Jack Dempsey vs. Tommy
how the fight was
made and what went wrong
some ways, Dempsey's most demanding fight was the Tommy Gibbons
title match at Shelby, Montana, on July 4, 1923. Granny Rice
told how it came about.
"Mike Collins, a fight manager of sorts out of St. Paul, had
a string of fighters barnstorming through Montana that year,
working any town where there were a few bucks to be made,"
recalled Granny. "Collins met Loy Molumby, head of Montana's
American Legion, and in a short time they were cruising all over
the state in a flimsy old airplane, shooting off horse pistols
and calling for wine. In the course of their wanderings they ran
into a man named Johnson, who, among other things, was mayor of
Shelby and president of the local bank. With the talk flaring
around fights and fighters, somebody had the glorious idea of
staging a heavyweight championship fight right there in Shelby!
It would cause a land boom, make it a city overnight. Collins
called his pal, Eddie Kane, Gibbons manager back in St. Paul,
and put the proposition to him.
"Kane replied, 'Listen, Mike. You get Dempsey out there and
Gibbons will fight him for nothing. All you got to do is pay
Dempsey. What do you think of that?'
"That they liked. Next they wired Jack Kearns, offering him
$300,000 to defend the title against Gibbons at Shelby on July
4th. Kearns wired back: 'Send $100,000 now...$100,000 in a
month, and $100,000 before Dempsey steps into the ring and it's
"The first hundred grand came easily enough and seeing they
meant business Kearns and Dempsey headed West and set up
training quarters at Great Falls, Montana, about 70 miles south
of Shelby. Eddie Kane went direct to Shelby and set up Gibbons
training camp there."
Late in June, Granny boarded a Pullman in Chicago with a
crowd of other writers and they were off by way of the Great
Northern to the Wild West. Great Falls, they discovered, was a
fair-sized town. Granny found Dempsey in high humor.
"I recall it was June 24th, his 28th birthday," Granny said.
"His dad was there and so was his cousin, Don Chafin, a
raw-boned kid from West Virginia. The camp mascot was a cub
timber wolf. Dempsey was giving himself daily facials with some
sort of bear grease that had toughened his face to the general
texture of a boar's hide. It was Jack's first title defense
since he fought Carpentier, in 1921, but he looked to be in
great shape. Even walking, he seemed to slither along,
snakelike, his muscles glinting in the sun."
Granny said he didn't know just what he expected from Shelby,
the fight site, but he wasn't impressed. A town of perhaps
2,000, it was a little more than a crossroad in the middle of a
desert. There were few houses and a building or two that passed
for hotels. The Pullman cars shoved over on a siding served as
press headquarters and living accommodations.
Gibbons, meanwhile, was training hard. He was eager to get
this crack at Dempsey. Most of the visiting sports writers felt
he was heading for certain annihilation. Tommy's wife and two
children were with him.
Granny recollected: "Shortly before the fight, Hughey
Fullerton spotted a Blackfoot brave in war regalia, including
paints and eagle feathers. In broken Indian dialect, Hughey
asked him, 'Who Big Chief like? Dempsey or Gibbons?' Big Chief
replied, in perfect English: 'Sir, I happen to like Dempsey.
Gibbons has the skill as a boxer. Dempsey has the power. Power
usually prevails over skill."
As the fight drew nearer, the city fathers of Shelby began to
feel the pinch. They were having a hard time scraping up the
second $100,000, with still a third installment to come. Kearns
"You've got to pay us every cent, or you won't see Dempsey at
all!" he warned. Mayor Johnson all but hocked his bank to come
up with the second payment. Four days before the bell rang,
Kearns' vacillations about the purse forced special trainloads
from San Francisco and Chicago to cancel.
The eve of the fight was the most harrowing in Shelby's
history. In the span of six hours Kearns "officially" called off
the fight seven times. Visiting scribes were going nuts trying
to keep up-to-the-minute.
At the last hour, Kearns again reversed his decision, decided
to gamble on the gate receipts and declared the fight was on.
Shelby's main street erupted into a madhouse. Everybody
celebrated. Against a background of blaring bands, a snake dance
down the center of town lasted clear through the night.
Prohibition was supposed to be the order of the times, but that
night in Shelby, Montana, everybody packed a bottle.
"And looking down on it all from his little family shack on a
bare hill sat Tommy Gibbons," Granny said. "I thought about him,
a family man 34 years old, who was about to face Dempsey, the
Killer, and for nary a thin dime! The fight was scaled at $50
ringside and the huge wooden bowl built for the match was
erected to hold some 50,000 people. But the final paid ticket
count was a trickle over 7,000 and so they opened up the gates
and let in another 13,000 free! The fight was a financial bust.
It broke all the banks in town."
McCallum-The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship