History of Nevada boxing detailed in The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip

December 17, 2015

They may call Madison Square Garden “The Mecca of Boxing,” but the geographic center of the sport today is the Las Vegas Strip. In The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip, historian Richard Davies traces the rise of the sport in the Silver State. The work is a solid academic history that will appeal to any fight fan.

As Davies explains, the sport's big break came in the 1890s: “In February 1897 the state legislature voted to permit what were termed ‘glove contests.’ The immediate intent was to attract thousands of tourists to Nevada to watch a championship prizefight between Corbett and challenger Bob Fitzsimmons. Within six weeks after the well-oiled wheels of Nevada government had cranked out the nation’s first state law legalizing prizefighting, a makeshift wooden outdoor arena was erected a few blocks from the state capitol, and the fight was on."

Although today big fights are organized by major casinos, for the first six decades of boxing in Nevada, the sport was a mining camp affair.

In 1906, Joe Gans, the first African-American boxing champion, and Oscar "Battling" Nelson (known for his dirty tactics) fought the first title fight in the state’s history. The site was the mining camp of Goldfield.

Four years later on July 4, 1910, Reno held a fight billed as “racial Armageddon” between African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and James Jeffries, who came out of retirement to play the role of “Great White Hope.”

The last big fight held in Nevada before World War II was a 1931 non-title heavyweight matchup in Reno between California’s Max Baer and the Basque fighter Paulino Uzcudun.

Baer, who had lived in the Bay Area, attracted numerous fans to Reno, and Uzcundun brought thousands of Basques from all over the West to see him fight as well. Some 18,000 people attended the fight and one of them had a camera (footage of the fight can be viewed below).  Uzcundun won a decision, a result that ended "any hope that Reno would regain its stature as a lucrative location for major prizefights," Davies writes.

The next major fight in the state would not be until May 2, 1955, when some 6,000 fans watched ring legend Archie Moore, the “Old Mongoose,” beat Cuban heavyweight contender Niño Valdés in an outdoor fight at Cashman Field. The Las Vegas Sun gushed that the fight was “the greatest event for the town since the government started using the area for atom bomb tests.”

On May 27, 1960, The Las Vegas Convention Center saw Benny “the Kid” Paret seize the welterweight title held by Don Jordan.  It was the first title fight in Las Vegas history.

Much of the early boxing coverage highlighted by Davies recalls contemporary writing about Dubai. Famed sportswriter Arthur Daley, who was in town to see the rematch between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston,  wrote, "'Las Vegas has to be seen to be believed.'"

Davies also takes time to mention some of the colorful boxing figures who have made Nevada home. Joe Louis became a greeter in Las Vegas, and the city would later become home to heavyweight champions Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson.

The author also spends some length profiling boxing referee Mills Lane, stating, “Mills Bee Lane III was a Nevada original, even if he was a native of Georgia and grew up on a South Carolina plantation.”

It would have been interesting for Davies to profile Gene Fullmer, who was born in neighboring Utah, or any of the numerous Latino fighters who have made Nevada a big destination for fights.

From Goldfield to the Las Vegas Strip, boxing in Nevada has always been interesting, and this academic history is a worthy addition to any boxing fan's library.

By Joe Hammond
Contributing Writer for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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