The scent of foul play was in the air the night Jack Bonner fought Tommy West more than a hundred years ago. He said he did not intend oil of mustard to get on his gloves, then to get into West’s eyes. No one believed him, especially the referee, who also was momentarily blinded by the fumes.
Bonner was just looking for an edge, something fighters have done for as long as there has been boxing. It could be an attempt at intimidation, the type of gloves, the size of the ring, a particular referee … even who enters the ring first or is introduced first.
Sometimes seeking an edge is against the rules or it is even criminal conduct. Often the supposed edge does not exist or cannot be proved.
It is an enduring boxing myth that Jack Dempsey might have had plaster of Paris on his wraps when he won the heavyweight championship by stopping Jess Willard in the third round on July 4, 1919, at Toledo, Ohio. Dempsey, who scored 50 knockouts in 61 victories, did not need any help to knock down a stationary opponent such as Willard.
Then there was that mysterious black bottle Aaron Pryor was seen drinking from between rounds when he stopped Alexis Arguello in the 14th round in defense of Pryor’s WBA super lightweight title defense on Nov. 12, 1982, in the Orange Bowl at Miami. Not only was it not discovered what was in the bottle, but no post-fight urine test was taken because when the fight ended the Miami commission went home.
Looking for an edge went far over the edge in the case of boxer Luis Resto and trainer Panama Lewis.
Padding was removed from hitting area of Resto’s gloves. and he gave Billy Collins Jr. a cruel battering in winning a decision in a 10-round middleweight fight on June 16, 1983, at Madison Square Garden. Lewis’ license was revoked. Resto was convicted of assault, conspiracy and criminal possession of deadly weapon. He served 2½ years of a three-year sentence.
Perhaps the most obvious attempt at gaining an edge was that of Bonner.
He was a hard coal miner from Summit Hill, near Scranton, Pa., who on Oct. 24, 1898, lost a decision to Tommy Ryan in a 20-round fight that generally was accepted as being for the undisputed middleweight championship.
On Feb. 28, 1899, Bonner fought a scheduled 20-round bout against Tommy West at the Lennox Athletic Club in New York City. The bout ended in the eighth round with the fighters, referee and many fans in tears and with the referee punching Bonner.
Bonner was a 2-1 favorite, but his “showing, though, was not very creditable,” read an an account of the fight in a publication called Police News. “The trick of putting oil of mustard on gloves, as the seconds of Bonner did in order to incapacitate his rival, is a new one, and while not dangerous is likely to put the boxing game in dispute in this state.”
The use of mustard oil to incapacitate an opponent quickly went out of fashion. I do not believe it has been tried again in 106 years.
The fight was close after seven rounds, then in the eighth round, West began to reel about the ring.
“He fairly groped toward the further end of the ring, and in a muffled voice shouted to referee White: “Charley, Charley, I can’t see. There’s some stuff on that glove, and by gum, the smell is awful,’” the newspaper reported.
Can’t you just hear Evander Holyfield saying to referee Mills Lane, “By gum he bit my ear.”
By now, referee White also was having trouble seeing, Bonner’s eyes also were burning and many ringsiders were coughing and trying to pull their hats over their eyes.
“There is something in my eyes that has taken away my sight,” White told timekeeper Joe Dunn. “I can’t make it out, it has fairly blinded me.”
White recovered enough to disqualify Bonner. Then several fans who had bet on Bonner tried to get to him, but they were stopped by police. One cop, however, called Bonner a stiff, poked his ribs with a nightstick, slapped his face and angrily taunted him.
By now, White had recovered and was livid. “You’re a dirty cur to for playing a trick like that,” the Brooklyn Eagle quoted the referee as telling Bonner. White then hit Bonner on the jaw and staggered him.
Fred Miller, Bonner’s manager, denied there was an attempt to blind West. He said that after the seventh round one of Bonner’s eyes was in bad shape and he applied oil of mustard to deaden the pain.
“It naturally hurt the eye and Bonner tried to rub some of it off with the back of his glove and that’s how it all happened,” the Police News reported Miller as saying.
Two days later, Bonner came up with a different story, indicating that the oil of mustard was for an arm. He told the Brooklyn Eagle that a druggist had mistakenly given his trainer mustard oil in its raw form instead of the essence, and that when it was applied to his arm between the seventh and eighth rounds he almost fainted.
The Police News exclaimed that Bonner’s action “is likely to put boxing into disrepute in this state,” and that “the entire Gotham sporting community denounces in the severest language the foul work of Bonner and his clique. The Lennox A.C. declared Bonner would never fight there again.
Controversy, however, always sells in boxing and so a rematch was set for New York’s Broadway Arena on April 6, 1900. This time West stopped Bonner in the 16th round.
Bonner would retire in 1911 with a record of 46-17-20, with 38 knockouts and 36 no-decisions. West, a native of Wales, who lived New York City, would be stopped in the 17th round of a middleweight title bid against Tommy Ryan on March 4, 1901 at Louisville, Ky., and on June 23, 1902, he would lose a 15-round decision in a welterweight championship bid against Joe Walcott at London. He would retire in 1902 and make a brief comeback in 1906. His record was 23-10-7, with 19 knockouts and 6 no-decisions.