History Template

History of Boxing - Ding!!

In the 1880’s, Durango and the surrounding mining towns were wild and wooley – far flung from the cultural entertainment of minstrel shows, plays and operas, community spelling bees and recitals that were available in towns less estranged by the Colorado Rockies. More often than not, the saloons and gambling emporiums were filled with men of brawn – scratching out a hard core living by following the booms of the Colorado mountains: searching for gold, silver, copper and coal.

Standing against the bar, nudging their elbows and Popeye-like arms, commiserating in their callused life and common lot at $3/day, these hard rock miners labored day after day as pile drivers, timbermen, muckers and hoistmen. Mule skinners who wrestled eight pairs of loaded mules up and down the mountains drank next to lumberjacks and railroad men whose 12 hour days were spent felling trees, laying track by hand; swinging axes and hammers.

These heavily muscled men relieved their pent up frustrations, remedied their boredom, their sorrows and reveled in the excitement they found amongst their own kind in saloons: playing cards, gambling and drinking excessively into the wee hours when a fight would often break out. This all male crowd appreciated a rock-’em, sock-’em saloon brawl, witnessing the strength of their working comrads pitting themselves against one another.

A boxer with talented fists might enter one of these free-for-all saloons late at night and challenge anyone in the joint, regardless of size. This was known as a pick up bout. A haphazard ring was often strung up with a clothesline. If gloves were available, they were usually caked with blood. 20 rounds were common. For the boxer that won, if he was lucky, a hat might be passed after the fight and he and the bartender would split the take. It was a way to make a name and maybe, some extra money, albeit illegally.

For the most part, these violent confrontations, even if tempered by formal arrangement as a boxing match, were not legal in the eyes of the law. Many a bout was held out of site: inside a smelter, in a livery stable or underground – illuminated only by candlelight. In lawful communities, boxing was only allowed in the form of an Exhibition – defined as an artistic demonstration of manly art. Only men were allowed in the audience. Early laws in many towns sought to enforce the ethics of the day in prohibiting prize fights, that is, a fight which was anticipated to end in the knock out of one of the boxers and the winner taking the whole pot. The contestants were mutually threatened with arrest by the officiating sheriff should either contestant knock out the other. The sheriff’s role came complete with a gun on his hip. Whether it was in Durango at the Gem Theater, the Coliseum or the Clipper Theater, or the Martha Rose Smelter outside of Silverton, whether it was in Cripple Creek, Creede, Rico or Telluride, these boxing exhibitions were announced in the newspapers beforehand. After a 20+ round exhibition, newspapers carried the commentary round by round in their next issue, describing every punch, every blow, every foul.

The fact that women were prohibited from witnessing these boxing matches didn’t stop their interest and participation in the sport. They purchased boxing gloves right along with the men. A women’s pair ran $2.50 – $3.50. As the incidence of boxing exhibitions increased in towns like Durango, Rico, Creede, Telluride, and Silverton, the interest accelerated likewise in private clubs and homes. In 1884, every type of club, every athletic club, every social club, even the church literary societies had boxing gloves for use. In the low grade variety theatres, women were not above going at it on a spectacle level, pounding and pummeling each other with the inspiration of resounding applause with just as much fierceness and brutality as the popular male boxers of the day. After the initiation of boxing in Colorado, it was still a major source of entertainment, especially between young boys – a generation later. In the poorest communities (with no theatres) these tussling encounters on the most primitive level were for some, the most excitement to be had. Such was the setting in the tiny village of Manessa, Colorado, just Northeast of Chama, New Mexico where Jack Dempsey was born in 1895. Growing up in a large family with a dedicated, inspiring mother and a shiftless father, Jack knew intimately the humiliation and helplessness of poverty. While he had an inate love for boxing, over time he realized it was to be his destiny in overcoming the struggle and shame of the character of his childhood. The disappointment that paralleled his impoverished young years served as a catalyst of conversion into determination and desire. Jack Dempsey became the epitomy of all those Colorado boxers before him – personifying the desperate battle to get out of the grind and to be somebody. He lived their struggle and drudgery; he examplified their tenacity and if anyone was determined to find fame and fortune, it was Jack Dempsey. From the time he was 14, Jack Dempsey was bumming rides on the Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge, hopping from one violent town to another, engaging in 100’s of pick up bouts for side bets with anyone that would fight him. He fought all across southern and central Colorado in mining towns that were as rough as they come. Within three years, before he was 17, he had his first two professional fights to his credit; he won both with knockouts. Until he was 20, he did anything to earn a meal while looking for his next fight. He worked in the gold mines of Telluride, he hard rocked mined as a mucker, then a hoister. He was a hod carrier and a lumberjack. He worked in the Porter Coal Mine and the City Coal Mine of Durango. He picked fruit, washed dishes, split wood, mopped floors, shovelled manure, loaded sugar beets onto railroad cars, anything for a meal. In his mind, he used the various jobs of grueling labor as his training for strength and endurance – building up his arm and back muscles and his lung power. Most importantly, the hardship formulated his mental tenacity, refusing to ever give up on his dream of becoming heavyweight champion. After a fight, sometimes he got paid; many times he didn’t. The fire burned on. The mural on the North side of El Rancho in Durango commemorates Jack Dempsey’s Exhibition fight held on Thursday night, October 7, 1915. The fight took place across the street at the Gem Theatre. The Durango newspapers announced the Exhibition beforehand and announced the doors to open at 10 p.m. As was mandated by the officiating Sheriff Fassbinder, with gun on his side – there would be no knockouts. The 10 round exhibition ended in a draw.

4 years later, in 1919 during the era of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight world championship. Winning the title, with his reputation for having the most profound killer instinct of anyone in boxing history, he became the greatest drawing card in the history of sports. On September 23, 1926, over 120,000 people jammed the Stadium in Philadelphia to watch him defend his crown. A year later, his rematch drew live gate receipts of $2,658,660, a record that stood for fifty years.


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