RENO, Nev. — It isn’t every day Joey Gilbert’s name is uttered In the same breath as Jack Johnson’s.

Apart from the fact that they both wore boxing gloves in Reno, the onetime Contenderboy and history’s first African American heavyweight champion have at least one other thing in common: Both ran afoul of the authorities, resulting in prolonged absences from the ring.

After consolidating his grasp on the heavyweight championship by knocking out undefeated former champion Jim Jeffries (who had emerged from retirement “for the sole purpose of proving that the white man is better than the negro) exactly 100 years ago, Johnson was indicted under the Mann Act, hounded out of the country. He spent the better part of a decade in exile in France before returning to surrender to United States officials. His next several fights took place behind the walls of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth.

In the case of Gilbert, who as an amateur boxed for the University of Nevada, a positive drug test following his first-round TKO of Charlie Howe in 2007 led to his own involuntary 13-month hiatus from the ring. Since resuming his boxing career late in 2008, the popular Reno attorney has picked up pretty much where he’d left off, beating all his non-Contender opposition while losing to Jesse Brinkley. (His only previous career loss had been a technical decision to Peter Manfredo Jr. back in 2004, or Season I.)

Fighting for the first time as a full-fledged light heavyweight, Gilbert pounded out a unanimous decision over rugged Californian Billy Bailey, much to the delight of his hometown crowd at the Grand Sierra Theatre. The win was Gilbert’s third straight since he was thoroughly outpointed by Brinkley, and while it was a facile and workmanlike performance, the win didn’t come without its price, as the 34 year-old Gilbert finished the bout with blood gushing from a cut above his right eye, the result of an apparent head-butt.

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That the six-bout card — televised by Fox SportsNet and Fox Espanol and co-promoted by Top Rank and Terry and Tommy Lane’s Let’s Get It On Boxing — was held in conjunction with Reno’s weekend-long Johnson-Jeffries Centennial celebration was apparently a matter of confusion to some locals: The listing in widely-distributed entertainment rag suggested that Johnson and Jeffries themselves would be fighting at the Grand Sierra Saturday night. Whether any disappointed patrons demanded refunds when L’il Artha failed to materialize remains to be learned.

The Johnson-Jeffries festivities had officially gotten underway on Friday evening with a catered reception co-hosted by broadcasters Al Bernstein and Rich Marotta. Four of Johnson’s descendants, along with Jeffries’ grand-nephew and Joe Halprin, Tex Rickard’s grandson, had all flown to Reno for the celebration, and were introduced to the celebrity-studded audience. Wayne Rozen, the author of the just-published “America on the Ropes, delivered an illustrated lecture on the Fight of the Century.

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Bailey, Gilbert’s 32 year-old opponent from Bakersfield, is one of those rugged Opponents who can be counted upon to fight in a single gear all night long. Gilbert seemed content to do what he does best, staying on his toes and out of harm’s way, landing combinations from long range.

Although the tactic served him well, it was not without its inherent dangers, for the more Bailey wearied, the lower his head got, and from the midpoint on he seemed to be fairly flinging himself headlong at Gilbert.

Not for nothing is Bailey nicknamed “The Billy Goat. The inevitable collision of heads came late in the seventh, when, recalled Gilbert, “he butted me – hard. The rush of blood did not come immediately, nor did referee Kenny Bayless rule the wound the result of a butt. (“I didn’t see any obvious collision of heads, said Bayless, which is quite different from maintaining that the damage was done by a punch.)

“Trust me, it’s hard to fight a guy when he doesn’t know what he’s going to next, sighed Gilbert.

By the final round the blood was freely pulsating from the cut, and ran down Gilbert’s cheek. Not that Bailey could do much about it, but had the cut come a few rounds earlier and not been acknowledged as the result of a butt, it could have been quite troublesome.

Paul Smith awarded Gilbert a shutout with an 80-72 scorecard, while Duane Ford and Dave Moretti had it 79-73, as did TSS. Gilbert improved his record to 20-2 with his light-heavyweight debut, while Bailey (10-9), outpointed by Mark Tucker on the Andre Ward-Allan Green card in Oakland two weeks earlier, lost his fourth straight and for the sixth time in seven outings. (Significantly, the Billy Goat lasted the distance in every one of those half-dozen losses.)

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Among the boxing fans flocking to Reno for the Johnson-Jeffries weekend was Glenn Wilson, a 40 year-old Englishman from Maidstone in Kent who has spent much of 2010 traversing the country visiting everything from Johnson’s and Jeffries’ gravesites and training camps to the site of Jack Johnson’s famed Chicago nightclub, the Café de Champion, which was razed by the authorities not long after the boxer had been indicted.

You wouldn’t exactly describe Wilson as obsessed on the subject of the 1910 fight, but the depth of his commitment is indicated by the large rendering of Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, locked in combat a hundred years ago, conspicuously tattooed on his left shoulder. Even Li’l Artha’s descendants were impressed.

“Imagine, said Connie Hines, “he could have had Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis or Sugar Ray Leonard on there, but he doesn’t. He’s gonna have Jack Johnson tattooed on him for the rest of his life.

Kinda makes you want to go out and get your own Johnson-Jeffries tat, doesn’t it?

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The call to arms for the featured bout on the Fox telecast was sounded on the actual bell used for the Johnson-Jeffries fight, although the historical significance may have been lost on the competitors, former IBF light-flyweight champion Ulises (Archie) Solis, of the Guadalajara Solises, and his well-traveled 33 year-old Mexico City opponent, Eric Ortiz.

The bout was a rematch of a 2006 south-of-the-border meeting, fought at 108 pounds, in which Solis stopped Ortiz in nine. Four years and five pounds later, the ninth did not pass without incident.

Early in the stanza Solis, already well in control of the bout but having been twice earlier warned for the same infraction, pushed Ortiz to the canvas, drawing a one-point penalty from referee Jay Nady. Solis evened the ledger for the deduction before the round was out, catching Ortiz with a good left-right combination that buckled his legs. Although Ortiz’ knee barely grazed the canvas after the flash knockdown, Nady properly administered a count, and when another perfect one-two combo dropped Ortiz again in the tenth, the rout was on.

Eric Cheeks scored the fight 99-88, Burt Clements and Herb Santos 99-98, for Solis (31-2), who won his third straight since last year’s loss to Brian Viloria in Manila. Ortiz’ record is now 32-11-3.

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The boxing card capped off a full day of Saturday activities, which began with a pair of Johnson-Jeffries-themed lectures (including my own) at the Bethel African American Center in downtown Reno, segued from there to Bernstein’s “Live Boxing Party back at the Grand Sierra’s sports bar, shifted from there to an “Authors’ Hour and book-signing before the company moved along, more or less en masse, to the Grand Sierra Theatre for the six-bout card.

Hovering over the entire proceeding was the pink elephant in the room – the ongoing issue of a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson. There was a brisk business in T-shirts depicting Johnson in fighting mode with the legend “Pardon Me underneath, and Bernstein revealed that in an optimistic communiqué to the Brothers Lane, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King (who co-authored last year’s joint resolution, passed by both houses of Congress) confirmed that following talks with the Justice Department, a newly-tweaked version of the Jack Johnson pardon resolution now sat on President Obama’s desk, awaiting only his signature.

Even the dramatis personae of Saturday night’s fight card weighed in on the pardon issue: “Jack Johnson should be pardoned, said Joey Gilbert. “Not because he was the first black heavyweight champion and Obama is the first black president, but because it’s the right thing to do!

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In an international bout carried on the Fox telecast, Filipino welterweight Mark Melligan dominated Anges Adjaho to advance his record to 19-2. Adjaho (17-3) might be the best fighter ever to come out of the tiny African nation of Benin, but he hadn’t fought in nearly a year (since being stopped by Antonio DeMarco in Florida last July), and once again seemed to have his problems with southpaw opposition. Pat Schellin scored the fight 99-91, Moretti 98-92, and Clements 97-93.

In an earlier bout, Francisco Vargas (2-0), a 130-pounder from Sonora who represented Mexico in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had opened the show by posting a unanimous decision over Juan Sandoval (1-4) of San Bernardino, Calif. Santos scored it 40-35, while colleagues Cheeks and Shellin scored the knockdown-less bout a more conventional 40-36.

Reno super-middleweight Carlos Gaytan scored his second KO in as many pro bouts, sending Las Vegas substitute Alex Rivera down for the count with a barrage of second-round punches. Bayless counted Rivera (2-2) out at 1:33 of the round.

John Figueroa had initially been slated to fight Lonnie Smith on the undercard, and when Smith withdrew, the Puerto Rican junior welter was rewarded when his place on the card was preserved, with Smith’s most recent victim, Californian Kadaphi Proctor, assuming the opponent’s role in what proved to be the evening’s walk-out bout. Proctor, now 5-5-1, wound up winning a split decision, handily prevailing on the cards of Clemens (60-54) and Shellin (50-55), while Ford (58-56) favored Figueroa, who is now 7-6-3.

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The Centennial Celebration was set to conclude on Sunday with a ceremonial bell-ringing at the actual site of the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight. (The stadium, erected in ten days, was so quickly assembled and torn down again that it never had a name, and when preparations for centenary began, no one, including Nevada state archivists, had the vaguest idea where the actual ring might have stood.)

It seems doubtful that anyone will announce “This is the bell they used to start the Solis-Ortiz fight last night.

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XTREME FIGHTS V
Grand Sierra Resort
Reno, Nevada
July 3, 2010

LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTS: Joey Gilbert, 172, Reno, Nev. dec. Billy Bailey, 173, Bakersfield, Cal. (8)

SUPER MIDDLEWEIGHTS: Carlos Gaytan, 169, Reno KO’d Alex Rivera, 168, Redondo Beach, Calif. (2)

WELTERWEIGHTS: Mark Melligan, 147, Cebu City, Philippines dec. Anges Adjaho, 146 ½, Cotonou, Benin (10)

JUNIOR WELTERS: John Figueroa, 137, Salinas, Puerto Rico xxx Khadaphi Proctor, 138, Hesperia, Calif. ()

LIGHTWEIGHTS: Francisco Vargas, 130, Sonora, Mexico dec. Juan Sandoval, 132, San Bernardino, Calif. (4)

JUNIOR BANTAMWEIGHTS: Ulises Solis, 113, Guadalajara, Mexico dec. Eric Ortiz, 113 ½, Mexico City ()