Shelby, Mont., is a little western town (pop. 3,000) north of the Marias River, in Blackfoot country, just 35 miles south of the Canadian border. It is high plains country, Chinook country, where the wind blows down from Canada like a blowtorch one minute; the next, it turns cold and peels back the warmth in layers, as if with a flensing knife. It is a country of big rivers with warbonnet names; flat, treeless land with its distances defined by butte and hogback. It is a perfect example of the Henry James statement that "landscape is character."
But chances are nobody would have heard of Shelby if it were not for one—no, two—things. The first was a major oil strike in the Kevin-Sunburst field just north of town in 1922. The second, and far better known, was the 15-round heavyweight championship fight that took place there in 1923 between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons.
How the latter came about has become part of boxing lore. The story begins one cold February morning in 1923, when two of the boys were sitting around in the office they shared on Main Street, wondering how to spur real estate sales in Shelby.
They were James W. (Body) Johnson and his friend Mel McCutcheon. Johnson was born in 1899, on a ranch south of the Marias. He was so frail and sickly at birth that his mother would tell neighbors that he was just a "little bitty body," and the name stuck.
At that time, Shelby had a population of 537—mostly cowboys, sheepherders and farmers. After the initial excitement of the big oil strike wore off, Shelby had slumped back into its usual doldrums. Physically, it was a typical western town: old-fashioned and wide open, with one two-story brick hotel and not much else, owing its continued existence to the Great Northern Railroad, whose tracks it pretty much paralleled.
That morning Johnson and McCutcheon noticed an item in the Great Falls Tribune stating that a promoter had made a bid of $100,000 for a championship fight to be held in Montreal. Keep in mind that in those days a steak could be had for 50 cents, and the price of a Maxwell Touring Car was $855. According to Denver newspaperman Gene Fowler, "In 1923 a dollar meant what it said, 100 dollars was an oration."
It occurred to Johnson that morning that the best way to attract attention to Shelby was to promote a championship fight. If Montreal could offer $100,000, Shelby would offer $200,000.
Of course, it was all a joke. The idea of an obscure western town staging a championship bout made as much sense as, say, Irwindale, Calif., advancing a bid today for the Los Angeles Raiders. But what a publicity stunt! Shelby would have its moment in the sun.
To this day, Johnson, now 91 years old, who lives part of the year in Spokane and the rest in Palm Desert, Calif., says adamantly, "It was just a publicity stunt. I don't know why people can't get it right. The truth is strange enough."
Johnson asked a Montana boxing matchmaker named Lyman Sampson who would be the most logical person to fight Dempsey for the heavyweight championship. Sampson, who promoted fights throughout Montana for the American Legion, said, "Gibbons." At first Johnson thought he meant Mike Gibbons, a light heavyweight from Minnesota, but Sampson said no, he meant Tommy Gibbons, Mike's brother. Tommy, a heavyweight, had recently lost a tough battle to Harry Greb.