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Hart vs Root: The Heavyweight Title Fight That Time Forgot

Posted on 04/15/2008

By Guy Louis Rocha and Eric N. Moody


A century ago, Reno, Nevada had the distinction of hosting a world’s championship boxing contest – the town’s first – or so it has been claimed. Not that the confrontation between pugilists Marvin Hart and Jack Root didn’t occur. It surely did, and Hart won. Nor is there any question that Reno hadn’t staged a world title fight prior to 1905. Ring records show no such contest. But was Marvin Hart actually crowned the world heavyweight champion that hot July day?

Jack O’Brien, Gus Ruhlin, George Gardner and Jack Johnson, all top-ranked heavyweight contenders, certainly didn’t think so. They made their feelings known to any sportswriter who would listen. Even the aging Bob Fitzsimmons, who had held the title between 1897 and 1899, claimed that he deserved to be called boxing’s heavyweight king. As far as most ring enthusiasts were concerned, the much-coveted crown was still up for grabs.

The source of all the confusion was James J. Jeffries. In 1899 Jeffries had wrested the heavyweight championship title from Fitzsimmons and had reigned supreme until May 13, 1905, when he retired from the ring with an unblemished record.

The retirement represented a real dilemma. There was at that time no precedent for filling a vacant title, and no boxing officialdom of any kind to solve the problem. The story has gone that Jeffries proclaimed Marvin Hart and Jack Root the top contenders for the abdicated heavyweight crown. Then, just moments after Hart beat Root in Reno, Jeffries conferred the title on Hart in his role as ring referee.

If that had been the case, there would be no asterisk after Marvin Hart’s name in the record book. Reno, as well, could indisputably claim its first title fight. What actually happened makes for quite a tale and explains why a cloud of uncertainty still hangs over Hart’s credentials as a world heavyweight champion.

Carson City’s Al Livingston and Reno’s Joe P.”Kid” Egan had no question in their minds in the spring of 1905 that they would be promoting a title fight. Livingston, a former Ormsby County state senator and “Nevada’s premier prize fight promoter,” became president, and Egan secretary, of the Reno Athletic Club, when it was hastily organized in May, only days after Jeffries announced his retirement.

The athletic club, whose reason for existence was obvious, then approached heavyweight contenders Marvin Hart and Jack Root with an offer they couldn’t refuse. The fighters and their managers agreed to a July 2 contest in Reno; the winner leaving Nevada with 65% of a $5000 purse. More importantly, the victor, according to the terms of the agreement, would be adjudged the new world heavyweight champion.

Root owned the better record between the two boxers. Born Janos Ruthaly in what is, in the present day, the Czech Republic, he first entered the ring in 1897 at the age of twenty-one. After five years of working his way up the boxing ranks, he scored a major victory with a six-round decision over previously undefeated Marvin Hart. His Fortunes on the rise, a “light heavyweight” division was created especially for Root in 1903 through the efforts of Chicago sportswriter and manager Lou Houseman.

Root was proclaimed first champion of the new division, but his reign proved short-lived. Only months after being crowned, he lost the title at the hands of George Gardner. Root’s record in 1905 – only one loss in 21 fights – was very respectable, but given the general journeyman caliber of his opponents, certainly not spectacular.

Hart, a farm boy from Fern Creek, Kentucky, had also met with some success in the boxing arena. His professional career, which dated from 1899, can only be classified as erratic. After claiming a number of victories over lesser opponents, the hard-punching but graceless fighter earned the right to fight the top contenders. He then proceeded to lose to Root in 1902, and was defeated the next year by Gardner, the light heavyweight champion. In 1904 he again took on Gardner – no longer a title holder – and fought him to a draw.

Much adversity was followed by a big win in 1905. In March, Hart miraculously defeated up-and-coming Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight well-known for his flamboyant lifestyle and outspoken opinions on race relations. With this victory – and Jeffries’ retirement – some fight fans, including promoters “Kid” Egan and Senator Livingston, concluded that the 29-year-old Hart deserved a shot at the vacant title. And what boxer would make a better opponent than the former light heavyweight champion who had handed Hart his first career loss three years earlier?

In Part Two: Getting the fight “recognized”

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