Beantown Boxing 1896
By Richard E. Baker (aka Wrigley Brogan) on April 3, 2020
Bean quickly developed a reputation in Langtry, more as an oddity than as anything else.
The big city. The early days. Towering skyscrapers, smoking vehicles, trolleys, open markets, and boxing, the national sport. Boston has a long history of boxing and a long history of boxers, especially Irish boxers. Boston Garden, designed by boxing promoter Tex Rickard, opened in 1928 with a boxing match between Dick Finnegan defeating Andre Routu.
Many great fighters were from the area and fought in Boston including Paddy Duffy, the first gloved welterweight champion. Every quality of boxer fought in Boston including Saul Benton, Dicky Eklund, Marvin Hagler, Johnny Indrisano, Tom Kirby, Rocky Marciano, Paul Pender, Sandy Saddler, Jack Sharkey, John L. Sullivan and Jimmy Walsh.
What a time it was, one of many golden eras in Boston. But, that is a different Beantown. To find our Beantown think west and south, somewhere near the border with Mexico, a land barren of vegetation, miles and miles of featureless flatland with only a bit of cactus and sagebrush to break the monotony. Now imagine the town of Langtry, Texas, a nothing spot in the middle of nowhere, a place that boasted the only law west of the Pecos, a town built Judge Roy Bean, a con-man and entrepreneur, a bold dreamer who set himself up as a judge although he was not much more than a justice of the peace, or a notary public, or maybe not even that. All his credentials are suspect and more a product of boldness than fact. He doled out justice from his combination saloon and court house, The Jersey Lilly, both the town and saloon named after the actress Lilly Langtry at a time when boxing was illegal in much of the United States.
Bean enjoyed a challenge. Figuring out how to legally stage a heavyweight boxing championship peaked his interest.
Bean was born in Tennessee, a bad boy constantly in trouble, a man who staged several duels, fought with the law, and was even sentenced to hang, although he was cut down by a woman who loved him. He worked his way to Texas and became a successful businessman before moving to Langtry, a town of 75 that he named, and setting up his saloon and law practice. Most people were convicted in his court and fined as much money as they had. With enough money one might expect to get a light sentence, or none at all. One could expect as much justice as one could afford, much like today.
Men like to fight and like to watch others fight. Bean sensed an opportunity. With some businessmen from San Antonio, he decided to hold a championship fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and heavyweight champion Peter Maher.
Fitzsimmons, known as Ruby Bob, was the former middleweight champion having defeated Nonpareil Jack Dempsey in a vicious battle that saw Dempsey hit the canvas 13 times by the 13th round. Fitzsimmons pleaded with Dempsey to quit, but Dempsey, with a fighter’s heart, refused. When Fitzsimmons finally knocked him out, he helped carry the former champion to his corner. Later, during training, he knocked out, and killed, his sparring partner Con Riordan. Today, Fitzsimmons is rated as one of the most deadly punchers in history. He had developed his upper body strength while working as a blacksmith for his father.
The true heavyweight championship was in limbo because Jim Corbett, who had won the title from the great John L. Sullivan, claimed to have retired and named Peter Maher as his successor. Corbett disliked Fitzsimmons. Although just a middleweight, Fitzsimmons wanted that title, and if he had to travel to Texas to get it, he would.
Bean quickly developed a reputation in Langtry, more as an oddity than as anything else, and people traveling near the town dropped in for a visit. He even had a pet bear. The word son spread that Bean was going to hold a world heavyweight championship fight. People from both coasts and everyplace in between, started making preparations. He managed to contact Fitzsimmons and Maher and proposed that the two settle the biggest boxing championship in the biggest state in the union. Fitzsimmons had already challenged Maher so all they were waiting for was a venue and an offer. Bean and his partners squeezed $15,000 from the citizens of El Paso. The two heavyweights agreed to the deal.
Fitzsimmons had learned to box from one of the greatest bare-knuckle boxers in history, Jem Mace. The most outstanding thing he noticed about Fitzsimmons was his power. Mace convinced him to develop that power over all his other skills.
Mace was considered one of the most scientific boxers of his day and had a remarkable life. He was an accomplished violin player, acted in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” owned and managed hotels, saloons, race horses, and a circus. In his spare time he fathered 14 children by five different women. His managing of money was no different than many boxers. He lost everything and ended up living on an old age pension and earning coins by performing on the streets with his violin.
The Texas authorities, hearing about the contest, reminded Bean that boxing was illegal in Texas and he would be arrested if he persisted ins adventure. Bean liked nothing better than to outsmart authorities, and the Teas Rangers. The fight was on.
People from across the country boarded trains and headed to Texas. Several traveled as far away as the east and west coasts, a difficult journey for anyone. Trains had improved greatly over the years, but still remained hot and dusty, especially when traveling through Texas. They had cars for drinking, eating, and smoking to pass the time, although much of the trip consisted of boredom, especially when the scenery turned flat with only an occasional sprig of sagebrush or cactus to break the canvas-colored landscape. Bean had prepared for the discomfort and ushered customers into his bar for food, beer, and whiskey marked up one hundred percent. Sporting girls offered special delights for those who preferred personalized attention. A troop of 26 Texas Rangers were sent to Langtry and 200 Mexican soldiers waited across the river in case the event slipped across the border.
Bean and his backers were forward thinking men and knew how to squeeze a dime to get eleven cents. They hired an Edison kinetoscope to film the fight, the film to be shown across the country for a tidy little sum, the early version of pay-for-view.
Bean had the perfect place for the fight: a large sandbar in the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River. The Texas Rangers could not touch him there and he decided the Mexicans would not swim across the river to cause any trouble. Forty men worked all night to erect a suitable ring, the sand packed hard, covered with boards, and blanketed with a resin-coated canvas. A walkway was built to the sandbar and a high fence erected to prevent the view from non-paying onlookers.
Maher’s best punch was a right hand. By all accounts the punch was devastating. He was not much on movement. He was no stranger to Fitzsimmons and had lost by retirement in 1892 when he was still a fairly new boxer. He was fully confident he could beat “Ruby” Robert this time. During his career, Maher, from Galway, Ireland, beat some of the best including Joe Choynski, George Godfrey, and Frank Craig. He also received a draw against Sailor Tom Sharkey.
The fighters arrived the day of the fight, no time to rest up, just exit the train, climb into the ring, collect the cash, and move on to more comfortable surroundings and bigger paydays.
The crowd, suitably lubricated, pressed around the ring and waited for the action. They toasted one another with quickly warming bottles of beer and good cheers. Side bets were laid and the dry air tingled with excitement and anticipation as Fitzsimmons entered the ring, his five-ounce gloves already battling each other. He weighed 165 pounds, fifteen pounds less than Maher. He straightened his midnight blue trunks. Not a man given to joviality, he looked all business, his face like granite. He glanced up at George Siler, the referee. Just minutes before they had had a confirmation over money. Martin Julian, Fitzsimmons manager, asked where the money for the bout was. They were not inclined to being cheated. Siler said he did not know as he was only the referee. Fitzsimmons said to forget it, he just wanted to fight. (This is why many fighters need managers. Fighters are interested in fighting, managers are interested in money.) Siler was the only judge for the fight and his decision was final. Fitzsimmons did not want to get on his bad side.
The extra 15 pounds shown on Maher as he entered the ring followed by his seconds. Confidence brewed behind his eyes. Like Fitzsimmons he was fully confident of victory. He looked briefly around the ring. The fence erected to keep out the freeloaders was a failure. Made of canvas it came down easily and high banks, crowded with anxious men and the Texas Rangers, offered free seats to anyone willing to grab a free view from a distance.
Maher’s black trunks might have signaled doom as he moved forward at the bell, anxious to finish the fight and retire to the saloon for cold beer and the accolades of an adoring public. Fitzsimmons circled slightly and met Mayer’s enthusiasm with a strong left followed by clubbing right that knocked Mayer slightly backward and into the corner. The crowd yelled its approval, sensing a great fight, one for the history books.
Maher clinched, landed a sharp right and, still clinching, pushed Fitzsimmons back, until separated by Siler. Bets were passing fast and furious between the crowd. The operators working the Edison kinetoscope could not get the matching to work. Fitzsimmons briefly smiled to show the punch was nothing, a fly speck on a stone wall. Maher immediately followed up with a blow to the neck as the two danced from side to side. The blows were hard. Five-ounce gloves are not much different than no gloves at all.
Again the two moved together, a sweet dance of violence. Maher stepped back slightly, then stepped in again landing a stiff uppercut. Blood squirted from the lip of Fitzsimmons as Maher’s confidence continued to grow. He was on the attack and winning and he knew it.
Fitzsimmons started to retreat leaving a trail of blood spots on the canvas. He wiped at his lip and surveyed the crimson on his glove. Maher barreled in, head slightly lowered, and tossed several rights and lefts—a vicious barrage of leather. They clinched again, rocking from side to side, each man attempting to show his strength, to let his energy flow through his body like a storm on the Texas plains and sweep away everything in its path, to leave the ground barren of all life and eventually even barren of the wind and energy that started it all.
Maher landed more shots, pushed ahead with his stubby and muscular legs. A few more hard blows and the fight would be his. Fitzsimmons retreated. Mayer loaded up his left, put all the force into the punch that would leave him in glory. To give the blow more force he moved his whole body forward—and missed. Fitzsimmons had disappeared, had slipped to the side and caught Maher and all his forward movement with a right hand. Maher fell hard, his lips moving against the canvas like a landed fish. He rose as far as his knees before he was counted out at 1:35 of the first round, then tumbled back to the canvas to dream about a lost future.
The crowd dispersed to the saloon and surrounding area for drinks and food, cigars and the usual boxing talk, various boasts mixing with the smoke.
The event was not financially successful, but, Bean, being a business man seldom used his own money on anything risky. Bean mellowed as he aged and spent much of his wealth helping the poor. He also supplied free firewood to the local schools.
A year later Fitzsimmons beat Jim Corbett, who had returned to the ring, to gain the legitimate heavyweight championship. He later won the light heavyweight championship from George Gardiner, a new weight division formed after the Langtry fight. Unfortunately, his career went the way of most boxers, just another cliché in the fight world. He married four times, had six children, and gambled away his money, finally dying in poverty from pneumonia.