Lee Groves

10: Notable July 4 fights

3. 1923 – Jack Dempsey W 15 Tommy Gibbons, Shelby, Montana

“The Manassa Mauler” often left a trail of destruction inside the boxing ring but after his decision victory over Gibbons, the damage was far more widespread. While Dempsey’s opponent managed to keep his feet for the entire distance, the town in which the match was staged was crippled beyond repair.

Shelby was a town in northern Montana that had dreams of becoming an economic hub through tourism and a recent oil boom. Part of the overall plan was to stage a heavyweight title fight involving Dempsey, who proved he was a walking financial bonanza when his fight with Georges Carpentier generated boxing’s first million-dollar gate. Knowing this, Dempsey’s manager Jack Kearns drove an extremely hard bargain: The town was to pay $300,000 in three separate installments – $100,000 when the contract was signed, $100,000 more 60 days before the fight and $100,000 a week before the fight. If the town missed a payment, the contract would be null and void and Team Dempsey would get to keep whatever they had been paid to that point. Eager to stage the fight, Shelby’s officials immediately accepted the terms.

The town paid the first installment without incident but collecting the other $200,000 was an excruciating process. A local banker donated the final $98,200 of the second installment but by the time the third payment was due the well had run dry. The fight was called off on July 3 but was back on when Kearns agreed to take whatever he could of the final $100,000 from gate receipts.

In retrospect, the deal was doomed from the start. Gibbons, the brother of onetime middleweight king Mike, was a credible but not compelling challenger and ticket sales were extremely slow. A small percentage of the crowd on fight day were paying customers because a multitude of locals rebelled against the high prices, overran the gatekeepers and saw the fight for free. Gibbons, a surprisingly narrow 11-to-5 underdog, was the crowd favorite but, as had been the case throughout this incident, Shelby’s residents walked away disappointed and angry. Dempsey lacked his usual sharpness and power while Gibbons, who managed to cut Dempsey’s eye in round two, slapped on repeated clinches and generally tried to neutralize the champion.

After 15 nondescript rounds, referee Jim Dougherty – who was handpicked by Kearns – raised Dempsey’s hand with no argument from Gibbons. Because Kearns had dibs on the first $300,000 of income – and because only $72,000 of the third installment was paid to Team Dempsey – Gibbons ended up fighting for free.

Fearing a mob scene, Kearns paid the local railroad $550 (including a $50 tip to the engineer) to get out of a town that was more battered and broken than the fighters.

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