The Title Fight That May Have Brought Down A Town: Dempsey-Gibbons
By: Sean Crose
You don’t hear much about Shelby, Montana these days, though just over a hundred years ago, it was supposedly quite the place to be. “Supposedly” is the operative word here. For the story of the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons fight, which, if you haven’t guessed by now, took place in Shelby, serves as a warning to those whose big dreams simply can’t compete with hard reality. According to the Los Angeles Times, a couple of local real estate guys from the time wanted to put obscure Shelby on the map. And what better way to do so than to host a heavyweight title fight featuring the great Jack Dempsey, arguably the world’s most famous athlete?
Of course, these men had good reason to be confident. Shelby wasn’t even a town at the turn of the century. In other words, it didn’t exist. Someone had struck oil in the Montana wilderness, however, and the people and money followed. Hence, Shelby was born. And now it was time to really put Shelby on the map. Or so the thinking went.
Dempsey seemed like a sure bet. It’s easy not to recognize how important a decade the 1920s was for the United States. It was the time when off the rack clothing came into fashion, when cities – rather than farms – became the heart and soul of the country, and when popular culture became important. In a sense, each of us who wants in on the latest celebrity gossip is a spiritual descendent of what’s been called the Jazz Age. And then, like now, celebrities carried weight. Having Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the entire world, fight in Shelby would turn millions upon millions of heads towards the upstart town.
The problem, of course, was the fact that few things happen overnight. Towns and cities don’t suddenly explode, big bang style, into cultural epicenters. Such things take time, and tend to happen organically. It was a fact the citizens of Shelby were said to have learned too late. Loaded with confidence, the would be investors reached out to Dempsey’s manager, the slick Doc Kearns, with an offer of two hundred thousand dollars to have Dempsey fight in Shelby. To a man like Kearns, it was easy money. Before the citizens of Shelby knew it, Dempsey went from a two hundred thousand dollar payday to a three hundred thousand dollar one.
And that, figuratively speaking, was only the beginning. Roads were to be paved in the rustic town, an enormous outdoor theater which could seat tens of thousands was to be erected. Oh, and Dempsey’s opponent, Tommy Gibbons, would get a total of ten grand for himself, as well. And so a fight was set. Or was one? The investors had a hard time coming up with the money needed for the bout and Kearns refused to announce it. Indeed, Kearns at one point said the bout was off. Finally, the money came through. That was good enough for Kearns. Clearly, however, it wasn’t good for the town. For there was no way Shelby was getting a return on the money invested.
Travel was difficult in the 1920s, after all. And Shelby, Montana was an out of the way place. Air travel was minimal, and automobile travel certainly wasn’t as comfortable as it is today. Sure enough, the best way for the hoped for throngs of out of towners to arrive would be by train. Not knowing if a fight is actually going down or not until the last minute, however, doesn’t make for a good promotion. Dempsey and Gibbons, at least, held up their parts of the bargain, training locally and undoubtedly adding at least some sense of excitement to the disheartened natives.
Needless to say, the fight on July 4th, 1923 was a financial dud. Simply put, not enough people made the trip to Shelby. If that weren’t bad enough, good seats proved to be too expensive for the locals to purchase. Between ten and twelve thousand people ended up watching the fight live that day – a good sized crowd, to be sure. The stadium, however, had been erected to hold forty thousand fans. Ticket prices ended up being slashed and many were said to have watched the bout for free. To add insult to injury, the fight itself was rather dull. Documentary footage of that day claims Dempsey entered the ring protected by Chicago police officers since he had supposedly been threatened the day before. He clearly didn’t need protection from Gibbons.
For Gibbons was defensively minded. That made him hard for Dempsey to land on, though, and so the fight itself dragged on through fifteen rounds. Gibbons didn’t comport himself poorly. He certainly fared better against Dempsey than poor Jess Willard had. The Saint Paul native simply wasn’t good enough to defeat the champ, however, and that was all there was to it. Needless to say, Dempsey ended up pulling off a decision win in the sweltering western heat that afternoon. It certainly wasn’t his most spectacular victory, but it was a victory nonetheless. Besides, a fighter’s first priority is to win, not to dazzle an audience – something contemporary fight writers and analysts might want to be mindful of.
Long story short – money was lost that day. Lots of money – though certainly not by Kearns, Dempsey, or Gibbons, each of whom made out quite well, thank you very much. If anything, the Dempsey-Gibbons bout showed that even the greatest plans can end up being let downs at best, disasters at worse. Dempsey certainly proved he could be a draw. Eighty thousand people had shown up to Boyles Thirty Acres in New Jersey to watch the man fight the previous summer. Another enormous crowd would gather in New York a few months later for the man’s next fight.
There’s more to the fight game than ambition, however. That’s a lesson the people of Shelby are said to have learned the hard way. They certainly wouldn’t be the last to learn it, however. Boxing has a way of swallowing up the less mindful, then absorbing what it can before moving on, like dust in the Montana wind.