George Lewis “Tex” Rickard was born on January 2nd, 1870 in Kansas City, Missouri, however he is remembered as a 'Texan' because his family moved there at a very early age. The impact “Tex” would have on boxing, and indeed, on modern sports before he passed away on January 6th, 1929 at the age of 59 years is so massive as to be immeasurable.
Rickard is most often remembered as the promoter for boxing icon Jack Demspey, the Heavyweight Champion throughout most of the 1920's, and the pair took boxing out of the athletic clubs and mining towns and into the mainstream of American society.
The story of Rickard begins in the mining towns of the American west at the start of the 20th century. Rickard owned bars and saloons in Alaska and Nevada's desert as he chased the gold rushes around the west. It was in those times that he started promoting boxing events and in 1906, Rickard was the promoter for the legendary Lightweight title bout between “The Old Master” Joe Gans and Battling Nelson. The fight lasted for 42 rounds with Gans retaining the belt. History would see him eventually lose the belt to Nelson in 1908.
Rickard, with his nose for big things, then promoted the first fight that was marketed as “The Fight of the Century”, which featured former World Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries returning from a long hiatius to try and rescue the belt for the white race from Jack Johnson. After that match, Rickard left for South America, and when he returned he went east. Rickard's genius can be seen in his ability to foretell the potential of having a truly national sports star using the emerging newspaper and radio technology of the day. He returned to New York on March 25th, 1916 to the original Madison Square Garden to promote World Heavyweight Champion Jess Willard's fight with Frank Moran. Willard had wrested the World heavyweight title from Jack Johnson almost a year earlier, and this was Willard's first title defense.
It would be more than three years before Willard would fight again, but on July 4th, 1919 Rickard was there, in Toledo, Ohio. Willard was a reticent champion, at that point more at home back on the farm than in the ring, or in the spotlight Rickard had in mind. ButJack Dempsey, who had come up fighting in the same western mining landscape that saw Rickard emerge fifteen years earlier, and he would prove to be exactly what Rickard needed. Willard versus Moran had gone down in the record books as a lackluster performance, but Dempsey's two round dismantling of the gigantic champion gave him a sensational performance and Rickard a new star. Dempsey could be the star Rickard envisioned.
Rickard periodically promoted shows at Madison Square Garden throughout 1920, but on July 2nd, 1921 the true scope of what Rickard was capable of became apparent, as World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey defended his title against Georges Carpentier, a Frenchman who was one of the best boxers of his era and an iconic star in Europe. Carpentier had just knocked out Britain's Joe Beckett to earn the title fight. The charismatic Frenchman was the perfect foil to Dempsey's dark persona. Rickard made sure that he was at the forefront of new radio technology, and this was the first fight to be broadcast through the new medium. People stood at receiving stations in the streets to hear results, as most homes didn't have radios yet. In order to host the fight, Rickard would have a 90,000 seat arena built on a farm in New Jersey in nine weeks.
The numbers around the fight are truly staggering. The event was a sellout, with over 90,000 people in attendance generating a live gate of $1,789.238, boxing's first million dollar gate. Under Rickard's clever guidance, the fight was promoted with Dempsey firmly in the the role as the bad guy. Carpentier was a war hero, and in Post World War I America, questions about Dempsey's war record were enough to have people wanting him to get beat. The fourth round KO by Dempsey catapulted him to the level of international star, and a few years later he would meet Carpentier as friends while he travelled Europe giving lucrative exhibitions and rubbing elbows with other famous entertainers of the time.
Rickard would avoid involvement in Dempsey's ill fated title defense against Tommy Gibbons in Shelby, Montana on July 4th, 1923. Dempsey would win, but he did not deliver the expected knock out and the event promoters did not make their money back in what is generally described as a financial disaster. Two months later at New York's Polo Grounds, Rickard and Dempsey produced another million plus dollar gate as he defended the Heavyweight title against feared Argentininan “Wild Bull” Luis Angel Firpo. Dempsey, again in the eye of Rickard's media frenzy, delivered one of the most memorable performances of his career as he was knocked onto press row by the rampaging Firpo after scoring half a dozen knock downs himself. He would take Firpo out in the fourth round.
In January of 1925 Rickard built the third edition of Madison Square Garden. The box style building of the new arena was built with boxing in mind, and could seat nearly 19,000. Rickard had gathered investors from among his contacts and built what would become the most famous arena in the world. Though boxing was clearly Rickard's first love, his nose for business led him to found the New York Rangers Ice Hockey franchise, and he helped solidify the presence of the new sport in the nation's largest media market. The name Rangers came as a reference to Rickard's “Texas” roots.
Rickard would promote Jack Dempsey's final fight as Heavyweight Champion, as he faced Gene Tunney on September 23rd, 1926. Though Dempsey walked in the favorite, he was outboxed by he clever Tunney and lost the Heavyweight title in what was his sixth title defense. For Rickard, it was the third gate in boxing history that broke a million dollars, as over 120,000 people filled Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Stadium for the fight, paying a gate of over $1.8 million dollars.
Rickard would promote Dempsey's subsequent fight with Jack Sharkey before he re-matched Tunney, and Rickard promoted Tunney's last career fight on July 26th, 1928 when Tunney defeated Tom Heeney at New York's Yankee Stadium but it would all come to an abrupt end for Rickard. On January 6th, 1929 after undergoing surgery on his appendix, he suffered complications and was unable to recover. What followed in boxing is recognized as a slump in Heavyweight division post-Dempsey, but how would Rickard have affected that period in boxing history had he lived?
Gone but not forgotten, “Tex” Rickard.