The Sack of Shelby – Part 2

02.12.05 - By Aaron King: This is the second part in a series about an event on July 4, 1923 in Shelby, Montana. Part one documented the three main participants in the fiasco: Jack Dempsey, Jack “Doc” Kearns, and Tommy Gibbons. This part discusses the factors that brought the fight to Shelby, Montana, the fight, and the aftermath of the episode.

In 1923, Shelby, Montana was a growing oil town that had multiplied in population in a short period of time (the number is reportedly from two thousand people to ten thousand). Prohibition had not quite stretched to the out-of-the-way border city, the masses of money were plentiful and growing, and the city’s officers were searching for a way to really attract some excitement into the town. The best way, the Chamber of Commerce thought, was to host a Jack Dempsey title fight. After all, the town had just finished hosting a string of fights, and the townspeople seemed to enjoy them.

The initial reaction to the Chamber’s offer was unenthusiastic. Kearns was not impressed with the potential site of the fight. He believed, as the Chamber expected, that Shelby was too isolated to draw the interest of enough fight fans to make a worthwhile profit. However, after continuous proposals, Jack Kearns agreed.

Somehow, “Doc” Kearns managed to get his fighter, Dempsey, a guarantee of $300,000 and fifty percent of the gate admissions. The agreement was that Dempsey would receive $100,000 at the signing of the contract, $100,000 a month later, and the final $100,000 just before the fight. On top of all that, Kearns requested the use of his own referee, James Dougherty.

Meanwhile, Tommy Gibbons, anxious for a title shot, agreed to the fight, although understandably somewhat reluctant at first. Jack Kearns and Shelby’s Chamber of Commerce knew that attaining the agreed amount of money to pay Jack Dempsey would be difficult enough, therefore Gibbons was given no guarantee of money whatsoever. Somehow, Shelby managed to collect $200,000 in enough time to satisfy Kearns.

With the fight fast approaching, the city council was having difficulty raising money. This was especially troubling taking into account that they still had a third installment of $100,000 to disburse. Kearns threatened, at first, to move the fight to a different location, like Chicago or San Francisco. As the day of the fight drew nearer, Kearns made threats to cancel the bout. In fact, he “officially” halted the bout several times before finally sticking to the original agreement to hold the fight in Shelby. The decision to keep the fight in town ultimately sparked celebration in the city.

As the warm Fourth of July afternoon proceeded, a crisis began to arise. It was nearing fight time and only 1,500 were in paying attendance, not nearly enough to fulfill the demands of “Doc” Kearns. Eventually, six thousand people (some reports claim that as many as seven thousand tickets were purchased) bought the twenty dollar ticket to watch the championship bout. The arena was erected to hold 40,208 people. The expected migration of sports fans from all corner of the northwest never transpired. Four thousand more patrons snuck into the hastily built arena without paying at all. Those tending the gates did little to stop them.

When the opening bell rang to start the fight, it was obvious that two years of inactivity decreased Dempsey’s skills. He appeared tentative, quite the opposite of his usual, straightforward style. Some fans were under the opinion that the champion did not put out enough effort in defense of his title, or even, that perhaps the fight was fixed. Tommy Gibbons fought an intelligent fight. He managed to nullify the strength of Dempsey by fighting on the inside, smothering him for much of the fight. However, Dempsey’s proficiency was too much for the much smaller Gibbons, and Dempsey retained his title by means of a fifteen round decision. The dreary fight brought about the early exit of many of those in attendance.

After all was said and done, there was not nearly enough money to be evenly distributed. Kearns snuck out of town with $80,000, which left him with a total profit of about $201,000. He hid in the basement of a local barbershop to avoid the town officials and was able to sneak on to a caboose on the following evening. Kearns said in an interview late in his life, “Every time I come to Montana, I feel like a prostitute on a Saturday night.”

He and Dempsey went on to part ways after the Luis Angel Firpo fight. Dempsey believed that “Doc” had been “mishandling his funds.” Kearns would manage light-heavyweight legend and all-time knockout king Archie Moore later in his career. He opened a treasure chest near the end of his life when he staged the first bout in Las Vegas between Moore and Nino Valdes. Las Vegas, of course, is now considered the boxing capital of the world. “Doc” Kearns would go on to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Dempsey said of Kearns in his autobiography, “He tackled just about anything, whether it was acceptable or not. [He was] as expert at making a fortune as losing one.”

Dempsey took what money he could and left town with only a bit of his reputation damaged and more money than he had before, which is better than most people in Shelby could say. His enthralling second round knockout victory against Luis Angel Firpo, nicknamed “The Wild Bull of Pampas”, was eventually named the fight of the year for 1923. It also earned him back the respect and awe of most of his adoring fans. Dempsey was knocked out of the ring in the first round, only to be pushed back in and knock out Firpo only one round later. Bert Sugar called it the greatest fight ever.

After the fight, Dempsey broke away from Jack Kearns in a bitter dispute, which involved several lawsuits. He signed with another famed promoter and manager, Tex Rickard, shortly thereafter. In the same year, 1923, Dempsey was branded the fighter of the year. He would go on to lose his title to Gene Tunney in 1926.

The next year in Chicago, Tunney once more out pointed Dempsey, however this time under more controversial circumstances in a fight that was christened the “Battle of the Long Count.”

Since the rematch was the first (and only of the century) to reach two million dollars in gate receipts, $2.6 million to be exact, the “Manassa Mauler” pulled in more than enough money to retire comfortably after the fight. When his wife Estelle Taylor’s questioned the defeat, Dempsey said, “Honey, I just forgot to duck.” He became a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1950, the Associated Press voted Dempsey the greatest fighter of the half-century.

Tommy Gibbons received virtually no money for the fight and was abandoned by Jack Kearns. “Gibbons got nothing. A lot of people heard about me getting all the money, and they got mad,” Dempsey would later say. Two years later in 1925, Tommy Gibbons was stopped within the distance for the first time in his career. As luck would have it, Gene Tunney was his opponent. Tunney knocked him out in the twelfth round, which was named the round of the year by The Ring boxing magazine. Gibbons retired after that fight, and he too was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993. He led a reputable life after boxing. He sold insurance and became the town sheriff in his hometown of St. Paul.

The city of Shelby took the biggest hit. Three banks closed and another left town, leaving the town draped in bankruptcy. Mortgage holders detained lumber from the sloppily made stadium, which was constructed entirely with owed money, to comply with the unpaid bills. Many of the residents of the small town near the Canadian border, or at least those who had enough money left to do so, picked up their belongings and left. The town’s oil flow slowed, and Shelby recessed into its previous obscurity. John Lardner called the incident “The Sack of Shelby.”

Shelby has managed to experience a revival, or at least, somewhat so. Shelby is now the transportation crossroads of northern Montana. It is known as the gateway to Alaska. It is also home to one of the best and most reliable small town airports in the country, the Shelby City-County Airport. Through its importance as a transportation center, its many golf and country clubs, as well as casinos, Shelby has rebounded nicely from the debacle of so long ago. Shelby has since been aptly hailed as “a city with a colorful past and a bright future.” Indeed, the 1923 heavyweight championship left an indelible mark on the city. On July 4, 1923 Shelby, Montana hosted an event intended to “put the town on the map.” Instead, the city was nearly “wiped off” altogether.

Article posted on 02.12.2005

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