The Sack of Shelby – Part 1

01.12.05 - By Aaron King: This is the first part in a series about an event on July 4, 1923 in Shelby, Montana. Part one is about the people involved in making Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons’ infamous championship bout come to fruition, and their backgrounds.

The main principal, and draw of the affair, was Jack Dempsey. Born in Manassa, Colorado on June 24, 1895, William Harrison Dempsey experienced extreme poverty first hand. His Mormon family had in it thirteen members. He completed his schooling only as far as the eighth grade, even though his father was a school teacher.

In lieu of finishing his education, Dempsey made a living as a miner. For a little extra income, he went to saloons and challenged all comers, under the alias “Kid Blackie,” passing a hat around the room to collect what little money he could after each of his brawls.

Dempsey never lost one of these fights, at least, on the word of the tall tales. In an attempt to escape the indignant life he was bound to lead, he turned to professional boxing in 1914. He borrowed his ring name from the famous former middleweight champion, “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey. Dempsey met Jack Kearns shortly after turning professional and the two forged one of the greatest partnerships in boxing history.

Known as the “Manassa Mauler,” his bullish style made him a fan favorite and one of the most revered figures in the history of boxing. As Red Smith of the Washington Post said it, “He was 187 pounds of unbridled violence.” His explanation of his fighting style was quite simple:

“Anytime a man’s in front of you, regardless of who he is, he’s always got a chance, because you may get your eye cut, you may break your hand, or you may get your jaw broken, so the main thing is to get him out of there as soon as you can. And that’s what I knew I had to do.”

Dempsey obtained the heavyweight title on July 4 of 1919 with a pulverizing third-round submission of Jess Willard. It was, in the words of William Dettloff, “mesmerizing in its brutality.” There was no artistry in Dempsey’s attack. It was pure rage. As in some of Dempsey’s other fights, this one could not avoid controversy. There were allegations that Dempsey had his gloves loaded with pieces of lead placed in his gloves before the fight, and it was this, some claimed, that did the extensive damage to Willard’s body and face.

His title defense on July 2, 1921 against Frenchman Georges Carpentier grossed more than one million dollars in admission receipts. That was the first time it had ever occurred. The fight was also the first to be broadcasted over the radio. Dempsey used his overwhelming advantages in both size and strength to win the match by the fourth round retirement. Dempsey was not loved immediately, however. He was considered a draft dodger, and although a grand jury acquitted him of the charges, the chants of “slacker” followed him often in his early years.

Tommy Gibbons was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on March 22, 1891. Gibbons’ early life was not saturated with the hardship of Jack Dempsey’s. Gibbons learned his craft with his older brother Mike, a tough and respected fighter in his own right, at the YMCA in St. Paul. Gibbons began his career at the age of twenty on September 5, 1911 against Oscar Kelly. His first three contests ended in knockouts.

Initially, Gibbons entered the boxing ranks as a welterweight. As he gained weight, Gibbons had a number of excellent battles with some of the best boxers the sport has had to offer, including four fights with middleweight legend Harry Greb. As he gained weight, he could no longer out-muscle his opponents, choosing instead to out-box them. Dempsey said, in 1970, that Gibbons was a “good boxer, a very clever man.” He was considered a first-rate fighter for many years. Leading into his contest with Jack Dempsey, Gibbons knocked out five of his nine opponents.

Jack Kearns was born in 1882 in the state of Washington. At the tender age of fourteen, Kearns hitched a ride on a train to join the Alaska Yukon gold rush. After failing to strike it rich, Kearns returned home to Washington where he worked as a ranch hand. Kearns smuggled Chinese immigrants into the United States to make some additional money on the side.

Around the turn of the century, Kearns became interested in boxing. His first professional bout took place in Billings, Montana. He claimed to have had over sixty professional bouts, but this boast has never been legitimized. He managed a boxing club in Spokane, Washington for a few years before moving to San Francisco to start his managerial career. His first big name fighter was African American heavyweight champion Harry Wills. Ironically, it is Wills who is considered the best fighter of the era never given an opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title, and much of that can be traced to Kearns’ hesitance to promote a “black versus white” bout, or even, fear that Dempsey would be defeated.

Kearns met Jack Dempsey in 1917. He was impressed with Dempsey’s strength and ability, albeit unpolished. Kearns worked on the young fighter’s style almost exclusively from then on, but did not forget to master his own managerial and promotional savvy (it is Kearns who is credited with creating the million-dollar extravaganza that was Dempsey-Carpentier). Two years later, Dempsey was heavyweight champion.

Part 2 will discuss the factors that brought the fight to Shelby, Montana, the fight, and the aftermath of the episode.

Article posted on 01.12.2005

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