Hoaxes, humbugs and hokum: A short history of boxing and bilking
From the late-1800s to roughly 1920, when prizefighting was illegal across most of the United States, the art of the humbug was as common as a right cross in boxing. William Brady, who had managed James J. Corbett and Jim Jeffries to the heavyweight championship, had become disillusioned by how unscrupulous boxing had become by the 1900s. “Night after night, faked fights were pulled off all over the city,” Brady once wrote about the Sweet Science in New York. Numberless champions and immortals from that era took part in setups and hoaxes. A short list would include Joe Gans, Jim Corbett, Kid McCoy, Stanley Ketchel, Tommy Burns, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien and Abe Attell. As boxing slowly became legalized from state to state and less an unregulated product of laissez-faire principles and midway morality, it offered fewer outright swindles to a credulous audience. That said, there are still plenty to marvel at.
Even while acknowledging the general flim-flam essence of boxing during the early 20th century, Jack Johnson holds a special place above nearly all of his contemporaries. Not only were some of his title bouts staged (most infamously his frame-up against Stanley Ketchel, who double-crossed Johnson during the bout to his own detriment) but Johnson also participated in several boxer vs. wrestler schemes, while exiled in Europe. He also fought Blink McCloskey, a man who removed his glass eye prior to the opening bell of every fight, in Spain. But by far, the most flagrant hoax perpetrated by Johnson was his bizarre dust-up against proto-Dadaist Arthur Cravan in Barcelona.
Cravan, who had known Johnson from their café days in Paris, was an atelier boxer when prizefighting was all the rage in France among bohemians and artistes. When World War I broke out, Cravan fled France for neutral Spain, in hopes of avoiding conscription. In order to leave the possibility of being dragged to the front far behind him, Cravan decided to sail to America. To scrape up enough money for the fare, Cravan contacted Johnson and proposed a match that would lure the patrons of Barcelona into parting with their hard-earned pesetas. Johnson, perpetually broke, agreed, and one of the strangest bouts in boxing history took place. On April 23, 1916, Johnson stopped a woebegone Cravan in six comic rounds that nevertheless still echo through history as an unlikely example of pre-Surrealist performance art.
If the upcoming Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Conor McGregor spectacle has a true boxing precedent, it may be the night Floyd Patterson faced Pete Rademacher in Seattle, Washington. After a title defense against crude Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson in New York City, Patterson embarked on one of the most perplexing championship reigns in modern boxing history. While Cus D’Amato claimed he was protecting Patterson from the mob (while hobnobbing with Anthony “Fats” Salerno, future beard/boss of the Genovese crime family), by avoiding connected heavyweights (including Sonny Liston), he was actually making sure Patterson remained upright for as long as possible. For the famously paranoid D’Amato, any solid heavyweight was likely controlled by cigar-chomping Mafioso. Because Patterson had a chin as sturdy as a Noguchi lamp, D’Amato had to work hard to keep it intact.
Enter Rademacher, a wholesome amateur from Yakima, Washington, who had won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics in Australia. By defeating a Soviet fighter to earn this distinction, Rademacher gained instant celebrity against the galvanizing background of the Cold War. To capitalize on his newfound fame, Rademacher challenged Floyd Patterson, despite never having had a professional fight. For a $250,000 purse, D’Amato agreed and one of the worst mismatches in history was set for August 22, 1957.
Not only was the matchup a travesty but it was also a disaster as a promotion, failing to secure television, closed-circuit and even radio broadcast rights. No ancillary income – a rarity during the burgeoning TV era – guaranteed red ink from top to bottom. Although Rademacher was fighting in his home state, the gate was middling, reflecting, perhaps, the overriding skepticism surrounding such a bogus contest. Even so, Rademacher managed to floor an off-balance Patterson in the second round before finally succumbing in the sixth, a TKO loser to the heavyweight champion of the world, while in his professional debut.
The last-minute substitute, or volunteer, drawn out of a crowd, was a standby for booth fighters and barnstormers during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Usually these impromptu participants were shills, part of the act, unbeknownst to the crowd. However this situation has occurred more than once in the legitimate world of prizefighting. Charlie “Devil” Green and Pinklon Thomas are two examples of fighters pulled out of the audience and pressed into service. But rarely has a boxer been plucked from ringside for a world title fight. In 1993, Tommy Morrison defended his spurious WBO heavyweight championship against Tim “Doughboy” Tomashek after Mike Williams, best known for troubling Mike Tyson in sparring sessions in the late-1980s, refused to emerge from his locker room. Tomashek, in the Kemper Arena enjoying all the pleasures a fight card in Kansas City could offer, jumped at the opportunity for a payday and some instant notoriety. Morrison battered Tomashek for three rounds, then the Doughboy retired on his stool between rounds.
When Christy Martin began to thrill the cheap seats in Las Vegas on Mike Tyson undercards in the mid-1990s, she inadvertently kickstarted a minor craze that would eventually lead to where nearly everything in boxing does: down an outlandish rabbit hole. Naturally, for prurient and promoter alike, the next step after Martin punched the fairer sex on the map would be some sort of sideshow event to capitalize on the fleeting ADD interest of seeing women slug it out between the ropes. Just a few short years after Martin popped up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first male vs. female boxing match took place in Seattle, Washington. On October 9, 1999, Margaret McGregor took on Canadian no-hoper Loi Chow in a fight that spurred outrage from coast to coast. In the kind of municipal ruling that overlooks the very essence of boxing – athletes risking danger in a bloodsport – the Washington State Licensing Department ruled that preventing McGregor from fighting Chow was tantamount to discrimination based on gender. Promoted by Bob Jarvis, a colorful ex-boxer who worked in various capacities in the fight game, despite having lost both legs and an arm in an accident, the first intergender bout (shades of Andy Kaufman here) produced a surprising result as well: McGregor shut out the shy Chow over four rounds for a unanimous decision.
From Sam Langford to Pete Herman to George Costner and Pat Valentino, all the way to Sugar Ray Seales and Joe Frazier, fighters have often entered the ring with compromised vision. But rarely has a fighter been allowed to perform when he is openly debilitated. In 1990, when Aaron Pryor returned to the ring after his first aborted comeback, he did so with the entire sporting world aware of the troubling fact that he was legally blind in one eye. But that hardly mattered to his fly-by-night promoter Diana Lewis or to Wisconsin, a state without a boxing commission, at the time. For a little while, Pryor was a flashpoint on the seedy side of a sport that has specialized in seediness for well over a century. “If he’s blind in one eye,” said Lewis, underscoring everything that is wrong with boxing, “he’s still got another eye,” Pryor, still in the grip of a drug addiction that would nearly kill him, stopped Darryl Jones, who just happened to be a good pal. “I was asked by the promoters to set up the match,” Pryor recalled in his lurid autobiography, “and I thought it would be good to fight someone I knew, so that we wouldn’t hurt each other.” Jones went down, softly, in the third round.
If Joe Savage, an English bare-knuckle brute, could fight as well as he could sell, he might have made something of himself in combat sports. As part of his persona, Savage used the motto “I want to kill everyone,” which made him sound like Dennis Nilsen or Charlie Bronson, to drum up publicity. Alas, Savage, who publically challenged Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno to fights in the early-1990s, found himself reeling between the ropes when he took on “Smokin’” Bert Cooper. Savage and Cooper squared off in the boxing hotbed of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1994. Somehow Cooper was greenlit for the fight, despite being on medical suspension after being stopped by Larry Donald eight days earlier. Against Donald, at the time an undefeated prospect, Cooper retired on his stool with an eye nearly swollen shut. Although Savage was reportedly 42-0 as a modern-day bare-knuckler and certainly looked as if he could handle himself at the Bull Inn, he was no match even for an erratic journeyman with drug rehab centers in his past and in his future. Cooper cold-cocked Savage in the first round, adding to his career record of strange highs and even stranger lows.
In contrast to Savage, whose boasts could not be verified, Bobby Gunn was not only an underground standout but also a competent circuit-fighter for a few years. Gunn retired from boxing to enter the shadow world of smokers full-time but returned to the ring in 2004 after an absence of more than a decade. Naturally, he was fast-tracked into a title bout against then-WBO cruiserweight champion Enzo Maccerinelli in Wales. Gunn was predictably stopped in less than a round. Because a good farce is hard to find, Gunn received another title shot two years later against world-class IBF cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek in Newark, New Jersey. Perhaps Gunn was chosen to face Adamek because he had scored a KO at a Medieval Times in Lyndhurst, 20 minutes from Newark, a few months earlier. Whatever the reason Gunn had been chosen, it had nothing to do with competition. A battered Gunn was rescued from serious damage, after the third round, when the ringside physician mercifully intervened. Gunn was recently stopped by Roy Jones Jr., in Wilmington, Delaware.
Boxing romanticism has drawn countless celebrities into nearly every facet of the game. The “Rocky” film franchise by itself spawned a promoter (Sylvester Stallone), a manager (Burt Young), and a fighter, of sorts (Frank Stallone, with a 1-0 record and a win over Geraldo Rivera). It has also drawn football players by the dozen, including Charlie Powell, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Tom Zbikowski and Derek Isaman. None of them compared to former New York Jets star Mark Gastineau. In the early-1990s, backed by sinister puppeteer Rick Parker, Gastineau created a particular/peculiar sort of buzz in backwaters across the Midwest with the help of the USA Network, whose “Tuesday Night Fights” often featured carnival acts such as Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, George Foreman and Hector Camacho during the Seniors Tour era. Although Gastineau made his name by knocking dive artists into Method stupors Lee Strasberg might have admired, there was still a chance that his build-up could lead to a lucrative farce against George Foreman. At least, that was what Parker, demented and coked-out, believed. But Gastineau was smacked around by journeyman Tim “Doc” Anderson in 1992, in a fight that lead to one of the bleakest incidents in boxing. With a blockbuster payday nowhere in sight, Gastineau squared off against fellow gridiron great Alonzo Highsmith in Japan. This is almost certainly the only time a Pro Bowl player and a Heisman Trophy winner have ever met in a legitimate prizefight. In 1996, Highsmith, whose ambition as a boxer peaked with this peculiar matchup, stopped Gastineau in the second round in Tokyo.
Muhammad Ali may have been sui generis as a boxer but his madcap persona could be traced directly to professional wrestling, via his admiration for the despised, preening heel Gorgeous George. In the mid-1970s, at the nadir of his talent and at the peak of his popularity, Ali decided to enter that “other” ring once and for all and face Japanese wrestling icon Antonio Inoki in a blockbuster dud heard around the world. On June 26, 1976, Ali-Inoki redefined the scope of boxing bunco and just as quickly killed it.
As with almost anything surrounding boxing – in which facts are often considered mere annoyances – there are assorted versions of the truth surrounding this grotesque escapade. Most likely, in a lost-in-translation moment for the ages, Inoki was convinced that his bout with Ali would be on the level or, as is known in the wrestling business, a shoot. This was something for which Ali was not prepared and he rejected the notion of mauling with Inoki outright. Ali and Inoki, due to lock up in front of thousands at Budokan Hall in Tokyo, were at an impasse as to how to proceed. At the last moment, a game plan was agreed upon. Like in the 1970s sci-fi film “Rollerball,” in which the rules are changed on a whim, so the game becomes progressively more dangerous, Ali-Inoki saw its last-minute change in script decrease the possibility of contact. Inoki, who once stomped an uncooperative wrestler into unconsciousness, was hamstrung by new regulations that prohibited from using his skills. So Inoki wound up scuttling around the ring and kicking Ali in the lower extremities for most of the 15 rounds. Shin, ankle, calf, quadriceps: Ali took such a beating that he was eventually hospitalized with clots from ruptured blood vessels in his legs. Just how hard and often did Inoki kick Ali? Enough for Inoki to suffer a broken foot. To make matters worse, the bout was such a bore that not even a minimal amount of pain could have justified it. “It should have been scored on a 0‐point must system,” wrote Dave Anderson of The New York Times.
(A closed circuit viewing of the Ali-Inoki travesty at Shea Stadium was supported by a live undercard featuring Chuck Wepner and the wildly popular Andre the Giant, who even inspired a street art campaign by Shepard Fairey. A crowd of over 30,000 watched as Andre the Giant finished matters in the third round by headbutting Wepner and tossing him out of the ring. Although the “Bayonne Bleeder” lost by count-out, he must have considered it a minor victory, of sorts, to have emerged from this scrap without requiring a single stitch.)
But Ali was not the only big name to dabble on the pro wrestling circuit. There were several top boxers willing to chase what Joe Louis called “a good dollar” in the grunt-and-groan racket, including Primo Carnera, Ezzard Charles, Joey Maxim and Jersey Joe Walcott. Smaller fries, such as Leon Spinks and Scott LeDoux, also found themselves trying to reverse their financial fortunes in a topsy-turvy world in which suplexes superseded hooks and crosses. Archie Moore participated in several boxer-wrestler matchups, including a TKO of “Iron” Mike DiBiase, in the “Old Mongoose’s” final professional bout. Of all the headline fighters to dabble in pro wrestling, however, none could compare to Mike Tyson, who frequently popped up in the WWE in the mid-1990s, almost as if the real chaos burning up his days needed a choreographed counterpart for some kind of zen counterbalance.
One of the strangest comebacks in boxing occurred when Jack Dempsey, the most famous athlete of the Roaring Twenties, decided to lace up gloves again in a series of exhibitions (like Joe Louis in the late-1940s, Dempsey seemed congenitally unable to distinguish between sparring and scrapping) against an assortment of professional wrestlers. At 45 and out of the ring for nearly a decade, except for refereeing assignments, Dempsey squared off against Cowboy Don Luttrell in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 1, 1940. There is no telling just how kayfabe any of this was but the marks certainly came out in droves: Over 10,000 spectators jammed Ponce de Leon Stadium for some violent nostalgia. In what appeared to be a legitimate dustup, Dempsey repeatedly walloped Luttrell with his rusty left hook before finally sending the dazed rassler crashing through the ropes and onto the ringside floor. Luttrell, who would later chide referee Nat Fleischer for not halting the slaughter, woke up in a hospital a few hours later. Even under such low circumstances, Dempsey continued his quixotic tour, stopping Bull Curry in the second round and bloodying Ellis Bashara, aka the “Purple Flash,” also in two. Then, as if he could no longer face the contrast between his seedy present and his glorious past, Dempsey retired all over again.
With its roots in fairgrounds, medicine shows, mining camps and vaudeville, boxing has always retained a sideshow element. But the Mayweather-McGregor extravaganza will not take place somewhere out on the Great Plains, under a tent constructed by roustabouts, before an audience of “American Gothic”-types looking on beneath straw hats. Nor will it take place under outlaw conditions that necessitate mystery trains out to some sandbar or a barge docked out of reach from sheriffs and constables. Instead, Mayweather-McGregor is perpetual HTML headline material, set for our national playpen – Las Vegas – and poised to reap hundreds of millions of dollars via pay-per-view and worldwide simulcasts. Whatever happens – or does not happen – tonight, Mayweather-McGregor will likely earn a top spot among the strange spectacles that have made boxing, forever on the verge of the irrational, reflective of a quip from P.T. Barnum: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.”
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.