Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Fight on the Fourth

Happy Independence Day!

Oil discovered near Shelby in 1922 brought the promise of prosperity. Shelby had train service, several banks had recently opened, and the town’s future looked bright. City officials thought they could make the town a center for tourism and further boost the economy. And so to promote the town, officials planned to hold the World Heavyweight Championship Fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons in Shelby. Tying in patriotism with their promotional scheme, the fight was scheduled on the Fourth of July in 1923. Officials built a huge arena on a local farm. It was  the size of a football field and seated 40,000. They began selling tickets. But no one had any money during the depression of the 1920s, and only 8,000 tickets sold. The whole thing proved a disaster, but the fight itself was one of the most memorable events in the history of boxing. As ticket holders waited in the nearly empty arena, 4,000 ranchers and farmers stormed inside as the bell signaled the opening round. In all about 13,000 people got to see the fight for free.

Jack Dempsey (left) and Tommy Gibbons shake hands before the fight.
Photo courtesy Marias Museum of History and Art
Jack Dempsey fought all fifteen rounds. Although he could not effect a knockout, he won the fight in a unanimous decision. The only knockout was that of Shelby’s dreams when the town’s scheme of prosperity failed miserably and the fight was one of the worst financial disasters in the history of boxing. Many years later, Great Falls legislator Charles Bovey—the consummate collector—acquired the slightly soiled boxing gloves Dempsey wore in this famous fight along with three Dempsey photographs. These items later sold at the Bovey estate auction for $31,000. Too bad Shelby couldn’t cash in.

P.S. You can watch the fight here.

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