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Clash of Politics and Pugilism in New Mexico

By Chris Cozzone

In 1805, “throwing one’s hat into the ring,” meant climbing into the squared circle to challenge a fellow pugilist. A hundred years later, in 1912, the phrase had expanded into politics, reaching peak usage when Theodore Roosevelt, who had been an amateur boxer and a big fight fan, announced he was running for the U.S. Presidency. It is fitting that a catchphrase was able to blend politics and prizefighting. The two have never been free of one another on any level; globally, nationally or locally and especially in New Mexico.

These days, you may be hard-pressed to name a big Pay-per-view fight in Las Vegas, Nevada that does not have New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson sitting ringside or attend a Holly Holm card at Isleta Resort & Casino without running into Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez. However, the relationship between politicians and pugilism has not always been so amicable in the Land of Enchantment. The rapport between “pugs” and “pencil pushers” has a unique legacy in the state of New Mexico, but the most significant clash occurred in its territorial years.

In 1895, when the desert dust settled, the war waged within the ropes of the prizefight ring paled in comparison to the battles waged in the political arena, the aftermath of which sent repercussions far beyond state lines.

1895, ‘Near El Paso’
“I have retired from the ring. I’m tired of the championship. You can have it.” -- James J. Corbett to Peter Maher[1]

The front-page drama began in November 1895 when James J. Corbett surprised the sporting world by declaring he was giving up the World Heavyweight Championship. Surprise turned to shock and outrage when he decided he would be passing on the championship to Irish contender Peter Maher. “What guff! . . . As well might I bequeath the treasures of the Portland Mine to the Cuban patriots!”[2] This statement expressed the sentiment of sports scribes generally, who argued that world championship honors could not be passed on like an old hat or sweater:  Titles were fought for and earned in the ring. Negotiations had been in the works for a showdown between Corbett, who had won the championship from John L. Sullivan in 1892, and rising star Bob Fitzsimmons: but rather than face the man likely to beat him Corbett was taking the easy the way out by retiring.

Promoter Dan Stuart, who had been battling Texas politicos in setting up a Corbett-Fitzsimmons showdown in his hometown of Dallas, was unable to induce Corbett to retract his retirement and fight Fitzsimmons. So he ran with the next best thing, a Maher vs. Fitzsimmons fight for the vacant title. On December 17 he announced the two would fight on Feb. 14, 1896 “near El Paso, Texas” for a purse of $10,000. The vagueness of a site, “near El Paso,” was intentional, of   course, for Stuart’s options were open for a venue: If his dealings with Texas Governor Charles Culberson could be ironed out, El Paso would be chosen as the fight site. If not, Stuart’s back-ups included New Mexico or Mexico. Dealings with Gov. Culberson of Texas proved a no-go for Stuart. Likewise, Mexico threw its hat into the political ring when General Miguel Ahumada, governor of Chihuahua, announced the country would forego a financial profit to stand ground with Texas.

That left New Mexico. Little was said or printed about a big fight in New Mexico, until the end of the year when the Albuquerque Citizen alleged that Governor William Thornton was in on a secret deal that would allow the fight to be held in Dona Ana County, just across the Rio Grande in New Mexico Territory. Thornton denied the allegations: Just weeks before he had introduced a bill to the New Mexico legislature to outlaw fights in his territory. However, Thornton’s attempt to ensure order in the territory had been in vain, for the bill presented before a fight-friendly legislature had failed to pass, 14 votes to ten and the Maher vs. Fitzsimmons title fight was headed for New Mexico. Governor Thornton announced he would fight Stuart’s “fistic carnival” and stated “all the power of the territorial administration would be used to prevent such a fight on New Mexico soil.”[3] The fight, the one outside the ring that is, was on.

Political battle overshadows Maher-Fitzsimmons
William Taylor Thornton, born in Calhoun, Missouri, in 1843, was a veteran Confederate of the Civil War. Before taking office in 1893, he had served for two years as mayor of Santa Fe.  Miguel Otero, who became the next governor in 1897, described Thornton as a no-nonsense politician who took “particular pains to suppress crime and disorder”[4] during a period of outlaws, train robbers and desperadoes.

Otero had less favorable things to say about one Thomas B. Catron, a congressional delegate who would later become one of the first two New Mexico’s senators, in 1912.  Catron, one of the most controversial politicians in state history, was also a Confederate Civil War veteran from Missouri. He was credited with the growth of the Republican Party in New Mexico and praised for being the territory’s leading advocate for statehood but was discredited for his controversial involvement in land grant issues. Otero alleged that Catron was behind a covert assassination attempt to poison him while he was in office.

In 1896, Catron’s dislike of prizefighting gave him national recognition and his dislike of Governor Thornton made him a household name in his home state. Ironically, Thornton and Catron had much in common but their lack of love for prizefighting was at the top of the list, making them unlikely allies in the political battle to come. In the end their like-minded viewpoint, that pugilism was barbaric, would inflame their dislike for one another.

Governor Thornton wanted prizefighting to become a felony: If a death occurred in the ring, it should bring a charge of murder in the first degree. Legally however, the only action Governor Thornton could bring against those involved in a prizefight, world heavyweight championship or not, was that under common law, a prizefight could be prevented if it was labeled a disturbance of the peace.

Thornton told the press in January that: “Had public sentiment been aroused last winter, as it has been since the fate of the bill in the legislature of this territory…” the bill would have turned out differently. “At the next session adequate punishment for the human brutes who make public exhibition of their brutality for gain will be provided by statute and New Mexico will not thereafter be disgraced by this alleged sport, which even in Texas is a felony.”[5] Unlike Texas, however, the Territory of New Mexico had no laws prohibiting prizefighting at the time. True, several prizefights were occasionally interrupted or even prevented in the previous 30 years of off-and-on-again action but New Mexico, as in other territories, had no specific law against it. Unless a common law claim that the prizefight was disturbing the peace, when and where it occurred, and was brought to the attention of the authorities, Fitzsimmons and Maher would be fighting for the world title on New Mexico soil.

As rumors began to spread that Thornton was secretly in collusion with promoter Dan Stuart, the New Mexico governor became increasingly outspoken about the big fight, unaware at the time that his political battle would include not only the prizefight but Delegate Thomas Catron as well.

Maher, Fitzsimmons set up camp
As battle lines were drawn, the combatants arrived in the southwest with Fitzsimmons setting up training camp in El Paso and Maher doing the same in Las Cruces, where Catron made his home. Las Cruces, chosen over El Paso, was hardly what one would consider a fight town (“Very sorry for the Pass City, but she’s too slow. Not enough ginger, boys, not enough ginger”).[6] With national attention however, the city rolled out the red carpet for the Irish champion and the Rio Grande Republican ran a stream of fight camp reports with each issue: “Las Cruces will unquestionably receive much good advertising throughout the country. If nothing else people will certainly appreciate the energy displayed by the business men of our little city in the oft wrongfully termed ‘desert’ of New Mexico.”[7]

As Fitzsimmons and Maher wowed daily crowds of fight fans by giving exhibitions of skill at opera houses in the two respective cities, optimistic reporters wrote that a great spectacle was guaranteed in the upcoming fistic carnival. Unfortunately no site had yet been named and for good reason. The last time fight promoter Stuart had named a site for a fight he had been blindsided by politicians who had changed their minds due to public opinion and had cost the promoter thousands of dollars in lumber that had gone into building an outside arena. This time Stuart was playing it safe. While spreading rumors that the fight could be moved to Arizona, an unlikely spot because of the political climate or Hot Springs, Arkansas, he was busy securing a top-secret site, hopefully one in New Mexico.

Although a world title fight in New Mexico would bring in enthusiasts and other tourists, Governor Thornton remained adamant about his distaste for the fight. He even threatened to patrol the state lines with deputy marshals if that is what it took to prevent the prizefight. He also continued to blame the territorial legislature for not passing his bill some months before, saying that only a public disturbance could stop the fight as there was presently no specific law outlawing the fight. Meanwhile the railroad was advertising tickets for $13.40 from Santa Fe to El Paso should the fight be held there; $20 from Silver City to Doña Ana or even tickets from El Paso to Mexico City should the president of Mexico change his mind.

Popularity of the sport dictated reportage on both the front page and the sports sections of national newspapers though opposition to the fight game increased as well. Mexico’s General Ahumada assigned 500 troops from Mexico City to prevent the fight landing in Juarez while ministers at the border preached about “brutal bruisers” and lost souls who were destroying the town of El Paso:

“If there were any arrests to be made, why, the bruisers could be fined nominal sums for disturbing the peace or for a light form of assault and battery. But the Governor of New Mexico is to be put on to this dodge and no stone will be left unturned to break up the proposed Fitzsimons-Maher prize fight.

El Paso is already suffering from the effects of the bad reputation given by the advent of the prize fighter and his unholy combination; for the town is filling up with tramps and vagabonds and the great army of toughdom is yet to come.”[8]

On February 4, less than two weeks from the fight, the Governor, appearing increasingly helpless without a means of prevention answered the Las Vegas Ministers’ Association by letter, printed in both the Las Vegas Daily Optic and Santa Fe New Mexican:

“With reference to my action, should the attempt be made to bring off the fight in this territory, I will say to you as I said to the ministers in El Paso: ‘There is no statute law in the territory of New Mexico upon the subject of prize fighting . . .’ In the absence of a special law we are therefore compelled to seek for a remedy under the rules of the common law adopted in this territory. By the provisions of this law, every person engaged in prize fighting is guilty of having committed an assault and battery, and can be arrested and punished for this offence. I have therefore instructed the authorities in Dona Ana county that it is their duty to prevent any breach of the peace, or violation of the law, and if they have the least intimation of any attempt to bring off this fight in this territory to arrest these parties and bind them over to keep the peace . . . .”[9]

In other words, if authorities could catch someone breaking the law, in regard to prize fighting, they could be arrested but Governor Thornton was washing his hands of the affair. It appeared that promoter Dan Stuart was going to have the last word: “There is nothing that can stop the prize fights.” He was both right and wrong.

Two days after Thornton’s letter was printed, news came from Washington, D.C. that a new bill was to be presented before Congress that would not only outlaw prizefighting (and bullfighting) in the Territories and District of Columbia but would make them a felony with a sentence of one to five years of imprisonment. The bill, originating from New Mexico, was being lobbied by Thomas B.Catron. Shrugging off this new threat, Promoter Stuart not only insisted that nothing would prevent the Maher-Fitzsimmons world title fight but that he was willing to lay a bet  of up to $50,000 that the fight would go off as planned. If Stuart had bet on the anti-prizefight bill floundering in Congress he would have lost. Within 24 hours of his boasting that the fight would be held, the bill passed on February 7, 1896 and was known as the Catron Law. As long as New Mexico remained a territory, prizefighting would be illegal. Denied in Texas, Mexico, and now in New Mexico by federal law, Promoter Stuart continued to shrug off the controversy. His quote made national headlines: “THE FIGHT IS A SURE THING” Locality Still a Mystery[10]

In New Mexico, the battle was less about promoter vs. politician and more about politician vs. politician. When the Irish champion Maher left Las Cruces for El Paso on the 7th, Governor Thornton, fearing that the fight might be staged earlier than announced, took up watch at the border with a number of Dona Ana County deputy sheriffs, giving the appearance of having the situation under control.  However, on 8 February, after receiving word of the new federal law that bore his political rival’s name, Thornton packed up for Santa Fe. The papers reported that:

“After a stay here over night, Governor Thornton of New Mexico left this morning for Santa Fe. The governor got in from Las Cruces on the train that brought Peter Maher to town last night and curiously enough, the pair took the same train out of here this morning. Sheriff Acarate, who accompanied the fighter to El Paso, returned to Las Cruces this morning and was advised by the governor that his vigilance was unnecessary, as the federal government had relieved him of all responsibility in the matter.”[11]

Catron continued to make waves from D.C., telling national media that he was displeased at the impression given by Gov. Thornton. “Mr. Catron not only denies that he has received the governor’s co-operation,” ran the wire, “but makes the direct charge that Gov. Thornton has abetted Dan Stuart in his efforts to bring off the fights.”[12]

Delegate Catron’s statement was expanded the next day to set himself apart from Thornton and erase any belief that he had been acting under the governor’s orders:

“The statement that has been published substantially that action was taken by me on the prize-fighting bill was on the advice and at the request of Governor Thornton. Governor Thornton never consulted with me, never advised me, nor requested me to do anything in regard to the subject. From information which I have received from New Mexico, I do believe that Governor Thornton, while pretending that he would like to stop the fight, was actually acting in collusion with Dan Stuart in order to have the prize fight come off, and has advised Stuart that there was no law in New Mexico which would enable them or the authorities to stop the fight, and substantially informed Stuart that the fight might go on, although he would not openly consent. As soon as the bill had been signed last night the officials here telegraphed the United States Attorney in New Mexico to see that the law was enforced.”[13]

Meanwhile, Stuart continued to insist the fight was a go and the arrival of several notables including Bat Masterson, Judge Roy Bean, notable boxers, and top prizefight authorities supported his plans. 

“That all this commotion has been stirred up because the two men are going to box with five ounce gloves, it seems to me to be utterly ridiculous. When the senate and the house of representatives of this great country can find nothing better to do than to make laws prohibiting boxing contests in territories, it is high time that something was done.”[14]

Promoter Stuart was facing the threat of arrest in two countries, but he also had other matters to consider. How would fight fans receive word in time to hop aboard a train headed for whatever destination was designated as the fight site? Watched like a hawk by local officials in two cities, Maher and Fitzsimmons continued preparation but the fight was postponed after Maher suffered near-blindness when his eyes became inflamed after coming home from a run in the desert during a dust storm. The postponement forced an estimated 1,500 would-be fight attendees to leave Las Cruces and El Paso until the new fight date was set. By the 20th Maher’s eyes were reported to be in fair condition and the fight was once again declared on. It would be held at a secret site to be announced on the following day.

Thornton responds
On Feb. 20, Governor Thornton responded to Catron’s allegations that he had colluded with the fight promoter Stuart. Thornton gave an indignant denial of Catron’s charges and stated that the congressional delegate was merely trying to glorify himself. He stated that he “had left no stone unturned to prevent the fight coming of in New Mexico”[15]  and provided a laundry list of preventative measures he had initiated including asking Washington for federal troops to aid civil authorities.  He cited correspondence from authorities in D.C. to adjacent counties in southern New Mexico where the fight might occur. On the other hand, Thornton said that common law was in no danger of being violated if the fight happen to be staged in a strip of land between El Paso and Deming.  Thornton said, “…there is no settlement whatever, and the pugilist and their friends could board a train in El Paso, go up the road fifty miles, and fight before it would be possible to get officers on the grounds.”[16]

Accusations from both sides were best summed up by a writer with the Rocky Mountain News:

“If this wrangle was not disgusting, it would be amusing. The worst that can be said of either Delegate Catron or Governor Thornton is that they are politicians, although in this regard truth compels the admission that Catron holds the belt. Both are lawyers, both are gentlemen of education and culture, and both are equally interested as good citizens in stopping a prize fight. To assume that Thornton was willing to become a bottle-holder for either one of the pugs, as some New Mexican papers are trying to make out, is simply ridiculous. It is idiotic.”[17]

The Fight
On the afternoon of February 21, when the fight was again scheduled, the 2 fighters and 250 ticket-holders, cornermen, officials, writers, and Stuart’s promotion team boarded a 10 p.m. train and headed for who-knew-where. The train pulled into Langtry, Texas, a small town on the Mexican border. The train was met by armed Texas Rangers but the motley crew of prizefight spectators and participants merely hoofed it across the border.  They crossed the muddy Rio Grande River to a stretch of land where, on the Mexican side of the border, an impromptu arena had been erected within a canvas enclosure.

Before Mexican troops could be informed of the fight and legally stop it, the fight was over after a disappointing 95 seconds. After months of build-up, controversy, and never-ending drama the long awaited battle was summed up with this one-liner: “Fitzsimmons knocked Maher out in the first round with a right hand lick on the jaw.”[18]

Postfight Outcome
Later that year, relations between Governor Thornton and Senator Catron had deteriorated to such a point that “mutual friends between the two parties feared a personal encounter between them.”[19] Despite his success as a congressional delegate and the passing of the anti-prizefight law, Catron failed to be re-elected in 1896. Some surmised that there were more fight fans in New Mexico than opponents to the fight game while others said it was the sum result of countless other controversies stacked against Catron. Regardless, Catron would go on fighting for New Mexico statehood – which came in 1912, when Catron rose to power as a state senator. Thornton served as Governor until 1897, when Miguel Otero succeeded him in office.

Ironically Statehood re-introduced prizefighting to New Mexico: When New Mexico became a state on January 6, 1912 the Catron Law banning boxing in the territories no longer applied. Four hours after New Mexico became the 47th state, Gallup staged a prizefight and the state has never looked back though the fight game would have its ups and downs over the intervening years.


[1] “This Fight A Short One,” New York World,  Nov. 12, 1895.

[2] “Sporting World,” Cripple Creek Morning Times, Dec. 15, 1895.

[3] “A Dirty Bit of Business,”  Santa Fe New Mexican, Dec. 31, 1895.

[4] Miguel Antonio Otero, My Nine Years As Governor of the Territory of New Mexico, 1897-1906, Sunstone Press, 2007.

[5] “The Prize Fight Law,” Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 6, 1896

[6] “Murray Got His Man,” Rio Grande Republic, Jan. 17, 1896.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economics,” The Independent, Jan. 30, 1896.

[9] “The Governor’s Reply – Weakness of the Law Touching Prize Fights,” Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 4, 1896.

[10] “The Fight is a Sure Thing,” El Paso Morning Times, Feb. 9, 1896.

[11] “Will they Stop Fight?” El Paso Morning Times, Feb. 8, 1896.

[12] “Catron is Suspicious,” Associated Press, Feb. 8, 1896.

[13] “Catron Wants Credit,” Associated Press, Feb. 9, 1896.

[14] “Fitz and Maher Will Fight,” Albuquerque Morning Democrat, Feb. 11, 1896.

[15] “Thornton Replies to Catron,” Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 20, 1896.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Politics and Prize Fighting,” Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 12, 1896.

[18] “Maher-Fitzsimmons Fight,” Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 21, 1896.

[19] “Looking for a Duel – Gov. Thornton Calls a Delegate a Liar and a Coward,” Santa Fe New Mexican, Sept. 12, 1896.