Earl Gerheim wrote this article while he was a graduate student at Eastern Washington State College. Before coming to Eastern he was an AP sports writer in New York and interviewed Jack Dempsey on several occasions.
The future appeared promising for the Montana town of Shelby in 1923. The lure of riches generated by a recent oil strike had attracted thousands of people and almost overnight the town's population swelled from 500 to more than 10,000. With an eye to the future, Shelby's leading citizens weighed projects, which they hoped would attract more capital to their sprawling boom town on the sun-baked Montana plain.
Shelby still harbored the trappings of a frontier town. The horse had not yet surrendered to the smoke-belching (24) automobile and some men, still relying on man-to-man confrontations to settle disputes, carried six-guns. Prohibition may have been a noble experiment carried on by the rest of the United States, but it hadn't reached Montana, as the prodigious quantities of whiskey which flowed in Shelby's saloons would attest. It was a wild boom town carved out of the Old West, but the city fathers felt Shelby had the potential for developing into one of the West's leading communities.
The town leaders finally agreed on an enterprise which they thought would gain national recognition for Shelby: a heavyweight title fight between champion Jack Dempsey and challenger Tom Gibbons on the Fourth of July. A heavyweight title fight! That was Shelby's ticket to the big time. Stage a bout for the sporting world's most prestigious accolade and watch the money flow, the citizens of Shelby reasoned. A heavyweight title fight! People would stream in from all parts of the country to see Dempsey defend his crown. Think of the revenues from such a promotion, the people of Shelby said. Why, only two years before Dempsey had attracted some 91,000 fans to New Jersey where they paid $1.6 million to witness his fourth-round knockout of Georges Carpenter of France.
Mayor Jim Johnson and members of the local chamber of commerce wired their offer to stage a Dempsey title defense to Doc Kearns, the champion's manager. Kearns ignored the first few telegrams but, never one to miss an opportunity to make money, he eventually wired back his terms for the fight: he and Dempsey wanted $300,000, payable in three installments. The Shelby people agreed.
Shelby promoters easily raised the first $100,000, which they presented to Kearns in the form of a certified check when he and Dempsey arrived in late May. Dempsey started training while Kearns, never neglectful of monetary matters, inquired about the next $100,000.
The promoters-a group of erstwhile Shelby citizens who had never before been associated with an enterprise of this magnitude-said they needed more time. Kearns was not sympathetic, reminding the promoters that they had an agreement. Raising the second $100,000 proved to be a more awesome task than collecting the initial payment. Businessmen and farmers were asked to invest in the affair and money was borrowed from the town's banks. In addition to paying Dempsey they had to build an arena. The clapboard structure which was constructed to house the contest was built with $40,000 worth of lumber bought on credit.
The day of the fight arrived, but the massive infusion of sports-loving visitors which the townspeople had expected never materialized. On the morning of the fight only 1,500 people had paid from $20 to $50 for a ticket. Another 6,000 paid their way in by fight time, but 4,000 other fans-undeterred by warning shots fired over their heads by Internal Revenue agents present to safeguard the government's share of the receipts-smashed down a wall and poured into the arena.
Not only was the promotion of the fight badly managed from the outset, but the bout itself was hardly one of Dempsey's finest title defenses. Gibbons, a 34-year-old St. Paul, Minnesota, campaigner, followed a simple battle plan against Dempsey: survival at all costs. When Dempsey attempted to corner him, Gibbons backpedaled and skirted away. When Dempsey did manage to close with him, Gibbons clinched, grabbed and held on (25) for dear life. Dempsey landed a few solid wallops to Gibbon's head, but those blows only fortified the challenger's determination not to mix it up with the champion.
Dempsey was still the fearsome mauler whose devastating fists had cut a swath through the heavyweight ranks on his way to the title, which he captured in 1919 by handing Jess Willard a frightful beating. But he just couldn't catch Gibbons and had to settle for a decision at the end of the 15-round fight. He then headed back to his dressing room.
Kearns, meanwhile, had stuffed some $80,000 in greenbacks and silver dollars out of the $201,000 in gate receipts into canvas bags. After he located Dempsey, the two hid in the basement of a barbershop while they awaited the departure of an eastbound train. The pair, clutching the bulging bags of money, boarded the train only moments ahead of the angry promoters.
After the fight Gibbons, Dempsey, and Shelby went their separate ways. Gibbons had often said he would fight Dempsey for nothing; a crack at the title was payment enough. He got his wish. Three years later Dempsey lost the championship to Gene Tunney, he failed to regain it a year later, but remained active a few more years after that before retiring for good.
Shelby, the little boom town that had attempted to join the world of big time promotions, took the worst beating of all. Dempsey had not been able to knock out Gibbons, but Kearns had succeeded in knocking out Shelby. Mortgage holders, anxious to salvage their investments, dismantled the arena for the lumber; three of the town's banks failed; and businesses went bankrupt. The once-promising oil strike dried up, the population dwindled, and Shelby was left with the reputation of being the dupe in one of boxing's greatest promotional disasters. Perhaps it was a mark of the times; America in the Roaring Twenties was a carefree society full of glamour, fads, and the desire for riches.
A few years ago Dempsey reclined in his seat at a table in the New York restaurant which he managed and recalled the Shelby fight.
"That was something," said Dempsey, his hair laced with gray and his features bearing the scars he received in the ring. "It could only have happened in those days."