Reporting David McCoy
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s long since been torn down, but nearly 100 years ago, the Gibbons Brothers Gym was one of the biggest points of pride in downtown St. Paul.
In the 1910s and 20s, Tommy Gibbons fought some of the biggest names in the game.
“I was never known to be a puncher at the start, and as a matter of fact, I don’t think I was ever a puncher,” Gibbons said in a 1949 KROS Radio interview. “I learned the technique of hitting a fellow where it was most vulnerable: a left hook, under the right arm, the liver – the center of all nerve centers.”
But his biggest fight came in 1923, near the end of Gibbons’ career, and in the smallest of places, in what would became one of the biggest catastrophes in sports history.
Tommy Gibbons’ grandson, Tim Gibbons, says the fight was first devised as a ploy.
“This was just meant to be a publicity stunt,” Tim said.
A year earlier, 1922, the tiny town of Shelby, Montana had discovered oil. And that small town soon began to dream big, fashioning itself as an economic hub of the West.
“If you’ve ever seen Shelby, it’s very much of a prairie town,” he said.
Shelby was a prairie town with metropolitan ambition. They thought a publicity stunt would spark interest. And in those days, there was no bigger publicity than the heavyweight title fight.
“Literally, the country would come to a standstill,” he said.
For perspective, in 1923, hosting the heavyweight boxing title fight would be akin to hosting the Super Bowl now, and in the middle of nowhere.
“From scratch, built a 40,000-seat arena in the town Shelby,” Tim said.
The reigning heavyweight champ was Jack Dempsey – the star athlete of the era, and an American icon.
“Jack was one of those bone crushers. He was a strong, killing type,” Gibbons said.
He wasn’t just the Mike Tyson of the 20s; he was bigger than Babe Ruth.
“Where Babe Ruth was making $100,000 a year, Jack Dempsey was making $500,000 a year,” Tim said.
Shelby’s leaders offered Dempsey’s manager, Jack Kearns, $200,000 for the fight, which was an exorbitant amount in those days and certainly a stretch for small-time Shelby.
“I don’t think they expected a response, they were just looking to make a splash,” he said.
But Kearns was intrigued. Tommy Gibbons was chosen as Dempsey’s opponent.
“He was thrilled to have an opportunity to prove himself,” he said.
And Shelby sent a guy named Loy Molumby to Chicago to close the deal.
“Jack Kearns was very much the sly fox. And they must have gotten this Loy Molumby drunk, and then got him to sign a contract for $300,000 instead of $200,000,” he said.
But Shelby pushed on and ponied up. They built the arena, hotels, and extra railroad track to accommodate all the special trains chartered to bring in spectators from across the country.
“They had a hard time coming up with the money,” Tim said.
And as the deadline approached to pay Kearns, the Sly Fox applied pressure.
“And it was kind of a catch-22. He wouldn’t agree that the fight would actually go on, and then because he wouldn’t agree that the fight would go on, they’d have trouble raising money. So it was kind of a vicious circle,” he said.
The bad publicity doomed the publicity stunt. All the special trains chartered to Shelby were cancelled.
The fight went on, but in a nearly empty arena.
“You can see in some of the old fight footage, of this 40,000-seat arena, there’s like maybe 14,000-15,000 people…only 7,000 or 8,000 of these people actually paid for tickets,” he said.
Those who saw the fight saw a good one, with Gibbons in black shorts and Dempsey in white.
“Dempsey’s a wild man with the gloves on,” Gibbons said. “I really thought I could beat Dempsey.”
He almost did. Gibbons fought the fight of his life, going the full 15 rounds.
“As a matter of fact, my grandfather is the only person to ever go 15 rounds with Jack Dempsey,” Tim said.
It’s been said that the loser of the fight was not Gibbons but instead the town of Shelby, which nearly went bankrupt.
“There were three banks in Shelby that failed right after the fight and then a fourth one in Great Falls,” he said.
Kearns and Dempsey left Shelby with their money, and the little town’s grand ambitions left with them.
Things might not have worked out so well for Shelby, but the fight was great for Gibbons.
“The fights that he had afterwards, he was able to charge more than if he had never had this fight,” Tim said.
After retiring two years later, his popularity landed him a job touring vaudeville. He was king of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, knighted twice by the Catholic Church and elected Ramsey County sheriff for 24 years.
“He was a very likeable guy. He was the kind of person that everybody seemed to like,” Tim said.
Tommy Gibbons had 106 career fights and only lost four of them, one of those being the Dempsey fight.
He’s a member of the International and Minnesota boxing halls of fame.
He was never paid for the fight in Shelby, receiving just $10,000 in training expenses.
Interestingly, Molumby just so happened to be a graduate of the University of Minnesota.
The town of Shelby is currently building a park to commemorate the fight.