Dempsey vs. Gibbons: “The Fight that Ruined a Town”

By Norman Marcus on November 21, 2012
Dempsey vs. Gibbons: “The Fight that Ruined a Town”
Dempsey said of Gibbons, “Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind.”

The little town of Shelby was growing by leaps and bounds. It had half a dozen banks, restaurants, schools, hotels, and even a church…

On July 4, 1923, Jack Dempsey stepped back into the square ring. The champ hadn’t fought a real fight in two years, not since he knocked out “The Orchid Man” Georges Carpentier in Jersey City on July 2, 1921. As in the fight with Carpentier, this next title bout was to be fought in an open air arena built entirely out of sappy, yellow pine wood.

There was more chance that night of a fire breaking out than a knockout.

The fight was going to take place out in the middle of nowhere. Oil speculators from a little town called Shelby, Montana had approached Jack “Doc” Kearns, Dempsey’s manager, about holding a heavyweight championship fight out west. These public-minded citizens wanted to put their little town on the map. The group was led by businessman Loy J. Molumby. He figured that if the town could get thousands of high rollers to Shelby for the fight, there was huge money to be made pitching them oil stocks or leases. Anyway, Kearns asked for a ridiculous amount of money, $300,000 to be exact, for the fight. Mr. Molumby was told to bring $100,000 with him to New York City, as a good will gesture.

The cowboy showed up a week later decked out in a white Stetson hat and buffalo leather boots. Molumby made his pitch to Kearns, one con man to another. Shelby he said was up by the Canadian border, near Blackfoot Indian land. It had recently had a huge oil strike. Light sweet crude oil was literally bubbling up from the ground. The little town was growing by leaps and bounds. It had half a dozen banks, restaurants, schools, hotels, and even a church. Molumby pushed a saddlebag filled with $100,000 cash toward Kearns. Jack peaked inside. There were all new, crisp, one hundred dollar bills packed in there. This guy was speaking the Doc’s lingo.

The only way for fans to get to the fight in Shelby from the East and West Coasts was by the Great Northern Railroad. The company had agreed to run special trains for the event. Kearns decided to handle the whole deal himself, cutting promoter Tex Rickard out of the action. This was to be a big mistake. Kearns was a good manager but he didn’t have Rickard’s vision. The ability to foresee problems and hype interest was Rickard’s specialty; that’s what promoters do. Kearns was blinded by greed. Doc figured he and Dempsey could cut it all just two ways.

Tommy Gibbons (record), Dempsey’s opponent in this fight, was really a pretty good heavyweight but was unknown to most fight fans. He was the brother of top middleweight contender Mike Gibbons. Tommy was fast and had a lot of ring smarts. He had lost a fight to Harry Greb in March 1922, but had beaten respected heavyweight Billy Miske nine months later. Dempsey would have a hard time landing big punches on Gibbons. (Only one man ever stopped Gibbons. That man was Gene Tunney in 1925, in Tommy’s final fight.)

Dempsey and Kearns were guaranteed the $300,000 in three separate payments. They received the first one when the contract was signed in New York City. The second $100,000 would come sixty days before the fight. The final third would be handed over one week before the bout. The promoters were relying on prefight ticket sales to pay off Dempsey’s last $100,000 payment.

Gibbons was promised $100,000 plus expenses but no guarantee. (In the end Gibbons would get no cash from this fight.)

A week before the fight the Great Western Railroad pulled out of the deal. Rumors of financial ruin and mismanagement were rampant. People would now have to get to Shelby by horse and wagon, automobile or on foot. The roads were unpaved and dangerous but there was no other way to travel. This fight was turning into a fiasco. Kearns now demanded the third and final payment of $100,000. Molumby didn’t have it yet. Ticket sales were slow. He promised Kearns the final payment from the gate receipts after the fight. This was not the deal agreed upon and Doc told Dempsey the fight was off, they were going back to New York. Dempsey was training in the nearby town of Great Falls. If the fight was called off, Dempsey had only to pack his bags and leave Montana. The town’s promoters had foolishly agreed to these terms back in New York City. $200,000 with no one to fight was a deal Doc Kearns could live with but not Jack Dempsey.

In the end the town just couldn’t come up with the final payment on time. Dempsey however wanted to fight Gibbons cash or no cash. He was rusty and bored after two years out of the ring. He came to fight and test out his guns. Dempsey overruled Kearns and the fight was back on.

Both fighters entered the ring around 3:00 in the afternoon. The wood arena could hold 13,000 people but only 7,202 tickets were sold by fight time. It was too hard to get to Shelby without the trains and the tickets went for $50.00 a pop! Most of the people that did show wound up watching the bout for free from the low hills overlooking the ring. To make matters worse, the local lumberyard never did get paid for the wood or the labor for building the arena.

The fight itself was nothing to write home about. Dempsey bored in, bobbing and weaving. He tried to land squarely on Gibbons face but he was rusty and his timing was off. After the fight Jack said, “Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind.” Gibbons stated in his biography “Punches That I Have Taken” that “People couldn’t seem to understand how I could take so much from Dempsey…All I did was slip this way and that…Brother Mike, he taught it to me.” The challenger also clinched and held a lot. Tommy tried to land punches to Jack’s body but Dempsey was too fast for him. Gibbons opened a cut under the champ’s right eye in the 2nd round that bothered Jack throughout the fight. Dempsey seemed to have Gibbons in trouble in round 7 but couldn’t put him away. At the end of the 15th and final round referee Jim Dougherty raised Dempsey’s hand in victory. Gibbons did not protest. He stated years later in his biography, “I could have licked him in Shelby if I had been thirty, but I was thirty-two… I never got so tired of a man in my life.” He was tired but happy. He had gone 15 rounds with Jack Dempsey and would live to brag about it. No one had ever done that before.

Years later Tommy told a reporter for CBS Radio that “Dempsey could beat anybody he could hit. The only reason he couldn’t do anything with fellows like Tunney or Greb or myself was he couldn’t hit us.”

Dempsey left that night by Packard convertible amid grumbling from the townsfolk. The swindlers had been swindled. It was not a good situation for Jack and Doc. It was a gutsy thing for Kearns to stay on, to see how much of the gate money he could get. Very early the next morning, Doc got $80,000 cash out of the cashier’s office. The locals thought this whole deal smelled bad. Folks were getting liquored up and talked about finding a rope! After all, four banks soon would go bust and the town of Shelby was already the laughingstock of the nation. Folks had a fast way to deal with desperadoes in the Old West. There were lots of words to describe Dempsey’s manager—and the word desperado was one of them. Doc Kearns was now in a hurry to leave town.

Kearns snuck down to the train station. He bribed the stationmaster with a wad of cash to fire up a cold locomotive. The big black steam engine got him out to Great Falls, where Dempsey was waiting for him.

The town of Shelby never recovered. A year later their oil fields dried up and people started to leave in droves.

Jack was especially glad to get out of Shelby. The only people in Montana that he would miss were the beautiful young girls of the Blackfoot Indian Nation. Dempsey had once told Carpentier that “The most beautiful girls in the world are in Paris.” Maybe Jack would have to rethink that one.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Jack Dempsey vs. Tommy Gibbons

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Tex Hassler 01:17pm, 11/16/2014

    This was a tremendous article. Dempsey along with Jack Kearns KO’d the whole town. Tommy Gibbons was far better than most fighters have ever been.

  2. bikermike 02:47pm, 11/11/2014

    I enjoyed the article…hope to read more from this author…and jethro…I was more interested in pussy than albums anyway

  3. Jethro Tull 04:30pm, 11/10/2014

    Jethro Tull are the band I have the most albums by.

    There is no Jethro Tull, as such, the band was a vehicle for Ian Anderson who has gone solo and is still playing today.

    Conspiracy theories are best ignored just like the one that Dempsey was wearing loaded gloves to fight Jess Willard.

  4. bkermike 04:19pm, 11/10/2014

    I actually got laid ...when Jethro Tull was one of the music icons of his day..…my name is mike…and I actually ride a motorbike…ever since 1966…thus…bikermike
    how did you choose the moniker of jethro tull ??


    quoting the sources you do…..and evidence…or lack of same…has not changed my sense of curiosity on this matter.

    I am sorry you chose to be so ....upset.

    Can we at least leave this on a ‘draw’....we agree to disagree.

  5. Jethro Tull 04:52pm, 11/09/2014

    The whispers continue because some people are idiots and refuse to see with their eyes.

  6. bikermike 04:38pm, 11/09/2014

    Jethro Tull…..
    Thank you for that article…and I’ve also read most of the sources you quote ..along with some others not quoted.

    Can we agree…simply by the number of articles published over the yrs..from shortly after the match in the early twenties…(when Dempsey set several records…..ONE…the utter destruction of the reigning HW CHAMPION..and TWO…the fkn fastest exit from the ring in Boxing History(like he knew about the big bet on the first round knockout)....and THREE…the temendous effort it took to fight his way back through the time to get to his corner and answer the next bell for round two !!

    The damage done in that match..and the people involved in Jack Dempsey’s corner…

    The whispers continue

  7. Jethro Tull 01:57am, 11/08/2014

    Loaded gloves?

  8. bikermike 06:52pm, 11/07/2014

    Dempsey ...after his match against Willard….didn’t fight much…
    Dempsey, it was always whispered…had loaded gloves in that one..Check it out…Boxing ethics, then as now
    is right up there with ...‘your check is in the mail..I won’t cum in your mouth..and..i’ll respect you in the morning

  9. bikermike 06:46pm, 11/07/2014

    This Title match is more known for the way Shelby Montana got buttfkd ..when they got caught up in the first ...BUILD A STADIUM scam ..

    I heard Shelby ...just a year or so ago….finally got free and clear of the debts they incurred ..way back almost a hundred yrs ago…to host this event.
    I’d say the ethics of professional boxing haven’t changed much since then

  10. S.Devenny 10:37am, 12/01/2012

    Great story and great story telling.. Enjoyed reading about the fight but was pleased to take a peak at the fighter’s inner world, the city, the people around.. it’s a step back in time with exquisite detail you can taste.

  11. nick 11:59am, 11/29/2012

    Great point Jethro, I was thinking the same thing about those lapses that Dempsey had during his championship years. This is why many feel he lost so badly to Tunney. After the Gibbons affair in Shelby, he would fight two months later against Firpo, but then would not fight until 1926 against Tunney. I wish Mike Silver who has written The Arc of Boxing would comment about Dempsey.

  12. zeena 08:32am, 11/22/2012

    Marcus is still turning out these great stories about real men. I don’t know whether he is a boxing writer or just a great story teller. But all his stuff reads like a movie from the 1940s. Anyway, keep ‘em coming Marcus I love your stuff. It’s like a time machine.

  13. Jethro Tull 06:52am, 11/22/2012

    “On July 4, 1923, Jack Dempsey stepped back into the square ring. The champ hadn’t fought a real fight in two years, not since he knocked out “The Orchid Man” Georges Carpentier in Jersey City on July 2, 1921”

    I wonder what the writers on this site would say if Wlad Klitschko went 2 years without a real fight?

    All the same, this article was a good read and expands on what I knew about this infamous encounter.

Leave a comment