Wyatt Earp: O.K. Corral to Square Ring

By Norman Marcus on July 22, 2014
Wyatt Earp: O.K. Corral to Square Ring
Earp would put a stamp of approval on the fight's outcome, no matter what it might be.

Wyatt Earp kept control of the situation, even though he had been forced to take off his Colt .45 when he stepped into the ring…

What was Wyatt Earp, the most famous lawman in the Old West, doing at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco on the night of December 2, 1896?

He was there to referee a Heavyweight Championship bout between self-proclaimed world champion Bob Fitzsimmons, aka The Freckled Wonder, and challenger Sailor Tom Sharkey. After all, a referee is a kind of lawman, the invisible third man in the ring. His job is to keep the fighters honest, uphold the rules of the ring.

The promoters of this bout were a couple of guys named J.J. Groom and John Gibbons. They had thrown a lot of names at Bob Fitzsimmons and his manager, for a referee that night. All had been rejected, for fear the fix was in for Tom Sharkey. You see Fitzsimmons was heavily favored, so a large bet on Sharkey to win could make a man a fortune.

Now Sharkey was a straight ahead banger who came right at you. As a fighter, he was beautiful to look at too. The man had a sailing ship and star tattooed across his chest and the biggest cauliflower ear you ever saw. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1892 and turned pro while he was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. Tom wasn’t a big man, standing at 5’9” tall but he could give and take a hard punch. He had a strong left and an iron chin. He fought the toughest men in the heavyweight division including The Boilermaker Jim Jefferies, Gentleman Jim Corbett and a faded John L. Sullivan.

The Freckled Wonder on the other hand was bigger than the Sailor but had the quickness of a smaller man. He had the fast legs of a middleweight but the upper body of a power punching heavyweight. This fight was promoted as a championship bout for two reasons. First, the recognized champion Jim Corbett was strongly thinking about retirement. Second, earlier in the year, Fitzsimmons had won an anemic version of the heavyweight title in Langtry, Texas from Irish boxer Peter Maher. (Bob wound up winning championships in three divisions, the first modern boxer to do so. He won the middleweight title in 1891 from Jack (Nonpareil) Dempsey, the legitimate heavyweight title from Gentleman Jim Corbett in 1897 and the Light Heavyweight crown from George Gardiner in 1903.)

In this particular fight things were going quiet well for Fitzsimmons and in round 8 he dropped Sharkey, using a Solar Plexus punch. The Solar Plexus is a complex network of nerves located, in the upper abdomen, where the renal arteries branch from the abdominal aorta. A punch there momentarily leaves the opponent weak and helpless as a baby. Sharkey, always the great actor, fell to the canvas and grabbed his groin. He moaned that he was fouled by Fitzsimmons. Earp stopped the fight and awarded the win to the sailor who was now down on one knee! The foul however was a phantom punch that was never thrown. The real punch that felled Sharkey was a perfectly legal uppercut, just below the heart, to the Solar Plexus. There were lots of boos and catcalls from the crowd about Earp’s decision. They all saw where the punch really landed and wanted no part in the controversy. But Earp kept control of the situation, even though he had been forced to take off his Colt .45 when he stepped into the ring. Wyatt instead backed up his actions with bravado and intimidation—the same approach that worked for him in Tombstone, Arizona and other cow towns in the Old West. He based his decision that night on the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, which state, “A man on one knee, is considered down and if struck is entitled to the stakes.” Earp claimed that Bob hit Tom while he was down. No one saw that final punch land. Nonetheless, Tom Sharkey was helpless and was led from the ring by his seconds. He had been awarded the win!

Wyatt would have liked for his old friend, gunman and gambler Doc Holliday to have been the fight doctor that night. It might have helped with the newspaper accounts, to have a medical man on the scene to back his play. But Holliday had died nine years before, in a sanitarium in Colorado, while attempting a cure for his Tuberculosis. In the Old West a dentist such as Holliday, or even a veterinarian, were considered a reasonable substitute for a scarce M.D.

Both camps finally agreed on Earp as the referee for the fight. A man all believed had cleaned up Tombstone in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881. His reputation according to the pulp fiction novels was beyond question. They hoped the name Wyatt Earp would put a stamp of approval on the outcome of this fight, no matter what it might be. But how did the famous lawman get from dusty Tombstone to beautiful San Francisco in the first place? 

A few weeks after the famous gunfight, Earp and his newfound sweetheart, Josephine Marcus, had left Tombstone for her hometown of San Francisco. (She was born into a successful German Jewish family there. At eighteen she had run away with a vaudeville troupe and played the music halls of the Old West.) After the two were married there, Josie’s father found a job for Wyatt in one of his companies.

To keep from being bored in his new life, Earp became a part-time boxing referee in the Bay Area. He is said to have referred over thirty fights before the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey bout on December 2, 1896. So in a way, love had brought Wyatt Earp to San Francisco and the square ring that night.

Ever the wanderers, Wyatt and Josephine Earp eventually left San Francisco and opened a string of saloons in California and Alaska. They followed the gold, silver and copper strikes until they all panned out. The couple finally wound up in Colma, California. In 1929 Earp died at eighty-one years of age. The couple had been married close to fifty years.

Earp was buried in his wife’s family plot, at Little Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma. When Josie later died in 1944, she was buried next to her husband. So here is the final resting place of the U.S. Marshal, western legend and boxing referee Wyatt Earp.

It’s hard to find Earp’s grave today. One of Wyatt’s fans stole his two hundred and fifty pound headstone in 1957 as a souvenir. It was never recovered. Classics-educated Doc Holliday had once warned notorious cowboy gunman Johnny Ringo, just moments before he put two slugs in his head, “In pace requiescat.” Latin translation, “Rest in peace, it’s your funeral.” The Latin phrase later became Wyatt Earp’s epitaph.

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  1. FrankinDallas 01:05pm, 07/22/2014

    Greg would have melted under the dark and sinister
    glaring eyes of Mr Earp. Guaranteed. Or he would have
    been “buffaloed”...that is, would have been clubbed on the
    head with a pistol. lol.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:02pm, 07/22/2014

    FrankinDallas-Google “Two boxers after a fight” to see the colorized version of this striking photo…...Harry Greb would be proud!

  3. FrankinDallas 09:50am, 07/22/2014

    The Freckled Wonder lol! Canelo should steal that name.
    Wyatt Earp led a very full and interesting life. He is mostly
    known for the Gunfight (behind the) OK Corral, where he
    was actually playing second fiddle to his brother, Virgil, who
    as sheriff was responsible for the town, not Wyatt, but that was a
    very small incident in his life. He wasn’t even considered one of the
    great Western lawmen in this lifetime, only became nationally well known after his death upon the publication of “Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall” by Stuart Lake. He made and lost millions, was involved in the oil plays in the LA Basin with the Doherty family upon which the movie “There will
    be Blood” was based. Participated in the gold rush in Alaska, etc. etc.

  4. Carlos Rodriguez 08:04am, 07/22/2014

    Great read. Marcus great job on the article you have a knack for writing not only boxing but the stories of a time too.  “Sharky was a straight ahead banger” gave me the chills as if I was in jersey city after 2am. Keepm coming.

  5. Eric 07:07am, 07/22/2014

    Hard to believe the fight wasn’t fixed despite the awesome hitting power of Fitz. Sharkey was a blocky piece of granite that was tough enough to go 45 rounds with the much larger Jim Jeffries. The squat Sharkey is often compared to Marciano, both were tough as nails, both somewhat small at 180-185lbs for heavyweight, but both were immensely powerful.

  6. Clarence George 05:42am, 07/22/2014

    Interesting, especially the part about Earp winding up in a Jewish cemetery.  Who’d have thunk it?

    Next up:  Bat Masterson, who served as Jake Kilrain’s timekeeper in his bare-knuckle championship bout with John L. Sullivan, the last fought under the Revised London Prize Ring Rules.  Ah, well I remember Gene Barry as Masterson.  He was always nattily dressed, and with a doozy of a derby.

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