Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Making of the First Great Boxing Promoter: Tex Rickard

George Lewis “Tex” Rickard was one of boxing’s greatest promoters. In the early years, he ushered in the golden age of prizefighting, the period from the 1920s through 1950s. He was a gambler who would wager on anything.
Tex Rickard
In 1921, the sporting world had its first million-dollar gate. It was a boxing match held in Jersey City, New Jersey. The public paid $1,789,238 to watch Jack Dempsey retain the world heavyweight title with a fourth-round knockout over world light heavyweight champion Frenchman Georges Carpentier. Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926, his manager, Jack “Doc” Kearns, and promoter Tex Rickard, grossed $8,400,000 in five fights between 1921 and 1927. Rickard would also form the National Hockey League, which included his New York Ranges, named after the lawmen from his home state—the Texas Rangers.

Rickard was a slender, finely dressed man. His attire included a vested suit with a pocket watch chain above the belt, hat, and cane. He was thin lipped with a half-smoked, chewed cigar protruding from the corner of his mouth. He thrived on exhilaration, saying, “… I’ve never been far away from excitement …” His stoic expression was unmistakable on his lined, weathered face. It showed the wear as a cowboy from the Midwestern plains of his youth. He had an imperturbable disposition. He neither laughed, except for a fake forced laugh, nor wept. Rickard acquired these traits during his years as a boy and young adult.

He was born on January 2, 1870, in Kansas City, Missouri, to a poor family. He had the infamous outlaws Frank and Jesse James, along with their mother, as his next-door neighbors. He was four years old, but Rickard remembered the James brothers and Jesse’s thick, rough beard. They would flip coins to Rickard and other kids.

His family moved to Sherman, Texas, when Rickard was still a child. When he was eleven, his father died. He took a job as a cowboy on the plains of Texas with the East Ranch to support his mother and many brothers and sisters. By the age of fifteen, he had ridden through fifteen states on horseback working for the ranch. Not long after, word spread that Rickard was one of the best shots in Texas. An injury from a longhorn ended Rickard’s days as a cowboy. At the age of twenty-three, he became the marshal of Henrietta, Texas, and gained the nickname “Tex.” In 1894, he married and had a child. Both his wife and child died within a year. Many of his siblings died shortly after. With nothing to keep him in Texas, he went to Alaska. It possessed the potential of fortune that he desired—the gold rush in the Klondike.

In Alaska, Rickard and a partner, George Cormack, claimed an area, which they sold. Rickard received $60,000 in gold dust. “I thought I was fixed for life,” Rickard said many years later. Rickard opened a saloon with Tom Turner, and it became the biggest saloon and gambling house in Dawson City. After four months, his gambling took his fortune. In four hours, he lost $150,000, which included the saloon. In St. Michaels, he met Jim White and opened a new saloon in Nome. Here, Rickard promoted his first fight as entertainment for his patrons. After they attracted a packed house, Rickard saw the potential in the sport.

Rickard had recouped almost everything he lost in Dawson City. He left Alaska and went to San Francisco where he accepted a job of promoting the world lightweight title fight between Battling Nelson and the champion Joe Gans. Rickard chose the Casino Amphitheatre in Goldfield, Nevada, to stage the fight. Rickard acted as Gans’ manager. He had heated discussions with Nelson’s manager, Nolan, about the purse distribution. Rickard never held fight managers in high regard after this. When the townspeople heard what was happening, they gave their support to Gans. Nelson’s popularity waned. They guaranteed manager Nolan that if Nelson did not fight, Nolan would be going home horizontally. Nolan withdrew his demands and settled for $22,500. That allowed Rickard to pay Gans $11,000. He would have received nothing if not for Rickard. As much disdain as Rickard had for managers, he sympathized with the prizefighters. In later years, when Gans had no money, Rickard staked him, so he could fight. Rickard would repeat the practice with other prizefighters throughout his career.

On September 3, 1906, the fight took place. The large crowd, which included Teddy Roosevelt’s son Kermit, paid $69,715 to see the fight. They were decidedly behind the black Gans, not the white Nelson, an unusual occurrence for that time. Joe Gans, the Old Master, lived up to his ring name by out-boxing Nelson despite breaking his hand in the thirty-third round. Nelson reverted to many flagrant fouls that infuriated the crowd to near riot. After forty-two grueling rounds in the searing Nevada heat, Gans took a left hook to the groin that sent him to the canvas. He could not get up. They awarded Gans the fight by disqualification because of the foul.

With this prizefight, Rickard saw the fervor it caused among the people. Rickard did not expect to make money from the fight but had a $13,000 profit. He would be in the fight game for the rest of his life. Two philosophies that were used in the bout Rickard would apply to other fight promotions—you must provide money to make money, and it attracted attention if you promoted one fighter as the villain and the other a hero. When people would tell him he spent too much, he continued to prove them wrong with increased gates.
Joe Gans vs. Battling Nelson

Tex Rickard, now a promoter for prizefights, found that he had competition for big fights with other promoters who had realized the financial rewards from successful bouts. Rickard often conceived an angle to outmaneuver his competitors. This became clear when the Jack Johnson and Jim Jefferies fight was announced; everyone wanted to promote it. Rickard befriended Johnson, who told him the highest bid would be $100,000. The principles opened the bids in Hoboken, New Jersey, with Johnson present. A certified check accompanied each bid except one. Rickard’s bid contained $101,000 in cash. Rickard had outmaneuvered his competitors. The principles awarded him the fight. He would soon regret the victory.

From the onset, Rickard went through a barrage of protests for allowing a black man to fight a white man, despite Johnson having defended his title in America four times against whites. Given the success and complete opposite sentiment Rickard had experienced when he promoted the black Gans against the white Nelson in a lightweight championship, he did not foresee the fervor with which white America would object to the bout.

Economics overshadowed racism as cities competed to host the event. Rickard had a stadium erected in San Francisco. Governor Gillette canceled the match due to the ongoing pressure of hosting a mixed-race bout. Rickard lost the money he spent and had to refund the presales. He decided to hold the fight in Reno, Nevada, the same state he had so much success with the Gans-Nelson bout. He built another stadium, costing even more than the one in San Francisco. It became the first time someone erected an arena to hold a bout. When neither fighter could agree on a referee, someone from Johnson’s camp suggested that Rickard take the job. To Rickard’s surprise, Jeffries agreed, and Rickard with no choice became promoter and referee.

Before a crowd of 15,600 paying $275,000 on July 4, 1910, Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson entered the ring under the blazing Nevada sun. It was Jeffries’s first fight in five idle years away from boxing. At thirty-five, Jeffries lost close to a hundred pounds to get to his fighting weight. Jeffries took the shaded corner. An official reminded him that they had agreed to flip a coin to determine the corner. When Jeffries’s manager, Sam Berger, went to Johnson’s corner to flip the coin, Johnson told him, “That’s all right Sam. You just stay right where you are. This here corner’s good enough for us."

Johnson destroyed the undefeated Jeffries. Rickard stopped the scheduled forty-five-round fight in the fifteenth round while simultaneously Berger entered the ring with a towel to end it. Jeffries received $50,000 plus over $66,000 for the movie rights. Johnson received $70,600 plus another $51,000 for the movie rights. They estimated the motion picture money at $270,000.

Among those in attendance was a young fifteen-year-old by the name of William Harrison Dempsey, better known as Jack Dempsey. The youngster came via a Pullman train car for the expressed purpose of watching the championship bout. Days before the bout, he would stalk Rickard in awe of the promoter. He attended the fighters’ training camps. Many years later, the two would be formally introduced, producing an epic business association. 
Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries
In 1925, Tex Rickard built the new Madison Square Garden, which did not officially open until December 15, but held a boxing match before then. It was the third building to hold the Garden name. The current Madison Square Garden that opened in 1968 was the fourth. The Garden of 1925 was the creation of Tex Richard. He financed it with a group he called his “six hundred millionaires,” a number of wealthy friends. He built it at a cost of $4,750,000 in 249 days. The media called it the "House That Tex Built."

The new 1925 Garden held many historical events through its existence, but its main purpose was to host boxing events for which it could accommodate 18,500 fans, with seating on three levels. It measured two hundred feet by three hundred seventy-five feet. Though designed by noted architect Thomas W. Lamb, it had poor viewing for some seating. Deficient ventilation would give a hazy appearance inside, especially in the upper seats, due to permitted smoking.

Tex Rickard arrived in Miami Beach on December 28, 1929. He was there to arrange one of his heavyweight elimination bouts between Jack Sharkey and Young Stribling and discuss with Jack Dempsey his proposed comeback. Early on New Year’s Day, he complained of pains, and the doctors rushed him to Allison Hospital for an emergency operation. On New Year’s night of 1929, Tex Rickard was operated on and his appendix removed. The next day, he showed signs of a quick recovery. Despite the early optimism of the doctors, Rickard’s health deteriorated.

“Practically the same condition existed tonight as this afternoon. Mr. Rickard’s resistance was possibly slightly lower. His temperature remained at 103, and his pulse had increased from 132 at 4 p.m. to 140 at this time.” Signed Dr. E. H. Adkins.

The hospital allowed Dempsey, who had arrived in Palm Beach, to see Rickard for a moment. When he left the hospital, he said the promoter told him, “‘Jack, I’ve got this fight licked.’”

Before lapsing into a coma from which he never rallied, he turned to his wife and friends who gathered at his bedside with the assertion that he was “getting a tough break, but I’ll fight.” Then he grasped the hand of his wife and in a concerned, feeble voice inquired about his eight-year-old daughter, Maxine. When told that Maxine was all right and wanted her father to get well, Rickard said, “Help me over this, sweetheart, I’m fighting my …” He did not finish the sentence, and in two hours the man who was not just associated with boxing, he was boxing, was dead at fifty-nine.

The body of Tex Rickard came to New York in a great $15,000 bronze casket. Jack Dempsey and Walter Fields, brother of comedic actor W. C. Fields, were among the pallbearers. The casket lay in state at Madison Square Garden, "Rickard’s own Temple to Fistiana," where Max Schmeling had fought just days before. Huge crowds came to pay their last respects.

“My sympathy goes out to Mr. Rickard’s family,” Gene Tunney said from a vacation spot. “I feel his death keenly as one of his myriad of friends. The world of sport has undoubtedly lost a genius. There probably never will be another promoter so capable of stirring the public interest. It might truly be said that whatever his hands touched turned to gold.”

“My best pal is gone!” Jack Dempsey said. “Quietly and nobly he slipped away. His greatest fight was lost … Ten minutes before the end Tex opened his eyes. His hand lay in mine. … His eyes carried the message that meant only one thing. He knew then that the battle was over … For twelve years Tex was my loyal friend.”

With the death of Rickard died any thought that Jack Dempsey would make a comeback.

“The secret pact that we had made ended with his tragic passing,” Dempsey said. “My conditional promise to fight again so that he might perhaps realize his final ambition of ‘Just one more million-dollar gate’ is automatically shattered.”

Rickard’s planned match between Sharkey and Stribling occurred on February 27, 1929, at Flamingo Park, Miami Beach, Florida. Sharkey won the ten-round decision.
People line the streets of New York for Tex Rickard’s funeral
Rickard died one of the wealthiest men in sports at the time. His estate was estimated at $2,000,000. For a man who started with nothing from the Missouri plains, it was a sizable sum. The New York Trust Company, executor, refused to divulge the exact amount. The will provided for his widow, daughter, mother-in-law, sisters, nieces, nephews, and a cousin of his first wife. His estate included properties in Boston, Miami Beach, South America, securities in South American corporations, the Cattle Company of Paraguay, and brokerage accounts and bank accounts in New York and Florida.
Tex Rickard's Oil Company
Promoters thought to take Rickard’s place were Humbert Fugazy, Jim Mullen, Jimmy Johnston, and Paddy Harmen. None would obtain the stature of Rickard, but one man who had worked closely with Rickard in his biggest promotions would wield the power in boxing that Rickard had. He would not get involved in boxing promotion for another five years. When he did, it would be with absolute power. Mike Jacobs would be a man who would rival Rickard’s accomplishments.
Tex Rickard is Buried in New York

Gene Pantalone

Author of From Boxing Ring to Battlefield: The Life of War Hero Lew Jenkins

Available for pre-order on Amazon and from Rowman and Littlefield

“The life of Lew Jenkins is the stuff of boxing legend. From his Depression era upbringing and carnival barnstorming to winning a world title and squandering it all before becoming a war hero, Jenkins is an epic pulp novel come to life. In the capable hands of Gene Pantalone the story brims with all the hardscrabble detail you want in a great boxing book. This is a must-read for fans of the squared circle's history.”

-Chad Dundas, lead MMA sportswriter for the Bleacher Report and award-winning author of Champion of the World

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