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.
Nobody has ever
told the truth about the Dempsey-Gibbons fight in Shelby, Mont. in 1923, so
I've decided to tell it myself. The only trouble is that up till now I've never
been able to get anybody to print it, because once people get it into their
heads that something happened a certain way they hate to let go of it no matter
how many lies are in it. I was the one who thought up the idea for having the
fight in Shelby, and after all these years it still bothers me that reporters
make such a farce of the whole thing whenever they write about it. This is the
first true account of the fight, and I have all the documents to prove it.
One thing the
newspapers always got mixed up was my father's part in the Dempsey-Gibbons
match. And that's easy to understand, because our names are so close. He was
James A. Johnson and I am James W., but ever since I was a baby I was always
called Body Johnson. I was born on my father's ranch near Shelby on May 23,
1899, and I was so sickly nobody expected me to live. My mother would tell the
neighbors that I was just "a little-bitty body," with tiny legs, arms
and head. The name stuck, even after I fooled them all by staying alive and
growing up healthy and strong.
My father, a
Canadian by birth, was one of the founders of Shelby and its first mayor. He
ran cattle and sheep for a while and then moved into town so we children could
go to school. He owned a store and later the old Palace Hotel and later still
was the owner and publisher of Shelby's only newspaper, the Promoter. He bought
the First State Bank, of which he was president until 1923. He was active in
business and municipal affairs until his death in 1938.
Like my father, I
wanted to help put Shelby on the map, and that was what really got me into the
fight game. A few intrepid oil prospectors had completed a wildcat well in the
early spring of 1922 that proved to be the famous (and still producing)
Kevin-Sunburst oil field to the north of Shelby. The boom was on, and Toole
County began to feel the influx of all sorts of oil people—field workers,
drillers, contractors, major-company land men, geologists, plus the usual
parasites of the oil country. My father and I became active in selling lots and
building small office space, dwellings and apartments to fill this demand.
business boomed in the summer of 1922 and up into the late fall. Before long we
were advertising "Shelby, the Tulsa of the West" and believing it
ourselves. We were all doing a good business, but then came the winter and
business slowed down. New people didn't seem to be showing up fast enough.
One morning in
February 1923, about the noon hour, my partner, Mel McCutcheon, and I were
sitting in our real-estate office with our feet on the desk, trying to think up
some new ideas for publicity, something to start our sales moving again. We
just needed more prospects. I happened to pick up the morning paper (Great
Falls Tribune) and noticed an item in the sports section under the dateline
Montreal, Canada with a small headline stating: OFFERS $100,000 FOR FIGHT. The
story, a short one, went on to say that someone had wired Jack Kearns,
Dempsey's manager in New York, offering him $100,000 for a championship fight
to be held in Montreal. That did it. "Mel," I said, "why don't we
make an offer for a championship fight? Let's wire Jack Kearns and offer him
$200,000. If this fellow can make the headlines so can we."
Mel knew less
about the fight game than I did. "Who would you have Dempsey fight?" he
"Darned if I
know," I replied.
At that moment
who should walk past the front window but Lyman Sampson, an ex-fighter who was
employed as matchmaker for the local American Legion boxing committee, of which
I was chairman. "Sam"—that's what I called him—I yelled, "who is
the logical contender to fight Jack Dempsey?" Without any hesitation he
replied, " Tommy Gibbons." "Mike Gibbons you mean, don't you?" I
asked. I had heard of Mike, but I had never heard of Tommy Gibbons.
"No," replied Sam, "Mike is a middleweight, not a heavyweight.
Tommy is Mike's younger brother and a heavyweight." It was this accident of
circumstances that resulted in Tommy Gibbons' getting a chance at the
heavyweight championship of the world.