NOSTALGIA THE PRIZEFIGHT

Corbett vs. Fitzsimmons vs. Dallas

EVERYBODY WAS going to Dallas for the fight of the century. Gentleman Jim Corbett and Lanky Bob Fitzsimmons were the scheduled combatants, but as it turned out, the real tussle was between the operator of a Dallas gambling casino and the first governor of Texas to hail from here. During the summer of 1895, Dallas got more national publicity than it had managed to eke out during the first 50 years of its existence.

In the middle of the block, on the south side of Main Street between Poydras and Lamar, stood the Coney Island Bar. The Coney Island was typical of the better saloons at the tail end of the frontier days, with its mirror-backed, horseshoe-shaped mahogany bar and walls lined with lithographs of racehorses and prizefighters. Up the covered stairs from the rear entrance on Commerce awaited a generous assortment of the more popular gaming diversions of the day such as faro, keno, roulette, craps, poker and chuck-a-luck. This was the domain of Daniel Albert Stuart, a handsome, 39-year-old bachelor and the son of a Scottish immigrant. After brief but successful sojourns in Ohio and Kentucky, Stuart had come to Texas to take advantage of the easy money that had rolled in with the railroad.

Stuart had a reputation as a square gambler who knew enough about odds to realize that he didn’t have to cheat to win. As a result, his establishment was frequented by a better class of clientele. Even a community pillar could go down on red or black at Dan’s wheel every now and then without blotting his escutcheon.

Stuart was dismayed about the direction the country was taking in the mid-1890s. The do-good politicians and meddling preachers were orchestrating a moral backlash. It was getting to where a sporting gentleman couldn’t have any fun anymore; most every state had even gone so far as to outlaw prizefighting. Dan had read in the paper that the great Jim Cor-bett had finally agreed to let Bob Fitzsim-mons have a shot at the heavyweight crown, and now they couldn’t find a place to fight. Disgusting.

Stuart had a brilliant idea: He would offer to stage the grand spectacle in Dallas. In no time he was off to New York to call on the big boys, the people who called the shots in the fight world.

The Texas gambler made quite an impression on the sophisticated New Yorkers. He was an imposing figure with a well-maintained handlebar mustache and wavy black hair parted in the middle, and when he spoke, he looked you in the eye and you knew that if he said it, it was just as good as if you had it on paper and it was witnessed by a notary public. It didn’t hurt any, either, when he laid a certified check for $40,000 on the table-which in 1895 was enough to build a whole block of houses on both sides of the street. Stuart pulled it off; the fight was scheduled for Dallas on October 31, Drummer’s Day at the State Fair.

When the train from New York pulled into Union Depot in early June, Stuart received a hero’s welcome. The city had been transformed overnight from a locally significant spot where the railroads happened to cross to the focal point of the nation. Fifty thousand people would come here for the fight and would leave more money in their wake than the combined cash value of the Dallas County cotton, corn and wheat crops for the entire year of 1894. Work would begin immediately on a huge amphitheater that would be the second largest such structure in the history of the world. The Coliseum built in Rome in 172 A.D. was a little bigger, but it wasn’t in any condition to be holding prizefights in.

In a state of near panic, the Dallas Pastors’ Association held an emergency meeting in the parlor of the YMCA. It was generally agreed that if this debauchery were permitted to take place, it would take a minimum of five years of nonstop preaching to return the city to its preexisting moral state. Brother E.W. Aider-son characterized boxing as “the prolific mother of all crime” and introduced a resolution calling on “all lovers of purity and honor” to rise up in protest against the onslaught of “gamblers, thieves, pickpockets, thugs and harlots.”

After the resolution was read, Brother Alderson asked menacingly if there were any who would oppose it, and only one hand was raised. All eyes turned to Brother W.G. Templeton as he rose to speak.

“Is not this resolution rather tame?” asked Brother Templeton. The resolution passed unanimously, and after some discussion as to what should be done with it, it was finally decided that it should be sent to the governor, along with a fervent plea for his intervention.

Governor Charley Culberson wasn’t really as goody-goody as most people thought he was. The son of a famous congressman, Culberson had risen to the governorship at the age of 39 by portraying an image of unswerving righteousness. But his intimate acquaintances knew him as a man who stood ready to sample most any kind of invigorator that might be found behind a well-stocked bar and as a fellow who, when irritated, could swear like a teamster. He had also been known to frequent cockfights and horse races, and it was said that he could come as near to protecting himself in a poker game as any governor Texas ever had, which was saying a lot.

Culberson had no particular quarrel with the prizefighting crowd, but he envisioned the outrage of the preachers as the beginning of a great moral uprising against the pugilistic encounter. The governor’s only desire was to do the right thing, which was to get re-elected. He announced that he too would vehemently oppose the sordid act of barbarism.

Stuart figured that the governor was just mouthing the politically expedient phrase of the day, but he feared that the opposition of the ministerial community might be bad for business. What he needed was the forthright support of local men of character and reputation. He mentioned offhandedly that he would be away for a few days at the beach, for the saltwater seemed to have a soothing effect on his malaria. And by the way, he said, while he was there he would visit with an entourage that wished to discuss the removal of the fight of the century to the city of Galveston.

The preachers were ecstatic. “We’ve got them on the run,” said the Reverend G.W. Owens. “We’re going to keep after them with a sharp stick until we drive them not only to Galveston, but into the sea.”

The business leaders of Dallas were in an awkward position. If they favored the fight, they would undoubtedly suffer the wrath of the ministry when they took up their regular positions in the pews of Dallas’ leading churches. But if they failed to rally to the support of the encounter, $2 million worth of tourist trade would be lost to Galveston. Awaiting Stuart on his arrival in Galveston was a telegram from 20 of Dallas’ most prominent citizens – people like E.M. Kahn, Philip Sanger, J.F. Zang, Mayor Frank Holland and John Armstrong, the man who would later develop the village of Highland Park. The bone and sinew of the Dallas establishment pleaded with Stuart to abort this act of high treason. Stuart responded with a telegram pledging his loyalty to his hometown, for which he was rewarded with yet another hero’s welcome at Union Depot.

Most of the people of Dallas considered all the folderol to be an amusing diversion, but not a life-or-death issue. Barnett Gibbs, himself an ex-lieutenant governor, said that in view of the bloomers in the park, nudes in the art gallery and sexes bathing together on the beaches, there was likely to be a shortage of saints in the city even if the fight were prevented. Proponents of the fight cited Tom Brown of Rugby – as healthy a boys’ book as you’d ever want to see -which urged that every boy should be taught “to spar and swim.” Sure there would be crooks, the supporters said, an army of them, but that’s not front-page news because they all come to the fair every year anyway. One observer noted that the Prince of Wales, a Mormon judge and 10 bank presidents had ordered tickets, and as far as was known, there wasn’t a thief or a pickpocket in the lot.

Stuart’s strategy was to distinguish the upcoming fight, which would involve the use of 5-ounce gloves, from the bare-knuckled contests of the recent past. In 1889, John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain had fought a bloody bare-knuckled battle in Mississippi that lasted 75 rounds. Right after that, Kilrain brought an entourage of fighters to Dallas for an exhibition at which the local citizens were invited into the ring to try their luck. A local bricklayer accepted the challenge and stepped into the ring, whereupon one of Kilrain’s proteges proceeded to beat him to death.

In his promotional materials, Stuart never used the term “prizefight,” which was the usual nomenclature for the bareknuckle brawls. He called it a gloves contest, a friendly fight or a physical culture exhibition.

All the while, Corbett and Fitzsimmons were doing their best to concentrate on the matter of physical conditioning. Corbett had won the championship by whipping an aging and exhausted Sullivan three years earlier, and though he had a following, the public never completely forgave him for whipping the great John L. It was also said that he wasn’t the same man, now that he was rich, that he had been when he was a mere bank clerk. But worst of all, it had been discovered that Jim was no gentleman at all, but had been seen on frequent occasions in the company of a mysterious woman in a lavender dress who was not his wife.

Fitzsimmons was a gangly blacksmith from New Zealand with the physical appearance of a plucked chicken and the reach of an octopus. Fitz had a severe case of knock-knee, which he used as a lethal weapon. He was able to sidestep in his tracks and gain leverage, which enabled him to administer a deadly wallop.

Since becoming champion, Corbett had become more enamored with his prowess on the stage than in the ring. He’d been dodging Fitz for some time, and if the truth were known, was probably in Culberson’s corner.

The moral minority was starting to tire of listening to Culberson’s espousals on the evils of boxing; they figured it was time for him to do something about it. The governor responded by persuading Attorney General M.M. “Knife-to-the-Hilt” Crane to issue an opinion that boxing was illegal in Texas.

Stuart merely sidestepped and counter-punched. There were two Texas laws on the subject of boxing. One law said it was a crime; the other said it was okay if you paid $500 for a permit. In fact, boxing had been going on all the time in Texas but no one had cared up until now because there had never been all this publicity before. The Dallas Athletic Club held boxing matches on the same card as dogfights and rat killings.

Stuart arranged for a couple of local fighters to be arrested and brought before Judge J.M. Hurt for a habeas corpus hearing. Judge Hurt ruled that in view of the confusing state of the law in Texas, the fighters must be released and no charges be brought against anyone engaged in organized fisticuffs in the future. Round one for the Scotsman.

Back in June, when the fight was first announced, the promoters had begun scurrying around for a site and had decided that Widow Browder’s cornfield out by Fair Park would be ideal. The cornstalks were stacked and burned, and orders were placed with East Texas mills for a million board feet of lumber. But with all the uncertainty over the legality of the affair, not much had been accomplished in the way of construction. Now, in a mere six weeks, they had to build a fancy octagonal amphitheater big enough to accommodate more than 50,000 people. Two hundred workmen were hired, and the 4-acre structure began to take shape. There was even talk of trying to get the 1896 Democratic National Convention for the magnificent arena.

There was also the matter of hotel accommodations. Dallas always drew a big crowd whenever the state championship cockfights were held here, but this was different. There was barely enough hotel space to handle the press. So as the framework of the amphitheater rose skyward, the railroads began the laying of 11 miles of sidetracks for sleeping cars. A Pullman city would take the place of hotels.

Ticket orders were pouring in. Only one man could stop the fight now. It would take a legislative act to resolve the conflict in the law, and only the governor could call a special session. And so he did, and in less than 48 hours the Texas Legislature had passed an emergency bill that killed the fight. Round two for the governor.

Dan Stuart was getting mad now; staging the fight had become an obsession with him. After reconnoitering the surrounding area, he announced that the fight would be held in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Arkansas Governor Jim Clarke took a much more direct approach to the problem than had his Texas counterpart: He had Corbett and Fitzsimmons picked up at the border and brought to Little Rock. In the presence of the boxers, he assigned a special officer to each man, who had orders to put a hole through the first fighter to strike a blow and then send him home in a pine box.

This was about all the discouragement Corbett needed. A short while later, he not only abandoned efforts to fight Fitz but also renounced his championship altogether in favor of a big Irishman named Peter Maher. The indomitable Stuart signed Maher to fight Fitz at a site yet to be determined.

When the papers had been drawn up for the Dallas fight, Stuart noted with interest that Corbett had insisted on 100 percent of the Kinetoscope rights. Stuart didn’t know the difference between a Kinetoscope and a stethoscope so he agreed, but he made it a point to find out for future reference.

Corbett had been involved in the production of six minutes worth of moving pictures in Thomas Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey. There he sparred with a second-rater named Peter Courtney, and was actually rather annoyed by the whole thing. Mr. Edison kept calling for Jim to look at the camera, and every time he did, Courtney would pop him. Nevertheless, the astute Corbett could see financial potential in moving pictures. Stuart could too, and he decided that from now on, he’d have the Kinetoscope rights.

In February 1896, Stuart announced that all who wished to witness the gloves contest between Fitzsimmons and Maher should come immediately to El Paso. Cul-berson was furious, and he immediately dispatched a company of Texas Rangers to El Paso to defend the voting citizenry from any attempt at gloved barbarism.

Stuart played cat and mouse for a while, and then on February 20 he posted a notice on the door of his El Paso office that all those desiring to witness the fray should report that evening with $12 for a train ticket.

It is very difficult to successfully promote a prizefight when the time and location must be kept secret until the last minute. Only 200 fight fans boarded the train, along with Captain Bill McDonald and Company B of the Texas Rangers.

Stuart engaged the services of Bat Mas-terson, the legendary lawman and gun-fighter-whether he intended to defend himself from Culberson’s Rangers or had some other reason is not clear. This made the train ride rather tense, but there was only one potentially explosive incident. At Sanderson, Texas, where the train stopped for lunch, Masterson became perturbed over the inattentiveness of a Chinese waiter. He removed one of the casters from the table and was about to fling it at the waiter when McDonald grabbed his arm.

“Maybe you want in on this,” Bat said menacingly.

“I’m done in it,” said McDonald. Bat looked at the Ranger for a moment, then smiled and tossed the caster on the floor.

After a 15-hour ride, the train came to a stop at the tiny village of Langtry, Texas. The Rangers were first to debark, armed with horse pistols and Winchester rifles, and they stood ready as the rabid fight fans poured off the train. If necessary, they would kill every man there to prevent the suspected attempt at hand-to-hand violence.

Dan Stuart and his accomplice, Judge Roy Bean, had planned things well. The group was led along a winding, rocky path down the cliff to the Rio Grande River. After being cut by the jagged rock and scratched by brambles and then wading through ankle-deep silt in the river bot-tom, the assembly walked across a makeshift footbridge to the Mexico side of the river. Prizefighting was illegal in Mexico too, but as Bean had promised, it would take Governor Ahumada and his Rurales two days to get there across the rugged Coahuila wasteland.

Masterson stood beside the bridge with his coat thrown back over his holster and his fingers tapping restlessly on his revolver. The Rangers made no effort to cross the bridge, but instead stacked their rifles and elbowed their way through the Mexican peasants to the edge of the cliff, where they had a better view of the fight than the fans who had paid $20 for ringside seats. To Stuart’s dismay, a gray mist was falling, which made use of the Kineto-scope impossible.

One minute and 25 seconds deep in the first round, Fitzsimmons took a knock-kneed sidestep and flattened the bumbling Irishman with a right to the chin.



A SHORT TIME later, Corbett announced his unretirement as heavyweight champion of the world. On March 17, 1897, Dan Stuart staged the fight of the century at Carson City, Nevada. Fitzsimmons knocked Corbett to his knees with a blow to the solar plexus and became the undisputed heavyweight champion. For the next two years, Fitz dodged challengers while touring with an acting troupe, actually forging horseshoes on the stage while portraying a blacksmith.

Stuart lost money on the Carson Cityfight, just as he had done at Langtry, buteventually grossed more than $500,000from the Kinetoscope rights. Charles Cul-berson became known as the Christiangovernor, easily won re-election and thenspent 24 years in the U.S. Senate.

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