Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wyatt Earp, Referee

It was one of the greatest sporting scandals of the 19th century.  And, although malfeasance and corruption in sports didn't reach their apogee until the 20th century, the 1800s had their share, too.  It was the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons debacle of December 2, 1896, in which "Sailor" Tom Sharkey battled "Ruby Bob" Fitzsimmons in San Francisco - - - with former Marshall Wyatt Earp as referee.

Disputed decisions, questionable stoppages of bouts, and dissatisfaction with referees have always been the bane of boxing: that's why most boxing fans prefer a good, honest knockout, instead of fights that "go the distance" and are decided by corrupt judges.  One thinks, in modern times, of the dubious ending of Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston's second match in 1965, and the "phantom punch" that caused Liston to essentially surrender; or referee Richard Steele's stoppage, in the final round, of the bout between Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor in 1990.  But the Sharkey-Fitszimmons fight was as controversial and hotly disputed as either of these.

Cartoonist's depiction of the fight
The fight was billed as a Heavyweight Championship match, but the disorganized, unregulated status of boxing at the time makes this a matter of opinion.  Earlier in the year, Fitzsimmons had faced Peter Maher, the alleged but disputed Champion, in Coahuila, Mexico, and knocked him out in 61 seconds of the first round. This made him the de facto Champion, but his status would not become official until he knocked out the "recognized" Champion, Jim Corbett, in the 14th round, in 1897.  At the time of the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight, the title was officially vacant.

But there were two other factors that made this a unique event. For one thing, boxing was officially illegal in San Francisco: but this did not stop scores of uniformed police, and local politicos, from attending the fight as spectators. More significantly, this was the first major fight to take place on the West Coast under the new Queensbury Rules, which were gradually replacing the old "London Rules," which had allowed almost any tactics to be employed, except, perhaps, the use of weapons. This would be the first bout in which San Franciscans had seen three minute rounds, with a minute between each; the use of well-padded gloves; the ten count (previously, a man wasn't considered "out" until he was unable to get off the canvas at all); no wrestling or throwing; and shoes or boots containing springs were not allowed.  In addition, head butts and blows below the belt were now considered fouls, although they were standard tactics under the London Rules. For the spectators, this would be a very different sort of prize fight; under the London Rules, boxing had been a bloody affair indeed.  The fight was held in the Mechanics' Pavillion, a barn-like structure, and the only indoor venue which could accommodate the large crowd that was expected.

The fighters themselves were a study in contrasts, which boxing fans love to see.  "Sailor" Tom Sharkey, of Ireland, stood 5'9, with a dark, glowering persona, broad shoulders, and a large tattoo of a sailing ship on his massive chest.  Well-proportioned and muscular, it would have been difficult to discern an ounce of fat on his body.  His strength was stupendous: he had actually been known to bend silver dollars with his teeth.  And he was no boxer: he was a brawler, and a very effective one.  They say that "styles make fights," and Sharkey's style was simply to steamroll his opponents, beating them into submission.  Think of how Mike Tyson looked in the ring, and you'll have an idea of what a fearsome figure Sharkey cut - - - although Tyson's boxing skills were vastly superior. The great Jim Jeffries called Sharkey the toughest man he'd ever faced.

"Sailor" Tom Sharkey

By contrast, Bob Fitzsimmons was an ungainly sight indeed.  Just under 6' tall, his body was not well-proportioned, and actually looked a bit misshapen.  His legs were skinny and slightly knock-kneed, and he was almost totally bald.  But he had the torso and shoulders of a blacksmith, which he had been for many years. His back and arms rippled with power, but neither man could have been called "muscle-bound." And he had something that Sharkey lacked: real boxing skills, and the native intelligence that separates a boxer from a brawler.  Both men had speed, but Fitzsimmons had more; and, even if uncharitable sportswriters likened his appearance to that of a chimpanzee, he was more fierce than any ape in the jungle. Whereas Sharkey was a juggernaut, Fitzsimmons was calculating and deadly: it was said that he never threw a punch that didn't have an objective.  And he showed his opponents no mercy: on one occasion, he tore an opponent's ear off with a single blow to the head.  In an 1893 exhibition, he had fought seven men in a single evening: each weighed over 200 pounds, and he knocked them all out in a total of 19 rounds.  Because of his skinny legs, his defense largely depended on crouching down low, then springing up suddenly  with a powerful, perfectly aimed blow.

Fitzsimmons was the odds-on favorite, but he had never faced Sharkey before, and many of the spectators were betting that his skills would not prevail against the Irishman's brutality.  It was truly a dream match.

"Ruby Bob" Fitzsimmons

The contest was sponsored by the National Athletic Club, and the date had been set.  The only question remaining was that of the referee.  A number of names had been proposed, but there was no love lost between the fighters' camps, and one side or the other - - - usually Sharkey's - - -  refused each suggestion.  Finally, tired of the squabbling, the National Athletic Club called upon a temporary resident of the city who had refereed scores of amateur, bare-knuckle fights in his youth: former Marshall Wyatt Earp, late of Tombstone, Arizona, now a rapidly aging 48 years old.  A more controversial choice would have been hard to find: although Hollywood has been kind to Wyatt Earp, he was not a universally beloved figure, and the mention of his name did not inspire trust.  An elder in the Presbyterian church, a Yankee Republican a few short decades after the Civil War, he was also a professional gambler, and had worked both sides of the law in his career.  Neither of the fighters' camps were happy, but the Athletic Club had overruled them: Earp would be the referee.

 Earp around the time of the fight

The controversy surrounding the fight began long before the opening bell.  Then and now, boxing was and is a gambler's sport, and hundreds of thousands of dollars would be wagered; this made the choice of a referee a matter of great public concern.  Even Earp's common-law wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, "Josie," herself a true gambling addict, opposed her husband's participation.  But Earp, though a devoted life's companion, was not dissuaded by Josie's trepidation. Earp was a private man, but he did not shun publicity, and he always had an eye on his legacy. "I don't know but what it will be a little bit toney for me to referee a fight of this kind," he said. Once the arrangements were announced, rumors began to fly, weeks in advance, that "the fix was in," and that the fight would be crooked.  Everyone from the fighters, to the referee, to the city fathers, were suspected of hatching various plots, each reported in sensational detail by the city's numerous newspapers.
So the stage was set, and on the appointed evening, Mechanics' Pavillion drew a standing room only crowd of affluent businessmen, stevedores, society matrons, and prostitutes: whoever could afford or finagle a ticket.  Conspicuous by her absence was the woman known as Mrs. Earp, although she had almost certainly wagered on the fight. For the fighters, the stakes were a claim to the Heavyweight Championship, and a purse of $10,000.  What transpired was the first great boxing scandal in American history.

"Josie Earp," in the Tombstone days
It started at the very beginning.  As soon as the various participants had assembled in the ring, the ring announcer, taking a ring announcer's privilege, introduced the fighters and the referee with fulsome enthusiasm: Michael Buffer, crying "Let's get ready to rumble," could hardly have done better. "Your referee tonight has known the most renowned gamblers, bandits, gunfighters, and bad men in the country, and has the reputation of being the bravest fighter, squarest gambler, best friend and worst enemy ever known on the frontier!  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Wyatt Earp!"
At that point, Fitzsimmon's manager, Marty Julian, trotted across the ring to speak with Sharkey's manager, Dan Lynch.  According to newspaper accounts, he was overheard to say, "For G*d's sake, Dan, we've got to have another ref!  The whole town knows that Earp's been bought and paid for.  Take anybody in the house, we don't care who, but spare us Wyatt Earp!" The two managers began to argue, until they were overheard by Earp himself.  Approaching them, he said, completely out of character, "That's enough!  I'll do as I have always done before: I give in.  Find yourselves another man."  (Those who had memories of Dodge City and Tombstone might not have remembered Earp "always giving in," but those were his words.)  The discussion was brought to an end by the sudden appearance of James Gibb, representing the National Athletic Club, who reminded Earp that he had already been paid, and that he would indeed serve as referee.  As the reporters scribbled and the crowd murmured, the unhappy managers and the suddenly reluctant referee took their places, and Gibb exited the ring.

Instead of hearing the opening bell, however, the spectators saw what no one would have ever expected: a uniformed city policeman climbing into the ring and approaching the referee.  The officer had noticed a familiar bulge in one of Earp's pockets, and, after a few awkward words were exchanged, the former U.S. Marshall pulled a pistol from his pocket, and surrendered it to the local policeman.  As one writer has put it, this was probably the first time in boxing history that the referee had to be disarmed.

Finally, the ring was cleared of all but the principals, and the bell for Round One was heard at last.  Both fighters charged out of their corners, apparently throwing caution to the warm, sweaty breezes of Mechanics' Hall.  But appearances deceive, and although Sharkey was already in his customary brawler's mode, Fitzsimmons was in his famous crouch as they met.  Within the first minute, it was obvious that "Ruby Bob" was in control, but Sharkey was no man's pushover. Fitzsimmons landed repeated punches to the Sailor's head, but then Sharkey surprised everyone by going into a crouch of his own.  Three inches shorter than his opponent, this made him a very small target, and Fitzsimmons' punches began to miss.  Then, coming out of his crouch, Sharkey immediately went to his favorite tactic, and fouled Fitzsimmons to the groin repeatedly. This didn't stop the man from Cornwall, however, who continued to press his fight with customary finesse, landing solid blows to Sharkey's head.  Once, he caught the Sailor square on the chin, but not hard enough to put him down.

The first round set the pace for what was to come.  In the next few rounds, Sharkey threw deadly shots, but most of them went wild as Fitzsimmons ducked and weaved, a consummate defensive boxer.  Sharkey attempted to swarm his foe, rushing and crowding and smothering him, but Fitzsimmons would not be smothered; and, now that he had found his rhythm, Fitzsimmon's blows began to fall with their customary accuracy, while Sharkey's missed.  Sharkey continued to foul, but, inexplicably, Referee Earp never called him on it, if he even saw it.

Or, perhaps, Earp didn't realize that they were fouls at all.  There is every possibility that Wyatt Earp was not familiar with the new Queensbury Rules, and was still thinking of boxing as it had been in the bare-knuckle days.  Some boxing historians think that this was exactly the case; others think that Earp was in the bag for Sharkey, because of what followed.

Fitzsimmons clearly dominated the fight for seven rounds.  During the eighth, he had Sharkey on the ropes repeatedly, but the Sailor's endurance was greater than his exhaustion, which was considerable: he was obviously weakened, breathing through his mouth, looking dazed at times. Finally, as the men stood toe to toe in the center of the ring, Fitzsimmons unleashed a barrage of horrendous blows to Sharkey's head and body. One was an uppercut that would easily have knocked out a lesser man, and one was the most wicked weapon in Fitzsimmon's arsenal: his famous "solar plexus punch" to the midsection. (This was the very punch that would knock out Jim Corbett the following year.) Sharkey dropped like a sashweight, and Earp motioned Fitzsimmons to a neutral corner.

Lying in a fetal position in the center of the ring, Sharkey covered his groin with both hands, and began howling that he had been fouled.  Instead of beginning the count, Wyatt Earp was distracted when Sharkey's trainer, Danny Needham, leaped into the ring and began screaming that his fighter had been the victim of a low blow.  Standing in a nearby corner, "Ruby Bob" Fitzsimmons merely laughed. Earp's concentration was further distracted when, responding to the raucous cheers and boos that seemed to shake the walls of the Pavillion, several policemen entered the ring, to prevent anything more bizarre than what was already happening.

As Fitzsimmons continued to laugh and Sharkey continued to scream, Wyatt Earp looked back and forth between the two men, as Needham bawled in his ear.  Then, still not having begun a count, he walked slowly to Sharkey's corner, leaned over, and said to Manager Lynch, "I'm calling a foul.  Your man has won the fight."

When the crowd realized what Earp had done, pandemonium broke out.  Rumors of a "fix" had been in wide circulation, and this astonishing ending of the fight didn't assuage anyone's suspicions. Sharkey's men entered the ring with a wooden chair, and helped the Sailor into it; they then carried him out of the ring and back to his dressing room.  By now, Fitzsimmons was standing in the center of the ring, shaking with rage, trying to make himself heard, but the din of the Pavillion was too great.  Later that night, he gave a statement to the newspapers: "No pugilist can get a square deal from the thieves who handle fighting in this city, and it is a safe bet that the last big fight San Francisco will ever see was pulled off tonight."  As if in reply, Sharkey later said, "I feel awful bad. I'd have licked him if he hadn't hit me that way. I'm certain that he fouled me directly, to save himself from defeat."  These are the words of a proud man, but not an acknowledgement of reality.

In the coming days, the question on everyone's mind was the same: Had Sharkey indeed been fouled, or had he merely played the victim after being incapacitated by Fitzsimmons' "solar plexus punch?" The Sailor's team obviously claimed that the foul had been real and terrible, and they even allowed newspaper reporters to come to Sharkey's hotel to inspect his allegedly grievous wounds.  However, when the National Athletic Club sent a team of doctors to examine Sharkey, his handlers refused them entrance.  This, and the fact that Fitzsimmons had never been known as a dirty fighter, makes it unlikely that a foul had occurred at all.  

The fight became the subject of a great "newspaper war," with several of the city's dailies declaring that "FITZSIMMONS WAS ROBBED!" and "Referee Earp Gave a Raw Decision!" The San Francisco Examiner sided with Earp: he and its publisher, William Randolph Hearst, were friends and fellow Republicans.

Finally, more than 24 hours after the fight, Sharkey's handlers allowed one, and only one, of the Athletic Club's doctors to examine their fighter. He reported that there was swelling and bruising in the region of Sharkey's groin, but not as much as would have been expected had Fitzsimmons' deadliest blow landed there.  The doctor then caused a new sensation by saying that the injury appeared to have taken place after the fight!

As for Wyatt Earp, he never changed his story, telling one newspaper: "I am a pretty close observer, and under most circumstances I think I am pretty cool ... I feel that I did the right and honorable thing and I care nothing for the opinion of anybody. I saw the foul blow struck as plainly as I am seeing you right now, and that is all there is to the story.  I have been in many places and many situations, but until tonight no one ever said that I was guilty of a dishonorable act.  I decided with a judgment that is as true as my eyesight.  I saw the foul blow."  Like any politician, Earp was stretching the truth by more than a few inches: he had been one of the most despised (and beloved) men in frontier history, and, especially after the unpleasantness at Tombstone, he had been called every name in the book: in fact, he had been tried for murder.

The Fitzsimmons camp filed a restraining order freezing the $10,000 purse.  After a three day court hearing, a San Francisco judge ruled that the court could not take part in an illegal dispute: because boxing, as mentioned earlier, was still against the law in that city.  The prize money was never awarded to either side.

Sharkey and Fitzsimmons met once again, on August 24, 1900, in Brooklyn, New York.  "Ruby Bob" Fitzsimmons knocked out "Sailor" Tom Sharkey in the first round.  Fitzsimmons had already become Heavyweight Champion of the World, and, later, Light Heavyweight Champion.  He died in 1917.  Sharkey died in 1955, and is listed as one of The Ring magazine's Top 100 punchers of all time.

Wyatt Earp never served as a referee again. He was fined for carrying a concealed firearm into the ring on the night of the fight. He died in 1923, in Los Angeles.   His life's partner, Josie, died in 1944, in abject poverty, a victim of her gambling addiction. Her ashes were sprinkled on Wyatt's grave.


  1. Whether or not one is a boxing fan, this story should be an interesting tidbit of history.

  2. That's quite the anecdote! I'm surprised the two fighters met again, but it's a vindication of sorts that Fitzsimmons got a legit win the second time.

    A three-day hearing and the prize money doesn't get awarded to either side because boxing's illegal in San Francisco. How ironic!

  3. Yeah, let's hear it up for the bald guy!