In a Reno prizefighting ring on Monday night, Sugar Ray Leonard will add to his millions with a defense of his title against one Bruce Finch, a welterweight of lesser renown.
Decency requires that Leonard--when he enters the ring--raise an arm in sweeping salute to Reno and all Nevada. He should do so if he has even a dim sense of history or a morsel of gratitude.
Nevada is the state that fathered the game that has brought Leonard all his glory and certificates of deposit. It was the state that dared; the state that in 1897 voted to legalize boxing when it was in disrepute almost everywhere else.
Until Nevada determined to go public with it, prizefighting was regarded as a brute industry for pugs, a furtive trade carried out in secluded spots, often one step ahead of the sheriffs, sometimes in back rooms, or on river barges or in rings pitched in the pines.
The gypsy world of boxing found a haven in rootin', tootin', gun-totin', turn-of-the-century Nevada with its gold and silver mining camps and its saloons. When Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries in Reno for promoter Tex Rickard in 1910, Nevada was the only state in the Union where boxing was not under onerous restrictions.
Nevada's first legal fight--in which "Gentleman Jim" Corbett lost his title to Bob Fitzsimmons on St. Patrick's Day, 1897--was held in the state capital of Carson City, over the protests of churchmen and reformers. As one journalist noted, "Pugs, gamblers, newspaper reporters, scrubs, whores and sons of bitches in plenty" roamed the streets.
But the excitement pleased the local newspaper, The Appeal, which ignored the seamier side of the spectacle and exulted that the slow, sleeping sleepy state capital "looked for a while, at least, like San Francisco."
Other booming Nevada towns eager for the reflected glory of the big fight got into the act. Reno brought in the Marvin Hart-Jack Root fight for the heavyweight title in 1905. Hart won. Envious Goldfield, then teeming with its mining money, saloons and adventurers (and now practically a ghost town, population 350) staged the memorable Joe Gans-Battling Nelson 42-rounder in 1906.
By that time, a suave, cigar-flourishing, snap-brim young Texan name of George L. (Tex) Rickard had come to Goldfield. He had been a cowboy in his teens, lived in the world of six-guns, had served as town marshal of Henrietta, Tex., in 1894, before following the gold rush to the Klondike. He ran gambling halls in Dawson, Circle City and Nome before descending on Nevada.
In Goldfield, Rickard operated The Northern, a saloon-gambling complex with 14 gaming tables and a 60-foot bar manned by three shifts of barkeeps, with six to 12 men on a shift to accommmodate Goldfield's thirsty populace.
Goldfield also wanted a big fight, so Rickard brought in the famous lightweights, Gans and Nelson. But it was in Reno that Rickard was to make one of his biggest scores, and it helped make Nevada famous.
That one was Jack Johnson versus Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910. In that era, big fights were always staged on holidays. A reluctant Jeffries was persuaded to come out of five years' retirement as a former champion to fight Johnson, "and redeem the white race," as some persons urged. In the vacuum that had followed Jeffries' retirement, Johnson had emerged as the champion and also had married a white woman, and there was unrest among those who insisted on Caucasian supremacy in the prizefighting ring. Johnson had also beaten Jeffries' brother, Jack, eight years before.
Two of the biggest bigots were noted novelists of the time--Rex Beach and Jack London--who were covering the fight for newspaper syndicates and clamoring for a white hope.
Beach asserted that "the ignorant black man was no match for the educated white man." After Johnson had beaten Tommy Burns for the title, Jack London wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, "Jeffries must come off his alfalfa farm and wipe the smile off Johnson's face."
In Atlanta a black minister had publicly expressed the hope that Jeffries would win, because of his fear that race riots that might follow if a black man defeated a white hero.
Rickard made the match after meeting with Jeffries and Johnson in the East. They signed the articles in a hotel room in Hoboken, N.J. Rickard offered a purse of $101,000 and showed his good faith to both men by dramatically depositing $20,000 on the table.
Originally, Rickard had scheduled Johnson-Jeffries for San Francisco, but that city's reformers and the California governor chased the fight out of town after Rickard had an arena half-built and was selling tickets. He took the planking and the fight to a willing Reno.
The trains from everywhere spilled fight fans and "sports" into Reno. The 23,000-seat arena, with ringside tickets at $50, was sold out long before the fight. Beds were so scarce that half of Reno was up all night before the bout.
Rickard himself refereed the fight. It was a woeful mismatch. Jeffries was a log, the Associated Press reported. In the 15th round, Jeffries' handlers threw in the towel, and Rickard stopped it.
Race riots did follow, and at least eight persons were killed. The Washington Post reported the next morning that "Three Rioters May Die" in the city in the wake of outbreaks of violence in which whites destroyed eight Negro saloons. About 250 persons were arrested in the District.
For the next 21 years there was a lapse in Nevada's notoriety as a boxing center, but in the Depression of the early 1930s, with many of the farms in the state mortgaged, Nevada looked anew to two of its other industries--divorce and gambling--to stimulate its economy.
Nevada's six-month divorce waits were telescoped into six weeks, and the disenchanted came by the hundreds. Its frontier-town gambling halls were dressed up to offer an aura of elegance. New hotels went up, the old town expanded, the gold rush days had come back.
Jack Dempsey, who had some of his early fights in Reno and Goldfield, returned to the state to get a divorce and speak to the state legislature in favor of legalizing gambling, and was prevailed upon to promote fights. Dempsey brought in Max Baer to fight Paulino Uzcudun, and, later, King Levinsky.
In the early 1960s, boom town Las Vegas' razzle-dazzle casinos took over the fight promotions. But it must be remembered that before Las Vegas there was a Reno that could offer a history lesson to Sugar Ray Leonard. He could stroll down to the middle of town and see the plain marker that says Johnson and Jeffries fought there in 1910. It's easy to find. It's standing in a storage yard for a structural steel company.