Boxing: the Pugilist Art? The Manly Science? Not so much in Cranbrook’s early days.
The study of punching someone — but not just anyone: preferably someone approximately the same weight and, for the sake of a good show, someone of more or less the same ability — is meant to draw large crowds; that’s where promotion comes in. But, if it’s well-matched it’s hard to predict who will win; that’s where betting comes in.
And if the outcome is suspect? Well, that’s where accusations of bribery and corruption enter the ring.
Not to say that all boxing is about money. Nope. Some boxing — pure boxing — is simply about punching an opponent until, one way or another, it’s time to stop punching, all money aside. That’s where the “pugilistic art” comes in, and it first came to Cranbrook via telegraph.
By 1899, it was common for a crowd to gather at one of the local hotels to catch the returns of a big fight as they came in over the wire — similar to present day text updates on a mobile device — handy, but not the same as being there.
Although boxing was and remains an ongoing part of the local amateur sporting community, one of the first “professional” contests took place in town during the Fall Fair of 1901, when Charles Goff took on Jack Fitzgerald. Goff, a middleweight from Mechanicsville, N.Y., walked over Fitzgerald, the local Kootenay “champ”, at the local arena (in what is now Rotary Park) to the amusement of a large crowd. Goff eventually went on to become the Chief Federal Prohibition Enforcement Officer for California. Fitzgerald went on to spend time in the Nelson jail on an unrelated assault charge.
Fitzgerald fought again in 1903, in a bout that was described as “a rank fake, as the decision was given to Fitzgerald before the end of the first round,” before a very disgruntled crowd that paid up to $2.50 (over $70 today) for a ringside seat. Fitzgerald went on to spend time in jail for another assault.
1904 saw heavyweight Jack Curley slated to fight Ely O’Brien, that is until O’Brien withdrew and was replaced by Jack Thompson. The result, staged in the Wentworth Opera House, was rendered “a slugging match rather than a scientific exhibition of the manly art,” and ended with Thompson K.O.’d in the second round.
Fights of this nature did little to popularize boxing, causing locals to view the enterprise as a waste of time and money.
Pro boxing may have lost its lustre but amateur boxing remained part of the local scene. In fact, in 1908 a “concert” was held which included boxing, fencing, gymnastics and singing by some of the best local talent, an enticing combination that appears to have gone curiously unduplicated in ensuing years.
Louis “Kid” Scaler (Spokane) took on Eddie Marino (Seattle) in 1909, in a bout that promised “everything on the square or your money back.” Scaler won by a decision in the tenth round which satisfied the cynical crowd. The following year saw boxing events and movies banned in many North American cities, both in order to avoid racial tensions between black and white as their colour-coded representatives met in the ring, and also to avoid a “lowering of the moral tone of the people.”
A 1911 bout between Messrs Ryan and Streeter (a local fighter of some note) may well have been the low point of the “Manly Science.” Reported as “a rotten exposition of about fifth-class slugging,” and describing Ryan as a fighter who was “hog fat and knew nothing about boxing,” and “the owner of a yellow streak wider than his wide back,” the fight was won by Streeter, “…who knows as much about boxing as he does of Greek Art.”
A letter to the editor commenting on the event describes it as “resembling a school-boy scrap: unfair fighting, undignified grimacing between the principals and a disgraceful uproar among the audience. The 9 o’clock fight was purposely delayed until nearly 11:30 — perhaps to sell tickets to people arriving on the late train — and the door and seating was in the hands of uncouth youth, who were both noisy and impertinent.” The ringside seats were simply rough planks and the writer complained further of obscene language, open betting, drunken shouting, perpetual smoking and small boys sneaking in through the back entrance.
In short, a reasonable description of the typical boxing match of the day.
Attendance was up a few months later when Streeter met McLeod. Streeter may not have been well-versed in the Greek Arts but he packed a wallop and wasted little time in placing McLeod head-down amongst the first row. Whether it was the quality of the boxing, the gambling, or the low moral tone of the people, it marked a temporary suspension of locals entering the ring for money, although (oddly) out of town pugilists were welcome if they paid a bond promising the integrity of the event. The local boxing judge had the option of declaring a “no contest” and refunding all ticket money should there be any doubt.
One of the final bouts before the onset of the First World War more or less put paid to such activity saw two visiting “coloured men,” Oscar Mortimer of Calgary and Charles Robinson of Winnipeg, take to the ring in the old auditorium. Ninety seconds into the contest Robinson knocked out Mortimer. When Mortimer awoke he pleaded to continue, claiming the public hadn’t been given their money’s worth. Apparently Cranbrook crowds were easy to please by then; subjected to numerous short, one-sided bouts over the years, everyone had already gone home.