Gunboat Smith: “White Heavyweight Champion of the World”

By Norman Marcus on May 29, 2012
Gunboat Smith: “White Heavyweight Champion of the World”
Gunboat Smith won the title of “White Heavyweight Champion of the World” on Jan. 1, 1914

“If I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t be fighting those big bums that weighed two pounds less than a horse…”

“I like a referee with a good pair of lights in his head.”—Gunboat Smith

Gunboat Smith was a great fighter with a great ring name. He was one of those Philadelphia fighters that people used to talk about at the turn of the century. His real name was Edward Smyth and this kid started his life with all the cards stacked against him. Born in 1887 to Irish parents, he wound up at an orphanage in Philadelphia when he was just two years old. He stayed at St. John’s Home till he was about nine. Eddie was then shipped out to work on local farms in Pennsylvania for his room and board. It was backbreaking work but the boy had nowhere else to go. At the age of sixteen he finally just walked away from this slave-like existence, hitching a ride on the first car that stopped for him. He got a job up in New York State as a fireman on the Erie Railroad. (A fireman stoked the locomotive’s firebox with coal to keep the steam up for the engine.) It was a hard, dirty job but better than working in the fields. Eddie worked this job for two years.

One day he saw a recruiting poster for the U.S. Navy while visiting Niagara Falls. You know the pitch, “Join the Navy and See the World, Uncle Sam Needs You.” He believed all the hype and decided to make a move. He went back to Buffalo, New York that afternoon, walked over to the post office and signed up with the U.S. Navy. Smith thought it would be another step up for him from the gritty railroad job. He had just turned eighteen years old.

Eddie was sent down to Norfolk, Virginia for basic training. He learned how to read and write in the Navy. No one had bothered to school him before that. Smith’s life was like a story written by Horatio Alger. No one gave this guy anything. He literally pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. It was in the Navy that he got his ring name, Gunboat Smith. He was stationed on the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania. Now you might think that being a young sailor and all, shipping out to China and Japan with the Pacific Fleet, that the name referred to some battle or naval encounter Eddie was involved in. Actually the name referred to his feet, they were so large that the navy had to order special size shoes for him, a size fifteen! So each foot, as the joke went, was the size of a gunboat. A funny name but Gunboat made it work for him. They didn’t laugh for long.

In 1908 he had his first pickup fight in the navy against a big black fellow from another battleship. Having never fought anyone before, Gunner, as he was often called, was a little hesitant about going in with this guy. But when he heard that win or lose he got fifty dollars in gold, he suddenly became braver. He knocked the other sailor out in six rounds.

He then fought for the Heavyweight Championship of the Pacific Fleet. The champ was a black sailor named Matt Turner. Gunner knocked him out in the second round! He was now starting to earn some decent money. Five hundred here, a grand there, it was a lot better than swabbing the deck.

He spent some time while still in the Navy as a sparring partner for both Stanley Ketchel and Jack Johnson. They were preparing for their fight for the Heavyweight Title on October 16, 1909 in Colma, California. Ketchel was the Middleweight Champion and he packed a terrific punch. Weight was not a consideration in this bout, even though Stanley was forty pounds lighter than Jack.The boxing promoters of the day were still looking for a white guy to beat the black champion. They were hoping that Ketchel could do the job. Gunboat would spar both these men as they trained for their fight, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Ketchel was training in Colma, while Johnson was at the Seal Rock House in San Francisco. Smith would commute between the two camps. Gunner caught Johnson on the chin one afternoon and literally knocked him out of the ring. Smith and Johnson soon became fast friends. Just so you know, Ketchel broke a set agreement during the fight that there would be no knockdowns. He saw an opening and couldn’t help himself, landing a punch to Johnson’s jaw in the 12th round and knocking Johnson to one knee. The enraged Johnson got up and threw a big left hand and knocked Ketchel out cold. The racist promoters had to look elsewhere for their next white hope.

In 1909 Smith was discharged from the Navy and started to pick up some pro fights in Northern California. By 1912 Smith was fighting quality opponents. He knocked out Bombardier Billy Wells—the new guy that was now supposed to knock out Jack Johnson and again regain the title for the white race!—in two rounds.

Now Smith had an unusual punch, called the Occipital Punch. It was a right hand shot thrown over an opponent’s shoulder, hitting the Occipital bone at the base of the skull. It was a fast KO if you could land it just right. This special punch did not however help him when he next fought Jess Willard (the Pottowatomie Giant, who would finally knock Jack Johnson out in April of 1915 in Havana, Cuba) on May 20, 1913 at Coffroth’s Arena in Colma, California. Jess was around 6’7’’ tall and weighed about 260 lbs. Willard had about six inches on Gunner in height and one hundred pounds in weight. Big Jess could absorb an enormous amount of punishment, so Gunboat knew he had to outbox Willard for twenty rounds to win the decision. Gunner could hit hard but it was his ring skills that won it for him that night.

Gunboat fought Sam Langford next in Boston on November 17, 1913. He beat Sam in a decision but lost to him in a rematch a little less than a year later. Smith was KO’d in the 3rd round of that fight. Jack Johnson also had trouble with Langford when they fought. He avoided a second meeting with Sam after a tough win against him in 1906. Smith later said that Langford was “the best of them all…”

Gunboat Smith won the little recognized title of “White Heavyweight Champion of the World” from Arthur Pelkey on January 1, 1914 by TKO in the 15th round at Coffroth’s Arena, Daly City, California. He soon lost the title on July 16, 1914 in London to Georges Carpentier via a disqualification in the 6th round. This bogus title was put up by a bunch of fight promoters as a publicity stunt to insult the black champion Jack Johnson and hopefully make themselves some extra money at the gate. (It is interesting to note that Max Baer was also awarded an actual belt as “White Heavyweight Champion of the World” after his victory over Pat Cominsky on September 26, 1940 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Baer TKO’d the favorite Cominsky in the first round. Rival promoters were trying to shame Mike Jacobs into giving Baer a long postponed rematch with the Joe Louis. Jacobs did not want to take another chance with Baer. The belt stunt did not work.)

Gunner was never the same after the second fight with Langford. Something had gone out of him. In 1917 Smith lost a sensational four-rounder to Jack Dempsey. It was a very close decision and many thought that Smith had beaten the up-and-coming Manassa Mauler. Smith said in later years, “I didn’t fight Dempsey till I was way over the hill. I got Dempsey out in Frisco the first time. I thought I won that fight and so did he. I went out there and hit him and he didn’t know where he was. He made a strong finish, and it was on that strong finish that they gave him the decision.” In their rematch Dempsey set all minds to rest by knocking Gunner down nine times in the second round and getting the KO. Gunner said of the return match, “I didn’t have a chance. I was all washed up.” Gunboat then went through a string of loses in the next couple of years. He was almost thirty-four years old, an old man in the fight game. The years 1920-1921 were tough years for him. He lost more fights than he won, finally losing to Harry Wills by KO in the first round in Havana, Cuba on October 10, 1921. He had lost nine of his last fifteen fights. Smith knew it was time to hang ‘em up, which is what he did.

In Gunner’s final statement after retirement, he said, “Today, if I had to do it all over again I’d stay somewhere down in my own class, which was 170 pounds, light heavyweight. I wouldn’t be fighting those big bums that weighed two pounds less than a horse.”

Here is the record of Gunboat Smith:
140 fights
81 wins (38 by KO)
46 losses
13 draws

Gunner then went into silent films, first appearing in “Wings” the first film ever to win an Oscar for “Best Picture.”

He later refereed a number of great fights, such as the Harry Greb vs. Tiger Flowers fight in 1926 and the controversial Max Schmeling vs. Jack Sharkey II in 1932. In that match Sharkey won the first eleven rounds before Schmeling came on strong and won the last four. The deciding vote for the decision belonged to the referee Gunboat Smith. Gunner gave it to Sharkey and Schmeling’s manager Joe Jacobs yelled out the infamous line: “We wuz robbed—we shoulda stood in bed!”

He also spent time working on Wall St. as a messenger. Wonder if he ever bumped into stockbrokers Gene Tunney and Tommy Loughran on the street?  Now that is a photo I would like to have. Three great heavyweights from the square ring, just hanging around on the corner, talking stocks and bonds.

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  1. Tex Hassler 12:13pm, 01/05/2014

    If Gunboat avoided any fighter you certainly cannot find it on his record. He fought just about all the great fighters of his era. Great article, well written and wonderful.

  2. nicolas 06:51pm, 12/16/2013

    According to both BOXREC and Wikipedia, Gunboat Smith was a sparring partner of both Jack Johnson and Stanley Ketchel in Oakland, prior their fight in Colma CA./ Legend even has it that Smith flattened Johnson in the forth round of an exhibition sparing, but that is probably not true. There is no record of his having fought Luis Firpo, though he may have boxed some exhibitions with him. Interestingly, when asked who was the best fighter he ever fought against, Smith did not name Jack Dempsey, but Sam Langford.

  3. tom powers 12:15pm, 12/16/2013

    Gunboat Smith fought Luis Firpo in Chile and Argentina in March and April 1921 and I believe he remained in Buenos Aires for several months giving boxing lessons at a local club, where he was known as a onetime sparring partner of Jack Johnson. Can anyone confirm that this is so? Thanks—

  4. nick 11:01am, 10/29/2012

    Interesting article, however there is some dispute concerning Langford’s fight with Johnson. It is now believed that Johnson actually toyed with Langford and that it was not the difficult fight for Johnson that legend has been made of it. While Johnson did not fight Langford again, it is more probable that a fight between two black men for the heavyweight championship of the world would not be looked as such, and if Langford had won, sadly because of the racism of the time, boxing might not have had its great golden age of the ‘20s.

  5. JamesRing 10:01pm, 05/29/2012

    Great article Mr. Marcus, Gunboat lived an interesting life, for sure…

  6. The Thresher 05:22pm, 05/29/2012

    Very educational and informative piece here Norman. Thank you.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 04:10pm, 05/29/2012

    Norman Marcus-Sam Langford might have been “the best of them all” but your fine report shows that Smith was the real deal too. Looks like Robert Duvall’s great grandpappy playing pocket pool in the photo above.

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