by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Known to aficionados as “The Manly Art,” boxing as a sport has ancient origins, though how far back is anyone’s guess. Visual representations from the Sumerians in the third millennium B.C. were followed by ones in Egypt, through sculpture as early as about 1350 B.C., and Crete, where a carved vase shows pugilists in hand coverings and helmets. In ancient Greece, substantial documentation for the sport exist, including the earliest known rules and, while gloves were used for sparring sessions, contests, such as in the early Olympic Games were fought with bare knuckles. The Romans continued boxing, but the fall of the empire and the spread of Christianity led to its demise.
The modern revival of pugilism can be dated to a bare-knuckle bout fought in 1681 in England, where the sport became popular though initially illegal. Early rules were developed in the 1740s softened the wrestling-like brawling that dominated prior to that and a version of gloves was also introduced. By the end of the 18th century, matches were held in the newly independent United States, where the sport grew in popularity after 1800 and the term “knockout” became used to denote a convincing argument as well as for a beautiful woman.
In 1867, more refinement to the sport came with the Marquess of Queensbury rules that mandated the use of padded gloves, three-minute rounds followed by a minute of rest, the ten-second count for a downed gladiator, and an absolute ban on wrestling moves. By the end of the 19th century, American fighters supplanted their British counterparts for supremacy, while changes in English society lessened the popularity in boxing, while in the U.S. it grew rapidly.
An advertisement in the 11 July 1860 edition of the Los Angeles Semi-Weekly Southern News was taken out by A.F. Tilden promoting his gymnasium opened in Jonathan Temple’s brick building where City Hall now stands and among the apparatus mentioned were boxing gloves. The earliest located reference to an Angel City bout was in the Los Angeles News of 27 December 1870, where, notably, a Christmas Day fight was held at 6 a.m. behind the old Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills between Jim Downey and Charley Forster. The paper provided round-by-round commentary of the seven-round contest, which Downey won.
The popularity of boxing in Los Angeles grew with its rapid expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so that, by the Roaring Twenties, the sport drew crowds in the many thousands to newly-opened venues like Wrigley Field and the Olympic Auditorium (where wrestling was also avidly followed), both of which opened in 1925. What dogged the sport, however, were the rampant presences of wagering and “fixed” fights, yet the popularity of boxing continued to be very strong during the era.
The featured artifact for this post is the 26 October 1929 edition of The Knockout, a weekly magazine launched in fall 1927 and which focused heavily on pugilism, though wrestling was featured, as well. This issue contains plenty of news about the sport generally, but we’ll focus here on a few specifics. One is that the centerfold shows the heavy promotion of “Bad Boy” Bobby La Salle, a San Francisco fighter whose career spanned from 1926 to 1933, but it also lists the week’s boxing cards for the prior week in many Pacific Coast cities, with most in greater Los Angeles.
These included Santa Ana, where the main event featured favorite Charley Cobb facing off against Romeo Le Mon in an 8-round bout in the 147-lb welterweight class and four fights in the undercard including a “humdinger” of a rematch of a lightweight tussle between Peter Jackson and Louie Silva. At Pasadena, T.N.T. Robleto (Canuto Robledo), a New Mexico native of Mexican-born parents, squared off against Filipino Sailor Ramirez with Robledo expected to prevail in the flyweight fight.
Other local cards were held at Ontario and San Bernardino in the Inland Empire, Ocean Park next to Santa Monica, and a Main Street location in downtown Los Angeles. At Hollywood, the main event featured Charley Kaiser versus Ernie Peters in a flyweight contest and the latter, a Native American who was commonly billed as “Indian” Peters, was pegged to emerge victorious. Near the Port of Los Angeles at the Wilmington Arena, bantamweight pugilists Joe Noto and Benny Carter were to square off and Noto was anticipated to win what was thought to be close battle.
The big boxing match, however, was at the Olympic, where the heavyweight undercard fight was to be between “Dynamite Jackson,” born Ernest Bendy and training in Santa Monica, and Willie Henry, both African-Americans, and the description observed ‘what a fight this is for a curtain raiser.” Jackson, due to his speed and left jab, was expected to defeat the hard-hitting Henry, but it turned out that the two were scratched. The Latinos Johnny Torres and Henry “Kid” Pacho were in the bantamweight division and Pacho was considered much inferior to Torres, who was expected to knock his foe out.
The featherweight fight was between Latino Tony Portillo and Italian Matt Calo and it was expected that, because “Portillo has class” that he “will give Calo the worse shellacking he ever had.” The main event matched welterweights La Salle and Sammy Jackson, the latter a Black fighter from St. Louis, with the magazine adding
This fight is the talk of all Southern California. Three thousand fans are coming from the beaches to see this battle. Long Beach is better her bank roll on La Salle and Ocean Park is backing Jackson. Jackson appears to be the best fighter and should win a close decision, but La Salle has a style of his own which baffles his opponents and he has a habit of winning over the best welters in the country. “Bad Boy” says he can take all Jackson has and that Sammy can not take all he gives and that he will win over the sensational Jackson. Can he do it?
The fight, held on the 22nd, was covered in several local papers, with the Hollywood Citizen, hardly surprisingly, referring to “Mistah Samuel Jackson, a good looking black kid” as prevailing in what was considered a “so-so affair.” While Jackson landed blows, the paper asserted that he “couldn’t punch his way out a wet tissue paper bag” and all La Salle ended up doing “was stop punches.” The disappointment was reflected in the statement that “maybe it was a fight but it looked more like a waltz and that La Salle didn’t show any initiative until the final round.
The Black-owned California Eagle reported that “the bout was nothing to write home about” as “Jackson was too smart for the wild swinging Bobby” and the victor took seven of the rounds. Notably, the paper recorded that, in the eighth round, “Sammy dropped the beach boy with a left hook and La Salle gave them all a laugh by doing a backward flip.” Stating that the loser did poorly whenever fighting at the Olympic, the Eagle added that La Salle “made all kinds of faces at Jackson and did very little fighting” until the final two rounds.
Another important Golden State fight took place at the Armory in San Francisco, where there were five undercard bouts, but the main event featured Jewish pugilist and world welterweight champ Jackie Fields (Jacob Finkelstein), a Chicago native, against William L. “Gorilla” Jones, an African-American from Memphis whose appellation was said to be because of his long reach of 75 inches (there was an earlier Black pugilist named “Gorilla Jones” or “The Fighting Gorilla” but it seems very likely that the name was due to his skin color.)
Jones captured a middleweight title in Boston in late June against reigning champion Jack McVey, though there was some dissension among the crowd which reportedly felt that McVey, being more aggressive, scored better through the contest. On the other hand, racism could well have played a role in the reaction. As for the summary in The Knockout, it stated,
Fields rates a winner over Jones but the colored boy is not to be sneezed at for this one fight he is going to try and win and he will give Fields the scare of his life. Gorilla is no se-up and should prove a hard nut to crack.
The contest was held on the 21st and the Eagle of the 25th noted, with a notable allusion, that Fields “added another scalp to his belt” in defeating Jones, “the Akron, Ohio [based] dark-skinned boy in a bristling ten-round fight.” It continued “the champion beat the black boy, but he knew that he had been in a battle from the start to the finish” and asserted that a drew could well have been scored.
The paper added that Fields’ most recent bout was in Chicago in the first promoted fight by the famed heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey. The Eagle reported that “down here in the Southland, they had Jackie about a 20-1 favorite,” but the coverage ended with the observation that, while the losing gladiator may not have been impressive in his latest contest, a narrow win over “Dummy” Mahan, “Jones is not copy and no less. He has color. He can fight. And most of all he can hit with a right hand. Anybody that he hits with that right in the right spot can call it a night.”
In a December rematch in Boston, the referee stopped the fight, asserting that Jones was improperly holding back and he ordered the promoter to pay both fighters their purses, though press coverage averred that Jones’ long reach prevented Fields from getting close enough to land punches. In any case, Jones went on in the early Thirties to become a middleweight champion, retired in 1940 and, it is said, was a driver, bodyguard and lover (though he denied this publicly) of famed actor Mae West.
Another important fight mentioned in the magazine was a battle between Mickey Walker, the world middleweight title holder, who first took a welterweight crown in 1922 and then moved up to the higher class, winning the belt in 1926, and Asa “Ace” Hudkins, the “Nebraska Wildcat,” whose nickname reflected his very aggressive style in the ring. The two men in June 1928 in a brawl that led the referee to believe Hudkins won, while the two judges scored the fight or the champ.
While Walker trained at the Soper Ranch in Ojai, which is where Dempsey conducted some prefight preparation, Hudkins was ensconced for the third time at the Bastanchury Ranch, a substantial property, launched with sheep raising by patriarch Domingo in the 19th century and largely devoted to citrus raising, as well as oil, by his sons, principally his son Gaston. The latter was an avid boxing fan and was mentioned in the press as stating that he was ready to bet $2,500 on Hudkins.
If Bastanchury did wager that significant amount, it would have been a losing bet (though he and his brothers experience a financial failure during the Great Depression just a few years later) as the clash, conducted before some 25,000 fans at Wrigley Field, ended with Walker against winning on points (Hudkins had not been knocked out to date). While the champ retained his crown for another two years, making it a half-decade in all, vacating it to move into the heavyweight division, where he did reasonably well before transitioning to the light heavyweight class, where he lost a couple of championship fights before retiring.
As for Hudkins, his wildness in the ring and a penchant for partying and a dependence on alcohol led to a steep and rapid decline and he retired in 1932. He turned to drunken bar fights, was shot and wounded in one brawl and then turned his life around and became a horse breeder and stunt person for Hollywood.
There is more to The Knockout, but these aspects include some of the more interesting content. The Museum has one other issue of the publication in its collection, from October 1928, so we’ll likely feature that edition next year.