Nevada’s Boxing History

Author Richard O. Davies on prizefighting’s cultural impact, the former champ he most admires and the famous bite that hastened boxing’s decline

Photo by Elizabeth Buehring

Photo by Elizabeth Buehring

Prostitution. Quickie divorces. Boozing and gambling to excess. Nevada certainly earned its sinful reputation at the turn of the 20th century. But did you know that the very first “sin” the Silver State committed was legalizing boxing in 1897? It’s one of many prizefighting truths that Richard O. Davies reveals in The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip (University of Nevada Press, $30). Davies, a 2013 inductee into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, is a University of Nevada, Reno, history professor and noted sports historian whose previous works include Rivals! The Ten Greatest Sports Rivalries of the 20th Century (2010) and Sports in American Life: A History (2007). “Earl Warren, when he was a Supreme Court justice, used to say he’d always read the sports page before he read the front page, because the sports page had society’s achievements, and the front page had its defects,” Davies says. “I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore.”

How did boxing end up playing a role in Nevada being labeled America’s outcast state?

In 1897, the state Legislature legalized boxing to bring the Bob Fitzsimmons-James Corbett fight to Carson City, and that was the first time Nevada was really assailed for being a state that was out of touch with conventional morality. Boxing was illegal in every state in the union. But Nevada’s economy was really in the tank, and they were looking for a way to get people to come here and spend money. So when the promoter from Dallas came up [to Carson City]—and probably handed some $100 bills around to the Legislature, because he already had $100,000 invested in the Fitzsimmons-Corbett fight—Nevada legalized it, and the fight was held.

Why was prizefighting deemed more socially abhorrent at the time than gambling and prostitution?

The Victorians controlled the morality of the country—middle-class, Protestant, stiff-necked individuals. And they looked at boxing as a blood sport, and that was bad enough, but the behaviors that boxing produced—drinking, gambling, raucous behavior, male-oriented type of violence—all those things fit together into a nice little package.

What’s the one part of Main Event that would enlighten even the most dedicated boxing historian?

That boxing is an integral part of the culture of Nevada based upon the cult of masculinity that developed in the mining camps in the 1860s and 1870s. Informal boxing matches occurred all the way through early Nevada history—local kids taking each other on in saloons, barrooms, maybe out in the fields. So when the Legislature legalized it, it was no big deal in Nevada. But it was a helluva big deal in many parts of the country.

What was our state’s most important boxing match?

I would say the Fight of the Century—the Jack Johnson-James Jeffries fight in Reno. It was black vs. white, racial Armageddon. All of the whites were rooting for Jeffries to come out of retirement and win the fight—he was the Great White Hope. And Reno became the center of attention for the country for a few days. On July 4, 1910, some 20,000 people attended on the east side of Reno in a makeshift wooden arena, and the black man won the fight. Around the country, riots broke out as white gangs attacked blacks. We think somewhere around 18 innocent black people walking down the street were murdered [nationwide].

Who’s your favorite boxer of all time?

Joe Frazier. Before I wrote Rivals and the chapter on Ali-Frazier, I didn’t know anything about him. But he was a self-made man. He was one of 11 children of a sharecropper [from] South Carolina, completely out of poverty, rose to become a very respected man and a good family man, and was a businessman after he left the ring. I really admired what he did.

In the book, you write about the night Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ears at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. What was your takeaway from that incident?

That fight really stunned the American people. And I pinpoint it as the point in which the popularity of boxing declined rapidly, at the same time that the UFC—mixed martial arts—started growing in Las Vegas. Which is ironic: Boxing’s decline has been accelerated by the UFC, which is operated by the Fertitta brothers and Dana White here in Las Vegas. But the number of championship [boxing] fights held in Las Vegas has decreased tremendously. Nobody knows who boxing’s heavyweight champion is now. I don’t, frankly; I think it’s a Russian. But I couldn’t care less, and nobody else cares, either.

What’s the last fight you were in?

Oh, my gosh! I don’t really know. I came very close several times when I played high school basketball in Ohio, when you’d have an overtime game and the [home team’s] timekeeper didn’t exactly push the button in time.

We actually had one fight break out in 1948 or ’49. I was a junior-high student, and the fans started slugging each other—there were like 400 or 500 farmers out there fighting, and the fight didn’t stop until a guy who was a good friend
of my father’s turned out the lights in the gym.