nature of the bout (more on this later). In December of 1896, another fight was scheduled for the championship at San Francisco’s stunning Mechanic’s Pavillion at the corner of Grove and Larkin.

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Bob Fitzsimmons

Known as “Ruby Bob” for his ring of red hair, Fitzsimmons developed his enormous punching power while working as a blacksmith in New Zealand, where he was raised from the age of nine. He is still considered one of the hardest punchers in boxing history, scoring knockouts in 59 of his 63 victories. Since his move to the United States in 1890, he’d gone undefeated in 36 consecutive fights, and consequently entered the ring as a heavy favorite.

Standing opposite him was Tom Sharkey, an Irishman who’d fled his country as a young man to join the U.S. Navy, and carried a tattoo of a battleship across his chest. While stationed in Hawaii, Sharkey took up boxing, and by 1896 was one of the most feared fighters in the game, having scored all 20 of his victories by knockout. Just six months earlier, in the same building he was fighting now, he’d fought the champion Jim Corbett to a draw.

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“Sailor” Tom Sharkey

The Referee

The fighters were set, but there was  still a dispute over the third man in the ring. Desperate for a referee after Fitzsimmons and Sharkey voiced their objections to other candidates, the promoters turned to Wyatt Earp, a colorful local who had served as a deputy marshal in Kansas and Arizona. Few people outside of California knew about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or of any of Earp’s other exploits as a lawman (and vigilante), but he had a certain amount of local fame after the San Francisco Examiner published a highly inflated account of his life earlier in the year. He also had experience refereeing fights (though, it appears, none under the brand new Marquis of Queensbury Rules), both in his frontier days and, more recently, in San Diego.

He was a name, he had experience, and he was available. He could not have known that December 2, 1896 would end up being one of the worst days of his life.

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Wyatt Earp, giving his mustache the best possible angle.

The Fight

The fans had their first indication it was going to be a bad night when Earp entered the ring wearing his pistol and had to be disarmed by a police captain. He would later be fined 50 dollars for this infraction.

Accounts of the fight are sparse, except for the decision, but it seems clear that Fitzsimmons dominated the first seven rounds. Quicker and stronger, he seized his moment to end things in the eighth round, landing a cracking left to the jaw that stunned Sharkey, then following up with a right uppercut. Fitzsimmons had made his name on this combination. The right uppercut typically landed just below the heart, which would knock all the air from his opponent’s body and leave on them on the mat, folded like a tent.

Fitzsimmons swung, and this is where the accounts diverge.

It’s certain from all accounts that Fitzsimmons hit Sharkey with the second punch. What is not clear, all these years later (there is no film of the fight) is where he hit him. Some accounts have him hitting Sharkey in the heart, others say it was the stomach, others say it was below the belt. And even the accounts that have him hitting Sharkey in the groin vary. Did he strike a deliberate low blow? Or did the fact that Sharkey was falling forward cause Fitzsimmons’ fist to strike unintentionally low?

Wherever the punch landed, and whatever the intent, Sharkey grabbed his crotch, rolled on the mat in agony, and screamed that he was fouled.

Wyatt Earp immediately disqualified Fitzsimmons for a low blow, handing the victory (and therefore, it was assumed, the Heavyweight Championship), to the outclassed, prostrate and writhing Sharkey.

The crowd was incensed, with large chunks of the audience booing and screaming at Earp. He left the arena to taunts and jeers, and that was only the beginning.

The Circus

The decision went to the courts. An injunction was placed against awarding the 10,000 dollar purse to Sharkey, the victor. Numerous parties testified that the fight was fixed, and that Earp had been in on the fix. He was a notorious gambler, and money had a habit of drying up quickly for him and his wife, Josie. For the numerous people who had lost bets on Fitzsimmons, Wyatt Earp’s actions could only speak to the fix being in.

Eager to cash in on the furor against Earp, who had been lionized by William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner newspaper, the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle (who also reportedly lost 20 grand on the fight) published a series of attacks against the former lawman. Earp was savaged in the press and in editorial cartoons, which depicting him as a degenerate gambler who fixed the fight for his own personal gain.

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Cartoon satirizing Earp’s decision.

After two weeks of hearings, the case against the decision was thrown out. The judge ruled he could not make a decision in a civil case since the fight had been illegal under California law in the first place. Sharkey got the victory and, at least nominally, the title of Heavyweight Champion.

But that gets confusing, too.

Sometime later, Jim Corbett decided he wasn’t retired after all, and perhaps due to the controversy that surrounded the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight (and the fact that the fight was technically illegal), Corbett was again declared Heavyweight Champion. Six months after the disputed fight, Fitzsimmons finally got the title he’d been fighting for when he knocked out Jim Corbett in Nevada to be declared World Heavyweight Champion. And since Nevada was the one state where prizefighting was legal, there was no disputing this decision.

But this also raises an interesting question about the lineage of the title. If Bob Fitzsimmons won the title in Mexico in February of 1896 (due to Corbett’s retirement), then it stands to reason that he lost it in December when Wyatt Earp disqualified him. Which would mean that his victory over Corbett wasn’t just him capturing the title, it was him recapturing the title. This is important, because most sports historians point to Muhammad Ali’s victory over George Foreman as the first incident of a heavyweight fighter regaining the title after losing it. But if Fitzsimmons was the legitimate title-holder in 1896, then he is the first fighter to regain the title. Not Muhammad Ali.

But what about Tom Sharkey’s claim to the title? If Fitzsimmons truly lost the title to Sharkey, then his fight against Corbett can’t be considered a title fight. Perhaps it’s easier, since both of Fitzsimmons title bouts were technically illegal (the fight int he middle of the Rio Grande may or may not have sidestepped this), to just say Corbett was the champion the whole time. One can only assume this is the case, since Tom Sharkey has never been listed as a world champion, and Fitzsimmons reign, in the record book, doesn’t start until he knocks out Corbett.

Aftermath

Despite it’s illegality, boxing in San Francisco only increased in popularity over the next 14 years. Even the earthquake of 1906 couldn’t check San Francisco’s status as the undisputed capital of the boxing world. But in 1910, a promising local fighter named Tommy McCarthy was killed in a fight at San Francisco’s Dreamland Rink, and public opinion began to turn against the sport. Four years later, Californians approved a law limiting all boxing matches to four rounds, and limiting prize money to 25 dollars, effectively killing boxing in California for the next decade. San Francisco, which boxing historian Bert Sugar called “THE hub of boxing” during its pre-World War I years, was never important in the sport again.

The fight ruined Wyatt Earp’s reputation. A somewhat famous figure in California before his decision int he ring, he instantly became a nationwide laughingstock after it. The terms “pulling an Earp” and “Earping” entered the national lexicon as buzz terms for screwing up. Anxious to get away from the fanfare, and certainly feeding his gambling habits, Earp headed for Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush. He returned to California later, settling in the Los Angeles area, where he served as an adviser on early Western films. But his reputation never fully recovered during his lifetime, and he was still being mocked after his death in 1929.

And then came the book.

In 1931, Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, a biography of Earp’s life. Based on interviews with Earp, it was a national bestseller, spawned countless movies and TV shows, made Earp a national legend, and is pretty much total bullshit from start to finish.

But it’s the basis for pretty much everything we think we know about Wyatt Earp today. His legend has been so overblown that the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona still hosts daily re-enactments of the famous gunfight that supposedly took place there, even though the actual gunfight happened next to a photography studio six doors down the street. Few people know any facts of Earp’s life, and almost nobody has heard of the fight that made him famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view).

Earp is buried at Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, next to his wife Josephine. The cemetery is less than 10 miles from the sight of the fight.

Not that you’d know it. Mechanic’s Hall burned to the ground after the 1906 quake. Few people even know where it was, and fewer have heard of the fights that took place there. Wyatt Earp had the good fortune to live long enough to rewrite his own story, and today remains known better known for other people’s impressions of his actions than for the actions themselves.

John Ford, who made his own highly inaccurate film about Earp, said it best:

“When the story becomes legend, print the legend.”

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FIGHT TOWNS—Denver: The Red Shield Gym and Remembering Ron Lyle

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As part of this road trip, I’ll be examining the boxing history of various towns, some of their great fighters and great fights. First up, the Mile High City.

The story Tialano “Tito” Tovar tells is a story you could hear in any boxing gym in America.

“I had four friends growing up in the projects. We all started boxing, but they didn’t stick with it. They’re all doing life sentences now. All four of them.”

Tovar is the boxing co-ordinater at the Red Shield Gym, part of the Salvation Army’s Community Center in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood. His career resume includes a couple title bouts and a fight with Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti, as well as a near miss with future Hall of Famer “Sugar” Shane Mosley, when an unscrupulous manager tried to match him up with the future Fighter of the Year. Today, his fighting days behind him, Tovar trains fighters, some of whom remind him of himself.

As we walk through the gym, he puts it bluntly: “Boxing saved me.”

With too much time to get in trouble and little to do in a rough neighborhood, Tovar found boxing as a way to stay occupied, and as a way to a better life. It was appropriate that he would end up working here, hand in hand with another man saved by boxing—an iconic Denver fighter once on the wrong side of the law, then celebrated nationally as one of the best heavyweights of his time: Ron Lyle.

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Tito Tovar poses in front of a photo of himself and Ron Lyle, back in the day.

Ron Lyle’s professional career is impressive not just because of the extraordinary circumstances he came from, but also because of how small a window he had. When many fighters would have been starting their careers, Lyle was doing time in prison after being convicted of second degree murder. While inside, he was stabbed in a brawl and was so grievously injured that one of the two doctors in the operating room signed his death certificate. The other doctor, however, continued operating. Lyle had 36 blood transfusions and actually died on the operating table before being brought back. Rather than stagger through a slow recovery, he began exercising to strengthen himself. In solitary confinement, he was eating a bowl of spinach daily and one full meal every three days, doing pushups to pass the time. He eventually reached a point where he could turn out 1000 pushups in an hour.

It was during his years in prison that he began boxing, and after some early success, he began to have dreams where he was fighting Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. When he was released from prison, he became a national amateur champion, but because he had lost so much time in prison, he didn’t turn pro until he was 30, an age when many fighters are thinking about retirement.

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Lyle boxing in the Colorado State Penitentiary. (photo: Cliff Mattax)

Denver was always a wild town. A mining camp filled with saloons and gambling halls.  A haven for crooks and corrupt public officials. It was like any other town in the west in that it had dreams of becoming a cosmopolitan city. Unlike almost any of the old mining camps, however, Denver actually managed to make it happen.

Looking at the city today—clean, organized, and very healthy—it’s hard to connect it with its lawless past. Similarly, it’s not a town that has a wide association with boxing today. But it’s seen its share of wild fights, from illegal bare-knuckle brawls (standard fare in 19th century America) to legitimate fights among major contenders. Mike Alvarado, a current welterweight contender (and former junior welterweight title-holder) calls Denver home. “Denver” Ed Martin once held the title of Colored Heavyweight Champion when the twisted rules of white supremacy kept black fighters from competing for the greatest prize in sport. Colorado native Jack Dempsey scored a knockout at the Denver stockyards just one year before winning the Heavyweight Championship. The title even resided here when Charles “Sonny” Liston moved to Denver to get away from constant police harassment in Philadelphia, uttering the famous line, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia.”

But Lyle had the chance to be the first man raised in Denver to hold the heavyweight belt when Muhammad Ali agreed to take him on in 1975. Lyle was brilliant in the ring that night, fighting a clinical fight that had him ahead on all the scorecards after ten rounds. Then Ali caught him with an overhand right, staggering him and sending him into the ropes. Lyle didn’t go down, but after being pummeled against the ropes, the referee stopped the fight. Lyle was furious at the time, but interviewed about it later, he was more philosophical.

“If there don’t be no Ali, you think you’d be sitting here talking to Ron Lyle? About what?”

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Ron Lyle (left) fighting Muhammad Ali in 1975 (photo: Associated Press).

When people talk about Ron Lyle’s career today, it really comes down to three fights. The title fight with Ali, and his following bouts with two of the hardest hitters in boxing history: George Foreman and Earnie Shavers.

The Shavers fight was held at the Denver Coliseum. In the second round, Shavers caught Lyle with a punch that sent him ass-first onto the ropes. Considering Shavers is rated by many as the hardest hitter of his era (Ali, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton all agree on this), Ron Lyle had no business getting up from the punch. But he did, rallying from that point forward, and finally knocking out shavers with a ferocious right hand in the sixth round. It’s a remarkable knockout. Lyle is standing at almost a 90 degree angle to Shavers when he throws the punch, and Earnie goes down like he’s just been shot. The hometown crowd went crazy, and Lyle booked a fight with former champion George Foreman.

The Foreman/Lyle fight was named 1976 Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine, and it was, in a way, Lyle’s swan song. His performance was extraordinary, even though Foreman eventually knocked him out. In the fourth round (one of the greatest rounds in boxing history), Lyle became just the second man (after Ali) to knock down Foreman. Foreman rose and sent Lyle to the canvas. When Lyle rose, he was dazed, barely hanging on. When you watch the fight, you’re certain Lyle is about to go down. Then, out of nowhere, Lyle comes back, hammering George Foreman to the canvas again, the first fighter to ever send Big George down twice in the same round.

But Lyle was spent. Foreman won the fight the following round. Ron Lyle, already late in his career due to the time he lost in prison, would never get another opportunity to challenge at the highest level of the heavyweight division. Like a lot of fighters, he launched a short-lived comeback later.

Tito Tovar understands this: “When I retired, I didn’t feel normal.”

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DVD’s of famous fights inside the gym. Tovar plays these for fighters to get them motivated.

There’s always the belief in a fighter that they can put it all together one more time. And when that dream finally ends, some, like Lyle and Tovar, turn to training. Ron Lyle ran a boxing gym for years, but came over to the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Gym around the beginning of the millennium. He loved training fighters, but unlike a lot of ex-boxers, Ron Lyle wasn’t too interested in training pros. He worked, almost exclusively, with amateurs.

“They pay you in tickets,” Tovar says. “The promoters…then you have to sell your tickets. So you have to be a trainer, a manager, a businessman…Ron didn’t like that.”

When Tovar joined him at the gym ten years ago, he wanted to train pros.

“Ron said, ‘I’ll work with your fighters, but you gotta help me with my amateurs.'”

The partnership lasted a decade. Then, three and a half years ago, Tovar came to the gym and didn’t see Ron Lyle. Tovar assumed he was just taking the day off. Then he read in the paper that his mentor had died.

“I couldn’t believe it. He was as strong as an ox. He was sharp.”

Lyle had been admitted to the hospital with a stomach ailment and had died in the night. Tovar thinks it was connected to the stab wound Lyle received in prison many years earlier. When Lyle died, his family asked that any donations in his memory be made directly to the Red Shield Gym.

And Lyle’s wife insisted that Tito Tovar take over the boxing program.

“He was the nicest guy you would ever meet,” he says about Lyle. “But he could intimidate you to motivate you.”

These days, running the gym, Tovar works with everyone. Pros and amateurs. Young and old. The gym even has a Parkinson’s Program, helping those afflicted with the degenerative disease by keeping their muscles strong and working with their reflexes.

In talking to Tovar, you can sense the weight of responsibility of keeping this gym up. There’s a debt of gratitude that underlines everything he says, not just to Ron Lyle, but to boxing itself.

He motions to a picture of Ron Lyle on the wall. Two Denver fighter, both trying to keep things going in their hometown.

“He believed in giving back,” says Tovar. “I’m trying to do the same.”

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The Denver Salvation Army Red Shield Community Center is located at 2915 High Street. The Cox-Lyle Boxing Bym is downstairs. They have a website here. The Facebook page for the boxing gym is here.