Rumble on the Rio Grande
It was a fistic carnival like none before it. More than three hundred souls stood with mouths wide while Judge Roy Bean readied the trains for a return. The trek had been far. The bulk of them had travelled over sixteen hours on dust-filled, rocky terrain from El Paso, which was hard going in 1896 even for wondrous steam engines.
This cult of punchers was hoping to see heavyweights Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher etch another torrid brawl into the marbled halls of Fistiana. Instead, the rough and tumble men, who had paid roughly thirty-two dollars apiece (train ride plus fight ticket) for the privilege of becoming lawfully lawless hobos, bore witness to one of the fastest ending prizefights in heavyweight boxing history.
A sharp left hook by Ruby Robert Fitzsimmons had spun poor Peter Maher down to the hard canvas at just one minute thirty-five seconds of round number one. Oh miserable brood of oddities, thy name is boxing.
This is the story of how it came to be.
“Law West of the Pecos”
Law in Texas (especially the sparsely populated western parts of Texas) was different back then. This was particularly true of the law handed down by Justice of the Peace, Roy Bean of Val Verde County. Bean, proclaiming himself the “Law West of the Pecos,” doled out a myriad of unorthodox sentences from his very own saloon, The Jersey Lilly.
Like most historical giants of Texas folklore, Bean wasn’t born there. He emerged in this world from humble beginnings in the blue hills of Kentucky. Born there sometime in the 1820s, young Roy Bean grew up a passionate hothead. By the time he was a young man, he had been involved in several duels and gun fights, going so far as to get himself sentenced to a hanging for one of them. Luckily for him, the rope used to stretch Bean’s neck that day wasn’t quite fit enough for the purpose, so he managed to stay alive long enough so the woman he had dueled for could cut him down.
Bean calmed a bit afterwards, eventually settling in San Antonio where he became a prosperous (and by most accounts legitimate) business man. Rogue spirits die hard, though. Soon, Bean was making his way to the seventy-five person, small western Texas conclave he helped found. He named the town Langtry, for a famous actress of the era whom he did not know but found adorable. It was here Bean became famous as a Justice of the Peace. Bean’s rulings ranged from amusing to despicable. He once fined a dead body the forty dollars found with it to help bury it, and he freed the killer of a rail worker simply because the latter was Chinese and the killer was not.
Still, travelers passing through Langtry often made a point of stopping to visit his ramshackle saloon, and when Judge Roy Bean sent out word he was hosting a heavyweight prizefight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, plenty of punch-lovers were interested in attending.
A Traveling Hoard
Like all boxing promoters, Judge Roy Bean was equal parts showman and opportunist. When Governor Charles A. Culberson and the Texas Legislature joined the burgeoning number of western states to ban boxing exhibitions in 1895, a proposed bout being put together by Dallas promoter Dan Stuart between reigning heavyweight champion James J. Corbett and emerging rival Bob Fitzsimmons was put on ice. Corbett used the time to reflect, and when he saw Irish boxing champion Peter Maher starch his sparring partner in just one round, the man who defeated the great John L. Sullivan in the first heavyweight championship fight under Marquis de Queensbury rules, decided to call it quits. No doubt driven by his intense hatred of Fitzsimmons, Corbett named Maher the rightful heir to his championship. The fight was off.
Bob Fitzsimmons was livid. He immediately challenged Maher to decide the championship, feeling confident he could beat the Irishman as he had done in their previous encounter four years earlier. To his credit, Maher accepted the challenge, and the proposed fight promotion in Texas was right back on again, only lacking a lawful venue to host it.
There were some outlandish suggestions. One such suggestion would have had the two men fight in a hot air balloon (however that would work) high above Texas jurisdiction where those pesky Texas Rangers couldn’t follow. Cooler heads prevailed.
Citizens in El Paso came up with fifteen thousand dollars to bring the fight to their far west Texas bordertown where the idea was to stage the event across the border in Juarez, Mexico. As fight night approached, though, so did law enforcement authorities. U.S. Marshals and Texas Rangers were bolstered by one hundred fifty Mexican soldiers in Juarez, all sent in a coordinated effort by the U.S. and Mexican governments to block the event from happening.
Not to be outwitted or outdone, Bean and Stuart hatched a plan. They spread word for all interested parties to meet at the rail station in El Paso at a designated time. Most people believed the train was headed all the way across the giant state of Texas to Galveston (almost 800 miles), where they would be transported onto a large enough vessel to stage the fight on International waters via a boat somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, Bean had the train stop in his little town of Langtry, and when the weary travelers exited the train, they were pointed toward a makeshift fighting ring set atop a lonely sandbar beach on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
The fight would take place on a river.
In the Corners
Bob Fitzsimmons was born in Helston, Cornwall (England) in 1863. He emigrated with his family as a child to New Zealand where he grew into the trade of blacksmithing. He learned to box under veteran bare-knuckler Jem Mace, and is generally considered by historians as one of the finest fighters who ever lived.
Ruby Robert, as he was called, was dubbed by one contemporary writer “a fighting machine on stilts.” He was a pale, ruddy man with thin legs and a broad back. He had bright red hair around his balding top, and he fought in a herky-jerky motion that was both difficult to prepare for and hard to defend against. Fitzsimmons was not your typical heavyweight. Sure, he was rough and tough as nails and hit like a mule, but he carried only 167 pounds on his wiry frame. Instead of relying on sheer size, Fitz bested his opponents with a hard heart and heavy hands.
Fitzsimmons was a three-division champion when it actually meant something. He defeated Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey for the middleweight crown in 1891. After his tussle in Texas, he’d go on to win the lineal heavyweight championship against an unretired (and livid) James J. Corbett before capturing the light heavyweight crown in 1902. He is, perhaps, peerless in this regard.
His opponent on the river that day was hard luck Peter Maher. Maher was born in Galway, Ireland in 1869. He matched Fitzsimmons in height at 5 feet 11¾ inches and tipped the scales fifteen heavier at 180 pounds. He embodied the fabled luck of the Irish (or lack thereof) in that he never seemed to catch a break. He may have been the Irish heavyweight champion before he ventured to America five years earlier, but records remain fittingly unclear on the matter. Boxing historian Bob Mee describes Maher as a more-than-just competent fighter with “as fine a right hand punch as any.”
Maher’s lack of success stemmed from both his proverbial bad luck as well as a temperament that just couldn’t prevail when times got tough. Followers of Maher insist he could defeat any man he could hit, but that his heart wasn’t nearly as fierce as his tremendous right hand.
Perhaps that’s unfair. Maher was good enough in his career to defeat notable tough guys George Godfrey, Frank Craig and Joe Choynksy. He drew with Tom Sharkey in a rip-roaring affair but he never quite achieved success when it mattered most.
It would be no different on the Rio Grande.
The train from El Paso arrived on scene at 3:30 in the afternoon. It was met by another train with almost 200 more travelers hailing from the likes of Del Rio and Eagle Pass. When the doors opened, Fitzsimmons and his team were quick to burst out the door and survey their surroundings.
There it was. The night before, forty-two men had worked until the wee hours of the morning to furnish the sandy beach on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande with a suitable fighting ring. Surrounded by a canvas fence some 200 feet in diameter, the ring itself was nothing more than a hard, boarded floor with a resin-topped canvas. It had the appearance of a Spanish bull ring save for the four-post, roped boxing epicenter. Judge Roy Bean had a footbridge built to carry the travelers over, but it didn’t keep attendees from stumbling around on stony ground and wading into knee-deep waters.
Fitzsimmons was first to enter the fray. Maher followed five minutes after. Both men wore different make and model gloves of slightly different hues but no matter, these were of the five ounce variety used by larger men in tougher times. There were no boxing commissions or sanctioning authorities on this day. Referee George Siler would call the fight as he saw fit, should it come to it. It wouldn’t.
There was a scuff-up between Fitzsimmons and Siler before the bout began. Fitzsimmons’ manager, Martin Julian and Siler argued the whereabouts of payment before Ruby Robert interrupted. “Oh let it go, we have given into everything and we will give into this,” he snarled from his chair with the cold glaze of impending battle in his eyes.
The fighters were readied by their seconds. Paid ringsiders lined the canvas wall which was meant to keep non-paying eyes from watching but failed at it miserably. The ring itself was surrounded by higher ground, so the more astute travelers took advantage of the discount the view provided them. Among the leather faced tramps and hard-gazing eyes of fight watchers perched among the cliffs were twenty-six Texas Rangers. Each man was heavy-laden with cartridges, pistols and rifles. They had no jurisdiction here, though, so all they could do was enjoy the fight. It was a relief.
Fitzsimmons wore dark blue trunks. Maher’s were funeral black. They wore similar style shoes, darkened and dingy from the travel. Fitzsimmons paced confidently about the corner like a lion before the bell was rounded at ringside by a ball-peen hammer. Maher was silent and still until the echo of the ringing stopped. It was time.
The two met in the center of the ring. Fitzsimmons led with a left jab and followed it up with his jerky, strong right hand. He moved Maher to the corner with the punch, but Maher used his considerable strength to tie Ruby Robert up before landing a sharp right hand in the clinch. The two men were separated; Fitzsimmons flashed a smile that appeared more like a scowl. Maher was undeterred. He walloped Fitz on the neck with his left. The two then began fighting in close quarters. Again, Maher got the better of it, this time drawing ruby red blood from Bob Fitzsimmons’ lip with a sharp, quick uppercut.
Fitz appeared bothered. He began to give ground as this blood dripped down his chin with Maher in hot pursuit. Maher with a right and a left and a right. He was winning. The two men clinched again, Maher landed a couple more sharp blows. Fitzsimmons retreated.
Finally, the end was here, though neither man knew it. Fitzsimmons had escaped another clinch and stepped back hard. Maher barreled in with a left hand, but this time Ruby Robert wasn’t there. He sidestepped the approach and landed a looping right hand that stretched poor Peter Maher down, out and to the canvas. Maher staggered on his knees a bit as his seconds screamed for him to get up, but it was far too late. As the referee counted Maher out, Fitzsimmons snarled at him from his corner. “It’s all over,” he said. “He’s out.”
Maher slumped to the floor a beaten man. Fitzsimmons was the victor after just one minute and thirty-five seconds of fighting. The fight was over.
A Puff of Smoke
The fight may have been over, but the promotion was not. Judge Roy Bean had ordered an extra shipment of spirits to arrive in town that day, so the hours spent waiting for the six o’clock return trains were well paid for by the riverbed’s parishioners. Drinks were sold at one dollar piece, a hundred percent mark-up for Judge Roy Bean and his promotional partners. Despite it, the event was not a success financially. Bean and Stuart were relying on film earnings from the fight to make it to the black, but the Edison kinetoscope operator was still tinkering with his equipment when Maher hit the floor.
One particular sojourner that day, a tremendous fight aficionado who had traveled all the way from New York to El Paso to Langtry to see witness battle in person, left with perhaps the most interesting story to tell.
He had shelled out a small fortune to make the trek to Langtry on Judge Roy Bean’s train. He arrived with the fighters, the media, the fight fans and the Texas Rangers filled with excitement. He stumbled across the rocky footbridge, slogged through the muddy waters of the Rio Grande and tripped his way inside the canvas fence. He made it down to his twenty dollar ringside seat just in time to see it. He had made it! The bell was sounding. He reached inside his dusty coat pocket for a ceremonial victory cigar. He dropped it into the sand, but quickly picked it back up before any damage could be done. He struck one match, then two. The third caught fire and he lit his cigar. It was a celebration. At last, our friend turned to the man on his right to express his excitement about the upcoming fracas.
“It’s over! He knocked him out,” the man next to him screamed in his ear, seemingly unaware that billow of smoke coming from the man who had turned to him was no longer coming only from the cigar.
This essay is dedicated by the author to Joe Bible, fellow Texan and good friend, who passed away on December 27, 2012. I will see you across that river someday.
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