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Ray Rocene on Shelby’s Fight - ‘Killer’ Jack Dempsey, ‘Gentleman’ Tommy Gibbons and ‘Wild Bill’ Kelly

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Ray Rocene on Shelby’s Fight - ‘Killer’ Jack Dempsey, ‘Gentleman’ Tommy Gibbons and ‘Wild Bill’ Kelly

Shelby, Montana, was the scene of the only heavyweight fight ever waged in the northwest July 4, 1923, when Jack Dempsey whipped Tommy Gibbons in 15 torrid rounds. It is probable that this bout was one of the closest and best heavyweight title fights ever boxed, with approximately 60 Missoulians among the 7,000 at the ringside.

Mike Collins, a St. Paul fight manager and Loy Molumby, American Legion commander, were responsible for the Shelby show persuading Eddie Kane, Gibbon’s manager to take on the bout without a guarantee while Kearns and Dempsey were offered $300,000.

The editor of the Missoulian was Martin J. Hutchins, among the last of the since-vanished tribe of fire-eating editors, who had long run the Chicago Journal, chief Democratic paper, and MJH took a whole war party to the Shelby fight. The Jabster was sent a week ahead to the Dempsey camp at Great Falls and watched the champ spar with George Godfrey, giant Negro, and other partners, also all but went mad with the rest of the newsmen when Kearns called the fight off seven different times because advanced payments failed.

We were on the Dempsey special which rolled into Shelby, still a rugged frontier town, the afternoon of July 3 with the champ and his retinue and a million other correspondents. July 4 was a bright and sunshiny day out on the prairie and the fight began with only 7,000 in the new pine stands built to hold 50,000.

Never imagined as much speed in a heavyweight bout. The big boys were as fast and accurate as featherweights. Gibbons landed the hardest blow of the fight, snapping Dempsey’s head back with a right to the chin in the seventh, a blow that would have killed the ordinary man. It did not even leave a groggy effect on strong Jack.

Dempsey resorted to every trick he knew, and he had them all, to nail Gibbons and could not do it. Tommy hung on the last round, after strenuously waging the fight of his life, and all for nothing. He did not get a cent, Kearns and Dempsey collected every dollar in the till. Gibbons said a straight right punch by Dempsey almost took the top of his head off in the first round, but automatically he kept boxing his way out of danger.

Dempsey was a killer in the ring, any ring, Gibbons was a skillful boxer with a strong punch (he won 20 kayos in 1921) but he was not of the tiger disposition of his foe. Gibbons was 34, weighed 175, Dempsey had just turned 28, weighed 188.

Our boss’s last order before the gong was to interview Dempsey right after the fight and so we climbed into the ring with the final gong. And with us several hundred others – indeed our typewriter in the second press row was saved only because Peeker Streit of Missoula stood over it to cover it from the rush of feet. But the burly sergeant of detectives from Chicago, Mike Trent, who was Dempsey’s body guard, let nobody close to the champ, though we did hear him say to Trent, “He was a tough one,” referring to Gibbons.

Tommy fought only two top-notchers after that, Georges Carpentier and Gene Tunney, who stopped the St. Paul Irishman in the 12th in 1925. He retired then, went into politics, is now the sheriff of Ramsey county, Minnesota.

Gibbons came to Missoula in May, 1923, to drum up trade for the advance ticket sale at Shelby. That was the night he was scheduled for an exhibition with Wild Bill Kelly, Missoula high school senior, at the old Liberty theater.

Gibbons, a pleasant Irish gentleman, came out expecting a pretty sparring show. Unpredictable Wild Bill hauled off with a roundhouse right hand swing and hit unexpecting Tommy full in the solar plexus. Gibbons reeled against the ropes, fell into a clinch, and hung on for a minute until his wind came back. What a headline that would have been “High School Athlete Knocks Out Title Challenger.” Gibbons remained the perfect gentleman and did not kill Kelly that night. He pushed him off and watched every punch, from then on.

The above article was part of Ray Rocene’s ‘Sports Jabs’ column in The Daily Missoulian newspaper on May 15, 1955.

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