SI Vault
James W. (Body) Johnson
July 04, 1966
This is the story of the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons heavyweight championship fight, which was held in Shelby, Mont. on July 4, 1923—exactly 43 years ago. The record book shows that Dempsey, then 28, won a 15-round decision and that it was Dempsey's fourth defense of the title he had won four years before when he knocked out Jess Willard. What the record book does not show and what has been the subject for discussion, argument and speculation in sporting circles ever since is how the fight happened to be held in an oil town like Shelby in the first place-surely the most unlikely setting for a heavyweight championship until someone discovered Lewiston, Me. And there are other questions: Who were the real promoters, and how did they raise the nearly $300,000 they handed over to Jack Kearns, Dempsey's manager? Why was there doubt right up to the last moment that there would really be a fight? The following story is written by the one man in a position to know all the answers. He is James W. (Body) Johnson, now 67, the man who thought up the idea for holding the fight in Shelby and who was in on the negotiations from start to finish. It is a bizarre story, sometimes pathetic, sometimes ludicrous. We offer it as a piece of genuine Americana, a useful clarification of a confused chapter of sports history.
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July 04, 1966

The Fight That Won't Stay Dead

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Right away the question was raised: who is going to make the offer? As chairman of the American Legion boxing committee, I was the logical one to do it, but what would my American Legion friends say? How could I answer such an embarrassing question as, "Where in the devil are we going to get $200,000?"

"You wouldn't mind if I signed your name to a telegram, would you, Sam?" I asked Sampson.

"Now, don't get me into trouble," said Sam, "but if you're sure it's O.K., it's O.K. by me, but you back me up."

"How do we get in touch with this fellow Tommy Gibbons, Sam? Where does he hang out?"

"Well," said Sam, "his manager is Mike Collins, and you can reach him at St. Paul." Of course, we later discovered that Mike Collins had nothing to do with Gibbons and that his real manager was Eddie Kane. But this misinformation is what brought Mike Collins into the picture where he was to stay to the end.

It must be remembered that at this stage my concern was just how far we could go without incurring too much wrath on the part of my American Legion associates, and under no circumstances could I reveal to them anything that might indicate the whole thing was nothing but a publicity stunt. The news surely would get out if anyone else knew.

I sat down to a typewriter and pecked out two telegrams, one to Jack Kearns as follows: I AM PREPARED TO OFFER YOU A PURSE OF $200,000 TO BE PAID $50,000 UPON SIGNING OF CONTRACT AND BALANCE WHEN YOU ENTER THE RING FOR A 15-ROUND CHAMPIONSHIP FIGHT AGAINST TOMMY GIBBONS TO BE HELD ON JULY 4, 1923, IN SHELBY, MONT. PLEASE WIRE YOUR ACCEPTANCE. (signed) L. A. SAMPSON. I sent the other telegram to Mike Collins, manager of Tommy Gibbons (we thought), offering him $50,000 for the same bout. It was some considerable time before Gibbons found out about the offer, however, and it was not until the publicity had started to get around that we finally contacted Eddie Kane.

A few days passed, and I had to go to Helena on business. I was at the state capitol building when my partner, Mel, got me on the phone to say that Sampson had received a telegram from Jack Kearns, reading as follows: READY TO DO BUSINESS IMMEDIATELY PROVIDED YOU HAVE YOUR REPRESENTATIVE MEET ME HERE PREPARED TO PAY ME $50,000 AND POST ANOTHER $50,000 AS FORFEIT UPON SIGNING ARTICLES. THIS $100,000 TO BE PAID ME AS LIQUIDATED DAMAGES IN EVENT YOU FAIL THROUGH ANY CAUSE BARRING DEMPSEY FROM HOLDING CONTEST ON DATE SELECTED. ABOVE $100,000 TO BE PART OF PURSE IN EVENT CONTEST IS HELD AND BALANCE OF $100,000 TO BE PAID ME PRIOR TO CONTEST AS WE MUTUALLY AGREE UPON TOGETHER WITH SOME OTHER DETAILS SUCH AS PERCENTAGE PRIVILEGE. ANSWER 1465 BROADWAY. JACK KEARNS. Mel also said that a short notice by the Associated, or United, Press had appeared that morning in the Great Falls Tribune. We had made the headlines, and now what were we going to do?

Really, you could have bowled me over with a feather. I had not really expected a reply, but now that we had one and some news notice, I decided to make the most of it and drag it out as long as possible. I called the local Helena reporters and Associated Press representatives who were covering the legislature meeting and gave them the story and contents of the telegrams of offer and acceptance, and this really did make the headlines.

I returned to Shelby, and we sent another telegram to Kearns asking him at what intermediate point we could meet him for a discussion of terms. We waited several days for a reply to this wire—which, of course, served our purpose of obtaining more publicity.

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