How many movies have there been? How many books? How many people have ventured to a nothing little town in Arizona to stand on the spot where they think the most famous gunfight in American history took place?
Simple portraits of a seemingly uncomplicated man dominate our understanding of Wyatt Earp, and his official record is mixed up with the mythic canvas of the American West. What few people know today is that Wyatt Earp first became a national figure not for his exploits as a lawman, but for a controversial decision he rendered as a referee for a boxing match in 1896; a decision so infamous that it figured prominently in his obituary 33 years later.
Boxing was walking a tenuous line of legality in the late 19th century. New York had just legalized the sport, but would outlaw it again in 1900, putting San Francisco in the position of being boxing’s capital. But even San Francisco was having trouble pulling off its fights. One legendary fight between San Franciscans Jim Corbett and Joe Choynski had to be held on a barge north of the city to prevent police interference.
In 1896, Jim Corbett was recognized as the Heavyweight Champion of the World, having taken the title from Boston strongman John L. Sullivan in New Orleans four years earlier. But with Corbett considering retirement, promoters started looking for a successor, holding bouts that were billed as title fights, even though they would not be recognized as such later.
The most impressive attempt at making a title fight happened in February of that year. Infamous Texan Judge Roy Bean organized a “title fight” between Irishman Peter Maher and Bob Fitzsimmons, the former Middleweight Champion of the World. Since prizefighting was illegal in Texas, Bean held the fight on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande River. Fitzsimmons knocked out Maher in just 95 seconds, within view of a group of Texas Rangers whose authority to stop the fight ended at the water’s edge.
But Fitzsimmons’ title wasn’t confirmed at the time, perhaps due to the controversial nature of the bout (more on this later). In December of 1896, another fight was scheduled for the championship at San Francisco’s stunning Mechanic’s Pavillion at the corner of Grove and Larkin.
Known as “Ruby Bob” for his ring of red hair, Fitzsimmons developed his enormous punching power while working as a blacksmith in New Zealand, where he was raised from the age of nine. He is still considered one of the hardest punchers in boxing history, scoring knockouts in 59 of his 63 victories. Since his move to the United States in 1890, he’d gone undefeated in 36 consecutive fights, and consequently entered the ring as a heavy favorite.
Standing opposite him was Tom Sharkey, an Irishman who’d fled his country as a young man to join the U.S. Navy, and carried a tattoo of a battleship across his chest. While stationed in Hawaii, Sharkey took up boxing, and by 1896 was one of the most feared fighters in the game, having scored all 20 of his victories by knockout. Just six months earlier, in the same building he was fighting now, he’d fought the champion Jim Corbett to a draw.
“Sailor” Tom Sharkey
The fighters were set, but there was still a dispute over the third man in the ring. Desperate for a referee after Fitzsimmons and Sharkey voiced their objections to other candidates, the promoters turned to Wyatt Earp, a colorful local who had served as a deputy marshal in Kansas and Arizona. Few people outside of California knew about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or of any of Earp’s other exploits as a lawman (and vigilante), but he had a certain amount of local fame after the San Francisco Examiner published a highly inflated account of his life earlier in the year. He also had experience refereeing fights (though, it appears, none under the brand new Marquis of Queensbury Rules), both in his frontier days and, more recently, in San Diego.
He was a name, he had experience, and he was available. He could not have known that December 2, 1896 would end up being one of the worst days of his life.
Wyatt Earp, giving his mustache the best possible angle.
The fans had their first indication it was going to be a bad night when Earp entered the ring wearing his pistol and had to be disarmed by a police captain. He would later be fined 50 dollars for this infraction.
Accounts of the fight are sparse, except for the decision, but it seems clear that Fitzsimmons dominated the first seven rounds. Quicker and stronger, he seized his moment to end things in the eighth round, landing a cracking left to the jaw that stunned Sharkey, then following up with a right uppercut. Fitzsimmons had made his name on this combination. The right uppercut typically landed just below the heart, which would knock all the air from his opponent’s body and leave on them on the mat, folded like a tent.
Fitzsimmons swung, and this is where the accounts diverge.
It’s certain from all accounts that Fitzsimmons hit Sharkey with the second punch. What is not clear, all these years later (there is no film of the fight) is where he hit him. Some accounts have him hitting Sharkey in the heart, others say it was the stomach, others say it was below the belt. And even the accounts that have him hitting Sharkey in the groin vary. Did he strike a deliberate low blow? Or did the fact that Sharkey was falling forward cause Fitzsimmons’ fist to strike unintentionally low?
Wherever the punch landed, and whatever the intent, Sharkey grabbed his crotch, rolled on the mat in agony, and screamed that he was fouled.
Wyatt Earp immediately disqualified Fitzsimmons for a low blow, handing the victory (and therefore, it was assumed, the Heavyweight Championship), to the outclassed, prostrate and writhing Sharkey.
The crowd was incensed, with large chunks of the audience booing and screaming at Earp. He left the arena to taunts and jeers, and that was only the beginning.
The decision went to the courts. An injunction was placed against awarding the 10,000 dollar purse to Sharkey, the victor. Numerous parties testified that the fight was fixed, and that Earp had been in on the fix. He was a notorious gambler, and money had a habit of drying up quickly for him and his wife, Josie. For the numerous people who had lost bets on Fitzsimmons, Wyatt Earp’s actions could only speak to the fix being in.
Eager to cash in on the furor against Earp, who had been lionized by William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner newspaper, the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle (who also reportedly lost 20 grand on the fight) published a series of attacks against the former lawman. Earp was savaged in the press and in editorial cartoons, which depicting him as a degenerate gambler who fixed the fight for his own personal gain.
Cartoon satirizing Earp’s decision.
After two weeks of hearings, the case against the decision was thrown out. The judge ruled he could not make a decision in a civil case since the fight had been illegal under California law in the first place. Sharkey got the victory and, at least nominally, the title of Heavyweight Champion.
But that gets confusing, too.
Sometime later, Jim Corbett decided he wasn’t retired after all, and perhaps due to the controversy that surrounded the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight (and the fact that the fight was technically illegal), Corbett was again declared Heavyweight Champion. Six months after the disputed fight, Fitzsimmons finally got the title he’d been fighting for when he knocked out Jim Corbett in Nevada to be declared World Heavyweight Champion. And since Nevada was the one state where prizefighting was legal, there was no disputing this decision.
But this also raises an interesting question about the lineage of the title. If Bob Fitzsimmons won the title in Mexico in February of 1896 (due to Corbett’s retirement), then it stands to reason that he lost it in December when Wyatt Earp disqualified him. Which would mean that his victory over Corbett wasn’t just him capturing the title, it was him recapturing the title. This is important, because most sports historians point to Muhammad Ali’s victory over George Foreman as the first incident of a heavyweight fighter regaining the title after losing it. But if Fitzsimmons was the legitimate title-holder in 1896, then he is the first fighter to regain the title. Not Muhammad Ali.
But what about Tom Sharkey’s claim to the title? If Fitzsimmons truly lost the title to Sharkey, then his fight against Corbett can’t be considered a title fight. Perhaps it’s easier, since both of Fitzsimmons title bouts were technically illegal (the fight int he middle of the Rio Grande may or may not have sidestepped this), to just say Corbett was the champion the whole time. One can only assume this is the case, since Tom Sharkey has never been listed as a world champion, and Fitzsimmons reign, in the record book, doesn’t start until he knocks out Corbett.
Despite it’s illegality, boxing in San Francisco only increased in popularity over the next 14 years. Even the earthquake of 1906 couldn’t check San Francisco’s status as the undisputed capital of the boxing world. But in 1910, a promising local fighter named Tommy McCarthy was killed in a fight at San Francisco’s Dreamland Rink, and public opinion began to turn against the sport. Four years later, Californians approved a law limiting all boxing matches to four rounds, and limiting prize money to 25 dollars, effectively killing boxing in California for the next decade. San Francisco, which boxing historian Bert Sugar called “THE hub of boxing” during its pre-World War I years, was never important in the sport again.
The fight ruined Wyatt Earp’s reputation. A somewhat famous figure in California before his decision int he ring, he instantly became a nationwide laughingstock after it. The terms “pulling an Earp” and “Earping” entered the national lexicon as buzz terms for screwing up. Anxious to get away from the fanfare, and certainly feeding his gambling habits, Earp headed for Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush. He returned to California later, settling in the Los Angeles area, where he served as an adviser on early Western films. But his reputation never fully recovered during his lifetime, and he was still being mocked after his death in 1929.
And then came the book.
In 1931, Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, a biography of Earp’s life. Based on interviews with Earp, it was a national bestseller, spawned countless movies and TV shows, made Earp a national legend, and is pretty much total bullshit from start to finish.
But it’s the basis for pretty much everything we think we know about Wyatt Earp today. His legend has been so overblown that the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona still hosts daily re-enactments of the famous gunfight that supposedly took place there, even though the actual gunfight happened next to a photography studio six doors down the street. Few people know any facts of Earp’s life, and almost nobody has heard of the fight that made him famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view).
Earp is buried at Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, next to his wife Josephine. The cemetery is less than 10 miles from the sight of the fight.
Not that you’d know it. Mechanic’s Hall burned to the ground after the 1906 quake. Few people even know where it was, and fewer have heard of the fights that took place there. Wyatt Earp had the good fortune to live long enough to rewrite his own story, and today remains known better known for other people’s impressions of his actions than for the actions themselves.
John Ford, who made his own highly inaccurate film about Earp, said it best:
“When the story becomes legend, print the legend.”