Hullabaloo in Hudson: Mike Gibbons vs. Bob Moha

By Pete Ehrmann on September 24, 2013
Hullabaloo in Hudson: Mike Gibbons vs. Bob Moha
After eyeballing Gibbons' cup, a cynic asked aloud “what kind of a hammer they used on it?”

What the customers got for their money was one of the most controversial fights—and the most adjudicated one—in the history of Wisconsin boxing…

Ninety-nine years ago a phantom and a caveman collided in a boxing ring in Hudson, Wisconsin. Their fight lasted less than six minutes, but it was two more years before the outcome was settled for good by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Minnesota’s Mike Gibbons—“The St. Paul Phantom”—and “Caveman” Bob Moha of Milwaukee still qualify as the best boxers ever to come out of their respective states. Both were top contenders for the middleweight championship of the world and, along with several other middleweights, both laid claim to the title after the 1910 death of champion Stanley Ketchel, though no boxing commission or ring governing body existed at the time to sort out all the conflicting claims.

In fact, boxing itself was technically illegal then in much of the United States.

In Wisconsin, prize fighting was outlawed by state statute in 1869 because of the inherent brutality of two men wrecking each other with bare fists. But after the Marquis of Queensberry rules were introduced in the 1880s, calling for three-minute rounds in fights and prohibiting punches below the waist and other foul tactics, and the fighters started wearing gloves, boxing was gradually allowed at the discretion of city fathers in Milwaukee and elsewhere until the sport was legalized in 1913 and put under the control of a three-man state athletic commission.

Under the new law, bouts of up to 10 rounds were allowed, but unless there was a knockout or one of the combatants was disqualified, no winner was proclaimed except by the newspaper reporters who covered the bouts. The no-decision era lasted in Wisconsin until 1928.

Minnesota lawmakers outlawed boxing there in 1892, and the prohibition was in effect until 1915. Until then, Gopher State fans of the Sweet Science could travel 18 miles east of St. Paul to get their fistic fix at Mike Collins’ boxing emporium in Hudson, on the shore of the St. Croix River.

Born in Hudson on May 4, 1879, Collins fought several amateur bouts that convinced him his place was on the safe side of the ropes. He started to manage boxers, and when the sport was legalized in Wisconsin Collins took out a promoter’s license to run fight cards for the benefit of Minnesota boxers and fans at the Hudson Arena. The first ones showcased his heavyweight, Fred Fulton.

St. Paul native Mike Gibbons had boxed professionally for seven years when he first fought in Hudson, winning a newspaper decision over Milwaukee’s Gus Christie on March 24, 1914.

“A master of the art of scientific boxing, which he later taught for years, he would influence boxers of the future who probably never heard of him or knew who he was,” writes George D. Blair, Minnesota’s preeminent boxing historian.

“Mike Gibbons would go on to fight 106 bouts without an official loss between 1910-‘21. During that period, the middleweight division was the toughest in its long and honorable history, and Mike Gibbons fought all the great ones and nobody was ever able to knock out ‘The Phantom’ in his entire career.”

Gibbons got his nickname because of the difficulty opponents had drawing a bead on him in the ring. Bob Moha got his because at just 5’4” tall the stubby Milwaukee boxer looked like a prototype for Barney Rubble.

His early fights were so unruly that when Moha was disqualified for hitting an opponent who was already down, The Milwaukee Journal tsked: “He slams out so wildly … he is a constant menace to the sport in that he is liable to severely injure an opponent by foul fighting and thereby give boxing a black eye.”

Moha wasn’t a dirty fighter by design, and as his career advanced his boxing skills developed to the point, according to Gus Christie, who split two fights with him, that “it looked like three pairs of fists coming at you all at the same time.”

One of boxing’s premier referees in the first half of the 20th century, Walter Houlehen said Moha was not only better than Richie Mitchell and Joey Sangor, Milwaukee’s other best-known fighters, but also “the best in America in his day.” Granted, Houlehen managed Moha early in the latter’s career, but heavyweight champion Jack Johnson didn’t, though he tried hard to talk Moha into signing with him because Johnson was sure Bob was the real goods.

Moha was never as celebrated in his own hometown the way Mitchell and Sangor were. It was eastern sportswriters that dubbed him “The White Walcott” because Bob reminded them of Joe “The Barbados Demon” Walcott, who ruled the welterweight ranks at the turn of the century. Milwaukee sportswriters played up the Caveman’s eccentricities (playing handball bare-footed, remembering his June 6 birthday because it was the day after Battling Nelson’s) and painted him as a hopeless rube.

Which makes all the more telling the 1927 pronouncement of Milwaukee Journal sports editor Manning Vaughan that had Moha not been handicapped by a pair of dukes that broke as easily as antique glassware “he would probably have been as famous as Stanley Ketchel. In his prime he was just as great as the beloved ‘Steve.’”

The other thing about Moha was that in the summertime he preferred playing semi-pro baseball to boxing, and when he started training for his December 4, 1914 fight with Gibbons in Hudson he’d been out of the ring for six months and reportedly weighed 245 pounds. The contract called for him and Gibbons to weigh 160 on the afternoon of the fight.

“By almost superhuman work and training he has got himself down (to 160),” reported the Milwaukee Sentinel the day of the fight. “Bob has shown great form in his training here and according to those on the inside he is faster, cleverer and is hitting far harder than at any period in his career. If this is true, or anywhere near true, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Hudson fans are in for a real treat.”

No attendance figures were given, but according to the Sentinel the crowd “was the largest that has attended any show since the game was legalized at Hudson.” The Milwaukee Journal reported that $4,199 was taken in at the box office, which in today’s dollars amounts to almost $100,000.

What the customers got for their money was one of the most controversial fights—and the most adjudicated one—in the history of Wisconsin boxing.

Outboxed and knocked down in the first round, in the second Moha was disqualified by referee George Duffy for twice whacking the Phantom in the groin. After the second low punch, one of Gibbons’ seconds, Jack Burke, jumped into the ring with a chair and tried to brain Moha with it.

The Caveman and his brother/manager Vince howled when Promoter Collins refused to hand over Moha’s 22 percent share of the gate receipts, amounting to $944.70—more than the average skilled worker earned in a whole year—on the ground that Bob had intentionally fouled Gibbons. Without it, the Mohas had to borrow enough money to take the train back to Milwaukee.

“The rottenest deal that was ever accorded a boxer,” fumed Bob. “I may have fouled Gibbons, I will not say I did not; but this much I know: I did not hurt him. Gibbons quit – quit cold under a number of body punches in the second round.”

Added Vince: “We were cleverly hornswoggled and we intend to fight this case to a finish with the commission, and I am certain that when we’re given a hearing and the commission gets the facts, Bob will be vindicated.”

Where one stood on the matter of the alleged foul seemed mostly to depend on which side of the state line he lived.

“Gibbons was unquestionably temporarily incapacitated,” said John Ritchie, sports editor of the Minneapolis Journal. “His cup was badly bent and he was lucky to escape a permanent injury.”

“The crawling into the ring of Gibbons’ seconds alone tended to disqualify Gibbons, while the foul as claimed by several of the spectators was more a trick on the part of the same seconds than anything deliberate and palpable,” wrote A.J. Schinner of the Milwaukee Sentinel.

Said C.W. Peters, manager of featherweight Peanuts Schieberl, in a wire to Schinner: “Was in St. Paul and saw the Moha-Gibbons fight and don’t think Bob was treated right. Was in position to see foul if any was delivered, which I doubt. Two hard punches to stomach doubled Mike up. Mike didn’t seem to claim any foul until after his seconds put up protest. Mike did not go to floor as was reported, and was not examined by doctor… The claim of intentional foul, if there was one, and the fact that his money was not paid, is absurd, and Bob surely does not deserve the treatment he received. It looked like Mike took advantage of the opportunity and got away with it, as his blows did not hurt Bob and the knockdown was delivered when Bob was off-balance and coming out of a clinch. He was up in a second and forcing Mike around the ring.”

On December 18, members of the state athletic commission took up the matter in Milwaukee. They eyeballed Gibbons’ clearly dented cup (“I wonder what kind of a hammer they used on it?” wondered a cynic aloud). Promoter Collins testified that Moha fouled Gibbons on purpose. Moha said he did not. Referee Duffy said he didn’t know if it was deliberate or not. Moha’s lawyer, W.F. Hannan, produced a letter from Mike Gibbons himself saying he didn’t think Moha hit him low intentionally and urging that the Milwaukee boxer be paid for the fight.

The commission ruled Moha’s foul punches were unintentional. It also suspended Jack Burke, the chair-wielding Gibbons cornerman, for four months.

Mike Collins still refused to fork over Moha’s purse, so Moha filed suit against him in Milwaukee civil court. Collins countersued for $10,000, claiming that thanks to Moha’s performance in the fight his boxing club had “lost considerable prestige and reputation.” On February 13, 1915, Judge John Gregory issued a default judgment in favor of Moha when Collins’ attorney, State Rep. A.J. Hedding (author of the bill that legalized boxing in the state), failed to appear because the legislature was in session in Madison.

Collins successfully appealed, claiming a Milwaukee court had no jurisdiction in the matter. “That Moha case will not down,” headlined the Hudson Star-Observer on September 24, a week before new arguments were heard in the St. Croix County courthouse before Circuit Judge George Thompson. 
On October 5, a jury decided that Moha had not fouled Gibbons on purpose and awarded him a judgment of $950. But a month later, Judge Thompson overruled the jury and said that according to the law and Moha’s contract with Mike Collins, whether the foul blows were intentional or not was immaterial and he was not entitled to his purse.

The battle then moved to the State Supreme Court in November.

“One of the interesting questions is whether the delivery of a foul is a sufficient violation under the rules to disqualify the contestants and abrogate the contract,” said the Beloit Daily News. “The Queensberry rules were quoted and the judges took down notations just as if it was a matter that came before them every day. They asked many questions that kept Attorney William F. Hannon of Milwaukee, who was representing Moha, busy answering.”

Two years and one day after the fight in Hudson, the final bell rang at last when Chief Justice J.B. Winslow ruled that by fouling Gibbons, accidentally or not, Moha had committed “an act which he had contracted not to do”; thus there was no “substantial performance” of his contract with Collins, who was therefore within his rights in withholding Moha’s purse.

It was an expensive day for the Caveman, who lost a 10-round newspaper decision to George “KO” Brown that night in New York City and had his purse attached afterwards by Atty. Hannan for legal services rendered in the Gibbons matter.

Revenge would’ve been sweet when Moha and Tommy Gibbons, Mike’s kid brother, fought in Milwaukee two months later, but while “Bob rushed and snorted and bulled around the ring like the Moha of old,” wrote Manning Vaughan, “time and again he was forced to beat a hasty retreat by the battery of gloves turned loose by the visitor,” who took all but one of the 10 rounds.

Mike Gibbons and Bob Moha both hung up their gloves in 1922. Both died at age 69, Gibbons in 1956 and Moha three years later.

The St. Paul Phantom was deservedly inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.

Unlike Richie Mitchell and Joey Sangor, the Milwaukee Caveman isn’t even in the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.

Anyone care to join me in crying “Foul”?

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  1. Dan Cuoco 01:11pm, 09/25/2013

    Pete wrote an excellent article about Moha in the January 2002 issue of Ring Magazine.

  2. Dan Cuoco 01:02pm, 09/25/2013

    Excellent article. It’s been years since I’ve read anything about Bob Moha. He was a wild one in and out of the ring.

  3. Mike Casey 08:29am, 09/25/2013

    Mike Gibbons, along with Packey McFarland, was a master boxer who never got a title shot. Their records are incredible and well worth a look. This is a nice and welcome story by Pete.

  4. Clarence George 04:16am, 09/25/2013

    I agree with Magoon.  I hadn’t heard of Mike Gibbons or Bob Moha (who sounds like my kind of fighter), and am delighted to be introduced to them.  Love learning about new (well, for me) boxers.

    A well-researched, well-written, and riveting account from Herr Ehrmann.

  5. Magoon 02:06pm, 09/24/2013

    Didn’t know of these guys or the fight - compelling read.

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