Tex Rickard – The most dynamic fight promoter in history

  • April 15th, 2008
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By Phillip I. Earl

Of all the men who raised a stake and got a start in Nevada none was quite the equal of George Lewis “Tex” Rickard. A teenage cowboy from Texas who moved on to fame and fortune as a gambler in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890′s, Rickard is best remembered today as America’s foremost boxing promoter, an avocation he first took up in Nevada.

Coming to the state in 1904, he opened the Northern Saloon in Goldfield and soon became the town’s leading citizen. In September of 1906, he promoted the famed lightweight championship fight between Joe Gans and Oscar “Battling” Nelson, one of the most memorable fistic events in history. Stated as a promotional stunt for Goldfield and its mines, the fights put Rickard himself in the national limelight, a position he was to maintain for the next quarter century. In January of 1909, Rickard promoted a featherweight match in Goldfield between Abe Attell, the reigning champion, and Freddie Weeks, a Tonopah boy who claimed the championship in that class in Colorado, Montana and Nevada, but Rickard’s crowning achievement in Nevada was the promotion of the historic “Fight of the Century” between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in Reno on July 4, 1910. Rickard’s Nevada years also included a stint as a gambling house proprietor in Rawhide, promotion and development of copper properties in White Pine country and promotion of his mining interests in the short-lived camp of Bovard.

Rickard left the United States for Paraguay in 1912 and spent the next three years running a cattle ranch in the Gran Chaco. Returning to the country in 1915, he re-entered the fight game with the promotion of Jess Willard’s first defense of the heavyweight crown he had recently won from Jack Johnson in Havana, Cuba. Rickard promoted several of Willard’s later fights and was soon becoming the nation’s best-known fight figure, but it was not until he signed his man for a match with an up-and-coming brawler from the West, Jack Dempsey, that he achieved an enduring fame in ring history. It was with Dempsey that Tex Rickard later staged the greatest boxing spectacles in history and racked up the most awe-inspiring attendance figures and gate receipts in the history of the game.

Physically, Tex Rickard was a most engaging person, a tall man with small twinkling eyes set into a bland, smooth-skinned face. He had the gamblers’ thin-tipped trap mouth, an infectious, boyish smile and an impish expression. His trademarks were a soft, light-colored fedora hat, the snap brim turned down, a straight gold-headed malacca cane and a cigar. Although he dressed like a dandy, he had an aura of the West about him – something of the wide-open spaces, saddles and cayuses, six-guns and saloons, rustlers, sheriffs and dance halls. He looked like the West and talked like it. Gazing in awe at the crowds gathered for one of his fight promotions, he was often heard drawling in hickish wonder, “I never seed anything like it.”

A born politician and a compromiser, Rickard was not above paying off and making secret deals to obtain a promoter’s license, a contract or a stadium. He was not dishonest, but had a businessman’s simple, easy-going approach to ethics. He knew how to balance business risks with gambler’s odds and was a good judge of men as well as a showman and publicist of the first water.

His experience in running gambling houses in Alaska and Nevada had taught him all he needed to know about the money-fever which infects men. In Goldfield, he had dumped the full amount of Gans’ and Nelson’s purses – $32,000 in $10 and $20 gold pieces – into the window of the Northern to advertise the fight. It worked – Goldfield was on the map and Rickard was on the minds of Americans everywhere. He pulled a similar stunt to get Jack Johnson to sign with him in 1910. He bought Johnson’s wife a new fur coat and advanced the black champion $25000 in $100 bills. In return, Johnson tipped him that the highest expected bid to promote the match was to be $100,000 and suggested that he bid $101,000. He did. When Rickard guaranteed Dempsey and Georges Carpentier the unheard of sum of $1,000,000 for a championship fight in July of 1921, everyone thought he was crazy, yet the mere fact that this much money had been put up drew so many fans that they produced the largest crowd in boxing history up o that time: 80,183 souls, and $1,789,238 in box office receipts. Bigness made for more bigness, Rickard reasoned, and the fight in which Gene Tunney relieved Dempsey of the heavyweight title in 1926 drew 120,757 spectators who paid $1,895,733 to see it. The second fight between the two drew only 104,933 fans, but the gate was a record $2,658,660.

Another element in Rickard’s success as a promoter was his knack for making the public see one fighter as the “good guy” and the other as the “bad.” In the case of the Gans-Nelson fight, Gans was suspected of having thrown a few fights before he won the championship and there was a feeling around Nevada that he would do so again if the money was right. This turned out to have been speculation only, but the Johnson-Jeffries fight was another “good guy-bad guy” contest in the view of fans and sportswriters. Johnson, the first black champion in the class, had won the title in Sydney, Australia in 1908 when local police broke up the match, but his subsequent flaunting of contemporary racial expectations, his fondness for white women, fancy clothes and fine automobiles and his flippy way of standing up to his critics alienated White America. Jim Jeffries, brought out of retirement as “The Great White Hope,” was the “good guy” in the fight. The racial controversy thus focused international attention on the match and made it a huge promotional success.

Jess Willard’s first defense of his heavyweight title in 1916 against Frank Moran was also something of an emotional affair. Willard’s victory over Jack Johnson was clouded by a rumor that the black champion had thrown the fight in exchange for a promise by the U.S. Justice Department to drop a morals conviction which had forced him into a European exile. Jack Dempsey’s match with Willard in 1919 was also a controversial one since many Americans considered Dempsey a “slacker” and a draft-dodger during the recent war. Those who came to see Willard beat Dempsey to a pulp were to be disappointed, however. The fight went only three rounds and Willard suffered as sound a defeat as any champion in the history of the ring.

Rickard’s imagination and his sense of showmanship served him well throughout his long career. So the story goes, when the rush to Rawhide began in 1907, Rickard passed by the local church in Goldfield on his way out of town and tacked a sign on the door: “This church is closed. God has moved to Rawhide.” With George Graham Rice, Rickard concocted such stories as the one involving the supposed large boulder unearthed one day on Rawhide’s main street. According to the story, some $30,000 in gold was scattered in all directions when the rock was dynamited. One chunk crashed through the window of a bank, it was reported, for which the banker paid $60 after deducting the cost of replacing the pane of glass. Rice and Rickard also staged Herman W. Knickerbocker’s famous oration at the funeral of Riley Grannan on April 5, 1908 and put on a high-stakes poker game which ended in a “shoot-out” for the benefit of the famous English novelist Elinor Glyn who visited Rawhide in May of 1908.

Tex Rickard also had a special relationship with the press. He felt that he had a right to publicity puffs and praise and when a reporter would hint that one of his promotions might turn out to be a stinker, he would often say plaintively and in his soft Texas drawl, “You fellows ought’n to be knocking. You ought to be boosting my shows. What you fellows always around knocking for? Knocking don’t help no one.” The truth was that Rickard had every sportswriter on the hood with his Midas touch, the expanding universe of his promotions and the drama of his life and any scribe who did not keep up with him would soon be losing his readers left and right and his job as well.

In this shattered, sanitized age, we simply have no conception of the atmosphere of turn-of-the-century prize fighting – the low dives where the fights took place, the stench of unwashed bodies, the danger of toughs and knuckleduster wielders, pickpockets, drunks and other assorted types who lived on the fringes of the fight world. It was worth your life to attend a fight – you never got the seat your ticket called for an of course, it was simply no place for a lady. Rickard changed all this. The tickets to his fights in Madison Square Garden bore portal, aisle, section and seat numbers and special police were hired for protection and to keep order. It became as safe for a woman and her escort to attend a Rickard fight as it was to go to the theater.

Rickard also elevated boxing from the wretched, smoke-filled arenas into the realm of glittering, royal extravaganzas perfumed by the smell of money. Prior to Rickard’s time, only tennis and polo had touched the pocket and the fancy of the wealthy, but he was soon to change that. He made his play for New York’s upper crust in 1920 by promoting a charity boxing match in the Garden for Miss Anne Morgan, the sister of old J.P. who was raising funds as head of The American Committee for Devastated France. He pitted Benny Leonard against Richie Mitchell for the lightweight championship, proceeds to go to war-stricken France, and for the first time the snobs packed the Garden and were treated to one of the most thrilling brawls in lightweight history. They never stopped coming.

Deep down, Tex Rickard was a snob and a social climber. He did not care to break into the ranks of society, but he wanted to be patronized by those who thought of themselves as being part of the “better element.” It made him feel good, he who had never had any educational or social advantages, to see the cream of New York’s social strata come to him to buy tickets for his promotions.

Rickard had taken out a lease on Madison Square Garden in 1920 and had begun to promote rising unknowns int he boxing world, six-day bicycle races, rodeos and carnivals. In 1924, the Democratic National Convention was held int he Garden, and Rickard began putting together the financing to construct a new Garden on Eighth Avenue. He was able to touch his wealthy friends for financial assistance and he came out every day during the construction to watch over the work like a child with a new puppy.

The new Garden was an immediate financial success, but problems with the New York boxing commission and Tammany Hall politicians forced him to stage his major boxing promotions elsewhere. The match between Dempsey and Carpentier was held at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City and the famous Dempsey-Luis Firpo contest was put on at the Polo Grounds. The two famous contests between Dempsey and Gene Tunney were promoted in Philadelphia and Chicago.

In spite of his fame, or perhaps because of it, Rickard had his share of legal difficulties and personal tragedies. He was continually involved in litigation with other promoters and financiers who resented the intrusion of the ex-faro dealer into their territory and he was also plagued with prosecutions over the inter-state transportation of fight films. Other suits came about over a Texas oil scheme he engineered in 1924 and a venture into oil leases in Guatemala. At one point he also went through a harrowing courtroom ordeal involving morals charges, but was acquitted.

Rickard’s first wife died in childbirth in Texas and a brief second marriage to a saloon singer in Alaska ended in divorce. A loved adopted daughter died in 1907 and Edith Mae, his third wife, passed away in October of 1925, shortly before the new Garden opened. In October of 1926, he married Maxine Hodges, a Broadway actress. Thirty years younger than Rickard, she not only presented him with a daughter a year later, but got him to ease up and relax. He bought a yacht, took up golf and purchased a handsome home on one of the lagoons near Miami. He had been forced out of the management of the Garden by that time, but was still promoting fights and had become captivated by the notion of establishing an American Monte Carlo in Miami complete with a luxurious gambling casino, a hotel, a dog and horse track and an arena.

The man whose life was one long, uninterrupted drama died unspectacularly in Miami of a gangrenous appendix on January 6, 1929 and his body was brought to New York to lie in state in a $15,000 bronze casket in the center of the arena which he had built. Jack Dempsey wept openly at th sight of his old friend, as did those whom Rickard had touched in the course of his long, eventful life – the aged, broken-faced boxers, the hardened rival promoters, the venal politicians, the kids now grown to adulthood who remembered the dimes that Rickard would pass out in front of the Garden. One newsman who had covered Rickard for years was moved by the thousands of mourners who shuffled endlessly past the body. “I could never quite determine whether they came because Rickard’s last show was free,” he later wrote, “because they were curious, or because they had a genuine affection for this stranger from the West.”

In any case, the mourners were the rear-guard of a vanished era of which Tex Rickard was the foremost symbol. The Great Crash of 1929 was only nine months away and thereafter the good old days got very old quickly. It is difficult to separate Rickard from his times since the Twenties was a period which was ripe for the kind of extravaganzas he staged. If he had come along ten years later,a sobered-up America might have been unwilling or unable to shell out the $25 to $50 for seats.

Ironically, Rickard’s death contributed to that of another man who was also a link with the past. Wyatt Earp. Although he had been ill for some time in Los Angeles, Earp left his bed the day before Rickard died to send a telegram to his old friend. The exertion caused him to have a relapse and he died eight days later – January 13, 1929.

In 1952 an athletic stadium in Henrietta, Texas – Rickard’s home town – was named in his honor, but the only remembrances of his Nevada days are two historical markers, one in Goldfield and a second in Reno. The latter, erected at the site of the Johnson-Jeffries arena, was dedicated on July 4, 1979. Among those present that day was Maxine Texas Rickard Halprin, his daughter, who is still a resident of Miami. Also present was the late Bert Lundy, who had known Rickard in Goldfield and had attended the 1910 fight in Reno.

The great promoter would have been properly appreciative of the words spoken of him at the dedication, but he would have reveled in the fact that he was still remembered by those who follow the fight game a half-century after his death. It is as big a monument as any man could hope to have.

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