Langtry, Texas, Feb. 21, 1896: Prizefight in the Rio Grande

Max stands with his back toward the Rio Grande and Mexico in Langtry, Texas.

Max stands with his back toward the Rio Grande and Mexico in Langtry, Texas.

Dec. 8, Langtry, Texas – Before bidding adieu to Langtry, we drove just south of the post office, past old Roy’s hanging tree, and parked the behemoth. We got out and clambered about the rocks, where we enjoyed an excellent view of the limestone cliffs on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
Somewhere down there in the middle of the river, which was not visible from our vantage point, Judge Roy Bean helped engineer one of the more improbable events in the annals of sport. A heavyweight championship fight that no respectable jurisdiction on either side of the international border wanted took place on a sand bar in the Coahuila side of the river on Feb. 21, 1896.
You know Roy Bean must have been blessed with considerable chutzpah, however much his myth has diverged from his real life. He helped promoter Dan Stuart pull an end run around blue-nosed authorities on both sides of the border and bring a title fight to the shore of a town that now has a population of 17.
The fight, originally scheduled for Dallas, was to match heavyweight champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett against middleweight king Bob Fitzsimmons. Corbett had earned the title by knocking out the legendary John L. Sullivan in the 21st round at the Olympic Club in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward back in 1892.
Stuart found his vision blocked by Texas Governor Charles Culberson, who prevailed upon the Texas Legislature to outlaw boxing in the fall of 1895.
The organizers then gazed across the state line toward Arkansas, where Governor James Paul Clarke threatened to call out the state militia to keep the fight out of Hot Springs.
“I will enlarge the walls of the state penitentiary, if needs be, to accommodate the crowd,” Clarke is reported to have said.
Corbett responded in November, stunning the sports world by announcing his “retirement” at age 29.
“I have retired from the ring. I’m tired of the championship. You can have it,” he said to Maher, triggering howls of derision and protest in the sporting world.
Variously the fight was to be held in Indian Territory, or in the middle of the Missouri River, or in a swath of disputed land between Texas and New Mexico, or on a barge in Galveston Bay, or in Arizona’s San Simon Valley.
As time wore on, Bean became involved in the machinations. On Dec. 17, Stuart announced the fight would be hold Feb. 14 “near El Paso, Texas.” The purse was set at $10,000.
So the focus shifted to El Paso, with Fitzsimmons training across the border in Juarez.
Before 1896 dawned, an Albuquerque newspaper alleged territorial Governor William Taylor Thornton was in cahoots with Stuart and that the fight was slated for Dona Ana County, across the Rio Grande in New Mexico Territory.
Thornton rebuked the report, promising to employ “all the power of the territorial administration” to block Stuart’s “fistic carnival” from taking place in New Mexico.
Stuart arrived in El Paso on Jan. 9, brimming with confidence. “Nothing short of lightning or the destruction of the earth by fire or flood” could stop the fight, he boasted. Maher came from New York two days later, and set up his camp in Las Cruces.
On Feb. 4, Gov. Thornton published a letter in two newspapers encouraging authorities to arrest any pugilists for assault and battery. Increasingly upbeat, Stuart was blindsided on Feb. 7, one week before the scheduled bout, when Congress passed a law banning prizefighting in the New Mexico Territory.
Nonetheless, El Paso was filling up with sporting men and celebrities. John L. Sullivan was on hand, nominally to engage in a traveling exhibition with the old bare-knuckle champ Paddy Ryan, but in actuality getting himself “loaded to the gunnels” on a nightly basis. On one occasion he went down for the count in front of El Paso’s Grand Central Hotel.

fitz4
Legendary old west gunfighter William Barclay “Bat” Masterson also had arrived in town, this time in the role of sports writer for the New York Morning Telegraph. On the 11th, Masterson, a confederate of Stuart’s, published a column in the Albuquerque Morning Democrat. He decried all the legislative folderol in the effort to ban boxing. Boxing was not so dangerous, he wrote, and there was “less danger, indeed, than that jockeys will get killed, football players mangled and professional bicyclists maimed.
“That all this commotion has been stirred up because the two men are going to box with five-ounce gloves, it seems to me to be utterly ridiculous. When the senate and the house of representatives of this great country can find nothing better to do than to make laws prohibiting boxing contests in territories, it is high time that something was done.”
Something was being done, all right, and most of it included a legion of gendarmes descending on El Paso with a mission to frustrate Stuart once and for all. Culberson, the Texas governor, sent Texas Rangers to El Paso to engage in surveillance  of the fight’s principal figures.
General Miguel Ahumada, Governor of Chihuahua, arrived in Juarez on Feb. 11, saying he’d come on a personal mission to stop the fight. The mayor of Juarez promised he’d have 600 troops available on the day of the fight.
Governor L.C. Hughes mobilized militia units across Arizona and requested the dispatch of U.S. marshals in a frenzied effort to thwart a rumored pugilistic incursion into his territory.
By Feb. 13, an estimated 1,500 visitors had poured into El Paso. Then Maher hurt his eyes, allegedly while running through a desert sandstorm. The fight was postponed.
At 5 p.m. on Feb. 20, Stuart hung a sign in his office window, advising those interested in seeing the fight to “report at these headquarters tonight at 9:45 o’clock. Railroad fare for the round trip will not exceed $12.”
Minutes before the scheduled departure, 10 additional cars showed up. Fans, reporters and Texas Rangers boarded the train, which departed El Paso and headed east.

fitz2
The train made several stops along the 389-mile expedition, including one in Marathon where Fitzsimmons got off and briefly grappled with a bear that was chained to a nearby adobe house. They stopped in Sanderson for lunch around 1 p.m., with 10 carloads of hungry travelers overrunning the town’s two restaurants.
It was overcast and drizzling when the train arrived in Langtry, arriving not long after a west-bound train came in from San Antonio with a load of beer. Bean, the story goes, peddled the beer for a buck a bottle.
Mexican laborers had constructed the ring on a flat stretch of land on the Mexico side of the river, below the looming cliffs, on the Mexican side. A tall canvas wall was erected to stop gate-crashers, though many enterprising observers found good sight lines from cliff-top perches. A walking bridge was hastily thrown up allowing fans and principals easy access  from the Langtry bank. The fighters and their entourages simply waltzed past the Texas Rangers and made their way to ringside.
The fight was going to happen after all.

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Fitzsimmons, a British-born fighter from New Zealand, would go on to claim the light heavyweight crown as well. They called him “Ruby Robert” and “The Freckled Wonder.”
He had beaten Maher, aka the “Irish Giant,” once before, in New Orleans in 1892.
Maher, the nominal champion, rocked Fitzsimmons with a left hook that drew blood right off the bat. That blow precipitated a brawl that ended abruptly when Fitzsimmons sidestepped a roundhouse left and tagged Maher with a sledgehammer right hand at 1 minute, 35 seconds of the opening round. Maher’s head thudded against the makeshift canvas, and it was all over, just like that.
“I could have put him out the first punch, but I didn’t reach him hard enough,” Fitzsimmons said afterward. “There never was a minute since the match was made that I have anticipated any other result than this.  I was sure of him at all stages of the game.  He was afraid the minute he put up his hands, and I knew it. … I just got in on him with my right and caught him squarely on the side of the jaw.  I knew it was all over when I landed on him.  It was dead easy from the start.”
It might’ve been dead easy for Mr. Fitzsimmons, but the fight was anything but easy for the organizers. But Stuart, Bean & Co. persevered and managed to outwit authorities throughout the southwest and Mexico to stage one of sport’s unlikely contests.

Editor’s note: Obviously, I didn’t dream up all this information or spend the time to dig it out of archival newspapers. The Internet is, for all its flaws, a miraculous kindgom. Every time I turned around, I landed on a different source providing a wealth of information on this fascinating story. Each time I thought maybe I was ready to hit the publish button, I stumbled on something new.
As for the details of the fight, I am indebted to Joseph Bourelly, whose lively account appears on xlfights.com, and Doug Braudaway, whose detailed piece about the torturous and ever-shifting plans for the fight I found on the Val Verde County Historical Commission site. Chris Cozzone‘s story on the New Mexico History website offered a treasure trove of information on the efforts to stop the fight there. The last thing I latched on to was a book about the whole affair, Leo Miletich‘s delightful “Dan Stuart’s Fistic Carnival,” on Google reader. I wish I had time to read the whole thing.

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