The Pugil List: Ten most important July 4 fights
There was a time when boxing was as synonymous with Fourth of July celebrations as barbeques, furniture sales and fireworks are today. Some of the sport’s most iconic moments happened on American Independence Day; ironically, those big events have shifted to September pay-per-views that celebrate Mexican Independence Day (Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day). You can’t say boxing doesn’t move with the times! Oddly, after World War II, big boxing shows started to wane on July 4. A look at this weekend’s boxing schedule highlights a lack of willingness by promoters to put on attractive cards anywhere in America, with ESPN, FOX Sports, NBC, Showtime and HBO not televising boxing over the three-day weekend. Even Al Haymon is giving his boxers the holiday off.
Therefore, to celebrate a once iconic date in boxing, I am traveling back in time to spotlight the 10 most important events to take place on this historic date, other than legendary Hall of Fame heavyweight champion Joe Louis making his pro debut on such a card. Note: I said the most important, not the most exciting (if that were the case, Mahyar Monshipour knocking Salim Medjkoune out for the WBA junior featherweight title wins hands down) event. Historical significance is not dependent on drama, as the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao bore-bout so rudely reminded us. Also, there has to be an American participant, not necessarily a winner, though, since it is the most American of holidays.
10. Manuel Ortiz KO 8 Memo Valero (1948) – It was difficult to track down information on this fight but I wanted to note Manuel Ortiz as an undervalued champion historically. The first Mexican-American champion, Ortiz served in the Army during World War II while continuing to box professional, much like Joe Louis. However, unlike Louis, he defended the world bantamweight title during the war years. This fight took place in the main Bullring of Mexicali and was Ortiz’s 19th defense of the title! Valero purportedly had a record of 55-4 but most believe that claim was fiction created by a press agent hyping the event, especially when the action began and Ortiz dominated from the opening bell until it was halted in the 8th by a merciful referee. The duo would fight twice more, in 1949 and 1955, with no title at stake and Valero losing each time by knockout.
9. Abe Attell W 20 Frankie Neil (1906) – The fight for the world featherweight title was to have happened in April but the horrendous 1906 San Francisco earthquake took place instead, leveling large portions of the city, killing hundreds. Famed West Coast promoter Tom McCarey call their meeting the greatest fight he ever witnessed, with Neil’s vaunted left hook not able to separate the notoriously tough Attell from his senses or the title. Attell, having nullified Neil’s most potent weapon, won the fight handily. Neil said of Attell later, “Nobody ever came close to Abe in boxing science.” When Attell did finally lose, some suspected he “threw” the contests to collect on bets against himself. Of course, Attell would later become infamous for his involvement in the “Black Sox” baseball scandal that saw the Chicago White Sox allegedly “throw” the 1919 World Series.
8. Aaron Pryor TKO 6 Akio Kameda (1982) – The only fight after 1980 to feature a true star; though not a groundbreaking event, it does have a historically significant participant. Early on, it looked like it could become a historic upset, with Pryor suffering a flash knockdown in the first round. It came via crisp left-right combo no one saw coming, despite Kameda having stopped 14 of 17 foes. An ever-calm Pryor took the humiliation of being sent to the canvas in his hometown well, quickly serving up retribution, scoring two knockdowns of Kameda in the second. Another followed in the third round, eventually forcing referee Ernesto Magana to halt the slaughter in the sixth round after another knockdown on a Kameda whose left eye was swollen shut.
7. Kelvin Seabrooks TKO 10 Thierry Jacob (1987) – Other than Manuel Ortiz’s title defense, the only event on this list that did not take place in the Good ‘Ol US of A. Too bad, since it was an exciting fight that saw American champion Seabrooks (a notoriously slow starter) recovering from three knockdowns to score one of his own before the Frenchman was stopped in the 10th round. Round one is a classic, with Seabrooks knocking Jacob down in 10 seconds only to suffer a counter-knockdown 10 seconds later! Jacob managed another knockdown just before the bell sounded to end a furious first round. The fight ended in confusion, with a long gash caused by a clash of heads, forcing the fights stoppage. After much arguing ringside, concerning the headbutt rule, a mandate by American IBF President Bob Lee declared victory for Seabrooks, despite Jacob leading by scores of 88-81, 88-82 and 89-82. USA! USA! USA!
6. Jack Dempsey W 15 Tommy Gibbons (1923) – The actual fight was not exciting but the ensuing financial calamity taught a valuable lesson to people who do not understand boxing (which the country of Zaire forgot) to stay out of the business. In the months following the fight, four banks that financed the event became insolvent, bankrupting the city of Shelby, Montana. City leaders bought rights to stage the fight for $300,000 to promote growth and land sale. They should have sensed trouble after barely making the first payment of $100,000. Mayor James Johnson also miscalculated erecting a temporary 40,000-seat stadium, for what turned out to be a crowd of 20,000. Fight day was an equal disaster, as the rowdy crowd of Cowboys lassoed fences down allowing thousands to get in the fight without paying. Legendary promoter Doc Kearns snuck out of town with the gate receipts (roughly $200,000), since Mayor Johnson had not made the final payment. Kearns was not ashamed at the plight in which he left Shelby, “They’re lucky that I didn’t sue them for the rest of the dough.”
5. Benny Leonard TKO 8 Rocky Kansas (1922) – Kansas was the first of the famous “Rockys” (fictional or otherwise) to hold a world title and even in defeat, Rocky impressed with the work he put in. In fact, Benny Leonard was the only fighter to outclass Rocky in his prime. Twice in fact, the first was a lopsided decision (Leonard’s first title defense that did not end in a stoppage) but the second held on the fourth of July had more fireworks from a ruthless Leonard who blew away Kansas in awe-inspiring fashion. The New York Times reported, “The challenger’s manager throws out the sponge, against wishes of Kansas, as his man reels helpless and groggy.” To be fair, Rocky was unable to perform up to standards after breaking a bone in his right wrist in the third stanza. Even so, few stood a chance against a prime Leonard.
4. Battling Nelson KO 17 Joe Gans (1908) – Match-up could make the list for one reason alone; in terms of style divergence, there is no more stark comparison than that of the smooth-boxing Gans and…well, his feral opponent. If you called Nelson a caveman, he would not have taken it as an insult and I may be harsh describing him thusly but he was a fighter who traded on endurance and toughness. A previous fight between the pair lasted 42 rounds with Gans emerging victorious when a frustrated Nelson was disqualified for low blows after suffering multiple knockdowns. Logic dictated the same result in the next two fights but it did not hold with Nelson winning the rematches. Both fights went past 15 rounds, 17 and 21 respectively, but perhaps there should be asterisks next to those results because Gans was suffering from tuberculosis in those bouts. Most newspaper reports had Gans winning at the time of the stoppages but he could not hold off a determined Nelson and his kamikaze-infused style.
3. Ad Wolgast KO 13 Mexican Joe Rivers (1912) – One of the bloodiest and most controversial title fights ever, thanks to two brawlers and referee Jack Welsh, whom Wolgast handpicked. In one of boxing’s most absurd moments, Welsh helped Wolgast to his feet after a simultaneous knockdown ruling him the victor in a terror of a fight. In round two, Wolgast was already bleeding from a torn ear and, in the fourth, a cut over Wolgast’s right eye resembled an oil field gusher. However, by the fifth round, Wolgast’s pressure (verbal and physical) was paying off and in the 13th round, both men were spent forces, clutching and wrestling as much as throwing punches. Fatigue, as much as two simultaneously landed punches, caused a double knockdown. Instead of initiating a concurrent count, referee Welsh lifted Wolgast off his challenger and counted Rivers out! In Welsh’s defense, there was no rule covering a double knockdown at the time and he explained the situation away by saying Wolgast landed first and fell last.
2. Jack Dempsey TKO 3 Jess Willard (1919) – Jack “Doc” Kearns was a promoter who used every situation to his advantage, marketing new All-American hero Jack Dempsey in patriotic fashion for a July 4 title challenger in 100-degree weather. Dempsey delivered in a big way, scoring one of the most barbaric and fearsome beatdowns in any combat sport not involving a weapon. Willard was beaten into the canvas seven times in the first round alone, suffering a broken jaw in the process. It remains one of the most one-sided beatings of a reigning world champion, with facial fractures, broken ribs and a busted ear drum causing partial deafness for Willard. A lot of the damage was caused because a fighter was allowed to stand above an opponent he knocked down and he could hit his foe immediately after he stood on two feet. Before the fight, Big Jess tried to pull a psych job on Dempsey, only to have it backfire when Dempsey’s manager, Kearns told Willard, “You couldn’t murder a midget with an ax.” Willard did exemplify guts, heart, determination, resiliency and spirit in that fight…but, sadly, little skill.
1. Jack Johnson TKO 15 Jim Jeffries (1910) – An American sporting and cultural touchstone; yes, Johnson winning the title was as significant but that took place in Australia and Tommy Burns was not a historically significant champion like Jim Jeffries. The first boxing match to carry the tagline “Fight of the Century” and, given the social significance, it was worthy of the hyperbole. Jack Johnson was Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey rolled into one fearsome fighting machine, an overpowering force whose mystique went a long way toward defeating opponents before the opening bell. If not for Jeffries’ comeback loss to Johnson, the world would recognize two undefeated heavyweight champions instead of just Marciano. Jeffries was lured out of a six-year retirement (losing 100 pounds for the fight) by the frantic white establishment looking for someone to defeat the hated Johnson. The purse was $101,000, with the winner to receive 75 percent and the loser, 25 percent. Five days before the fight, Johnson, fearing foul play, proposed changing it to a 50/50 split. Jeffries countered with a 60/40 split which Johnson accepted. Each fighter received a $10,000 signing bonus and Jeffries negotiated $66,000 for movie rights while Johnson made due with $50,000 (ironic, as the film was banned in many states after Johnson won). Backed by the white majority, Jeffries opened a 10-7 favorite and odds climbed as high as 2½-1 for Jeffries. After the opening bell, odds could have been a million-to-one for Jeffries and no one would have taken it. Jeffries never stood a chance and he said so afterward. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.” The end came with a bloodied and battered Jeffries knocked down for the first time in his career and saved by his corner. Jeffries still seemed willing and got up at the count of nine in the 15th and was knocked through the ropes a second time. He was helped back into the ring but a third combination sent Jeffries to the canvas a final time. Gunboat Smith, a respected fighter himself, said Johnson “could have knocked him out in the first round if he wanted to.” Racial tensions ran so high, alcohol sales and guns were not allowed at the stadium built just for this fight in Reno, Nev. The following day, the Chicago Daily Tribune counted at least 11 killed around the country while the New York Times listed 10 more deaths, plus hundreds more injured in rioting.