When boxing’s Third Man Theme is on key, the referee is not talked nor written about. If the sour note of controversy, however, is sounded, the third man in the ring can come in for heavy criticism, deserved or not.
It has been forever deserved for Jack Welch and Wyatt Earp. Yes, that Wyatt Earp, one-time faro dealer and lawman of Tombstone fame.
Welch made sure Ad Wolgast retained the lightweight championship against Mexican Joe Rivers back in 1912. Earp made sure Sailor Tom Sharkey beat Bob Fitzsimmons way back in 1896. Was Earp armed?
The fight against Rivers on July 4, 1912, at Vernon, Calif., was the fifth defense for Wolgast, who won the championship by stopping Battling Nelson in the 40th round of a scheduled 45-round bout in 1910.
In the 21-year-old Rivers, Wolgast, 24, had as a challenger a tough but much less experienced fighter, who had recently moved up from featherweight. Rivers was born Jose Ybarra at Los Angeles. There a different stories about how Ybarra became Rivers. One is that one day in an L.A. gym a trainer, who had a problem pronouncing “Ybarra.” asked him where he lived. “Down by the river,” was the reply. Thus was born boxer Joe Rivers, who became Mexican Joe Rivers, although he was not Mexican. Frank Finch, who wrote about Rivers in the Los Angeles Times in 1955, discovered that he was three-quarters Spanish and one-quarter Indian.
The banner headline in the Times on July 4, 1912, read: “Rivers-Wolgast Battle Ends in Near-Riot.”
Rivers appeared to have the best of first four rounds of the scheduled 20-round match before a packed house of 11,000 in the outdoor arena on a hot afternoon. Then Wolgast began to turn the tide with a savage body attack, but after 10 rounds Rivers still seemed to be ahead. It was toe-to-toe action in the next two rounds, then came the fateful 13th round.
What happened in the round is open to dispute, but there is no disputing that Welch favored Wolgast.
Wolgast threw what appeared to be a low blow just a Rivers connected with a left and right to the jaw. Some accounts stated it was only a left hook to the jaw. Both fighters fell, with Wolgast on top. While Rivers’ fans shouted “Foul” because of Wolgast’s body punch, one observer contended that Rivers had kneed in the champion in the groin.
With the crowd in an uproar, Welch began counting while helping Wolgast to his feet and virtually dragging him to his corner. There is a photo of Welch with his left arm around Wolgast while looking a Rivers, who is on his knees. The referee has his right hand open, showing the count to be at 5.
Some accounts say Rivers was on his feet when he was counted out. Up or down, he apparently was counted out after the bell rang ending the round. The official time keeper said the round ended with Welch’s count at 9. Some spectators said the bell sounded with the count as low as 4 or as high as 8.
When Welch indicated Wolgast was the winner, the crowd went nuts and rushed the ring, shouting and arguing among themselves. Meanwhile, Welch quickly and quietly left the ring, bolted from the arena and got out of town.
There was talk before Sailor Tom Sharkey fought Bob Fitzsimmons Dec.12, 1896, at the National Club in San Francisco that the fix was in for Sharkey. It was noted that newspapers reporters were seated considerably removed from their customary positions at ringside. That is sort of the way it has become for the print media in this age of “television rules the world.”
Sharkey, a native of Ireland, who served in the U.S. Navy, was an unbeaten brawler, who went into the $10,000 winner-take-all match six days before his 23rd birthday. The 33-year-old Fitzsimmons, a former middleweight champion, would become the first man to win titles in three weight classes.
Since the two sides could not agree on a referee, Wyatt Earp was appointed the day before the fight.
The more experienced and clever Fitzsimmons worked Sharkey over for the first seven rounds with brutal body punches and well-placed shots to the head. Then in the eighth round Sharkey suddenly dropped to the canvas from a blow to the body. Earp then disqualified Fitzsimmons much to the displeasure of the fans. Fitzsimmons made a rush at Earp, but he stopped when according to one account the old lawman drew a revolver. Other accounts, however, state that Earp was disarmed before the fight. One account was that he gave up the revolver at the request of a nervous police officer
In 1897, Fitzsimmons would win the heavyweight championship by knocking out James J. Corbett in the 14th round. He would become light heavyweight champion in 1903. Sharkey would challenge James. J. Jeffries for the heavyweight title and lose a 25-round decision in 1899.