Heavyweight disaster - Email Version

Shelby, Montana was just hoping to get its name in the national media when it decided to host a championship fight between champ Jack Dempsey (right) and up-and-coming boxer Tommy Gibbons.

By Robert K. Elder
Tribune staff reporter

January 23, 2004

SHELBY, Mont. -- Before boxing heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey and opponent Tommy Gibbons stepped into the ring, small town Shelby was riding high on oil-strike fever.

In 1922, only ambition and the discovery of oil distinguished Shelby from the rest of the farm towns along Montana's Hi-Line, a string of railroad communities along the Canadian border. The Depression seemed to hit western Montana 10 years before the rest of the country, with severe drought devastating the local economy.

But in the days leading up to July 4, 1923, Shelby stood alone, the international center of the sports world. What started as a real-estate stunt and ended in a spectacular fiasco became the legend of Shelby -- the town of 2,500 that hosted a heavyweight boxing championship, built a 40,208-seat stadium and nearly went broke because of it.

"I can remember when I was in high school in the late 1940s, we made fun of our elders because of the fight," says Dean Hellinger, director and vice president of the Marias Museum of History and Art in Shelby, where fight memorabilia occupies one wall.

What often got lost in discussions about Shelby's flamboyant failure in self-promotion was that it also produced an amazing, gladiatorial match -- the first time anyone went a full 15 rounds with the heavyweight champ. Dempsey was the Mike Tyson of the '20s, the unstoppable "Manassa Mauler" from Manassa, Colo. The lion's share of his previous battles lasted only one or two rounds.

Borrowed idea

"The fight was a disaster. Financially it was a disaster. But we can say we had a heavyweight championship fight. Quite honestly, back then, a heavyweight championship fight was a much bigger deal," says Brian Kavanagh, co-publisher of the town newspaper, the Shelby Promoter, and grand nephew of fight organizer James W. "Body" Johnson.

But history, even if it's painful, can be a commodity.

For more than 260 miles along Montana's Hi-Line, telephone poles seem to hold up the clouds along desolate stretches of U.S. 2. That two-lane road runs right through Shelby carrying a steady, east-west stream of runoff tourism -- drivers heading to and from Glacier National Park. In a north-south stream, traffic on Interstate 15 crosses Shelby on the way to and from the Canadian border.

In a time when small-town communities struggle to pull people off the highways for a stop and a look and maybe a cup of coffee or a souvenir, Shelby's place in boxing lore offers a hook.

"So the mindset, after all those years, has really changed," says four-term mayor Larry Bonderud. "[It's] kind of like having the cathouse in the good ol' days everyone's embarrassed about. Now it's historic, and it's a museum, and everybody's talking about it.

"Everybody's agreed that it's time to do something and commemorate this event."

"The story that you hear is the one about the Johnsons," says Hellinger, standing next to a worn pair of boxing gloves on display in Shelby's modest museum. "They really did this as a real-estate promotion, really not thinking it'd come off, then got suckered into it."

According to James "Body" Johnson in his 1966 pamphlet "The Fight that Won't Stay Dead," the fight indeed began as a real-estate stunt, a chance to get Shelby's name in the national media and to promote Johnson's own land investments.

"Body" was his mother's nickname for a child who frequently suffered from childhood illness. It also distinguished him from his banker father, James A. Johnson, the first mayor of Shelby.

Making an offer

One morning in February 1923, Body Johnson picked up a Great Falls Tribune bearing the headline "OFFERS $100,000 FOR FIGHT" over a story on how promoters in Montreal were trying to lure boxing king Dempsey to their city for a title bout.

"Why don't we make an offer for a championship fight?" Johnson asked a friend. "If this fellow can make the headlines, so should we."

Under Montana law, a boxing exhibition had to be held under the auspices of a service club, so it took a little wrangling with the local American Legion to secure proper support. That done, Johnson and his cohorts wired Dempsey's manager, Jack "Doc" Kearns, with an offer casting Montreal's headline-grabbing $100,000 in the shade. Remote little Shelby, offered an impressive $200,000 -- roughly the equivalent of $2.15 million in modern dollars -- if Dempsey would come to town and fight a heavyweight title bout.

The recent discovery of oil in the Kevin-Sunburst Oil Field lifted spirits and inflated egos in the region. The prestige and attention brought by a world-class sporting event could bring more money -- perhaps even new residents and investment -- into the community, or so thought town leaders at the time. Boomtown mentality had taken over. After all, if Montreal's bid merited front-page publicity, Johnson hoped the world would see Shelby's dazzling offer as that of a big-time, can-do community -- and generate land sales for him and his mayor father, who would largely finance the fight.

"We were advertising, 'Shelby, the Tulsa of the West,' and believing it ourselves," Johnson wrote. "Under no circumstances could I reveal to them that anything that might develop was, in fact, intended to be nothing but a publicity stunt."

And then Doc Kearns accepted.

Shrewd manager

Kearns' terms read, in part, "$100,000 to be part of the purse in event contest is held and balance of $100,000 to be paid me prior to contest as we mutually agree."

A former welterweight himself, Kearns was Dempsey's shrewd business partner and manager, a man who secured the 188-pound prizefighter $300,000 for his previous contest for the heavyweight championship of the world against famed French boxer Georges Carpentier.

Dempsey shattered him in four rounds.

Randy Roberts, author of "Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler" describes Doc Kearns as "a great character, one of these characters that boxing produces, a self-promoter, a flimflam man, and con man. He knew an easy mark when he saw one. [With Shelby] he saw a chance to make good, easy money. He jumped on it like a dog on a bone."

It looked as if Shelby might really get to host a championship fight. But even Gov. Joseph Dixon told Johnson at the time, "Body, just where are you ever going to get $200,000? Hell, man, there isn't that much money in the whole state of Montana."

Yet, talk and momentum were building. Tommy Gibbons, a light-heavyweight out of St. Paul, Minn., and an up-and-coming boxer, was chosen as Dempsey's opponent. The American Legion brought in its state commander, Loy Molumby Jr., as its chief representative and negotiator.

In May, Molumby traveled to Chicago's Morrison Hotel to sign a contact with Kearns and turn over the first $100,000 payment.

Had the price for Dempsey's appearance stayed at $200,000, Shelby could have held the prizefight, sold tickets and possibly even reaped a small profit -- not to mention all the positive publicity.

But somewhere within the confines of the hotel, Shelby's grand plans began to unravel. Instead of signing the agreed-upon contract, Molumby handed over the money and came home with his name on a new document that locked Shelby into an additional $100,000 obligation -- now $300,000 total was to be paid for Dempsey to fight.

"I just signed the [new] contract because Kearns wouldn't go for less," Molumby told Johnson.

But other rumors persisted.

"Apparently, [Kearns] threw one wingding of a party . . . and maybe Kearns got him drunked up," says John Kavanagh, family historian and nephew of Body Johnson. "How did a supposedly intelligent gentleman who is a prominent attorney go to Chicago with strict instructions . . . and sign a contract for $100,000 more? Did he have a drinking problem? Did they throw a blond bomb at him? So whatever happened in the Morrison Hotel is still a mystery."

Octagonal arena

Shelby was committed; the fight was on, contracts were signed and a 4th of July date was announced. A rush to build an arena began with a design by architect E.H. Keane -- a huge, multitiered wooden octagon, to be located in a six-acre valley just west of town, on the site of a famous Blackfeet/Sioux Indian battle.

Construction started May 19, just seven weeks before the match. More than a million feet of timber was shipped by train from Kalispell to build the open-air arena holding 85 rows of bench seats accessible from sixteen separate entrances. Additional railroad track was laid nearby in anticipation of the coming crowds.

"The construction of that stadium was a demonstration of the hopes of that community," says former congressman and boxing buff Pat Williams (D-Mont.). "It had to be the biggest outdoor arena in America . . . for one event. It was a dream stadium, built on fiction."

Although contracted for completion July 1, the last nail was driven into Shelby's world-class boxing arena on June 20, 1923. In celebration, local children ran along the benches in endless circles, thudding over seats meant to accommodate 40,208 people.Comparatively, Chicago's United Center holds 20,605 patrons at full capacity.

"It'd have to be overwhelming," Kavanagh says. "It'd have to blow your mind, especially in 1923."

Meanwhile, the fighters themselves had settled into Montana, with Dempsey training in Great Falls and Gibbons taking up residence in Shelby. Both fighters held exhibition matches, charging the public admission to view sparring rounds.

Fundraising efforts to underwrite the event were disappointing, and advance ticket sales weren't efficient operations. Whole shipments of tickets were sent out without any kind of deposit or payment. No one knew how the cash-strapped Shelby organizers were going to make good on the second $100,000 payment, due June 15.

In a desperate plan, Johnson, Molumby and the town leaders embarked on a statewide initiative to pre-sell tickets to the American Legion posts of Montana, flying into the state's disparate cities. In the middle of the campaign, a plane crash hospitalized most of the principals, including Body Johnson, who lived up to his nickname by sustaining a broken arm, leg and cracked shoulder.

2nd payment made

Eventually, through a combination of fundraising in Shelby and, according to Johnson, a $50,000 private loan to his father, the second payment was presented to Kearns at Great Falls' Stanton Bank. Other stories say bank President George Stanton himself put up the money and Mayor Johnson ponied up a considerable amount of his personal bank account.

Meanwhile, news of the impending title fight appeared regularly on Page 1 of The New York Times. Around the country, special trains were being chartered to take spectators to the Dempsey fight in Shelby, and make-shift hotels were hastily going up around town, for Shelby didn't have enough accommodations for 400 people, let alone the 40,000 expected to fill the new stadium.

Kearns, eyeing Shelby's frenzied attempts to raise the last $100,000, started worrying that he and the champ wouldn't get their final cut. So, applying pressure to the Shelby organizers, Dempsey's manager kept telling newspapers that if the last payment wasn't made, the champ would not lace up his gloves.

Reporters smelled blood. Kearns' threat trickled into articles and wire reports throughout the last two weeks of June, casting doubt on the event. In one report, Kearns would threaten canceling the match -- followed by an article the next day assuring a match of epic proportions.

Kearns was pulling the strings until finally, they snapped off in his hands. He still didn't have his money; the fight, he said, was off. But then Dempsey decided he wouldn't allow the stadium, built especially for him, to sit empt on July 4.

Having not set foot inside the ring since the Carpentier bout nearly two years earlier, the champ needed a fight. He did not want be seen as a money-grubbing no-show. Usually a silent partner, Dempsey made his wishes clear.

"In my first years with Doc, I did as I was told," Dempsey said later in life, "He was the manager. I was the fighter. Doc called the shots. But by the time I got to Montana, I was 28. I wasn't a boy anymore. I wanted to get back in the ring. I owed that to boxing. I owed that to the fans. I owed that to myself. I told Kearns, whether he liked it or not, I was going to fight Tommy Gibbons."

And, as quickly as the fight was off, it was on again. Dempsey and Kearns agreed to take their final payment out of the gate receipts.

But it was too late. Unaware of the zero-hour change, rail services had canceled the special trains and drivers had turned back.

"At one time," Johnson wrote, "around June 15, we had nearly $500,000 in advance reservations, and over 26 special trains and parties. Without exception, these were all canceled because of the adverse publicity."

Day of the fight

A calm, hot day provided the backdrop for Shelby's introduction to the world stage. Flags over the arena were raised but didn't fly due to the lack of a breeze. Charles M. Russell, Montana's cowboy painter and socialite, came to visit the champ in Shelby, joining a crowd of prominent sportswriters, among them The New York Times' Elmer Davis, and legendary boxing scribes Otto Floto and Grantland Rice, who had been in Montana for nearly a month.

Cars parked up along the rim of the valley, their owners setting up camp to watch the fight from above. But at 1 p.m., three hours before fight time, the arena itself stood nearly empty.

A crowd of locals stood outside, refusing to pay the $25 ticket price for "reserved" seats, roughly $525 in modern terms. With fewer than 200 estimated bottoms on boards during the exhibition match, the arena was a ghost town and Kearns risked further embarrassment. Kearns finally relented and lowered the ticket price to $10, bringing nearly 8,000 farmers and businessmen from the region into the stadium.

Before the opening round bell rang, however, 4,000-plus people stormed the gates.

"They were farmers and ranchers, and they knew how to take down a barbed wire fence," says Christabel Matteson, whose Legionnaire father was an usher for the fight.

She asked him later, "When you saw all those people coming, what did you do?"

His reply: "Well, I did the only thing I could . . . went for the best seat I could find."

Many Shelby residents share similar stories.

"My dad and his sister had tickets. This was '23, and things were tough out here," Hellinger says. "My uncle didn't have a ticket, but they sat next to one another."

Upholding town's honor

Matteson says the gate-crashing isn't remembered as something shameful.

"They saw it as their moral duty to go down and use those seats that weren't being used -- because it was a shame that they had worked through wind and rain and hail and what have you."

At 3:36 p.m., Dempsey entered the ring to boos, according to biographer Roger Kahn. Gibbons, dressed in a dark robe despite the heat, arrived a few minutes later to an ovation. Having trained in Shelby, the lantern-jawed Midwestern boy was the local favorite, even adopted as an honorary member of the Blackfeet. His Indian name? Thunder Chief.

New York World sportswriter Heywood Broun predicted a Dempsey win by a knockout within two rounds. Few expected it to last a grueling 15.

Broun wrote: "The crowd was intensely partisan and Dempsey could not hit his opponent a foot above the belt without cries of 'foul' ringing out. . . . On the other hand Gibbons could not be criticized for holding on."

Dempsey fought best against hard-charging fighters, swift punchers. But Gibbons played defensively, clinching the champion -- even opening up a cut over one of Dempsey's eyes in the second round.

"When Gibbons had the room and the time to maneuver, he was easily able to outbox Dempsey and to avoid being hit. In the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds Dempsey received a boxing lesson," wrote Dempsey biographer Roberts.

But soon, a frustrated, furious Dempsey took charge, aiming for Gibbons' rib cage and heart. Ring magazine wrote, Dempsey "[tore] in, his lip often curled back over his white teeth as a wolf sometimes looks, driving desperately to bring his man down."

Yet, Gibbons did not fall.

"Certainly, Dempsey was the clear victor," wrote Roberts, "but the gold ... was tarnished."

Gibbons was the first opponent to take Dempsey 15 rounds, in a fight that, Rep. Williams says, "didn't rank as one of Dempsey's best fights, but Gibbons does rank up there with opponents who gave him a good test."


Once he was proclaimed the winner, one story asserts, Dempsey was on a private train to Great Falls with Kearns at his side and a black satchel, overflowing with cash, in the overhead compartment.

"The general opinion was Jack Dempsey didn't even get to take his robe off and was pushed on the train," Matteson says. "His exit was hasty."

One thing that's agreed upon, however, is the aftermath. Newspapermen of the era dubbed the days after the fight as "The Sack of Shelby."

Cash -- actual currency -- was so scarce that people did business in IOUs. Five days after the match, the Stanton Trust and Savings Bank of Great Falls closed its doors, unable to recoup the $73,000 contributed to Dempsey's second payment. The next day, July 10, mayor and bank president James A. Johnson was forced to close his First State Bank of Shelby. Its affiliate bank in Joplin shuttered the next afternoon. The lumber used to build the octagon arena was repossessed and sold as scrap. There are seat numbers still legible on attic boards in a few houses around Shelby.

A month after the fight, another Shelby bank -- the First National Bank of Shelby -- terminated operations. Biographer Roberts wrote that the senior Johnson personally lost at least $140,000, and he couldn't have been alone, but no records remain of exactly who lost what. And no one wanted to remember.

Today, Tommy Gibbons' battered leather gloves sit in a small glass case surrounded by stark, black-and-white photos of the event in the Shelby's local museum.

No sign marks the fight spot (now, partially shared by the local Pizza Hut, the Dixie Inn and an abandoned hotel along U.S. 2), and opinions differ as to where the ring actually sat.

Shelby town leaders think it's time to change that. Town boosters hope that instead of just stopping in Shelby for gas and coffee, tourists will pause for a bit of boxing lore as well -- maybe even extend their stay one night or eat rainbow trout at the Dixie Inn. But first, Matteson says, there has to be something for them to see.

Park planned

The former schoolteacher is spearheading a campaign to build Champions Park, an interpretative historical octagon inspired by the original stadium. It's proposed centerpiece: two full-size bronze figures, battling it out in posterity inside a boxing ring. She hopes to have the park completed for the fight's 85th anniversary in 2008, although Mayor Bonderud would like to spend a year fundraising and a year building. Estimated cost: $100,000, the same as Dempsey's first payment.

Even 12 years ago, Matteson says, they would have met resistance trying to forward such a suggestion. Old-timers wouldn't go for it, Matteson says, though she never understood why.

"It was never presented to me as a shame," she says. "I only learned later that it was considered a fiasco."

John Kavanagh, who has since reproduced his uncle's pamphlet into a slick, square-bound souvenir book with photos, sold in town, has become philosophical about the fight.

"Had that fight been a success, had they made that million-plus dollars that they hoped to, had the Eastern trains not been canceled and had they filled that 40,208-seat arena. . . . Had it been a colossal success, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about it," Kavanagh says.

Mayor Bonderud sees the story as indicative of something indelible in Shelby's spirit.

"Maybe it's genetic now . . . the concept that it's OK to stick your neck out and try something. So today we are still calculated risk-takers in our promotion of the community," he says, citing the city's new private prison, the first of its kind in the state, as evidence.

Shelby's boxing ambitions nearly bankrupted the town, but "now it can be a very good thing that can promote and help the community in the next century," Bonderud says. "It turns out to be an ace in the hole."

Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune

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