BUTTE — Montana has been the site of two heavyweight world boxing championship bouts.
The most famous took place in Shelby in 1923, between champion Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. Dempsey won by a decision, although the fight is better known for bankrupting the town of Shelby, as Dempsey and manager Jack Kearns were basically the only ones to make any money.
Montana’s first legitimate heavyweight title fight?
That took place 130 years ago this week, when heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan visited Montana during his “Grand Tour.”
On Jan. 12, 1884, he knocked out Butte’s Fred “Boy” Robinson in two rounds in Butte.
But it was two days earlier, when the “Boston Strong Boy” made his appearance in Helena. On Jan. 10-11, Sullivan boxed four exhibition bouts in Helena.
Boston Strong Boy in Helena
Sullivan’s visit to Montana Territory — it did not attain statehood until 1889 — was due to the promotion of Helena’s John Maguire, who was an early day version of fight promoters Bob Arum and Don King.
Maguire paid Sullivan’s manager, Al Smith, $5,000 for the champion and four other boxers to perform “five exhibitions” in Butte and Helena.
The stable was comprised of Sullivan, Herbert Slade (New Zealand), heavyweight Steve Taylor (Jersey City, N.J.), middleweight champion Pete McCoy (Boston), and lightweight Mike Gillespie (Global, Idaho).
Prior to the exhibition in Helena’s Ming’s Opera House, Maguire announced a ban on scalping when it was rumored that certain parties intended on buying up large numbers of seats and selling the tickets at a profit.
“In the interest of the general public, Maguire decided that no more than six tickets will be sold to anyone individual,” according to the Helena Daily Independent, while announcing that general admission seats went for $2, while gallery and reserved seats were priced at $3.
“The Sullivan Combination arrived from Butte by last evening’s 5 o’clock train,” the Independent reported on Jan. 11, 1884. “At the Cosmopolitan Hotel, a large crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of the noted men of muscle as they passed into the hotel, and until the time came for the combination to go to the opera house the Cosmopolitan office was crowded with a throng, eager to see the champion fighter of the world.”
The Cosmopolitan Hotel was located at “39-45” South Main St., east of the present-day Panhandler. Ming’s Opera House stood at 13 N. Jackson St., near the current Algeria Shrine and Scottish Rites Masonic Lodge.
The paper stated that the opera house was “comfortably filled” by the time the exhibition commenced at 8:30 p.m. Master of ceremonies Frank Moran introduced Taylor and Gillespie, who sparred for four rounds to open the show.
“Sullivan next appeared in a three round set-to with Steve Taylor, and the appearance of the champion was the signal for loud and continued applause,” the Independent reported, before describing the powerful boxer in the vernacular of the times. “The champion is a model of strength and agility. In height he is about 5 feet 10 inches, and for build and poise he reminds one of the pictures of heroes, when men were men — in fact a perfect type of fully developed manhood.”
“His blows (though muffled by soft gloves) were sudden, straight from the shoulder, and quickly followed up, and fell with staggering force upon his opponent, Taylor often narrowly escaping a fall. He did fall once.”
After the exhibition between McCoy and Gillespie, the wind-up took place between the heavyweight champ and Slade, both tipping the scales at about 219 pounds.
The match was a reenactment of their championship fight in Madison Square Garden from the previous June, when the Boston Strong Boy knocked out “The Maori” in three rounds.
“This was the most animated bout of the evening, both men apparently going in for all they were worth. But Sullivan’s superiority was plainly apparent. His eye was quick to detect an opening, and he let no opportunity pass without taking advantage of it — and a blow once in was quickly followed by several others, each of them seemingly heavy enough to knock an ox down.
“Slade however stood up unflinchingly and although not able to give his antagonist blow for blow, he got in a number of good ones.”
During Sullivan’s stay, a Chicago newspaper reported a rumor that the champion had been “shot and killed by a Montana desperado,” and the demand from eastern papers was “lively for dispatches in reference to the bloody affair.”
In an interview after his final session, the brawny pugilist quipped to the Independent’s reporter, “I do not look much like a man who has been shot, do I?”
He explained the rumor was “of course started for sensation,” and requested that for the sake of his mother and friends back east the report “be at once contradicted” through the Associated Press.
Regarding his profession — which at that time was still frowned upon by a significant portion of society — he said boxing was as legitimate as horse racing; that a man and rider always “went in to win.”
“I tried to learn three trades, but learned (none) of them,” Sullivan told the paper, in his Boston-Irish brogue. “And I tell you, when a poor man like I was has a chance to earn $5,000, he is likely to do his best. As I was, (having) not a cent, and $5,000 makes (you) feel pretty good.”
John L. Sullivan was arguably sports’ first superstar.
After winning the heavyweight title from Paddy Ryan in 1882, Sullivan embarked on his Grand Tour in late September 1883.
Over the next eight months traveling by train, his entourage barnstormed 28 of the 36 states, five territories and British Columbia. Every major city west of New York was on the route — including dozens of smaller communities and mining camps — as Sullivan made 195 appearances in 136 locations in 238 days.
His earnings for the tour netted $195,000 (equal to $5.3 million today), according to the New York Herald, much more than his biggest title fight purse, of $26,000 against Jake Kilrain in 1899.
Known for his trademark “I can lick any S.O.B. in the house” while frequenting saloons (usually after a few drinks), his bullish, ferocious style and Tyson-like attacks dispatched every opponent he faced from 1879 to 1892.
Sullivan’s career record is unclear. Boxrec.com reports him at 39-1-2 with 32 knockouts, while Michael Isenberg’s biography “John L. Sullivan and His America” lists a mark of 47-1-3 with 29 KOs.
One fact, however, remains undisputable: after 13 years in the ring, his only loss occurred in 1892 when “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, a flashy boxer known for his defensive skills, captured the title over the aging and overweight Sullivan with a 21st-round knockout.
Sullivan went on to become the first athlete to earn a million dollars over his lifetime ($1.09 million, equivalent to nearly $21 million), although most of his revenue came from touring and acting in stage plays after hanging up the gloves.
30 years before Shelby
The sport of boxing was still in its infancy 130 years ago, and was illegal in most places. Many of Sullivan’s prize fights took place in secret locations, although he was arrested several times during of his career.
But, over the years, Sullivan and his different managers were able to ply their trade by claiming most of the fights were exhibitions.
During his appearance Helena, for example, the paper stated that the events were not for the purpose of “slugging,” but only to “show the skill which training will give, and are consequently unobjectionable.”
The Grand Tour also had a standing offer against all comers, challenging anyone that could last four rounds against Sullivan. It started out at $250, but after only four takers lasted less than a minute per attempt, the ante was upped to $1,000.
“Sometimes, challenges were halted by the local police,” boxing historian Thomas Hauser wrote. “But as a rule, if a challenger got in the ring and the bell rang, the battle didn’t last long enough (from Sullivan’s bull-like rushes and sledgehammer right hand) for the police to intervene.”
And it was for a grand that a young transplanted Texan working the mines in Butte became the fifth challenger on the tour.
After his performance in Helena, Sullivan took on Robinson for the heavyweight championship of the world, under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules.
Appearing in Butte’s Amphitheatre in front of 1,700 spectators, 155-pound Fred “Boy” Robinson was outweighed by 65 pounds. Sullivan proceeded to knock the challenger down 15 times — including once completely out of the ring — before the fight was stopped with 20 seconds left in the second round.
“Robinson was no match for Sullivan, but he is the only boy in Montana who had the courage to face the great champion,” the Butte Miner newspaper reported.
Corbett, Jeffries, Johnson
After Sullivan’s visit to Montana, several other heavyweight champs made connections here before Dempsey’s fight.
Jim Corbett fought Butte’s Duncan McDonald four times between 1886-95, in Salt Lake City, Evanston, Wyo., and Little Rock, Ark.
James J. Jeffries, heavyweight king from 1899-1904, boxed an exhibition draw with Nova Scotia native (and Butte miner) Jack Munroe, in the Mining City in 1902. In 1904, Munroe fought Jeffries for the title in San Francisco, and was knocked out in the second round. Jeffries retired undefeated after the fight, only to make a comeback six years later, when he lost to champion Jack Johnson in 1910 in Reno, Nev.
And speaking of the first African-American heavyweight titlist, Johnson also made an appearance in Montana, according to Frank Bell’s book “Gladiators of the Glittering Gulch.” In Butte in 1901, Johnson worked as a corner man for Joe Walcott, during Walcott’s welterweight title bout against Butte’s Mose La Fontaine.
But those are all stories for another time.